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The American Character: From Alger to Now

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If one was to google “Most Successful People in the U.S.,” they would be greeted by various celebrities (such as Beyonce, Oprah and Elon Musk) as well as CEOs of various businesses that almost everyone has heard of (i.e. Apple, Amazon, Facebook, etc). These people are the modern mascots for the American Character and the ideals of success. However, if Google existed in the Antebellum era, and the main players representing the American Character would be Richard from Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger based on his honorable character and virtues rather than his money status. In this essay I will examine the shift from Alger’s perspective of having an honorable character as being the pinnacle of success to the modern day ideal while also comparing Alger to Franklin, Crevecoeur, and Webster. The modern American Dream is now attributed to those who attain monetary success, but in the Antebellum era, those who displayed honorable virtues set forth by Alger, Franklin, Crevecoeur, and Webster where the ones who were seen as living the ideal lifestyle.

For example, Alger’s juvenile novel Ragged Dick featured the story of a young, New York shoe shiner who had his own faults, but upheld the core value of honesty, which lead him to happenstances that caused his success and upgrade from lower-class to middle-class respectability. ‘Happenstances’ refers to him meeting Mr. Whitney who gives him the appearance of a middle-class boy, and offers him a better job all because he started talking to Richard. Then Richard just so happens to save the son of a financer in New York which leads him to gain another job and he then upgrades while still maintaining his virtue of honesty and nobility. He is honest from his days as a shoe shiner all the way to when he is an middle-class men, maintaining the idea that if you have a certain character, you can upgrade your status. Benjamin Franklin offered virtues to follow to succeed in a capitalist society. The 13 virtues were similar to those portrayed by Alger’s characters, but they were more realistic, and more related to modern day success. Franklin spoke of temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity, and humility. Some of these overlap with the character Alger wanted to portray Richard as having in Ragged Dick, but Franklin meant for his virtues to be the guidelines for success in the capitalist world of his time (i.e. gaining more monetary success in order to upgrade your social status). However, Franklin was still focusing on the idea of ‘this is what you should be’ rather than ‘this is what you should have.’ Crevecoeur focused more on the content of character, much like Alger, rather than monetary gain. He sees Americans as rebels who succeeded in their goals. They were diverse with different nationalities from Europe, and they had a strong work ethic. Horatio Alger does not focus so much on the work ethic of Americans, because, with characters like Richard, showing your honorable traits will somehow lead to a class update. Crevecoeur talks about how admirable the Americans were to go from a land that had nothing left to offer, and then claim their own independence, cultivate their lands, and make their own country with their own ideals, which focuses more on their work ethic rather than happenstance. Americans made their dream, where Alger was just identifying characteristics ideal for a U.S. citizen to achieve their goals. These authors share similar ideas that the American is a noble man, but each has their own ideas on how citizens can achieve their dream.

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Noah Webster was the final man who wanted to set forth his own ideals on how to succeed in the new America, but his was through language rather than through virtues. Webster’s goal was to teach Americans to spell and speak the same as one another, but also to make it different from those in England. By doing this, he wanted to create a unique American language and culture. Alger did not focus on language, but he did focus on the importance of carrying yourself in a different way in order to be distinct. For both of these men, appearing more dignified and carrying oneself in a particular way was the key to succeeding in the new America. In the Antebellum era, language, clothing, and appearing noble is what many authors focused on to upgrade their status from lower-class to middle-class. Now the American Dream is seen more represented by materialism than a certain lifestyle. The ideas that Crevecoeur, Webster, Franklin, and Alger presented was to change the lifestyles of the people in America. Modern day success looks like a big house, a better car, and nicer materialistic things as opposed to the original rags to riches story. Examples of this can be seen through who Americans admire now as being ‘successful.’ It is not those who have a genuine admirable personality characteristics, but rather those who have everything the modern American wishes they could have.


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