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Horatio Alger and the American Dream

I.  Introduction

After learning about Horatio Alger, his stories, and the time in which he lived, you are going to create a fictional modern-day up-by-your-bootstraps story, from the third-person perspective, using yourself as a model hero or heroine; participate in debates about child labor; and compare social mobility in different cultures.

II.  The Task

When you have completed this WebQuest, you will:

o  Know a great deal about 1900s America, the Progressive Era, and the cultural values of that time;

o  Be able to describe child labor conditions then, and now;

o  Be familiar with the American cultural value of being a self-made-man or woman and the idea of “picking yourself up by your bootstraps”;

o  Be able to apply this information to your own creative work, by reproducing Alger’s style and values to a fiction of your own creation, and seeing how – and whether – they transfer to contemporary American life;

o  Compare the American belief that we control our own social and economic destiny, to attitudes in other cultures and at other times.


III.  Read and Compare

A. Read Alger's Works and some from his contemporaries: 

     Project Gutenberg E-Texts of Horatio Alger’s Works – Scroll down the page to Alger, Horatio and click on the book(s) you would like to download and read.  They’re short and easy – read at least two. Read about Horatio Alger’s Life


Mark Twain’s Parody of Alger’s Books – The Story of the Good Little Boy and The Story of the Bad Little Boy


Myths about social mobility (or the lack of it) are important in every culture.  How does the Alger formula for success in life compare to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations or Oliver Twist?  How about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby?  How about the Danish folktale of The Little Mermaid (the real folktale, not the Disney version)?  Cinderella?  Little Orphan Annie (or the musical Annie)?


Compare Alger’s works to what has been available for girls


Learn about how the books were made and marketed


Uh, oh!  The darker side of Alger’s life


B.  Child labor at the turn of the 20th century:

o  If you didn’t watch Disney’s movie “Newsies” when it was shown in class, borrow or rent it.

o   Click here to learn about the real newsboy strike of 1899

o  Read about daily life for New York’s poor children around 1900, and then see what it looked like.  Here are some more photos of child labor a hundred years ago.


o  There was an Orphan Train movement that tried to move New York’s children out of the city and into the country out west.  Did it work?

o   Think abusive child labor is over?

Learn about child slave labor around the world and how it is touching your life this very minute


Take this quiz to find out what you really know about child labor in the world today.    


C.  Learn about Social Mobility

The characters in these novels are trying to change their social standing through a combination of hard work and smart thinking.  However, in some cultures people are unable to change their economic or social level no matter what they do. 


“Social mobility” is the ability of individuals to move up or down in social, educational, and economic status.  Most great American authors (including Alger, and Twain– and Dickens in England) have written at least one major work that deals with this issue, because social mobility is considered an important measure of freedom.  Most immigrants to America are coming specifically because they value this freedom, but other cultures do not share this value, or even provide this opportunity.


If you come from a culture that does not support class mobility, or if your parents do, ask them what it’s like to be born into an unchangeable social status.


Social scientists call this the study of Social Stratification.  Every nation in the world demonstrates social stratification – some more, some less, and several that are completely rigid.  Here are some very interesting graduate-level papers on social stratification. 


India’s “caste system” is the best-known form of stratification, but India is not unique.  This site explains how the Indian caste system began, but each ethnicity has its own unique history.    If you are very interested in learning about India’s caste system, you may want to visit this very interesting Caste System WebQuest


IV.  Your Assignment

You may work by yourself or in groups of two or more, but you must multiply the length of the project by the number of people participating.  

                          1.   Read

a.  at least one of Horatio Alger’s novels;

b.  both of Mark Twain’s parodies;

c.  It is expected that you have already read a Dickens novel; If you have not, please read a selection from above.

2.  Watch either the movie “Newsies” or “Ragtime”

3.  Follow the links above to learn about child labor, then and now

4.  Learn about caste systems

           5.  Complete any one of the following projects – selection made by lottery.  All projects are to be presented before the class either as “performance” or display (including written work). 

a.  Create a display documenting treatment of child laborers in the past and/or present, or about the Orphan Train (one large three-part display board per person);

b.  Become a persuasive business person presenting a case on purely economic and  political grounds not moral ones (ten minutes class lecture time per person, and limit of one person per point of view, per class); 

 c.  Child labor doesn’t exist for its own sake – there are people who benefit.  Who are they?  Lead a classroom debate about the positive and negative consequences to a culture and economy of child labor – You’ve got thirty minutes to keep the class arguing BOTH sides of this issue, so come prepared with a lot of controversial ammunition to feed the fire.  See me to schedule – one person per class;

d.  Alger’s children’s novels appealed to a vision about “making it” in America.  In an essay, explain   “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” values.  Do you feel that all can be successful in America, no matter who they are?  What truth – and untruth – is there to what Horatio Alger is saying?   Do these ideals apply to everyone, regardless or culture, gender, or immigrant status? Can you provide examples? (750 words minimum per person).

e.  Dickens and Alger both wrote in the English language, but their works reflect the specific values of each continent.  From these works, what can you determine about the British take on social mobility?  How is social mobility treated in the literature of other cultures?  (750 words per person).

4.  CULMINATING ASSIGNMENT:  Write your own real or fictional tale of social mobility in America.  You may write the story first or third person, and the sky’s the limit.  This portion may not be done as part of a group – you must do your own work.  1,000 – 1,200 well-thought-out words (about four pages typewritten).  Acceptable alternate formats include screenplays and films (as long as the film has a written plan and is at least five minutes long).

The Horatio Alger Formula:   

          “An adolescent boy with a rural back ground sets off to earn his livelihood in an urban setting.  He triumphs over circumstances and temptation and starts advancing in his career.  At some point, he will be betrayed or falsely accused by one of his peers.  Ultimately, the hero will be vindicated. 

          While pluck and hard work play a role in the

success of an Alger hero, there is always an older male who takes on the hero as his protégé.  That mentor plays a critical role in the success of the Alger hero.  The Alger hero never takes revenge on those who mistreated him.  He secures what is rightfully his, but he is never vindictive. 

          Alger heroes never have romantic interests.  As they leave adolescence, these heroes leave his books except to play the role of mentors for the new generation of Alger heroes.”


The formula for the “Little Orphan Annie” cartoon strip is very similar

Caste-like stratification occurs in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas. In Eastern Africa castes are frequently divided between land-owning and landless tribes; and in Sudan between slaves and their owners.   In Japanese, Gypsy, and Indian societies distinctions are made between regular folks and those who conduct labor associated with impurity (death, butchering, tanning) who are frequently treated as social outcasts.  Theorist John Ogbu has even stated that in America, non-voluntary immigrants and minorities, such as Native Americans and African Americans, have caste-like status. 
Do you agree?

If you are interested in this American era, you will probably enjoy reading: 


Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (this link is to Project Gutenberg or you might want to buy the book)


E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, which was also made into an award-winning musical and movie.


As always, I strongly recommend buying these books from

Your Grades: 

This is a 300-point project.  The following elements are considered when determining your grade:  Did you do the research? Did you do the project as it was assigned and agreed upon in advance? Is your work thorough, or are important elements incomplete?  Do you show commitment to detail, such as neatness, spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc; Did your project educate both you and your classmates? Do you demonstrate an understanding of the values Alger was promoting; and of the political/economic/social issues tied into treatment of underprivileged children?


In Conclusion … What have you learned about American values and ideals?  How is the American attitude about success and achievement different from other cultural beliefs about “making it”?  How true is that belief?  Alger’s novels were meant to motivate children towards hard work and accomplishment – were they realistic about what people can achieve?  How available are these opportunities to people today, depending on age, gender (sex), immigrant status, or ethnicity?  Is child labor still an issue?  Does it touch our lives in any way?


Thank you for learning with this WebQuest!