Religion underlay much of nineteenth-century success literature, just as it infused American political discourse and thought. Early-nineteenth-century advice manuals and stories for the young warned of the temptations of worldly-mindedness and material riches, exhibiting a deep ambivalence that reflected the Puritan orientation toward worldly success. As new opportunities for material acquisition arose with the expansion of commerce, industry, transportation networks, markets, and communication, literature turned increasingly toward the world. Embracing worldly success, however, did not mean simply praising economic success and social advancement. The literature dealing with success was engaged in assessing what values and persons deserved to prosper.
By the Civil War (1861–1865), sacred and secular rewards were becoming increasingly linked in fiction and sermons. Stories, secular anecdotes, and colorful illustrations were invading the pulpit. Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887) was noted for filling his sermons with lively stories. Fiction that used facts, events, and places with which readers would be familiar was now seen as the way to capture the attention of the young and to influence them. The author most closely associated with success literature, "the American dream," and the celebration of the "self-made" man was Horatio Alger Jr. (1832–1899). The Alger story was not simply secular or materialistic. Alger, a Harvard College and Divinity School graduate, was greatly influenced by his Boston Unitarian heritage. His spirited, optimistic tales were designed to influence the young. One of his heroes meets his mentor only after falling asleep during a boring sermon. The Alger hero had a strong moral compass, was guided by sentiment as an aid to conscience, and took his responsibilities toward other members of society seriously. While Alger later became associated with the rags-toriches formula, in part because his later, more sensational stories of wealth were those most frequently reprinted in the twenty years after his death, his formula more often featured characters who rose to attain comfortable circumstances.
Over a hundred of Alger's juvenile novels appeared as serials or books before the author's death (some published under pseudonyms), and others were completed over the next decade by Edward L. Stratemeyer (1862–1930), founder of the Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate (1906). The typical Alger story can be read as an allegory of the adolescent republic, where the young person's rite of passage was vital to the welfare of the community. The character of the young and the character of the republic were inextricably bound. Character formation was possibly the centerpiece of political concern because the viability of the republic depended on virtue, as both the Alger story and many moral guardians and cultural elites of the nineteenth century suggested (Nackenoff, p. 34).
Alger never argued that everyone could become rich, nor did he pretend that the rich were necessarily virtuous. Greedy squires, pretentious sons, and the idle rich were constant foils. His heroes almost always encountered rich young men who insisted on what was owed them by virtue of their family station. Wealth and merit were juxtaposed; social distinctions were condemned; the natural was preferred to the artificial; and the author bestowed rewards on the worthy and punishments on the unworthy. Alger attacked even "self-made" men who forgot their roots. The promise was rather that there were predictable paths to middle-class comfort and sometimes more wealth would follow—especially for those with the proper character, which was a kind of capital that did not fluctuate with changes in the labor market. Alger merely asserts that plenty succeed and his hero wants to join them, a sentiment expressed by the hero in Sink or Swim (p. 111). Disparities between rich and poor did not disappear, but there were opportunities for social and intergenerational mobility. The American dream was about rising through the ranks—ending up in a better place than one began. And in the justice Alger arranged, this was sometimes accompanied by the rich being brought low—a zero-sum game when the undeserving rich and the deserving poor changed places.
The hero of Alger's Ragged Dick (1867), Richard Hunter, is a plucky young bootblack with a good heart and sense of humor but many bad habits. He is one of the New York street children featured in Alger's early stories, and like all but a few of his heroes is of unmistakable Anglo-Saxon heritage. A good deed, such as saving a stranger from an accident, often brings the Alger hero to the attention of a benefactor, who then sets the hero on the right path with encouragement, moral example, and a new job. Despite the role of chance in these tales, it is the hero's worthiness and good character that allow him this new opportunity in life. Striving in the face of adversity and early poverty, even the roughest Alger hero has a chance to rise. Alger wrote stories about the vital role that one's own manly effort, character, and mettle played in economic advancement and saw to it that character would be recognized and rewarded appropriately. Alger heroes help re-create familial relations among strangers, have regard for other deserving people, and believe in charity. They are self-disciplined and hope to succeed, but they do not look out only for themselves.
Taking responsibility for one's character means avoiding temptations and pitfalls that the young encounter in unfamiliar environments. As William Makepeace Thayer (1820–1898) wrote in the early 1890s, "Beware of companions whose moral character is below your own, unless you associate with them only to reform them. Avoid those who depreciate true worth, and speak lightly of the best class of citizens, and sneer at reforms" (n.p.). Alger provides good moral influences for youthful heroes and heroines who are set down in the middle of the city and removed from the positive influences of family and clergy. For girls and very young boys, leaving the city is the best way to avoid its pitfalls; boys such as the hero of Mark, the Match Boy, too young to fend for himself, and young girls such as the heroine of Tattered Tom, find adoptive or long-lost families. Sometimes the boys are provided with older and wiser youth as mentors, roommates, and guides (Moon, pp. 87–110). At a time of orphan trains and the Children's Aid Society, an occasional hero from the dangerous classes is shipped off from the city to the healthful environment of the farm, such as the illiterate hero of Julius, the Street Boy. Charles Loring Brace's Newsboys' Lodging House becomes the means of salvation for some of them in various Alger stories. While Alger's novels taught boys how to recognize the various pitfalls and confidence games practiced in the urban environment, how to survive, and how to maintain their integrity, some young people the reader meets along the way succumb to temptation and join the class of criminals and paupers.
SUCCESS AND ITS RELATION TO PROGRESS
The idea of success was often linked to particular conceptions of progress. Inspired by Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), American Social Darwinists pondered America's historical evolution. The discourse of social evolution was steeped in certain understandings of race, ethnicity, and class. The evolutionary hierarchy was thought to run from primitive to civilized races. Anglo-Saxons stood at the top of the evolutionary scale, and women in the more advanced races were considered to be more chaste, intelligent, and refined than those of lower races. Unrestrained, brute male passion was a marker of primitive races, and higher races protected their women from hard labor. Blacks were "Africans," regardless of their culture or heritage, as distinguished from "Americans," namely, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931) and Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) collaborated on a pamphlet attacking the Columbia Exposition of 1893 for its failure to incorporate American blacks in the paeans to progress in the White City and for its equation of dark races with Dahomean savages on Chicago's Midway Plaisance. Where white scholars were prone to use the language of Social Darwinism in arguing for the association of progress and civilization with whites and of barbarism with blacks and the other so-called lesser races—a theme prominently displayed at the 1893 Columbia Exposition—Wells-Barnett inverted that scheme. Lynching was proof that the white race was barbaric and uncivilized. Wells-Barnett and Douglass argued that the United States had shown itself powerless to protect the rights of its own citizens; instead of the rule of law, there was violence and anarchy.
Social Darwinism spawned a famous book by the Yale Professor William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1883). Sumner (1840–1910) asked: Does any class in society have the burden and duty to fight the battles of life for any other class or solve its social problems? He argued that individuals have the duty to take care of themselves; unless mankind aggressively takes on the hardships of life, civilization will regress toward barbarism (pp. 59–61, 64, 98). Self-control and self-denial are the price of advancement, and most people do not practice them. Within the same civilization are lower and higher types; civilization did not advance by holding back the best to bring up the least. Therefore, society only harms its own progress by pandering to the weak.
Such views were based on the assumption that obstacles were of one's own making or flowed from innate abilities and proclivities, and that material rewards were readily available. For the preacher and inspirational lecturer Russell H. Conwell (1843–1925), there were "acres of diamonds" available to whomever would see and pick them up. Lecturing over six thousand times between roughly 1875 and 1925, Conwell argued that riches were frequently waiting to be plucked from the ground; one had no right to be poor. It was a young person's duty to seek wealth, for the one who eschews money says in effect "I do not wish to do any good to my fellowmen" (pp. 11–12).
In such essays as "The Gospel of Wealth," the steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1935–1919) affirmed the obligation of the upper class to uplift the deserving poor. As civilization advances, so does social differentiation; society pays a price for competition, but great benefits accrue as well. "While the law [of competition] may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department" (p. 655). The man of wealth is the one best equipped to determine the beneficial uses to which surplus wealth should be put. Charity should be designed "to help those who will help themselves" and to foster self-improvement but should rarely or never do everything for a person (p. 663). Accumulated wealth does no favors to the children of the rich, for they do not learn to rely on themselves or learn the habits of industry.
CRITICS AND NAYSAYERS
Critiques of success literature came from various directions. In his stories "Good Little Boy" and "Bad Little Boy" (1875), Mark Twain (1835–1910) lampooned Sunday school fiction along with the notion that rewards are bestowed on those of good character. These tales make patently clear the author's belief that worldly rewards and punishments are not correlated with worthiness. The good little boy obeys his parents, goes to Sunday school, is scrupulously honest, and finds that no good deed goes unpunished. The bad little boy grows up to kill his wife and children and engages in all manner of rascality, and is universally respected. As more Americans began to read for amusement, moral elites in the late nineteenth century worried that readers were not keeping good company in their reading matter. Fiction that led the young to leave their homes in search of fortune or adventure was perceived as dangerous, and the American Library Association waged war on writers for boys such as Horatio Alger Jr., Oliver Optic, Harry Castlemon, and Edward S. Ellis, along with dime novel authors. Even if their moral values were acceptable, the books gave false ideas of life and made young people discontent with the uneventful and the everyday. Many of these books were purged from public and Sunday school libraries in the last decades of the nineteenth century, spurred on by the Comstock crusades. (In his antivice crusades, Anthony Comstock [1844–1915] successfully pressed for federal legislation against the transportation or delivery of literature or other material judged obscene or immoral.)
William Dean Howells (1837–1920) was among the late-century authors to cast doubt on the materialistic values and impractical aspirations of the era. Self-improvement did not lead to economic rewards but often followed a character's loss of status or financial resources. In The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and The Minister's Charge (1886), the character of those who come to the city in search of success or status does not remain unchanged. A loss of wealth or of illusions can be linked to a rise in morality and real value. Howells is also interested in the extent to which we are responsible for one another; it seems clear that the fate of his characters is not totally in their own hands. The Minister's Charge has also been read as a satire targeting Alger's tendency to rehabilitate young boys from the dangerous classes (Scharnhorst, p. 106).
Opportunity in the world of the streets was not available to young women. Generally, women's aspirations were to be fulfilled in the private sphere, even though more young women were entering the workplace and upper middle-class women were joining women's organizations and pressing for social reform. Leaving small towns and farms for the city was considered far too dangerous for young girls, who were seen as more likely to be corrupted. There was a need to provide wholesome influences for some of the girls working in the needle trades or garment industries in Chicago, and the largely female settlement workers of Hull-House were attentive to this need. Carrie Meeber in Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) leaves home to make her way in Chicago in 1889. As Dreiser editorializes:
When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. . . . Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms. Without a counselor at hand to whisper cautious interpretations, what falsehoods may not these things breathe into the unguarded ear. (P. 2)
Some early-twentieth-century feminists, however, argued that work outside the home was vital to woman's emancipation and equality. Women, too, needed economic self-sufficiency and fulfillment. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) strongly advocated women's economic independence and joined the equal rights amendment architect Alice Paul (1885–1977) in pressing this route to women's equality. Success was partly measured by the extent to which women's voices, experiences, and values could be brought into the public sphere.
Gilman was among the feminist writers and activists who developed a stinging critique of materialism, militarism, and the industrial ethic. The diseases of the industrial order were even deemed male diseases. Women were more attentive to the needs of the community and more focused on conserving life. Along with the Hull-House founder Jane Addams (1860–1935), Gilman saw increasing interdependence of individuals in the modern city and nation. Gilman argued that cooperation had to replace a misguided emphasis on individual responsibility if problems of the modern city were to be successfully addressed. Addams argued that self-centeredness and individualism must yield to social consciousness and concern for others: "Much of our ethical maladjustment in social affairs arises from the fact that we are acting upon a code of ethics adapted to individual relationships, but not to the larger social relationships to which it is bunglingly applied" (p. 221). Gilman's utopian novel Herland (1915), features an all-female society that is nurturant, practical, efficient, cooperative, and peaceful.
Criticisms of excessive materialism and the culture of consumption developed alongside the cult of success. The most pointed and prominent of such critics during this period was Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929). Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) attacked individualistic, pecuniary, predatory, businesslike, and warlike activities, in contrast to those that were community-sustaining, industrial, workmanlike, and peaceable. Deploring conspicuous leisure, conspicuous consumption, and the waste of wealth, Veblen found virtue in the "archaic survivals" of conscience, invention, equity, truthfulness, and the instinct for workmanship. Dominant indicators of status and success generally stood in inverse relationship to value. The Harvard philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910) was critical of the emphasis on expediency and the absence of idealism or concern for abstract justice in American culture. He wrote H. G. Wells in 1906 that this was "a symptom of the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success—is our national disease" (p. 260).
RACE, CLASS, ETHNICITY, AND SUCCESS
The success that Alger and other authors envisioned was defined against the backdrop of a world that was being rapidly transformed by economic development. Fathers, often dead or weak, were unable to provide for families or protect them from the effects of economic changes. They had no trades, farms, or viable businesses to pass along to their sons; they were not able to help them enter the emerging order. Sons were freed from the land to go to the city to seek their fortunes and supplanted their fathers as breadwinners and providers.
There was no success in Alger's universe without manliness and yet industrial work, corruption, and corporate practices were threatening the capacity to maintain independence. Production of the self was what made someone a man or conferred moral personhood. As power and control shifted away from individuals, a clear, class-based tension emerged in Gilded Age fiction. For genteel moralists such as Alger, industrial wageworkers were dependent on employers, had lost control over their activities, performed simple and undifferentiated tasks, found themselves unemployed when times were hard, lost the capacity to exercise their own judgment, and were often interchangeable in the workplace with women and children. Since the factory did not illustrate Alger's principle that through application, hard work, cheerfulness, loyalty to one's employer, and honesty, any boy could hope to be noticed for his effort and advance, Alger's heroes needed to be saved from factory work. Not all success authors agreed. Thayer, whose illustrated advice manual Success and Its Achievers (1891) was sold door-to-door by subscription in the early 1890s, thought there were opportunities to rise in the factory as well and related the story of a young man who rose through the ranks in a straw hat factory. Alger sent a copy of Thayer's book to at least one young friend.
With the rise of the dime novel, however, new working-class symbols of potency and manhood were created. Working-class heroes created by Frederick Whittaker (1838–1889) such as John Armstrong, Mechanic (1886) and Larry Locke (1886) were participants in a battle to retain control over the meaning of masculinity in the Gilded Age. They were virile and simple and engaged in occasional acts of physical violence. In an era that often saw violent industrial battles, "unionization represent[ed] a historically significant possibility for shifting the material bases of power and control. It also offer[ed] real possibilities for reconceptualizing masculinity as solidarity and mutuality rather than individual self-agency" (Catano, p. 13). This literature often maintained a tension between expectations of individual agency and opportunities for collective action in the industrial setting.
An acute focus on manhood—a veritable crisis of masculinity—appeared in middle-class publications near the turn of the twentieth century. There was a perceived need to redefine manly power in the context of real forces, both economic and social, that threatened traditional understandings of this power. Men sought to reinvent their image in the new processes of economic production, distribution, and exchange; they rethought their potency and humanity in relation to machines. In his novels, Frank Norris (1870–1902) considered issues of manhood and success in the new era. Norris meted out justice to those who failed to struggle against the brute within and sought to prove that "undoing follows hard upon unrighteousness" (Responsibilities, p. 28). Self-restraint and hard work are important virtues in his novels. Hoarding, valuing money for its own sake, gambling, and speculation all interfere with real and natural values; the rush to get rich quickly rather than agreeing "to wait, to be patient, to achieve by legitimate plodding" tends to be punished (Octopus, p. 298). For Norris, gamblers and speculators were antisocial because they added no value to the community. Participating in nativist and anti-Semitic narratives about who is responsible for greed and exploitation, Norris casts Polish Jews and other characters in skullcaps in unsavory roles. Especially in McTeague (1899), Norris links fate to race and ethnicity. The mixed-breed and animal-like inhabitants of Polk Street are of new immigrant stock; despite the good in McTeague, there ran in his veins "the foul stream of hereditary evil, like a sewer. . . . The evil of anentire race flowed in his veins" (McTeague, p. 19). Those capable of the discipline to transcend the brute within tend not to come from such stock.
Norris also grappled with the question of the payoff for integrity and effort in the era of "the new order of things" (Octopus, p. 399). His poet-observer, Presley, declares after many of the central characters have been shot down: "They [our task-masters] swindle a nation of a hundred million and call it Financiering; they levy a blackmail and call it Commerce; they corrupt a legislature and call it Politics; they bribe a judge and call it Law; they hire blacklegs to carry out their plans and call it Organisation; they prostitute the honour of a State and call it Competition" (Octopus, p. 551). Failure is associated with the loss of some part of one's character, while manly protagonists are aligned with instinct, action, and agency as they attempt to do battle with chance and the forces of nature. Nevertheless, it is not obvious that real men will be successful in these battles. In addition, Norris's real men are domesticated by women and come to value connection to others.
African American writers were only too aware of the institutional, structural, and attitudinal barriers to their participation in the American dream—barriers that only grew more formidable when Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow legislation segregated blacks and whites. For some writers, self-help meant vocational education and moral rehabilitation; recognition and acceptance would come as African Americans took responsibility for improving the race. The self-help route to respectability was considered universal. For Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), writing nearly half a century after the Civil War, it was appropriate that ignorant and inexperienced people begin at the bottom, prosper through the dignity of common labor, and receive privileges in proportion to their contribution to the overall prosperity of the nation (pp. 59, 60, 63).
Some middle-class African American women writers accepted white feminist arguments that it was women's mission to uplift and civilize the men of the race because they were mothers and had a distinctive feminine perspective. Anna Julia Cooper (1858–1964), the author of the novel A Voice from the South (1892), argued that if higher education were encouraged among women, they would be able to convey their mercy and truth to the world, allowing different and complementary sides of the truth to be heard (pp. 57–60). The African American activist Frances E. W. Harper (1825–1911) claimed that character had to be built. Even if enfranchised women could make special contributions to the good of mankind and the glory of God, Harper did not "believe in unrestricted and universal suffrage for either men or women" but instead "in moral and educational tests" (p. 40). In this, she seems to have had an ally in the Harvard-educated activist and writer W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909).
For Du Bois, success for the race would come through the leadership of classically educated elites. Slavery and prejudice had caused degradation, and there was much self-reformation to accomplish. Nevertheless, all honorable people in the twentieth century should assure "that in the future competition of races the survival of the fittest shall mean the triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true" (p.188). Efforts to purge the voting rolls of the ignorant and of paupers and criminals might indeed be legitimate, but Du Bois saw clearly that these southern efforts had been aimed only at the disenfranchisement of blacks (pp. 197–198). African Americans must insist on their rights. The thinking classes among African Americans are "absolutely certain that the way for a people to gain their reasonable rights is not by voluntarily throwing them away and insisting that they do not want them; that the way for a people to gain respect is not by continually belittling and ridiculing themselves; that, on the contrary, Negroes must insist continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood, that color discrimination is barbarism, and that black boys need education as well as white boys" (p. 91). African Americans had unique contributions to make and needed the opportunity to make them.
Race, class, gender, and ethnicity all figure as backdrops in defining success. Manhood, independence, character, and agency were central to the meaning of success. Those defined as successful participated in the vitality and energy of the emerging order without losing their souls, finding ways to hold onto the values that connected them to an earlier era. Critics of the cult of success were sure that values were being inverted and perverted in an overly individualistic, materialistic age. Even those who, like Gilman and Du Bois, believed that women or African Americans had distinct values and abilities to contribute to the world insisted that they not be shut out from its opportunities.
By the early years of the twentieth century, it had become much harder to maintain that one was or could be self-made. Fewer individuals worked for themselves and more worked behind desks or retail counters or on assembly lines. With the rise of the administrative state in the Progressive Era, many worked in public administration. In large-scale corporate enterprises or in bureaucratic organizations where there was a considerable distance between employer and employee, it was not easy to assert that character would be rewarded.
Success stories left two legacies for American political and social thought. The more conservative was the argument that success was the individual's responsibility. One could pull oneself up by the bootstraps; self-help was imperative and would yield rewards. It required good habits and self-control and produced good character and success far better than did handouts. So long as one could point to individuals who had risen through the ranks, success was available to anyone. While individuals or organizations might lend a helping hand to the deserving, government intervention was unwise and usually unproductive. The market was a just allocator because it would reward good character and worth.
The other legacy was allied more with the social ethic of the progressive tradition and with the rise of the social welfare state. Social progress was possible only if all people had the means to develop their abilities and talents. In this sense, success was a collective responsibility. There was a positive role for the state in ensuring that disadvantages did not become permanent and insurmountable. Markets needed direction and correction. There was a collective, public responsibility to make sure that opportunities—including opportunities for higher education, which was becoming essential—were available to all. For supporters of both arguments, opportunities for material advancement remained vital to the meaning of America.
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- Alger, Horatio (1834–1899) writer of boys’ stories where young men are instantly rewarded for honesty, perseverance, etc. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 19]
- Browndock, Miss “made her fortune in no time at all.” [Br. Lit.: Nicholas Nickleby ]
- McVey, Hugh from poor white to leading manufacturer. [Am. Lit.: Poor White, Magill I, 762–764]
- O Pioneers! realistic success story of those who fathered nation. [Am. Lit.: 0 Pioneers!, Magill I, 663–665]
- Porter, Sir Joseph became First Lord of the Admiralty by sticking to desk jobs and never going to sea. [Br. Opera: Gilbert and Sullivan H.M.S. Pinafore ]
- Ragged Dick hero of Alger’s rags-to-riches epic. [Am. Lit.: Van Doren, 807]
- white cloud indicates high achievement. [Western Folklore: Jobes, 350]
- wolf symbol of success on coats of arms. [Heraldry: Halberts, 16]
suc·cess / səkˈses/ • n. the accomplishment of an aim or purpose: the president had some success in restoring confidence. ∎ the attainment of popularity or profit: the success of his play. ∎ a person or thing that achieves desired aims or attains prosperity: I must make a success of my business. ∎ archaic the outcome of an undertaking, specified as achieving or failing to achieve its aims: the good or ill success of their maritime enterprises.
See also nothing succeeds like success.