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Photo by Joan Marcus.

Queer Eye on Horatio Alger

Alger’s self-help message impacted generations beyond his own lifetime.


Queer Eye on Horatio Alger

Benjamin’s birthday gift to Elliot, a copy of Horatio Alger’s juvenile novel Ragged Dick, is an astute choice. Alger’s uplifting message that anyone can pull themselves up “by the bootstraps” feels archaic today, but the discovery of Alger’s homosexuality, made long after his death, provides relevant insights to the characters of Skintight.

Horatio Alger Jr. (1832-1899) was one of the most prolific and popular writers of the Gilded Age. His breakthrough Ragged Dick (1867) introduced a uniquely American hero: the poor youth who rises to respectability through hard work, perseverance, and “pluck.” The story follows an orphaned shoeshine boy on the streets of New York, as he educates himself and advances in society, with support from some wealthy businessmen who take an interest. Ragged Dick sold so well that Alger recycled the “rags-to-riches” plotline in nearly 100 books. Although never esteemed as a great literary talent, Alger’s self-help message impacted generations beyond his own lifetime. (Figures as disparate as Groucho Marx and Ernest Hemingway acknowledged his influence.)

Alger was the youngest son of a respected Unitarian minister in Massachusetts. A sickly but intelligent boy, he aspired to become a writer but also studied religion at Harvard. He briefly held a position as a Unitarian minister, until rumors of sexual activity with teenage boys spread through his congregation. Out of respect for his father’s reputation, the church agreed to sweep the scandal under the rug, provided Alger would never again work in the clergy.

Alger fled to New York in 1866. He visited the Newsboys’ Lodging House, where he met the homeless boys who inspired his books. At a time when authors did not own copyrights, Alger could earn a modest living, but not a fortune. He supplemented his income tutoring for wealthy families and lived alone, although sometimes in the company of boys he befriended, until his death. In 1972, the discovery of the church scandal and Alger’s presumed homosexuality sparked new interest in his work. In his essay, “The Gentle Boy From the Dangerous Classes,” Michael Moon interprets the Alger plot as a “particular brand of homoerotic romance as a support for capitalism.” Moon identifies the importance of older, wealthy men who take an interest in Alger’s young and explicitly good-looking heroes. Moon’s reading is an example of the scholarship Benjamin might explore in his queer theory course, and provides a historical lens for considering Elliot’s relationship with the much younger Trey.

The relatively young academic field of Queer Studies emerged in the 1970s as an outgrowth of women’s studies, African-American studies, and other identity-based fields. Early courses emphasized the hidden history of gay and lesbian lives. Next, “queer theory” emerged in English and literature departments, examining gender as a social construct and sexual identity as a kind of “performance.” In the late 1980s, City University of New York and City College of San Francisco created the first departments for LGBTQ studies. Today, many U.S. universities and colleges offer classes, majors, and even graduate degrees in Queer Studies -- with connections to many academic disciplines, including history, biology, philosophy, and social sciences.