AlgerThe Dark Side of Horatio Alger, Jr.

Jessica Amanda Salmonson


Many years ago, when I was barely more than a kid, age of twenty-two or twenty-three, I was dating a Native American woman who had a day-job changing the sheets in a boy bordello in Seattle. Sometimes I'd help her change the sheets so she could get away sooner & we could adventure around town. I never saw the inside of the place at night -- no women allowed when the sun went down. In the daytime, the boys lounged inert on the floor smoking cigarettes or marijuana while staring at a television. They did not speak. They barely moved. They seemed to be waiting for their lives to begin.

The bordello was run by an old faggot who was something of a professional "spokesman" for homeless youths, occasionally seen on the television news expounding on the hardships of boys living in the streets. He'd gotten grants from the city to provide housing for some of these boys. So the city government was duped into paying the bordello's rent! It is the commonest thing that advocates for youth are "in it" for personal reasons of this very sort.

The bordello was kittycorner from the Crescent Tavern, which in those days was a lesbian bar. Mona & I hung out there evenings, playing pool & chatting with other dykes. One night from our vantage-point at the Crescent, we saw police cars descending upon the bordello, red & blue lights spinning. The old male-madam, with a cluster of business-suited clientelle, & all the boys were gathered into vehicles & hauled away. Mona & I stood on the sidewalk in front of the tavern watching it all happen, & Mona said, "Damn, now I have to find a job."

For my own part I was glad to see it all go down. And gladder still that the repulsive geezer who'd tricked the city out of grants to "help" boys finally went to prison. But from the boys' point of view, it meant they now had to work in the streets & select their clientelle from among the frightening chickenhawks who hung around the side- & back-exits of the Monastary, a gay youth club run by a handsome but very horrible black man pretending to provide a safe alcohol-free entertainment-environment for kids too young to go to bars, & getting all outraged on the six o'clock news after each police raid.

All of which is leading to a discussion of the dark side of boys' books author Horatio Alger, Jr.

On a UseNet newsgroup, a notorious cretin posted one of his screaming tirades, this time against an e-list established for the discussion of Horatio Alger. He warned that it had become a pornographic e-list dominated by "members of NAMBLA & other perverts." Well, I don't like NAMBLA either; their literature frankly advocates child molestation because the samurai & Atheneans boinked boys so why can't these revolting old chickenhawks do likewise.

I've never seen the e-list in question. If it has in fact advocated child molestation under the sick self-justifying banner of "Man/Boy Love" then even a notorious cretin who commonly attacks his betters could well be in the right trashing said e-list, & doing so even more venomously than he did. But two things made me doubt the angry commentator's truthfulness -- three things really, the first being that he's indeed "notorious" for fugheaded opinions that turn out to have no basis in reality. But the two reasons peculiar to that specific angry post were (A) the phrase "and other perverts" which indicated to me (not for the first time) that he hates all lesbians & gays rather than just those childmolesting members of NAMBLA; & (B) he was complaining because he had wanted to talk about his beloved Horatio Alger books without people implying anything so disgusting about the author. Imply? Imply? Alger was a pedarast, period, & for better or worse, acknowledging it can deepen an understanding of his books & of a world he misrepresented as full of grand opportunities for hard-working child laborers.

In 1860, Reverand Alger was accused of "practicing" on boys. He was at the time a minister in the Unitarian Church in Brewster, Massachusetts. He took advantage of his trusted position to entice boys on seaside picnics during which outings he would have sex with them. Two of them, Thomas S. Crocker & John Clark, eventually spoke out. Alger had the decency, at least, to deny nothing -- so the boys' veracity was never in question. While Alger was being officially removed from any further church authority, & before the news of his dangerous indecency became generally known around Cape Cod, Alger packed a couple bags & fled town, never to return.

After I saw the UseNet posting against the Alger e-list & against homosexuals generally, but in favor of Alger, I wondered this: Why in the world would any adult man of average intelligence be devoted to an overtly queer writer's romanticed tales of young lads while adamantly denying any homosexual subtext to the stories or tendencies in the author? Could this be of the "Doth Protest Too Much" variety of outrage? I was tempted to read into the cretin's complaints, "I love my tales of smart little boys & neither I nor Horatio Alger are dangerous in the presence thereof, so leave us alone!"

While it seems perfectly ordinary to me that a straight man could love the writings of an Horatio Alger or an Oscar Wilde for all sorts of reasons other than the sexuality conveyed in the stories or in the lives of the authors, it does not seem possible to me that such a reader could love the works of queer writers while hating queers in any all-encompassing manner. Unless said straight man were mentally ill or secretly self-loathing & not actually straight at all! If it were simple bigotry there'd be no "vertically divided ego" disconnecting hatred of queers from an identical hatred of their books.

Some gays in a desire to reclaim & embrace a long-denied Gay History have mistakenly embraced Alger uncritically as being himself a tremendous gay success story in Victorian America -- a man loved then & now for his seemingly innocuous tales of successful man & boy business partnerships. Support of Alger's pedarasty is indirect, ranging from youth-advocate members in the Horatio Alger Association supporting AIDS research & gay outreach in Alger's name, to generalist gay commentators on "leading figures in gay history" presuming that Alger was forced to flee to an urban center strictly because there has always been greater acceptance of homosexuality in cities.

To most of us, however, gay or straight, it is obvious that when adult gay men involve themselves with boys, this is no more acceptible than when the far more common heterosexual Uncle Bubba boinks his twelve year old niece & when caught claims she seduced him. Queers & hets alike should rise up as One against the molestation of boys or girls, whether the evil deed is performed by gay adults or straight adults.

In this light it could be argued that Horatio Alger should have been permitted to write his books only from prison.

Such leopards never change their spots, either. After fleeing Cape Cod, Alger continued his "practice" although thereafter most often against types of boys nobody cared about, thus avoiding further trouble with authorities. The newsboys Alger glamorized in his fiction were in reality homeless child laborers who spent their nights in alleys or slum-squats & before dawn gathered at paper distribution docks to pick up heavy loads of papers to haul around town -- losing even this barely-paying job if they failed to pay for each previous day's stack of papers before receiving the new day's. Their plight included sexual exploitation ranging from outright rape to "willing" prostitution. In big cities like New York they had self-policing beggar-societies that were not pretty. They alligned themselves into gangs -- the names of some of these gangs are still well known -- & warred over newspaper territories to the point of murder. It was not remarkable to see at dawn the corpse of a boy hanging from a lamppost as warning against incursions of rival newsboys.

And they were frequently robbed of their hard-won pennies -- even by police. The only possible method of earning more than pennies was by robbery or by sexually servicing "helpful do-gooders" (as pedarasts commonly view themselves, as Alger viewed himself). These boys were part & parcel with what Victorian activists called "the white slave traffic." And rather than becoming millionaires through pluck & luck as Alger fantasized, the majority died young of pneumonia, venerial disease, tuberculosis, or knives shoved between their ribs. The luckiest would die incarcerated for repeated petty thefts -- at least they'd have a cruddy meal toward the end.

To acknowledge this aspect of Alger & his work is discomfiting to all who have enjoyed, & would like to continue to enjoy, his tales of hard luck lads overcoming all trials to become savvy young businessmen. To some extent we do all have to vertically divide our egos in order to enjoy Alger without reservation, without being continuously repulsed by his motivations. But to refuse to address this aspect of Alger's life & work is to refuse to see that children are exploited even to the present day, & through silence to condone it. An intelligent understanding of the reality of those children's lives, vs Alger's widely embraced fantasies of those lives, may help in a deeper understanding of a social ill that has persisted from well before Alger's day down to our own.

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