“Like the rest of his generation,” Henry Dan Piper has correctly claimed, F. Scott Fitzgerald “knew his Horatio Alger.” However, the frequency with which Fitzgerald during the 1920s satirized the juvenile success stories of Alger has not yet been recognized. In 1910, when Fitzgerald was fourteen years old, the Alger books were enjoying an estimated annual sale of over one million, and the young Fitzgerald probably read several of the over one hundred different volumes. Two of his apprenticeship stories, in fact, betray Alger’s influence, although Fitzgerald does not otherwise allude to Alger in them. One of his stories—“A Debt of Honor” (1910)— borrows its title from an Alger novel, and the hero of another— Robert Raymond in “The Room with the Green Blinds”(1911)—is named after the hero of Alger’s Ralph Raymond’s Heir. In subsequent writings, Fitzgerald revived faded memories of the Alger books, not to celebrate them or the Myth of Success which they promoted, but in all instances to satirize them, for the mature Fitzgerald transformed the incredible success won in the Alger stories popular in his childhood into a symbol of the crass materialism rampant in his maturity, a symptom of the acute spiritual malaise which afflicted his achievement-oriented generation. In short, during the 1920s Fitzgerald’s satire of Alger became a vehicle for his condemnation of the elusive, seductive Bitch-goddess.
Although his satire of Alger’s standard success story was more fully realized in three of his later works, Fitzgerald briefly contemplated Alger in a satiric light in This Side of Paradise (1920). In all of Alger’s didactic juvenile novels, the virtuous hero frustrates the evil designs of an adult villain and his young snobbish ally, and gains his success through the fortunate intercession of a Benevolent Patron who, like the deus ex machina in an American morality play, aids Our Hero in his rise and rewards him with a new suit, a new watch, and/or a job. Usually the Patron appears in the late stages of the story, often only in its final chapter. Not surprisingly, this peculiar plot device has incurred the amused outrage of critics; for example, Thomas Meehan has complained that “the Alger hero never makes it to the top by dint of talent, hard work, or innate virtue …; he just happens in Chapter XXXIV to be in the right place at the right time.” In his first published novel, Fitzgerald gave a satiric twist to this absurd convention. The goggled “big man” in the “magnificent Locomobile” who appears in the novel’s final pages and gives Amory Blaine a ride seems to be Fitzgerald’s caricature of the Alger hero’s Patron, but in Fitzgerald’s ironic version of the story, Our Hero fails to capitalize on his fortuitous “opportunity.” Fitzgerald has Amory, rather than basely seek to gratify his ambitions, argue socialism with the capitalist. Moreover, Fitzgerald sanctions this interpretation of the incident by explicitly noting in the opening pages of this “Romance and a Reading List” that one book which Amory as a boy did not read was Alger’s Do and Dare (p. 4). Amory does not allow the “big man” to patronize him because, unlike most of his peers, as a youngster he had not been exposed to the simplistic success propaganda of writers such as Alger. Because he had not been irredeemably compromised by pipe dreams of success, Amory is able to lament at the novel’s close the maturation of “a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success” (p. 304).
In his 1922 play The Vegetable or from President to postman, the title of which burlesques such Alger titles as From Canal Boy to President and From Farm Boy to Senator, Fitzgerald intended to parody success literature in general and Alger’s fiction in particular. As Piper suggests, “Fitzgerald began by wanting to make his play a protest against the contemporary dream of success from which he himself had only recently awakened.” The epigraph to the play which Fitzgerald excerpted “From a Current Magazine” and placed on the title page of the published version clearly indicates that conventional success, not political achievement alone, is the target of his satire: “Any man who doesn’t want to get on in the world, to make a million dollars, and maybe even park his toothbrush in the White House, hasn’t got as much to him as a good dog has—he’s nothing more or less than a vegetable.” The protagonist, Jerry Frost, is not a caricature of Warren G. Harding or another political figure; rather, he is an ironic Alger hero whose name, in fact, could be the combination of the first name of the hero of Alger’s Jerry the Backwoods Boy and last name of the hero of either Frank’s Campaign or Out for Business. As befits a parody of an Alger success story, the ironic Patron in the play is a doddering old fool who is a deliberate caricature of Horatio Alger himself. Jerry Frost’s father, who is named Horatio, blunders around mistaking rug nails for dimes through the first and third acts; in the second act, a comic nightmare in which Jerry becomes President of the United States, Horatio is cast as his inept Secretary of the Treasury. Moreover, according to an explicit note in Fitzgerald’s script, Horatio— nicknamed “Dada” by his family, a name which evinces Fitzgerald’s contempt for absurd money mongering—had been “born in 1834.” Inclusion of the date is significant because 1834 was the year of Horatio Alger’s birth as it was erroneously listed in virtually all of the biographical sources available to Fitzgerald in 1922. The identification of “Dada” and Alger is also suggested when Horatio impulsively declares soon after his first appearance that “I should say that Lincoln was our greatest President” (p. 19); one of Alger’s hero-worshipping biographies of “Illustrious Americans,” often reprinted in the 20th century, was a biography of Lincoln entitled From Railsplitter to President.
In addition to caricatures of an Alger hero and his Patron, a caricature of a third Alger stock character—the villain—appears in The Vegetable. Mr. Snooks, described as “as villainous-looking a man as could be found in a year’s search” (p. 32), completes Fitzgerald’s cast of burlesques. Whereas Alger’s virtuous heroes successfully resist all temptations, in Fitzgerald’s parody Jerry falls into the snares of vice. The bootlegger Snooks supplies him with grain alcohol to satiate his thirst and, to pay for it, Jerry pilfers money his wife Charlotte had laid aside for the iceman. As a consequence of this and other “irresponsible” acts, Jerry and Charlotte quarrel, and when the first act ends they remain unreconciled.
Jerry dreams the second act of the play, in which he has been elected to the Presidency, while in a drunken stupor. His Presidential garb includes a Lincolnesque “white stovepipe hat” and a gold watch (p. 65), a standard symbol in the Alger world of the hero’s successful initiation. The Frost Administration, however, is marred by calamity: dark threats of war and impeachment hover over his White House, and Secretary Dada destroys all the money in the Treasury in a fire-and-water apocalypse. Amid the parade of a newsboy and a chorus line of baggage-smashers who have been borrowed from the pages of such Alger novels as Dan the Newsboy and Ben the Luggage Boy, President Jerry tenders his resignation from office and ambitions, to become in Act III the poor “vegetable” who, though but a postman, will live contentedly. As Maxwell Perkins concluded, Fitzgerald originally sought to show in this parody that the dream of rising from newsboy to President is absurd, that “God meant Jerry to be a good egg and a postman; but having been created, in a democratic age, Free and Equal, he was persuaded that he ought to want to rise in the world. . . .[Fitzgerald’s] story shows, or should, that this doctrine is sentimental bunk.” Unfortunately, The Vegetable fails as dramatic literature because Fitzgerald compromised his original parodic intention and revised the play “to amuse the same audiences that read his magazine stories” by “cluttering his script with jokes about everything of topical interest he could think of.” Unfortunately, too, the magnitude of Fitzgerald’s failure has been exaggerated because his play is usually viewed simply as a low-comedic political satire rather than, as is more accurate, a bold parody of success literature, specifically Alger’s. Fitzgerald’s failure was one of execution, not intention, for in The Vegetable he discovered the rich parodic vein later profitably mined by Nathanael West in A Cool Million (1934) and, more recently, by John Seelye in Dirty Tricks; or, Nick Noxin’s Natural Nobility (1973) and William Gaddis in JR (1975).
In The Great Gatsby (1925), Fitzgerald again paid curled lip service to the Alger success story. While it is a critical commonplace to observe, as does Edwin Fussell, for example, that Gatsby “is a contemporary variation of an old American success pattern, the rags-to-riches story exalted by American legend,” the extent to which Fitzgerald assimilated Alger specifically in the novel has gone unrecognized. To be sure, Richard Lehan has contended that Gatsby is like “an inverted Horatio Alger novel,” but Gatsby can be more accurately described as a sequel to an ironic Alger fable. Indeed, the accounting in Chapter VI of Jay Gatsby’s past—his apprenticeship at age seventeen to Dan Cody and subsequent events—is probably a parody of Alger’s Jed the Poorhouse Boy. Alger’s hero Jed Gilman, like James Gatz (who shares his initials), meets his Benevolent Patron aboard the Patron’s yacht; each one is hired as a kind of personal secretary and receives a new suit of clothing from him. Their similar acquisition of new clothes is particularly noteworthy.As John Cawelti has observed, “The most crucial event in the [Alger] hero’s life is his acquisition of a good suit. The good suit, which is usually presented to the hero by his patron, marks the initial step in his advancement, his escape from the dirty and ragged classes and his entry upon respectability.” In Fitzgerald’s ironic version of the Alger story, Dan Cody takes his protege to Duluth only a few days after meeting him and buys him “a blue coat, six pairs of white duck trousers, and a yachting cap.” Moreover, in both Jed and Gatsby the hero changes his name “at the specific moment that witnessed the beginning of his career.” In Alger’s story, Jed Gilman’s noble birth is fortuitously discovered and he is instantaneously transformed into Sir Robert Fenwick of Fenwick Hall, England; in Fitzgerald’s novel, James Gatz becomes Jay Gatsby.
Although Fitzgerald employed the standard symbols of the Alger success story in this brief section of his novel, in the process he also parodied the Alger story. Whereas Schuyler Roper, Jed’s patron, is a generous, respectable, meticulously neat and mannerly young man, Dan Cody, as Nick observes, was a “pioneer debauchee” (p. 121). Whereas in Alger’s story Jed moves to his ancestral estate and lives happily ever after on an annual bequest of $25,000, Gatsby is cheated of his $25,000 legacy from Cody and, profiting from his “singularly appropriate education” (p. 121), eventually purchases his mansion in the “less fashionable” nouveau riche neighborhood of West Egg, across the bay from the winking green light and Daisy. The Great Gatsby is, in effect, a sequel to that ironic version of Alger.
In this light, too, it is significant that the young protagonist of “Absolution,” the story which Fitzgerald for a time considered publishing as a prologue to Gatsby, owns a library of Alger books. Like Rudolph Miller, James Gatz had been nurtured on a cliched success myth (although the similarity of these two characters should not be exaggerated). In other words, the copy of Hopalong Cassidy in which Gatz set down his version of the Franklinian success-formula must be considered, as Taylor Alderman has suggested, a “Western variant of the Horatio Alger myth.”
Fitzgerald’s final satire of the Alger story, “Forging Ahead” (1929), again borrows the title of an Alger juvenile novel. Alger’s novel describes the parabolic rise of a poor but virtuous sixteen-year-old hero, Andy Gordon, who is designated the heir of his benevolent and old rich uncle and thereby wins his way to Yale College. In Fitzgerald’s parody, sixteen-year-old Basil Duke Lee’s plans to attend Yale the following fall are threatened when his affluent family loses money through speculation. Basil, rather than abandon his plans, decides to work his way through school; the evening his decision is made, he goes to his bedroom bookcase and takes down “half a dozen dusty volumes of Horatio Alger, unopened for years. Then, much as a postwar young man might consult the George Washington Condensed Business Course, he sat at his desk and slowly began to turn the pages of Bound to Rise” (p. 12). Unlike the hero of Bound to Rise, who models himself after Franklin and becomes a reporter and editor of a county newspaper, however, Basil endures the insults of “the doorkeepers, office boys and telephone girls of the Press, the Evening News, the Socialist Gazette and a green scandal sheet called the Courier” who collectively assure him , “that no one wanted a reporter practically seventeen” (p. 12). In other words, Fitzgerald here wrote a parody within a parody. Through a friend Basil does succeed in finding employment in the car shops of the Great Northern Railroad. Unfortunately, as Basil discovers his first morning there, life does not imitate Horatio Alger novels. “The president’s little daughter had not come by, dragged by a runaway horse; not even a superintendent had walked through the yard and singled him out with an approving eye” (p. 12). That afternoon, Basil (“you in the new suit”) is reprimanded by the foreman for sitting as he nailed, and two mornings later he is laid off.
Whereas Andy Gordon in Alger’s original Forging Ahead is aided melodramatically by a rich uncle long out of communication with his family, in Fitzgerald’s satiric “Forging Ahead” Basil as “a last resort” visits his cantankerous great-uncle Benjamin Reilly, who had not spoken for twenty years with his brother, Basil’s grandfather, and receives from him a more dubious form of aid. The owner of the Reilly Wholesale Drug Company hires Basil as the summer companion for his square-chinned daughter. All goes well until his “job” conflicts with his only opportunity of the summer to rendezvous with Erminie Bibble, his dream-girl. He loses his position with the Company when he jilts his cousin, but Basil is compensated for his loss by his mother’s fortuitous sale of family property for four hundred thousand dollars—a plot machination reminiscent of Alger. Still, Fitzgerald has lampooned the sentimental Alger ending. As John Kuehl and Jackson Bryer note, although the story “ends on a happy note with his mother ’solvent’ and Basil ’engaged’ to Minnie, he has been spiritually damaged by his precarious social position.”
Fitzgerald’s several, invariably satiric treatments of Alger during the 1920s are one indication of the increasing popular disaffection with Alger’s fiction, which portrayed a preindustrial, antebellum world grossly dissimilar to the booming postwar world of the “jazz age.” The generation of adults, including Fitzgerald, whose literary tastes had been whetted (and usually dulled) on Alger during the nostalgic first two decades of the century weaned its children from Alger during the 1920s. In 1926, the most prolific publisher of Alger books discontinued its Alger library because of small sales, and by 1932, less than 20 percent of about seven thousand surveyed New York boys recognized Alger’s name and only 14 percent had read even one of his books. Whereas Fitzgerald consistently satirized the Alger stories during the 1920s, in short, he simply ignored them during the Depression decade of the 1930s—or else cautiously evoked their spirit in his description of the unsatirized “boy wonder” Monroe Stahr—apparently because he shared the common belief that Alger’s stories had been rendered so anachronistic by cycles of industrial boom and bust that they no longer served to mold the popular idea of economic success. After the Crash, Alger became essentially a political, rather than economic, symbol for both Left and Right. For example, West parodied Alger in 1934 by transforming him into a symbol of political repression, and in 1947 the American Schools and Colleges Association, Inc. inaugurated the Horatio Alger Awards for business acumen and patriotism. However, Alger’s usefulness to Fitzgerald as a convenient target of satire ended with the Crash, after which the daily newspaper became a more effective satire of the Myth of Success than he could have invented. Even Fitzgerald’s treatment of “the last tycoon” as an oblique, modern Alger hero was not a satire of status-rise but a sympathetic analysis of the political forces which both sustain and defeat him. By 1929, Fitzgerald had paid with interest his juvenile debt to Alger; thereafter, he put away childish things.