Our students are currently registering for spring semester courses and I’m feeling a little out of sorts about the fact that Cyrus and I aren’t offering Writing New York this year. It’s only the second time since 2003 that we will take the year off from WNY, this time due to the fact that Cyrus is teaching in Abu Dhabi. What will happen in spring 2013 and beyond is still a little up in the air, but for now we soldier on with #vWNY, our virtual version of the course, spread over two semesters here on the blog.
Our model, for those who may just be joining us, is to post something that approximates what we might have posted as a follow-up or complement to our lecture for a given today. Today’s reading assignment is Horatio Alger’s 1868 novel Ragged Dick, which over the years I’ve taken to reading as the antithesis of Melville’s “Bartleby.” If that story has been taken up by Occupy Wall Street as either a prototype for the sit-in or as an illustration of the crushing effects of the one percent’s blindness to the social conditions of actual workers, Ragged Dick is a book about a humble, initially homeless bootblack’s aspirations to join the 1% through a combination of pluck and luck. He does make it, of course, if not to excessive wealth then at least to business-class respectability, and in doing so lays the cornerstone of American Dream ideology that continues to support people who somehow think that the 1% are “job creators” who will somehow allow the worthy hard workers of the world into their elitist circles and so should be exempt from paying their fair share of taxes. Um, okay.
Actually, the way I’ve always taught Ragged Dick has to do with what I see as its inadvertent revelation of exactly how corporate capitalism works. In this I’ve been heavily influenced by two important readings of the novel, one by Michael Moon (Emory University) and the other by Glenn Hendler (Fordham University). Both essays are included in the recent Norton Critical Edition of the novel, edited by Hildegard Hoeller (College of Staten Island), which we will adopt as our official edition once we resume teaching this course in the flesh. In the meantime, we recommend it to you.
Here’s the upshot of the argument I make in lecture, drawing on Moon’s gendered analysis of the nature of corporate capitalism and Hendler’s understanding of how the genre of the “boy book” worked in the nineteenth century, when Alger’s novels, like Twain’s, caused some amount of controversy for their celebration of rough-and-tumble boy culture. In Alger’s novel, of course, Dick cleans up. He stops wasting his money on childish things or working-class leisure activities. He puts aside money and buys a home. He charms older men and takes on younger boys as wards (and housemates). He has a keen eye for opportunity —
I’ve always loved how the paragon of bootstrapping rags-to-riches was chased out of Boston for sanduskying his choir boys. Another grand moralist: he should have run as a Republican.