This month I’m writing about two of Horatio Alger’s novels: Bound to Rise (1873), and Risen From the Ranks (1874). Both tell us about Harry Walton, the oldest son of a farmer struggling to support his family on ten acres of poor land. Bound to Rise begins when the family cow dies, and the father makes an unfortunate deal with his wealthiest neighbor, Squire Green. He purchases a $40 cow on credit, and if he can’t pay the entire amount – plus interest – in six months, the squire will not only take back the cow, but charge a ten dollar penalty.
Though fourteen-year-old Harry often misses school due to farm work he knows the importance of a good education. His teacher promised to award a book to the best student, and after the final examinations Harry is given a book on the life of Benjamin Franklin. He begins reading, and learns that Franklin had been a poor boy, but “through industry, frugality, perseverance, and a fixed determination to rise in life, he became a distinguished man in the end”.
Harry is determined to earn the money to pay for the new cow, and gains permission to leave home and seek his fortune. Though he would have preferred to take after Benjamin Franklin and work in a print shop, he was hired by a shoemaker, who trains him to peg shoes. (I’m guessing that means he attached soles to the shoes by means of pounding in pegs.)
He earned three dollars and week, plus his room and board, and made good progress on saving up for the cow payment, even after splurging on a few weeks of evening classes, in order to improve his education.
But, alas, one day he lost his wallet, and a cad by the name of Luke Harrison found it, and used part of the money to pay what he owed to a tailor. Fortunately Harry had already told the tailor about his loss, and how he had spilled some ink on one of the bills. When Luke brought in his payment the inky bill was amongst the money. Luke returned part of what Harry had lost, then he quit his job and skipped town.
Harry was sure he could still save up the needed cow payment, but then there was a glut on the shoe market, which meant no further work for a month or more. The next day Harry saw handbills advertising a show by Professor Henderson, the celebrated magician. Despite his economic woes Harry decided to pay 25 cents to see the entertainment and, boy, was that a good decision.
The professor’s assistant had left, and one glance at Harry Walton showed he was honest, so he was hired for five dollars a week, plus traveling expenses. Duties included selling tickets and setting up the equipment needed for the show. At one of the towns they stopped at Harry was asked to go to a newspaper / print shop and order a new supply of handbills. He entered the office of the Centreville Gazette, told the editor about his interest in Benjamin Franklin, and was offered a job as a printer’s apprentice starting in April, which was when the professor ended his touring for the year. Harry readily accepted.
Professor Henderson took sick and told Harry to travel to the next town to cancel his upcoming show. Harry did as he was told, but it was dark when he was returning, and he got lost. A man offered to show him the way, but instead led him down a side road, and robbed him. The thief also took Harry’s coat, and left his raggedy one as a replacement.
If you have to be robbed, make sure it’s by a stupid thief. The old coat had a wallet in the pocket which contained more than what had been stolen from Harry. The youth was able to get back home right before Squire Green came by to collect what was owed him. The cow was paid for, Harry gave his mother money to spend on his siblings and herself, and he informed his family that he planned to follow the example of his hero, Benjamin Franklin, and go to work in a print shop. And so ends Bound to Rise.
At the beginning of Risen From the Ranks Professor Henderson asks now-sixteen-year-old Harry Walton to reconsider resigning from his magician’s assistant career. (I have no idea how Harry aged two years during the six-month cow payment time span.) But the young man is determined to learn the printing trade, and had agreed to work the first month just for his room and board, and then earn two dollars a week plus room and board during the following six months.
When Harry arrived at the Centreville Gazette the editor, Mr. Anderson, provides him with a bedroom at his house. Though the room was small, and up in the attic, it was “scrupulously clean,” and you can’t get better than that.
Harry liked his new employer, plus the eldest journeyman printer, Mr. Ferguson, but didn’t like the younger journeyman, John Clapp. That sallow young man not only smoked, but he spent his evenings hanging out in a barroom with his friend, Luke Harrison – the cad who’d refused to return all of the money when he found Harry’s wallet. Those two were the book’s main bad examples and – spoiler alert – when they teamed up with a con-man who ended up conning them no one shed any tears over their misfortune.
Harry met a student by the name of Oscar Vincent, who attended the local Prescott Academy. Oscar offered to teach French to Harry, plus loan him books to read, so our hero was able to further his education. Getting an education even if a young person needs to work is the main “moral of the story” in these books.
Soon Harry had an established routine of working in the newspaper print shop by day, and then spending his nights either studying in his room, or visiting with Oscar. On occasion his coworker, Mr. Ferguson, invited him to have supper with his family. Mr. Ferguson believed in saving money, though he did subscribe to a weekly literary newspaper so that his family could have quality reading material. He offered to lend Harry some of the back issues.
Harry was so inspired by the paper that he began writing essays and sending them the editor, and after a few rejections his essay on Ambition was published under the pen name of Franklin, in honor of that famous printer he admired. Over time Harry had other small pieces published, and some were reprinted in other papers, including the Centreville Gazette.
Mr. Ferguson’s ambition was to save up enough money to purchase a small-town newspaper and become both a printer and publisher. Harry began to dream of someday becoming a newspaper editor, though he knew it would be many years before he could obtain that lofty goal. Normally it would take at least a decade to become an editor, but fortunately for Harry Walton, he was the hero of a Horatio Alger novel.
After Harry had worked in the print shop for three years, and had reached the age of nineteen, Mr. Anderson became ill and was invited to go out of state and visit his brother. Arrangements were made for Harry and Mr. Ferguson to temporarily run the Centreville Gazette on their own, for John Clapp had left without notice to pursue a get-rich-quick scheme.
Harry took on the duties of editor, and though this was in addition to his work as a printer, he put in long hours improving the quality of the newspaper’s content, and there was an increase in the number of subscribers.
Mr. Anderson received an offer to become a partner in a printing business near his brother’s home, and he planned to accept the offer if he could find someone to purchase his newspaper for two thousand dollars cash. (Alas, he couldn’t wait around to accept payments.)
The asking price was a great bargain, and Harry and Mr. Ferguson wanted to become partners in the deal, but their combined savings was not enough, and every local person who might loan them money had just invested their excess funds in other ventures.
Were the two friends doomed to turn down a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? If only a traveling magician would stop by, hoping that his former assistant would give him some free publicity in the newspaper he worked at. Professor Henderson made a good income, and might be willing to help out …
The two novels about young Harry Walton were an entertaining read, and while many of the events were unlikely to have happened in the real world, nothing was completely impossible.
Plus, it was a fascinating reminder that running a weekly rural newspaper had once been a profitable endeavor. It’s hard to believe it these days, but for most of our country’s history reading was the major way that people learned about what was happening in the world.
Bound to Rise can be downloaded free of charge at:
Risen From the Ranks can be downloaded free of charge at: