‘Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks’ is the first instalment in a series of children’s novels written by Horatio Alger Jr. and published in full length in the year 1868. It is a typical ‘rags to riches’ novel that focuses on the life of Richard Hunter and his rise from the streets in New York.
In the first line of ‘Ragged Dick’, “Wake up there, youngster”, it is established that the main character of the novel is a youth. Ragged Dick is a fourteen-year-old boy living on the streets at the beginning of the novel. That by no means makes him any less experienced in the world. If anything, spending his youth on the streets has made him more experienced than many adults. The never knowing where you will sleep that night or if you will have made enough money to eat are just two things that the majority of adults in this book will not have experienced in their lifetimes, but our protagonist has. In my opinion these hardships have made Ragged Dick more experienced in life despite his youth.
Experience does not necessarily mean older as youth doesn’t always mean naïve. There are many instances throughout Ragged Dick where we learn that despite his young age the protagonist is very knowledgeable in the world. Not necessarily intellectually, which he soon becomes as we see in the book, but in the way things work. He shows his knowledge in the way he overcomes day to day situations. How he outsmarts a con man. How he handles an aggressive fellow youth. How he turns his meagre earnings into savings with enough put aside to live on. Many of these things an adult would struggle to accomplish unlike Dick and his friend Fosdick who take it in stride.
There are a couple characters who fit the stereotypical characteristics some think go hand in hand with being a youth. There’s Johnny Nolan who is lazy and unambitious. There’s Micky Maguire who is reckless and a troublemaker. Both of these boys are complete opposites to Ragged Dick and Henry Fosdick and yet in their own ways encompass both youth and experience. Johnny Nolan has experienced first-hand the terror of alcoholism and domestic abuse while Micky Maguire’s fought his way to become a gang leader and spent time in jail. Neither of those things could be considered anything less than a life experience.
The majority of youth in the world today have a much more sheltered upbringing than the characters in ‘Ragged Dick’ as they are rarely left to fend for themselves on the street which is fortunate. The circumstances back then forced the youth to mature quickly so in consequence they had their childhood stolen from them. Because of this I feel youth and experience in this novel has merged into one entity.
First question: Do you agree that Alger merged the lines between youth and experience?
The adult characters in ‘Ragged Dick’ are mostly kept to the background throughout the novel bar a select few. Mr Greyson is the first adult we are introduced to and his banter with Ragged Dick makes his character enjoyable. His taking a chance on Ragged Dick returning his change shows that not all adults in this time period were completely untrusting of street youths and saw potential in them. This is confirmed in the discussion held between Ragged Dick and Mr Greyson later in chapter 15 where Mr Greyson tells Dick “I shall hope good things for your future.”. Another adult character that reaches out to Dick in the hope to help him better himself is Mr Whitney who goes so far as to invest in him by giving him five dollars. These characters see Dick’s potential to be great despite his young age and with their encouraging words Dick is inspired to make a better life for himself.
Overall I find that youth and experience in ‘Ragged Dick’ is one and the same so can’t be placed into two different categories. The youths’ experiences in life can’t be belittled to what the adults have gone through and therefore are one and the same. ‘Ragged Dick’ is a shining example of how our experiences in youth build us into what we become when we are adults. A poor upbringing can make us charitable. Cruelty from others can make us into caring individuals who take into account the feelings of whoever we meet.
Question two: Would you say that experiences in youth help to develop our future character?