Ragged Dick, which was released as a full length novel in May 1968, is a coming of age/rags to riches story by Horatio Alger Jr. It follows a poor ‘bootblack’ (shoeshiners) rise to middle class society in 19th Century New York City. The theme within Ragged Dick that I have been exploring is Obedience vs Inventiveness.
Obedience is the compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority. This is exhibited by the character Ragged Dick throughout the novel though his refusal to steal even when he is given multiple opportunities to do so. An example of this is in Chapter One where Mr Greyson trusts Dick to bring his change for his services Greyson’s office. Dick could have taken the change and pocketed it, however he is assumed to have stuck with his morals and delivered the change.
Dick’s refusal to steal is further explored during a conversation with Frank, in Chapter 8, whom asks Dick if he was ever tempted to steal. Dick explains how he has been tempted to steal before, telling the story of how he couldn't trade matches with a baker, but when the baker left the room, Dick had the opportunity to steal a piece of bread. However, he didn't and once the baker retuned, Dick was then hired for an payed errand. This reinforces the idea that through obeying social norms and values an individual can gain from it even if they are in dire circumstances. This would help the United States promote law abiding to its young populace.
Dick however isn't particularly obedient. In chapter 3, he refuses to leave the shop even though the clerk demands he ‘be off, or I’ll have you arrested.” This confrontational behaviour is a strong characteristic of Dick. In chapter 9, Dick and Frank ride on the Third Avenue horsecar, during which they have a confrontation with a lady who believes that Frank, or possibly Dick has stolen her purse. Frank is quick to attempt to resolve the situation, through saying “I’ll turn my pockets inside out if you want me to.” On the other hand, Dick sees the entire exchange as a joke, with statements such as “You’d think I was the biggest villain you ever saw.” Whilst still remaining willing to undergo a search to prove his innocence, the entire exchange is comical to Dick and this would potentially land him in further trouble.
Dick knows what his social standing is, but also how to read situations and demand whats best for himself. Even as a 14 yr old boy, he knows where he stands, not letting others walk all over him.
He does this by not listening or explicitly trusting his elders instead trusting himself. This is used by Alger to create a strong rebellious character that helps youths engage with the story.
Discuss: Why would obedience be a problem for Dick (and others like him) in 19th century New York?
Inventiveness is having the ability to create or design new things or to think originally. Dick’s inventiveness can be seen within the chapter 8 again, as Dick describes how he sold newspapers to Frank. “Well, they didn't always put news enough in their papers, and people wouldn't buy ‘em as fast as I wanted ‘em to. So one mornin’ I was stuck on a lot of Heralds, and I thought I would make a sensation. So I called out ‘GREAT NEWS! QUEEN VICTORIA ASSASSINATED!’ All my Heralds went off like hot cakes.” This shows how Dick is quick witted, with an entrepreneurial mindset. Despite this, Dick describes himself as ashamed following this deception.
Inventiveness is promoted by Alger as a fundamental way of staying ahead of the trend, Dick has multiple ‘careers’ including selling matches, newspapers and most recently in the story, shoe shining. The ideology at work here is that through hard work and determination, it is possible to gain riches even if you were born to rags. This is an example or what is called the ‘Horatio Alger myth’, the embodiment of the classic American success (the rags to riches) story.
During the 1930’s and 40’s (Great Depression and World War II) Alger's works were virtually out of print. He was seen as a a propagandist, “the author who celebrated capitalist markets and insisted that in the United States, any poor boy with patience and an unwavering commitment to hard work can become a dazzling success.” The American population was increasingly disillusioned by this, as there wasn't the opportunity for social mobility, especially since many people lost their wealth at this time. Inventiveness and its relation to staying ahead of the trend was no longer a clear driving force behind the American Dream.
American filmmaker, author, and liberal political commentator Michael Moore is vocal in his opposition to the Horatio Alger myth. In 2003, Moore remarked, "So, here's my question: after fleecing the American public and destroying the American dream for most working people, how is it that, instead of being drawn and quartered and hung at dawn at the city gates, the rich got a big wet kiss from Congress in the form of a record tax break, and no one says a word? How can that be? I think it's because we're still addicted to the Horatio Alger fantasy drug. Despite all the damage and all the evidence to the contrary, the average American still wants to hang on to this belief that maybe, just maybe, he or she (mostly he) just might make it big after all.”
Its clear that the American Dream of a rags to riches story no longer remains particularly inventive in itself. Yet the dream allows for this type of story to thrive.
Dicks obedience or lack thereof to other characters doesn't infringe on his inventiveness. He works around situations where obedience may hinder him (loosing money to the clerk in Chapter 3) and is inventive in his resolution (finding the guy to back up his claims on the money the clerk confiscated.)
Its not a question of Obedience versus Inventiveness, but instead knowing how to work them together to ones own benefit. Dick chooses to listen and be obedient to adults and to some degree other street kids when it suits him, but at the same time he is aware of when not to. Its this understanding of the appropriate time to engage in both which allows Dick to stay ahead of the game and ultimately gain social mobility, in true rags to riches fashion.