ALWAYS WITH YOU
Only fools laugh at Horatio Alger, and his poor boys
who make good. The wiser man who thinks twice about
that sterling author will realize that Alger is to America
what Homer was to the Greeks.
—Nathanael West and Boris Ingster (1940)
MYTH WORKS ITS MAGIC THROUGH ENDLESS repetition. It tells the same story over and over; the story is renewed and updated with new characters and new situations, so it appears different, but it is actually the same story solving an ever recurring conflict. The Western provides one important mythical source for expressing the American belief system. The tales for young boys written by Horatio Alger in the late nineteenth century are another source. He created a formulaic pattern that functions like a mantra, an aphorism of the American way, to give us a set of easily recognizable heroes: “impoverished boys who through hard work and virtue achieve great wealth and respect” (American Heritage Dictionary 1992, 45).
The appeal of Alger’s stories stems from a fundamental conflict in the American experience. Our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, confesses as a self-evident truth that all men are created equal. Even though the U.S. Constitution never mentions equality, its prominence in the Declaration has implanted a commitment to equality in our national psyche. By moving this notion to the center in his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln reinvented the nation: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on