No, this is not the title of a Tom of Finland coffee table art book, but the book that Nucky Thompson toted around in “Boardwalk Empire.” Nucky never understood that the rags to riches story made famous by Horatio Alger had a back story of hard work and honesty and perseverance. Oh well, poor Nucky. Poor Alger for that matter, since if Nucky knew Horatio Alger’s back story, he would have dropped the book and ran–and maybe even gotten the Tom of Finland joke above.
But I digress.
Why discuss a very poorly written book published 150 years ago, and which forms the foundation of so many self-serving Conservative fantasies? (Alger was no better a writer than Ayn Rand but he was, mercifully, brief.) Because “Ragged Dick” is a minor marvel of New York City history. Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist” was a boring masterpiece of detail. Carr did not describe a fin de siecle New York City — he recreated it. You could not read Carr’s descriptions of Delmonico’s restaurant without wishing you were there, with Teddy Roosevelt, eating oysters and horseradish; you could not read about the slums without smelling the toilet at the end of the hall.
Alger’s book (there are only so many times I can repeat the book’s title without laughing like a twelve-year old), by contrast, is no less descriptive and far more authentic for having been written around 1865.
In Alger’s book, we meet bootblacks and swells, businessmen and clerks, the people drink 5 cent coffee and eat 15 cent beefsteak. They buy a suit of clothes for three dollars,take a stroll down Broadway, and go shopping on Fulton Street. The streets are alive with people, horses and carriages. Central Park is being built, and the theaters were all north of Canal Street.
“Ragged Dick” (damn, I said it), is a short work of literature but a grand tour of New York City history in the time of Lincoln.