- Reviewed by
"The lousiest people born into the world are writers. Language is all right. It's the people who use language that are lousy." This pronouncement from a character in William Saroyan's most famous work, the 1939 play The Time of Your Life, begins to define a basic conflict that every literary biographer must understand. In a letter to her publisher, Pearl Buck once tried from an individual author's point of view to resolve this conflict: "I would like to be known not for myself but for my books. The Chinese are very sensible about this; they take the artist as important only because of his art and are not interested in the personality of the artist." These three American literary biographies, however, do focus upon the personalities of their subjects, not primarily upon their subjects' works. And this emphasis is perhaps appropriate, for Alger, Buck, and Saroyan were all popular, prolific, relatively minor writers (Buck's 1936 Nobel Prize notwithstanding) who, in their private lives, were sometimes "lousier" than their typically cheerful and charitable literary personae suggested.
The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr. contains admirable scholarship. It attempts to "set straight the record" about a late nineteenth-century author whose previous biographical treatment is redolent of that which Rufus Griswold afforded Poe. Here Gary Scharnhorst painstakingly retrieves and presents the facts, and he also exposes the multiple trails of confusion and deceit left by those biographers who preceded him. In 1928, Herbert R. Mayes pretended to tell Alger's life story, but now even Mayes admits that most of his work was fabrication. More recently, four other writers—Frank Gruber (1961), John Tebbel (1963), Ralph D. Gardner (1964), and Edwin P. Hoyt (1974)—have published biographies of Alger, and each has distorted the truth about this celebrated author of novels for boys. According to Scharnhorst, "It is difficult to leaf through any of these biographies without wincing. Readers of all five may never trust a biographer again."
As a biography, Lost Life seems sketchy and brief; the good materials that Scharnhorst and his research collaborator have discovered are unfortunately not quite ample enough to permit their drawing a truly substantial portrait. But because this work tells a double detective story, the book is still fascinating. Despite the fact that Scharnhorst has wisely relegated the details of his own heroic efforts to the endnotes, the palpable tension between this latest biographer and his predecessors is essentially as significant and entertaining as the conflicts that lived within Alger.
Although Scharnhorst is not the first to reveal Alger's homosexuality, he skillfully uses the narrative structure of his biography to highlight the importance of the author's great "secret." Lost Life opens with a brief account of how Alger, a young minister, was dismissed from his pulpit for sexually abusing boys in his congregation; the book then shows how the concealment of this event led to an expansion of Alger's literary career and, apparently, to a self-enforced sexual abstinence for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, the biographer's juxtapositioning of this story with his subsequent relating of the more familiar literary success creates [End Page 727] abundant irony. Alger legally adopted two boys, whom he used—with many others living in the orphanages he helped to support—as models for his fictional juveniles. He explained, "I have a natural liking for boys, which has made it easy for me to win their confidence and become intimately acquainted with them."
Scharnhorst obviously admires Horatio Alger, but the biographer is a clear-eyed critic. He makes no inflated claims about literary worth. Ragged Dick, the best novel, came early in what Scharnhorst calls "Alger's dismal career," and the many novels that followed merely repeated "the same stale formula." Alger never realized his desperate ambition to write for adults, and...