A graduate of Harvard College and member of Phi Beta Kappa, Alger became a journalist and teacher before returning to Harvard to attend its Divinity School. Publishing occasional poems, tales, and novels, his full-time minister job was in Brewster, Massachusetts, in the center of Cape Cod. About two years later, in 1866, Alger was forced to resign. It was later revealed that the parish found his relationship with some of the boys in the congregation was a "gross immorality." He moved to New York to start anew.
No further accusations were ever made against Alger, but his writing began to follow a very specific pattern. The first was his 1867 novel Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks. In Alger's fiction, the main character, always a boy, rises from poverty through hard work and moral behavior (though, in reality, few of his characters became supremely wealthy, they were financially comfortable). By the end of the 19th century, he had written over 100 novels following this theme. Some scholars today suggest his prolific yet formulaic output was to make up for his prior misdeeds.
The first physical description of the shoe-shining Ragged Dick gives an idea not only of his look, but his cleverness:
His pants were torn in several places, and had apparently belonged in the first instance to a boy two sizes larger than himself. He wore a vest, all the buttons of which were gone except two, out of which peeped a shirt which looked as if it had been worn a month. To complete his costume he wore a coat too long for him, dating back, if one might judge from its general appearance, to a remote antiquity.
Washing the face and hands is usually considered proper in commencing the day, but Dick was above such refinement. He had no particular dislike to dirt, and did not think it necessary to remove several dark streaks on his face and hands. But in spite of his dirt and rags there was something about Dick that was attractive. It was easy to see that if he had been clean and well dressed he would have been decidedly good-looking. Some of his companions were sly, and their faces inspired distrust; but Dick had a frank, straight-forward manner that made him a favorite.
Dick's business hours had commenced. He had no office to open. His little blacking-box was ready for use, and he looked sharply in the faces of all who passed, addressing each with, "Shine yer boots, sir?"
"How much?" asked a gentleman on his way to his office.
"Ten cents," said Dick, dropping his box, and sinking upon his knees on the sidewalk, nourishing his brush with the air of one skilled in his profession
"Ten cents! Isn't that a little steep?"
"Well, you know 'taint all clear profit," said Dick, who had already set to work. "There's the slacking costs something, and I have to get a new brush pretty often."
"And you have a large rent too," said the gentleman quizzically, with a glance at a large hole in Dick's coat.
"Yes, sir," said Dick, always ready to joke...
"What tailor do you patronize?" asked the gentleman, surveying Dick's attire.
"Would you like to go to the same one?" asked Dick, shrewdly.
"Well, no; it strikes me that he didn't give you a very good fit."