Surely we've all heard the phrase "Horatio Alger story" at one time or another. Horatio Alger, Jr. was one of the bestselling authors of the nineteenth century, with estimates on the number of books he has sold conservatively placed between 100 and 250 million. He wrote and published some eight hundred works (short stories, essays, adult fiction) but is best remembered for the one hundred volumes of juvenile literature he penned between 1868 and 1899, the classic "rags-to-riches" stories.
Born to a New England Unitarian minister in 1832, Horatio Alger was frail, asthmatic, nearsighted and never grew larger than 120 lbs. and just over five feet tall. He was, however, a great student, graduating eighth in his class at Harvard, and tutored schoolchildren for much of his life. These aspects of his life perhaps explain the heavily pedogagical bent of his fiction.
The formula for these books was conceived of in 1868, when Alger published Ragged Dick: a young boy, typically between the ages of 12 and 18, starts out poor -- in Dick's case, selling papers on the street. He acquires the urge to "better" himself (typically through learning and reading) and faces several trials and tribulations, all of which he overcomes through hard work, loyalty and impeccable good character.
By the time Philip Brent appeared in The Errand Boy, the formula was all but set in stone. The hero comes from the country; he sets out for a larger city or town (frequently but not neceessarily New York); a boy his age who represents all the values he opposes (sloth, dishonesty, etc.) sets out to sabotage his efforts; the hero is usually made the victim of a confidence trickster (sometimes more than once), but through impeccable good character and sheer, blind luck, the hero wins the day. By this stage in Alger's fiction, the hero's good fortune often befell him not on direct account of his own actions but simply because Alger, like a merciful deity, felt the poor kid deserved a break.
Alger's output ceased with his death in 1899 (several of his novels were completed by the young future syndicator Edward Stratemeyer, better known for publishing the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series of books), but his popularity continued and it was between 1900 and 1920 that most of his incredible number of books was sold (mostly unauthorized editions). Oddly, however, no Alger novel has ever been made into a movie, despite the myth he created that is still inextricably connected to the "land of opportunity."