One of the most prolific and popular American authors of his time, Horatio Alger Jr (1832-1899) is widely credited with inventing and perfecting the “rags-to-riches” scenario which, to this day, continues to loom large in the American collective imagination. In his typical tale, best exemplified by the enormously successful, much imitated and parodied Ragged Dick (1868), a street boy overcomes adversity and rises out of poverty by virtue of his determination and spunk. In 1872 Alger published the novel Phil the Fiddler: The Story of a Young Street-Musician in which the hero of the title is an Italian boy of twelve (“Phil” being the Americanization of “Filippo”). Much like an investigating reporter, Alger collected information about young Italian street performers in New York City from two prominent members of the Italian American community: A. E. Cerqua, superintendent of the Italian School in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City, and G. F. Secchi De Casali, editor of the Italian-language newspaper Eco d’Italia. Alger’s aim was to combine his successful plot formula with an exposé of the notorious padrone system, in which Italian immigrant children were cruelly exploited by the adults who, in theory, were bound by contract to train them as musicians and provide for them. This paper will examine Alger’s portrayal of the Italian characters in Phil the Fiddler and, more generally, his treatment of multi-ethnic New York City, less than a decade before the beginning of the great wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe. The paper will focus, in particular, on Alger’s characterization of Phil as an Italian boy who, unlike most of his fellow countrymen, possesses those qualities—self-reliance, courage, and an enterprising spirit—that render him an ideal candidate for assimilation into American society.

Playing the American Tune: Ethnic and Cultural Identity in Horatio Alger Jr’s Phil the Fiddler

BUONOMO, LEONARDO
2018

Abstract

One of the most prolific and popular American authors of his time, Horatio Alger Jr (1832-1899) is widely credited with inventing and perfecting the “rags-to-riches” scenario which, to this day, continues to loom large in the American collective imagination. In his typical tale, best exemplified by the enormously successful, much imitated and parodied Ragged Dick (1868), a street boy overcomes adversity and rises out of poverty by virtue of his determination and spunk. In 1872 Alger published the novel Phil the Fiddler: The Story of a Young Street-Musician in which the hero of the title is an Italian boy of twelve (“Phil” being the Americanization of “Filippo”). Much like an investigating reporter, Alger collected information about young Italian street performers in New York City from two prominent members of the Italian American community: A. E. Cerqua, superintendent of the Italian School in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City, and G. F. Secchi De Casali, editor of the Italian-language newspaper Eco d’Italia. Alger’s aim was to combine his successful plot formula with an exposé of the notorious padrone system, in which Italian immigrant children were cruelly exploited by the adults who, in theory, were bound by contract to train them as musicians and provide for them. This paper will examine Alger’s portrayal of the Italian characters in Phil the Fiddler and, more generally, his treatment of multi-ethnic New York City, less than a decade before the beginning of the great wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe. The paper will focus, in particular, on Alger’s characterization of Phil as an Italian boy who, unlike most of his fellow countrymen, possesses those qualities—self-reliance, courage, and an enterprising spirit—that render him an ideal candidate for assimilation into American society.
978-1-59954-116-5
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