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Ragged Dick

In response to:

The "Truth" of Mark Twain from the January 20, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

We Alger fans appreciate Miss Ellen Moers’s statements that Ragged Dick is “a much misrepresented work” (Jan. 20), but she does not help matters by representing it as a story of “country-exiled New York newsboys.” The titular Poor Richard is a shoe-shine boy turned clerk who never—according to my recollection—leaves the city limits.

John Seelye

University of California, Davis

Ellen Moers replies:

I did not say that Ragged Dick was a story of country-exiled New York newsboys, which of course it is not. I did point out a resemblance between the Alger boys’ homesickness for street life and that of Huck Finn. Mr. Seelye should reread Chapter II of Ragged Dick, largely a dialogue between Dick and his friend Johnny Nolan (“a boy of fourteen, who was engaged in the same profession as Ragged Dick”) about life on a farm from which Johnny has just run away, back to the New York streets. With characteristic verve, Dick seconds Johnny’s preference for the city: “I dunno as I’d like to live in the country. I couldn’t go to Tony Pastor’s or the Old Bowery. There wouldn’t be no place to spend my evenings. But I say, it’s tough in winter, Johnny, ‘specially when our overcoat’s at the tailor’s, an’ likely to stay there.”

Alger comments: “it is often the case that the young vagabond of the streets, though his food is uncertain, and his bed may be any old wagon or barrel…gets so attached to his precarious but independent mode of life, that he feels discontented in any other. He is accustomed to the noise and bustle and ever-varied life of the streets, and in the quiet scenes of the country misses the excitement in the midst of which he has always dwelt.”

Shades of Huck Finn? Johnny Nolan went off to the country in the first place to escape the brutality of his drunken father.

Mr. Seelye is right, though, to reprimand me for one bit of sloppiness: the boys in Ragged Dick are bootblacks, not newsboys.

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