America has always loved rags to riches stories. We still like to see nobodies make good trough pluck or pep or whatever name that special quality goes by anymore. It is ironic that a book often cited as the ‘Great American Novel’ is The Great Gatsby, which is about how Ragged Dick gets rich by being a fraud and sucking up to gangsters only to lose everything because he falls in love with the wrong woman. He did “whatever it takes,” until he couldn’t take it. Reality is not the way it would appear in a Charles Atlas ad in the back of a comic book and such things are not builders of strong character even if they can build great fortunes which can all too easily be lost again.
In 1968 The Moody Blues wrote a tribute song to Timothy Leary, who famously encouraged young people to, “tune in, turn on and drop out.” Lots of them did, and some decided later it would be more fun to make zillions as hedge fund operators. The song questions whether Leary is dead or has moved on to a higher plane. Or it could be set in a future when connecting with oneself and the universe meaningfully has once again been replaced by puerile attempts to, “make it by doing whatever it takes.”
It may be that Horatio Alger’s view of the power of American youth to seize opportunity and win is still a viable myth to drive us. It may also be that this particular version of the hero with one thousand faces can no longer inspire any but those who were completely empty vessels waiting to be filled by whatever ethos comes along. Or, it may be that enough people are sufficiently awake that visions of their own futures can be about what they choose, and not some recycled pabulum, whether it is in the service of late 19th century style robber barons or early 20th century style revolutionaries. Maybe, Horatio Alger is dead and it’s time to bury him.