From Alger to Drake: America’s Changing “Rags-to-Riches” Narrative

In order to defend inequality in a perceived meritocracy, Americans cling to narratives that reinforce the myths of a “self-made (wo)man” and a person going from “rags to riches.” These myths, which started in 1868 with Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick, seeped into mainstream American pop culture, manifesting in more contemporary works like Drake’s hit song “Started From the Bottom” (2013). While these famous works were released in completely different centuries and contexts, they both describe a similar story of a boy escaping poverty (or a lower strata) through hard work. In Ragged Dick, 14-year old boot black Dick Hunter achieves “middle class respectability” after following the wisdom of Frank Whitney, a man of a higher strata. In the music video for “Started From the Bottom,” Drake is promoted to night manager at a convenience store and is eventually shown in a private jet, flying over his hometown. In both cases, the upward mobility parallels the protagonist's transformation from a boy into a man, attributing a childishness / foolishness to those on the lower economic strata versus a maturity / wisdom to those on a higher strata. While the two visions of upward mobility overlap, they are also largely influenced by their context and culture.

In Frank’s initial interactions with Dick, Frank subtly demonstrates how Dick’s foolish choices prevent him from creating a better life. When Dick reveals that he spends his money “foolish” by gambling “in Baxter Street,” Frank offers him advice to save his money instead of spending it (Alger 50). Although Dick is an honest boy, this conversation reinforces that Dick is a child who has a lack of control / intellect regarding his spending habits and needs to be helped by a wiser, richer person. Their relationship emulates that of a father and son, which is a common byproduct of meritocracy referred to as paternalism (Ormsbee). As Dick begins to implement the advice of Frank by putting his money in a savings’ bank, attending church, learning to read/write, and renting his own lodging — all of which echo the historical shifts of the 1800s — he becomes more fixated on his appearance as a reflection of his newfound “respectability.” He feels ashamed of his old rags, which are an indication of his poverty — a life he has mentally outgrown (Alger 56). This maturity solidifies his transition into a man who no longer spends his money foolishly, refers to himself as ‘Richard’ instead of ‘Ragged Dick’,  and dresses properly. Dick’s success in moving upwards gives him a sense of paternalism as well, encouraging him to take Fosdick, “a younger and weaker boy,” under his wing, paying for his coffee and beef-steak and giving him a place to stay like a parent would (Alger 65). No longer a foolish child, but a wise man, Dick feels obligated to help the next person in need. 

Similarly, Drake’s “Started From the Bottom” song shows a transformation from a hard-working boy to a successful man over two verses. In the first verse, he raps “Livin’ at my momma’s house, we’d argue every month / N*gga, I was tryna get it on my own” which shows how his struggle to achieve fame initially left him dependent on his mother for financial support. However, in the second verse he demonstrates his achieved success, singing “Boys tell stories ‘bout the man,” indicating that those who are striving (boys) look for inspiration in stories of those who’ve made it (the man). This further links the boy-to-man transformation as part of upward mobility. Drake, who at this point in the song is part of that higher strata, recognizes his influence and power, singing “I could turn your boy into the man.” Like Dick, because of his success, Drake can assist others who started in lower strata (like himself) to a life of “the man.” 

Despite the similarities, in Drake’s music video, his vision of success contains a much fancier lifestyle of partying by the beach with attractive women and close friends. While middle class respectability in Ragged Dick is characterized by financial restraint, in the video, Drake engages in excess behavior (drinking, drugs, gold chains, private jets, Bentleys, helicopters, etc.) instead. However, instead of a sense of paternalism, Drake’s success as a rapper gives him a sense of dominance. As he achieves greater fame and wealth, he asserts his power by overtly showing off his material wealth and objectifying women. In one particular scene, Drake is on a jet, drinking champagne with a passed-out woman on the couch (3:05). Similar scenes are littered throughout the video, demonstrating that Drake’s success helped him establish his masculinity. His developed maturity in the video contrasts from his friends, who are portrayed as childish / dumb, hopelessly trying to flirt with a woman at the check-out counter (1:09). This scene comes after Drake is made Night Manager (unlike the other two), elevating his financial status and rewarding his hard work. 

Although Dick was given a strong leg-up by Frank’s family, his drive for success was individually motivated, whereas Drake focuses on elevating his “team,” which can presumably mean his family and friends. He emphasizes this by using “we” instead of “I” in the main verse, rapping “Started from the bottom, now we’re here / Started from the bottom, now my whole team fuckin’ here.” However, apart from close personal relationships, Drake’s song could also be elevating the black community as a whole by showing an image of a successful self-made black man. While this representation does not mitigate the large racial wealth gap or the failure of meritocracy, it convinces people of color to subscribe to the American Dream of upward mobility. Drake’s place in the highest strata, which was initially reserved for white Americans through racist policies, demonstrates progress — a breaking in that ceiling, allowing more people of color to trickle in. 

Drake’s song came out four years after the recession ended, which left a strong fear and distrust in America’s economy and perceived meritocracy. Since then, the wealth gap is still dangerously high, owning a home seems impossible, and upward mobility is essentially out-of-the-question as most folks are barely able to meet their basic needs (Reich). The disintegration of the middle class leaves increasingly only two options: being extremely poor or being extremely rich. 

However, the rise of the Internet and social media revealed a remaining avenue for upward mobility, creating a seemingly democratic platform where anyone could be “discovered.” Although Drake was a television actor before becoming a rapper, many hope that by working hard and consistently posting on platforms like Soundcloud, Youtube, and Instagram, powerful agents will discover their talent and they’ll be able to live a life akin to Drake in his music video. Since hard work in an every-day mundane job is no longer providing enough to make a living, Drake’s song offers hope and motivation in one of the few avenues that is still available to catapult a person to a higher strata: fame. This allows some Americans to sustain faith in the American Dream and continue believing in the rags-to-riches myth despite how impossible it may seem.

The context of Drake’s song is obviously different from 1868, when Ragged Dick was published. During the first half of the 19th century, “self-made” men like Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller “created the most gigantic fortunes” through their own companies, establishing a “clear consensus on the legitimacy of the American Dream of Upward Mobility” (Cullen 70, 72). In fact, the belief in the Dream was so powerful that it blamed “those who did not succeed and for distracting those who might otherwise have sought structural changes by seducing them into thinking they weren’t really necessary” (Cullen 101). This explains why Alger’s book was received with critical acclaim, while a book like that today may be considered insensitive. Even though songs like Drake’s “Started From the Bottom” are popular, the 2008 recession exposed the cracks in the neoliberalist policies that dictated the market, marking a greater call for structural change. Instead of internalizing the problem (like people used to during Alger’s time), many now blame the government for the failure instead. The American Dream is no longer to achieve middle class respectability like Dick, but to instead achieve the level of fame and celebrity success that Drake shows in his video.

While both Alger’s and Drake’s visions of upward mobility are rooted in the same central message that hard work pays off, they manifest in very different ways that are reflective of the culture and context they were made in. While the present dictates how their works are perceived, the characters in each story (Drake and Dick) both share a respect for the past as a reminder of their journeys. In the end, Dick states “I’ll give him some new [box and brush], but mine I want to keep, to remind me of the hard times I’ve had, when I was an ignorant boot-black, and never expected to be anything better” (Alger 115). This echoes Drake’s lyrics in his last verse: “Just as a reminder to myself / I wear every single chain, even when I’m in the house.” This romanticism over the struggle (now called “the hustle”) has stayed consistent over the changing of the American Dream.

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"We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow
sometimes in one dimension, and not in another;
unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are
mature in one realm, childish in another. The past,
present, and future mingle and pull us backward,
forward, or fix us in the present." - Anais Nin