Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Horatio Alger, Redux" by Ed Dooley

The spirit of Horatio Alger is alive and well and living in Scotland. Its persona, this time, is female, and it has a name: Susan Boyle.

There may be some people who have not heard of Boyle, but that is becoming increasingly hard to imagine. She is the 47 year old rather frumpy, obscure woman from a Scottish village who on Saturday the 11th of April astonished the judges and audience of the television program Britain’s Got Talent with her singing. Her performance on Internet site YouTube has been watched more than 100 million times, nearing an all-time record.

Is this phenomenon, as so many have suggested, merely an emotional response to the hard times the world is going through? Is she a symbol of the good and the true triumphing over insurmountable odds? Do we like her because she makes us “feel good” about ourselves? Based on the thousands of warm responses to her performance, the answer to these questions is “yes.”

But I think much more is going on here, something that touches on a theme deep in our culture. The hugely popular early nineteenth century American author Horatio Alger filled his books with stories of humble people who, by hard work, virtue, and strength of character rose to prominence and success. Like Alger, Victorian writers in Britain praised good work, honestly done, and strength of character. Although these authors are not much read these days, the dream of “rags to riches” continues to ring true to us and is reflected in Susan Boyle’s own story: wholesomeness, morality, strength in the face of adversity, determination, perseverance, and an unflagging pursuit of a dream. It surely can be no accident that Boyle chose to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from the musical “Les Miserables” at her appearance on Britain’s Got Talent.

On another level, Susan Boyle’s story is a modern fairy tale, a version of an age-old tradition in poetry, literature, and ballad: an unprepossessing individual who blossoms into someone very special. Homer, we are told, was ugly and blind but became the great epic poet of Greece. Cinderella was translated from kitchen maid to beautiful princess. “The Ugly Duckling,” a character made part of our literature in 1843 by the Danish poet Hans Christian Andersen, was shunned by other animals because of his ungainly form but matured into a beautiful swan. Boyle’s story is that of “the ugly duckling.” Her plain appearance led judges and the audience to expect nothing much from her. On stage, her hairdo was forlorn and her dress unbecoming. She modestly said that she “had never been kissed.” But as soon as she began her song, the “ugly duckling” became a beautiful singing bird.

Susan Boyle comes along at just the right time when, in the Western world especially, there is a graying of the population. At a relatively late age, she is living out her dream and achieving widespread popularity. She has become an inspiration to legions of older individuals who feared that “it might be too late in life” for them.

The Susan Boyle phenomenon has taken us by storm. Her fame may be temporary, but it touches on themes found deep in our psyche and has been there for hundreds of years, in good times and bad.

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