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Battle of the Classics: Moby Dick vs. Ragged Dick

September 13, 2015
Everybody knows what Moby Dick looks like, so... here's Ragged! (image via wikimedia)

Everybody knows what Moby Dick looks like, so… here’s Ragged! (image via wikimedia)

It’s probably not fair to classic literature that word meanings change over time. Nobody laughed when Moby Dick by Herman Melville or Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger, Jr. came out.  I mean, I wasn’t around back then, but I’m pretty sure people didn’t laugh.

It’s not that people were more sophisticated in the 1800s.  It’s just that Dick was only a name back then.  I’m also pretty sure if “dick” had meant back then what it means right now, people would have laughed.   Nowadays, if you want your book to be taken seriously, you don’t put “Dick” in the title.

I’m not the kind of guy who compares Dicks very often, but I’ll do it for the sake of literature.  Moby Dick was published in 1851 and was supposedly a commercial failure when it came out.  Ragged Dick was published in 1868 and was a bestseller.  Moby Dick is a whale, so he’s a lot bigger than Ragged, who was just a kid.  Moby is injured at the end of his book (It’s not a SPOILER if the book has been around for over 150 years).  Ragged Dick thrives at the end of his book and is a success story.  Because of his good deeds in the book, Ragged Dick attracts a lot of attention.  Because he’s so big in the book, Moby Dick attracts a lot of attention.

As far as literary reputation goes, Moby Dick wins.  Everybody knows who/what Moby Dick is.  Even people who don’t read know about Moby Dick.  Nowadays, hardly anybody knows about Ragged Dick, and that’s too bad because Ragged is an American success story, and the world can always use more American success stories.

Most people today have never even heard of Ragged Dick.  I have no real evidence of that except my own experiences.  Maybe I’m the only person in the United States who has friends and acquaintances who have never heard of Ragged Dick.  Whenever I mention Ragged Dick, my friends and acquaintances think I’m making it up.  For a few days, I even walked around with a copy of Ragged Dick just to prove to everybody that I wasn’t making it up.  I don’t know why people thought I was lying.  I’m not the kind of person who makes up fake book titles with the name Dick in them.

Maybe it’s immature to laugh at “dick,” but it’s that immaturity which still makes Moby Dick relevant.  The only reason everybody knows the title Moby Dick is because of the name Dick.  If Moby Dick had been titled Moby Bruce or Moby James or Moby Bob, the average person wouldn’t know about it.  Sure, the intellectuals and scholars would still read Moby Dick and talk about the deep themes and rich symbolism, but it would be the equivalent of Anna Karenina to the average non-book reader.

Anna who?

Moby what?

Ragged Dick’s advantage over Moby Dick is that Ragged Dick has six books in his series.  If you’re going to write a series about a guy named Dick, six is the right number.  Six is average.  Any more than six, and the author is probably exaggerating.  Moby Dick is only one book.  Maybe Moby Dick can brag that it’s so great that it needs only one book.

Ragged Dick was even turned into a musical, but most people don’t know about that either.  Unfortunately, the musical was called Shine, completely ignoring the most noteworthy part of the book.  If screenwriters truly wanted this project to succeed, they would have kept Dick in the title.  Even if nobody wanted to see Ragged Dick: the Musical, they would at least talk about the title.  Whenever Moby Dick is turned into a musical, it’s always called Moby Dick.

More Americans should know about Ragged Dick.  It’s a travesty that Ragged Dick has been forgotten by the masses.  After all, the character Ragged Dick WAS one of the masses and pulled himself up (with lots of help).  He should be an inspiration.  Everybody should aspire to be a Ragged Dick.  If not, we can at least laugh at the title.

*****

What do you think?  Does Ragged Dick get the attention it deserves?  Is Moby Dick overrated?  What other old book titles get mocked today?

*****

Here are two other books that have almost nothing in common, except that I wrote them.

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11 Comments
  1. It’s a literary showdown! Although, I’m not quite sure who won…

    I had not heard, previous to your post, of Ragged Dick, which sounds like it should be a parody of something. I’m intrigued. How is the writing style? Do you think it loses some attention b/c it’s difficult to top Death of a Salesman and The Great Gatsby when you’re looking at depictions of the American Dream?

    Should everyone read it? And, if so, why?

    • I’d maybe recommend reading part of Ragged Dick just to see what it’s like, but I don’t know if it’s compelling enough to read the whole thing. It’s not quite Upton Sinclair.

  2. This was really funny. I enjoyed your excerpt as well.

    • Thank you. I thought this was an important literary comparison to make, and I’m surprised these two books aren’t compared more often.

      • Me too. You wouldn’t believe how angry girls become when I ask whether they like ragged dick. Bring up Moby Dick, and they’re suddenly happy to know I’m a fan of classic literature. There’s a certain stigma attached to Horatio Alger Jr, I guess.

        • Well… if you’re going to ask that question (and I probably would never do it myself), make sure you’re holding a copy of the book with you and look very very sincere.

          • You’re right. I’m going to bring it everywhere with me. Pretty soon I’ll be known as that guy with Ragged Dick.

  3. I read “Ragged Dick” as an American Studies graduate student. Also “Moby-Dick.” I remember Ragged as a much peppier read and that the title character had more personality than and appeared earlier in the narrative than Moby. The professor asked what the class thought of “Moby,” and got only mumbled answers. We’d had a week to read the whole thing and weren’t coherent. He went on for about ten minutes about why he thought it was one of the greatest works of world fiction and the best of American fiction. There was a pause. Someone raised his hand and asked, “Then couldn’t we have had two weeks to read it?” That was pretty much it for the hour.

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