Rags to riches. Rags to riches. Rags to riches. A blockbuster presenting its version of the American Dream hits theatres every week in today’s day and age. It’s importance in maintaining the “free world’s” image of equal opportunity, prosperity through hard work, self-reliance and a hint of good luck is simply the continuous recycling of an idea that has shaped the values of an entire nation for hundreds of years. In short, it’s a constant remake. The Americanized rags to riches literary formula first appeared in Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick and has since been referred to as the Alger myth. Published in 1868, Ragged Dick is the story of an orphaned bootblack living in New York who rises to respectability and obtains financial success by his pluck and some extraordinary luck. Many books or films have incorporated the seeking of the American Dream into their main themes; for example, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Chaplin’s The Gold Rush capture this American ideal and offer commentaries on its apparent elusiveness or the corruption found therein. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, however, is the cinematic reimagining of Ragged Dick as an immigrant boy who travels from Sicily to the Western world and becomes the head of organized crime in New York City. Coppola’s film incorporates two distinct narratives that interweave the rise of Mafia Don Vito Corleone, beginning in 1901, and the slow decline of his son’s reign, Michael Corleone, set in 1958. Catherine S. Ramirez claims that “in the tradition of Horatio Alger, […] Vito Corleone overcomes adversity and is rewarded with wealth and power, […] [rising] from humble immigrant roots to make it in” America (1136). In many respects, Vito Corleone’s upward social mobility resembles that of Ragged Dick’s. This essay will argue that the aesthetics of the Alger rags to riches formula are present in Vito Corleone’s upward social mobility. The main points discussed will be first: the similarities in appearance between Ragged Dick and Vito Corleone; second: the necessity of movement in initiating one’s American Dream; and third: the role of the surrogate father, pitting Mr. Whitney and Mr. Greyson in Ragged Dick against Don Fanucci in The Godfather Part II.
The subject of appearance permeates Ragged Dick. Alger continuously uses Dick’s appearance as a means of demonstrating his upward mobility, his climb in social status. On page one Dick is described:
“His pants were torn in several places, and had apparently belonged in the first instance to a boy two sizes larger than himself. He wore a vest, all the buttons of which were gone except two, out of which peeped a shirt which looked as if it had been worn a month. To complete his costume he wore a coat too long for him, dating back, if one might judge from its general appearance, to a remote antiquity.”
However, every time Dick does a good deed he somehow manages to get either money or new clothes. For example, after offering his services as a guide to Mr. Whitney and Frank, his nephew, Mr. Whitney decides to provide Dick with an area to clean himself and a new suit (16). This is the first instance where Dick’s significant appearance change causes him difficulty “to imagine that he was the same boy” (16). Dick also wears a cap “which had once been black, but was now dingy, with a large hole in the top and a portion of the rim torn off” (16), which he changes later for the price of seventy-five cents (21). The suit is meant to invoke a rise in social class based on Dick’s pluck and luck and throughout the text, it comes to define him as a self-reliant, hardworking young man with good principles.
In The Godfather Part II, Coppola loosely employs the patterns of appearance when demonstrating Vito’s upward social mobility. One may notice the ragged nature of Vito’s attire, upon his arrival at Ellis Island in 1901 (see images 1 to 4), is quite similar to the descriptions of Dick’s clothes (1) and his hat (16).
2) top left: Vito sitting on the right, leaning on a mast seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time. 3) top right: Vito stands and walks presenting his ragged clothes to the viewer. 4) center right: Vito continues to walk never looking away from the Statue. 5) center right: The Statue is presented. 6) bottom: Vito in his ragged brown suit.
But as Vito rises in social status his attire also changes. Even at the age of twenty-five (image 6) Vito can be seen sporting the same type of attire as when he first arrived on Ellis Island, the brown suit and the cap showing that he still has not risen to respectability despite his good principles. Don Fanucci’s white suit is meant to evoke higher social standing and command respect from others but also show that he has achieved his American Dream. But, Fanucci also wears a black overcoat that hangs off his shoulders symbolizing that the purity in achieving his American Dream is overcast with oppression and violence (image 7). Vito also wears the white suit, however, he does not don the black overcoat thus highlighting his successful business venture, Genco Olive Oil, as opposed to his oppressing the community for personal gain. Moreover, his hat becomes the key component in demonstrating the pinnacle of his upward social mobility. Soon after Vito overcomes Don Fanucci, his surrogate father, discussed later, he no longer wears his brown cap (image 8). Moreover, once becomes Don Corleone, his upward social mobility is much more noticeable with regards to the type of fedora he wears (images 9 and 10). Because of the improvement of appearance, in both cases, is meant to adduce the rise in social class, attire therefore becomes a key element in achieving the American Dream. Dick and Vito are no longer ragged. They wear suits and therefore become “young [gentlemen] on the way to fame and fortune” (115).
7) top left: Don Fanucci wearing his white suit and black overcoat. 8) top right: Vito wearing his new suit but with no hat. 9) bottom left: Vito sporting his white suit with a white fedora. 10) bottom right: Vito’s new suit and new fedora just before his becoming Don Corleone.
Although appearance is definitely a key element, movement should be considered the first step in initiating one’s American Dream, or in any case upward social mobility. Alger’s novel takes the reader on a tour of New York City using Dick as a guide. Dick is described as an “active boy” (112) always walking form one place to the next. For example, on page thirteen Dick is said to shoulder his box and walk up as far as the Astor house, and upon reaching his destination asking Frank to forgive him for not being able to finish providing him with the tour of New York at that particular moment because he has business to conduct. Soon after, both Dick and Frank walking on Broadway “along the west side by the Park” (17) making their way to Wall Street (43) and back to the Astor House and later, to the church and the South Ferry with Fosdick (110). What these passages are meant to highlight is Dick’s constant movement. He never stays in one place. What movement or mobility evokes is a sense of seeking opportunity as opposed to waiting for it. What Ragged Dick’s movement recycles, therefore, is the westward migration of the Puritans, who sought to divorce themselves from the oppression they felt in England. Although the Puritans were on a religious mission, their traveling across the Atlantic to the New World “accomplished the core task in any American Dream: they became masters of their own destiny” (Cullen 18). This explicit part of the American experience was later replicated by president George Washington (Cullen 37), the president Dick claims he received a coat from (4), and fifty-five other delegates when signing the Declaration of Independence. Dick’s little white lie regarding Washington’s coat should therefore be regarded as his desire for upward social mobility.
Alger’s aesthetic of movement, when applied to Coppola’s film, incorporates the migration westward and also the idea of constant movement within the urban populated streets of New York. After the murder of his family by Don Ciccio, young Vito is forced to move from Sicily to the United States in order to survive. Upon reaching the United States, Vito is an orphan and being as such he resembles Dick. In Chapter VIII, entitled Dick’s Early History, Frank asks Dick if he has a mother or father. Dick answers that his mother died and his father went out West and never came back, leaving him to fend for himself at the age of seven (33). Vito Corleone arrives at Ellis Island in 1901 at the age of nine, therefore roughly in the same age group as Dick. The absence of parents in both Dick and Vito’s lives symbolically evokes the Puritans leaving their motherland, England, behind. Moreover, in The Godfather Part II, Coppola films Vito’s arrival at Ellis Island specifically directing camera shots to mimic a westward type movement. Coppola’s dolly shot aboard the ship follows young Vito’s move westward across the screen finally presenting the Statue of Liberty (images 2 to 4). Vito travels from Sicily to the United States, the ship has not even arrived at the dock and already he is mobile, walking along the deck, trying to get closer to the Statue of Liberty.
The second time the audience is presented to Vito the year is 1917, which means he is now twenty-five years old. Obviously there is a huge gap between Dick and Vito’s age, the former being fourteen, however, Coppola wished to highlight Vito’s pluck much more than his luck and therefore treated Vito’s social rise with a little more realism. By 1917, Vito is married, has an apartment and a child to care for. But he still remains in movement, for work purposes. He now works in a grocery store for Genco Abbandando’s father. He can be seen exiting the grocery store on a delivery in images eleven to fourteen provided below. Other examples of Vito’s mobility are his meeting with Clemenza in the streets walking towards a coffee shop (image 15) and also later, when Vito has decided to earn a living in crime, he is seen driving an automobile (image 16), thus demonstrating his upward social mobility.
11) top left: Vito exits Abbandando Grosseria to deliver food. 12) top right: Vito continues walking along the sidewalk. 13) bottom left: Vito crosses the street. 14) bottom right: Vito looks back at the automobile, which demonstrates his desire for upward mobility.15) left: Vito meets Clemenza. 16) right: Vito’s upward mobility has provided him with an automobile.
W.T. Lhamon Jr. argues that the hero in Alger novels “normally has paternal problems” (8). The fathers are usually described as unsuccessful, lost or dead and therefore unable to provide for their sons in any way. Lhamon continues by stating that if the father is lost, the hero will find him or if he is dead he will find a surrogate. In Ragged Dick, the Dick’s father is absent that much is clear, but Dick does not feel the need to find him and as a result adopts Mr. Whitney and Mr. Greyson as a surrogate fathers. Mr. Whitney is an aristocrat that provides Dick with guidance as to how to strive on being a better person and “grow up ‘spectable” (26). The most important piece of advice is that “future position depends mainly upon [himself], and that it will be high or low as [he] choose[s] to make it” (48). What Mr. Whitney teaches Dick, therefore, is that he is master of his destiny, and thus again recuperating the idea of the first Puritan immigrants as well as the delegates who signed the Declaration of Independence. The job opportunity Mr. Whitney provides Dick with is to guide his nephew around New York. What Dick receives though is much greater. He offers Dick shelter, clothes, money and advice on how to achieve success in the world. Mr. Whitney is a self-made man who has had some success. On page forty-eight, he says to Dick: “You know in this free country poverty in early life is no bar to a man’s advancement. I haven’t risen very high myself,” he added, with a smile, “but have met with moderate success in life; yet there was a time when I was as poor as you.”
Mr. Greyson acts as a surrogate father as well because he is the man who becomes Dick’s second tutor, the first being Fosdick, at a Sunday school he and Fosdick attend. Mr. Greyson, a rich businessman, also provides Dick with a glimpse at what family life is like by bringing him into his home to dine (71-72). Mr. Greyson extracts the best qualities out of Dick noticing that he “evidently ha[s] some good principles to start with, as [he] have shown by [his] scorn of dishonesty” (64) by returning the fifteen cents he owed Mr. Greyson after blacking his boots. Mr. Greyson’s character, through Sunday school, meaning religious practice in Church, is meant to underline a sense of familial or even communal duty. Dick therefore learns that helping others can be more beneficial than individualism. This is demonstrated when Dick helps Tom Wilkins by lending him money to provide for his mother (88) and also when he decides to purchase a new suit for Fosdick (79).
When transposed onto The Godfather Part II, Vito’s surrogate father is, of course, Mr. Abbandando. Vito clearly states to Mr. Abbandando: “You’ve always been good to me, ever since I came here. You looked after me like a father” (The Godfather Part II, see images 17 and 18).
17) left: Vito speaking with Mr. Abbandando after losing his job to Fannuci’s nephew. 18) right: Vito explaining that Mr. Abbandando took care of him like a father.
However, because Vito will eventually become the Godfather, the representations of Ragged Dick’s Mr. Whitney and Mr. Greyson are perverted in The Godfather Part II and, as a result, the role of the father figure must also be attributed to Don Fanucci. Lhamon states that in the Alger novels, “[b]etween the real and substitute fathers, however, there is often a wicked father who takes shape as one of the challenges the hero must overcome to prove himself” (8). Fanucci is a Mafia Don who taxes the people in New York’s Little Italy (images 19 to 22) acting at once as a wicked and surrogate father to Vito.
Fanucci is a complex character because not only does he pose a direct threat to Vito’s upward mobility, he also represents the Americanized ethnic that denies equal opportunity to other immigrants (Bodar 13), and thus mimicking the white men that claimed “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (US 1776). As such, Fanucci epitomizes the unfairness of American capitalism’s preying on the poor in order to sustain hierarchical social class.
19) top left: Vito with Genco discussing Fannuci’s oppression of the Italian neighbourhood. 20) top right: Vito questioning Fannuci’s motives behind taxing other Italian citizens. 21) bottom left: image 20 continued. 22) bottom right: Genco answering that no one protects the Italians and therefore Fanucci is free to oppress whom he will.
Fanucci resembles Alger’s Mr. Whitney inasmuch as he too has risen from rags to riches, albeit antithetically with regards to Alger’s formula because he was denied equal opportunity due to his Sicilian heritage. Fanucci knows American capitalist values rely on individualism and as a result he has used the system to become rich by oppressing his fellow immigrants. However, as a result of his individualism, he is always alone, again subverting the education Mr. Greyson provides Dick regarding community. Mr. Whitney supplies Dick with clothes and a job: take his nephew site seeing in New York, for which he pays him five dollars. Therefore, Dick’s first surrogate father provides him with an opportunity for upward social mobility. This is subverted in the The Godfather Part II when Mr. Abbandando is forced to give Vito’s job to Fanucci’s nephew at Fanucci’s request. In Ragged Dick, Mr. Greyson, the symbol of cooperative education, teaches Dick about the importance of “good principles” and therefore elicits a sense of communal responsibility. This again is subverted by Fanucci’s oppression of his own people because of his individualistic mindset. Therefore Fanucci, as both wicked and surrogate father to Vito, at once hinders Vito’s upward social mobility but, on the other hand, provides him with a different model on how to be master of his destiny, owing to the fact that Vito does become the Godfather.
Even though Vito can be considered dishonest due to his criminal activity, putting him in complete opposition to Dick, he still remains the hero because his murder of Don Fanucci liberates the oppressed citizens of Little Italy in New York City. Coppola intercuts Fanucci’s murder with a cheering crowd of Italian-Americans celebrating a religious ceremony. John Hess claims that Coppola “juxtaposes religious ceremonies with something terrible” in order to show “that the Church [never] does anything for anyone [and thus demonstrates] its impotence” (87). However, the Church itself is community oriented. Its main ideals promote comradeship and this reflects how Vito can aid the community by putting a definite end to Fanucci’s terrorizing ways. Therefore the Church, in this instance, should be recognized as a guide for “good principles” which is an underlying message promoted by Mr. Greyson in Ragged Dick. Hess states that: “[b]y making Vito seem like a Robin Hood character, protecting the community from the likes of Fanucci […] Coppola plays a real trick on us” (87). Dick is referred to as a Robin Hood type character on page forty-seven when Dick wishes to return the money to the “poor countryman” demonstrating his “good principles.” But more importantly Dick’s true community oriented mindset is demonstrated by his saving the drowning boy (110). Because the boy tripped off a boat, it would have affected the entire load of passengers. Dick’s saving the boy in fact saves the small community aboard the boat from being plagued by a horrifying experience. Therefore when transposed onto The Godfather Part II, the trick Coppola plays ties Vito to Dick inasmuch as Vito has a community oriented mindset rather than an individualistic one. The end result, therefore, enables the viewer to see Fanucci’s murder as Vito having “good principles” rather than committing a criminal act and in addition, view the cheering of the crowd during the religious ceremony as a testament of happiness due to their liberation from the oppressive Fanucci. After Fanucci’s murder, Coppola shows Vito with his family, who are holding American flags, and has Vito tell his youngest son: “Michael, tu padre te voler bene assai, bene assai” (The Godfather Part II) which translates to ‘Michael, your father loves you very much.’ Vito’s saying he loves his son Michael very much demonstrates that he has in fact overcome Fanucci, the wicked father, refusing to mimic the individualistic principles he was taught. In doing so, Michael will never need to find a surrogate to replace Vito because Vito has chosen communal and familial responsibility, which in fact mirrors the principles upheld by Mr. Greyson in Ragged Dick. Therefore, in the end, both Dick and Vito “grow up ‘spectable,” albeit in very different ways.
The Alger myth is one that cannot lose its appeal. Rags to riches stories are some of the most entertaining and uplifting that people do not mind rereading or re-watching over and over again. The amount of ‘inspired by true events’ or ‘based on a true story’ books and movies that are produced and sold every year demonstrate that the American Dream is sought after by certain individuals and lived vicariously by others. But it all started with the quintessential rags to riches story Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick. Various interpretations have modified the Alger myth in order to fit the story being told. In The Godfather Part II, Coppola interpreted the story of Ragged Dick as an immigrant boy who travels to the western world, from Sicily, and becomes the head of organized crime in New York City through self-reliance and hard work. The changing appearances of Ragged Dick and Vito Corleone, their constant movement, and the role of the surrogate father found in Alger’s novel and Coppola’s film were discussed and establish the similarities in both characters desires for upward social mobility. There are some obvious dichotomies inherent in both Dick and Vito’s approaches to achieving the American Dream, but, in the end, they both succeed in living their respective versions of the Dream.
Alger, Horatio Jr. Ragged Dick, A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Hildegard Hoeller. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008.
Bodnar, John. “Remembering the Immigrant Experience in American Culture.” Journal of American Ethnic History, 15 1. University of Illinois Press on behalf of Immigration and Ethnic History Society, 1995. pp. 3-27. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/27502011> (March 31, 2012).
Cullen, Jim. The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation. Oxford University Press. New York, 2003.
The Godfather Part II. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Al Pacino. Paramount, 1974. Blu-ray.
Hess, John. “Godfather II: A Deal Coppola Couldn’t Refuse.” Movies and Methods: An Anthology, Volume 1. Ed. Bill Nichols. University of California Press, 1976.
Lhamon, W.T., Jr. “Horatio Alger and American Modernism: The One-Dimensional Social Formula.” American Studies, 17 2. Mid-America American Studies Association, 1976. pp. 11-27. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40641216> (March 31, 2012).
Ramirez, Catherine S. “Representing, Politics and the Politics of Representation in Gang Studies.” American Quarterly, 56 4. The John Hopkins University Press, 2004. pp. 1135-1146. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/aq/summary/v056/56.4ramirez.html> (April 5, 2012).
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