The New York Times Magazine: Rags-to-Riches Stories Are Actually Kind of Disturbing

This is a glimpse into an NYT magazine article written by Lydia Kiesling and featured on April 5th, 2022 under the headline: “Rags-to-Riches Stories Are Actually Kind of Disturbing” [25 min read]

Abhishek Sambatur
First Glimpse
Published in
5 min readApr 9, 2022


Numerous stories commenting on the ethics of modern capitalism and the existence of billionaires get published weekly but occasionally one comes along that not only effectively critiques society but also makes readers think deeper and connect the dots between a historical reference and our present day. I find such articles absolutely fascinating because they help me introspect philosophically, learn new historical stories, and inspire me to dig further beyond the surface level.

Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

We avidly follow the doings of the ultrarich, both the real (Kim Kardashian, Elon Musk ) and the unreal (Bobby Axelrod, Logan Roy). This isn’t new: Americans have always loved fiction that reaffirms our fantasies about wealth and social mobility ¹

The tone of the article is set early on and the author, Lydia, grounds her narrative by using real world examples. For the majority of my life, I’ve been an optimist who admires a good success story and firmly believed in the inherent meritocracy of capitalism. Though I still retain several of these qualities, my economic beliefs have matured into a more seasoned realism of modern American capitalism as my exposure to Western media (as an Indian foreigner) has been supplemented by actual experience living in America.

Though Alger indeed extols the virtues of hard work, prayer, honesty and saving, his books also hinge upon chance encounters and the noblesse oblige of someone much higher on the class ladder. Hard work matters but not as much as a helping hand from a wealthy patron ¹

This observation really struck a chord with me. I spent several hours introspecting about my own life and contemplating the benefits of my hard work against the pros of networking. While my strong work ethic and relentless hard work helped me gain several skills and a general discipline for life, I don’t think I would be in the fortunate position that I’m in today without the network of rich and influential people I met via my college experience. But this is still a point of contention. Personally, I can’t say for sure yet whether my hard work or my good fortune of building high-profile connections has helped me more in life.

Today, whether or not they realize it, the wealthy tell the stories of their lives — and our class structure — within the framework that Alger articulated. They all cast themselves as scrappy entrepreneurs who start at the bottom, climb to the top and step into a benefactor role, transforming from Ragged Dicks into versions of Mr. Whitney.¹

This is one of the salient points of this article. I did not know anything about Horatio Alger or his work prior to this article but the comparisons to modern billionaires drawn by the author seem relevant and accurate. The rags-to-riches story is the quintessential narrative that almost every successful, rich person adopts in their biographies and the usage of this age-old formula does make sense given what appeals to the broad majority of the public today.

The relative pleasure in Boone’s writing comes from his performance as a folksy Oklahoman. While Koch litters “Good Profit” with anodyne corporatist rhetoric about how he aims to create “superior value for our customers,” Pickens constructs his narrative around what he calls Booneisms, aphorisms that summarize the lessons from the memoir’s many anecdotes. (№6: “In a deal between friends, there’s no place for a wolverine.”) ¹

This is my favorite part of the article where the author contrasts the stories of 2 billionaires and critiques them against the Alger formula. While both billionaires have had their fair bits of fortune and luck by association with the affluent, it’s intriguing to see how their respective books extolled their lives in different manners. By contrasting these two stories and drawing references to Alger, the author makes a fitting case for how even with the “rag-to-riches” storytelling genre, there exists a “boring” standard and a relatively “thrilling” one if narrated wittingly.

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Enter one of the 21st century’s most significant literary phenomena, which magnifies and refracts the unsettling power dynamics that lie at the heart of “Ragged Dick.” What does it mean if our pop culture all but affirms the futility of striving, even while it burnishes the myth of the deserving billionaire? I am speaking of what is perhaps our era’s most surprising Horatio Alger analogue, a work of fiction that has outsold any billionaire memoir by many millions of copies: E.L. James’s romance novel “Fifty Shades of Grey.” ¹

The final act of this article is an incredible one. Out of left field, the author bridges a connection between one of the most (bizarrely, in my opinion) popular romance novels of this generation with the Alger philosophy. Though initially, this felt like an overreach and a ridiculous parallel to draw, the dynamics of the modern rags-to-riches storytelling are expertly explained and I found it extremely entertaining to consider this perspective. Perhaps mostly because I never quite understood the massive popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise and now I have a more “intellectual” explanation of why rather than the “sex sells” simplification.

Final Thoughts —

I’ve read dozens of articles this week ranging from how the Ukraine war is triggering a global food crisis to the sustainability of movie theaters in the age of streaming. While most of these reads were — on face value — grounded in current affairs and relevant to how we perceive the world today, this abstract read from the NYT magazine captured my imagination the most. I hope more journalists can tackle interesting historical analogies like this one and help us understand modern economic and socio-political phenomena in a different light.

Bottom line: This read might not be everyone’s cup of tea especially since it dives deep into literary references but if you can spare a half-hour it might help you perceive modern rags-to-riches stories with more intellectual and historical insight.


(1) The New York Times | Rags-to-Riches Stories Are Actually Kind of Disturbing| Lydia Kiesling| Updated on April 5, 2022

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Abhishek Sambatur
First Glimpse

An avid reader & learner 📚 Writing for posterity in case the robots take over 🤖 Trying to find an outlet for my constant stream of thoughts and ideas 💡