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Gimme A Break! Mark Twain Lampoons the Horatio Alger Myth

The ideology of success—the notion that anyone could make it with enough hard work—was widely promoted in Gilded Age America. One of its most famous proponents was the author Horatio Alger, whose novels showed how poor boys could move from “rags to respectability” through “pluck and luck.” Between the late 1860s and his death in 1899, Alger published more than 100 of these formulaic stories about poor boys who made good more often because of fortunate accidents than because of hard work and denial. Not all Americans, however, bought into this ideology of success. Mark Twain’s 1879 short story, “Poor Little Stephen Girard,” took satirical aim at the poor-boy-done-good theme that permeated dozens of Alger stories.

The man lived in Philadelphia who, when young and poor, entered a bank, and says he: “Please, sir, don’t you want a boy?” And the stately personage said: “No, little boy, I don’t want a little boy.” The little boy, whose heart was too full for utterance, chewing a piece of licorice stick he had bought with a cent stolen from his good and pious aunt, with sobs plainly audible, and with great globules of water rolling down his cheeks, glided silently down the marble steps of the bank. Bending his noble form, the bank man dodged behind a door, for he thought the little boy was going to shy a stone at him. But the little boy picked up something, and stuck it in his poor but ragged jacket. “Come here, little boy,” and the little boy did come here; and the bank man said: “Lo, what pickest thou up?” And he answered and replied: “A pin.” And the bank man said: “Little boy, are you good?” and he said he was. And the bank man said: “How do you vote?”—“excuse me, do you go to Sunday school?” and he said he did. Then the bank man took down a pen made of pure gold, and flowing with pure ink, and he wrote on a piece of paper, “St. Peter”; and he asked the little boy what it stood for, and he said “Salt Peter.” Then the bankman said it meant “Saint Peter.” The little boy said: “Oh!”

Then the bank man took the little boy to his bosom, and the little boy said, “Oh!” again, for he squeezed him. Then the bank man took the little boy into partnership, and gave him half the profits and all the capital, and he married the bank man’s daughter, and now all he has is all his, and all his own too.

My uncle told me this story, and I spent six weeks in picking up pins in front of a bank. I expected the bank man would call me in and say: “Little boy, are you good?” and I was going to say “Yes;” and when he asked me what “St. John” stood for, I was going to say “Salt John.” But the bank man wasn’t anxious to have a partner, and I guess the daughter was a son, for one day says he to me: “Little boy, what’s that you’re picking up?” Says I, awful meekly, “Pins.” Says he: “Let’s see ‘em.” And he took ’em, and I took off my cap, all ready to go in the bank, and become a partner, and marry his daughter. But I didn’t get an invitation. He said: “Those pins belong to the bank, and if I catch you hanging around here any more I’ll set the dog on you!” Then I left, and the mean old fellow kept the pins. Such is life as I find it.


Mark Twain, “Poor Little Stephen Girard,” in Carleton’s Popular Readings, Anna Randall-Diehl, ed., (New York, 1879), 183–84.

See Also:"Selfish wealth is never good": A Worker's Definition of Success
Horatio Alger's American Fable: "The World Before Him"