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Horatio Alger’s American Fable: “The World Before Him”

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. The tale of Frank Courtney’s lucky break in The World Before Him (1880) was typical of these stories. In this selection, young Frank grabs the proverbial golden ring of success less by pluck than by sheer luck.

Chapter 29


Frank went out as usual after breakfast, and then walked leisurely down town. He proposed to go to the office of the Great Pekin Ten Company and resign his agency. He was on the watch during his walk for any opportunities to repair his unlucky loss.

At one place he saw a notice: Boy Wanted.

Though he felt sure the compensation would not be sufficient to allow of his accepting it, he thought it would do no harm to make inquiry, and accordingly entered. It was an extensive retail store, where a large number of clerks were employed.

“Is a boy wanted here?” asked Frank of the nearest salesman.

“Yes. You may inquire at the desk.”

He pointed to a desk some distance back, and Frank went up to it.

“You advertise for a boy,” he said to a tall, stout man, who chanced to be the proprietor. “Is the place filled?”

“No,” was the answer; “but I don’t think it would suit you.”

“Do you think I would not be competent, sir?”

“No, that is not the difficulty. It would not be worth your acceptance.”

“May I inquire what are the duties, sir?”

“We want a boy to open the door to customers, and this would not be worth your accepting.”

“No, sir. Thank you for explaining it to me.”

The gentleman was favorably impressed by Frank’s polite and gentlemanly manners.

“I wish I had a place for you,” he said. “Have you ever had any experience in our line of business?”

“No, sir; I have had very little experience of any kind. I have acted for a short time as agent for a tea company.”

“You may leave your name if you like, and I will communicate with you if I have a vacancy which you can fill.”

Frank thanked the polite proprietor and walked out of the store.

Though this is a story written for boys, it may be read by some business men, who will allow me to suggest that a refusal kindly and considerately expressed loses half its bitterness, and often inspires hope, instead of discouragement.

Frank proceeded to the office of the tea company and formally resigned his agency. He was told that he could resume it whenever he pleased.

Leaving the store, he walked down Broadway in the direction of Wall Street. He passed an elderly man, with stooping shoulders, and a gait which showed that he was accustomed to live in the country. He was looking about him in rather an undecided way. His glance happened to rest on Frank, and, after a little hesitation, he addressed him.

“Boy,” he said, “do you live round here?”

“I live in the city, sir.”

“Then I guess you can tell me what I want to know.”

“I will if I can, sir,” said Frank, politely.

“Whereabouts is Wall Street?”

“Close by, sir. I am going that way, and will be happy to show you.”

Frank had no idea his compliance with the stranger’s request was likely to have an important effect upon his fortunes.

“My name,” said the stranger, “is Peters—Jonathan Peters, of Craneville, Onondaga County. I am a farmer, and don’t know much about New York. I’ve got a few hundred dollars that I want to put into government bonds.”

“All right,” said Frank. “There won’t be any difficulty about it.”

“I’ve heard there are a good many swindlers in New York,” continued Mr. Peters. 'The squire—Squire Jackson, of our village—perhaps you may have heard of him?“

”I don’t think I have, Mr. Peters.“

”Well, the squire told me I’d better take good care of my money, as there were plenty of rascals here who would try to cheat me out of it.“

”That is true, Mr. Peters. Only yesterday I was robbed of thirty-five dollars by a man who boarded in the same house.“

”You don’t say so?“

”He opened my trunk and took out my pocketbook while I was absent on business.“

”I wouldn’t dare to live in New York!" declared the farmer, whose apprehensions were increased by Frank’s story.

By this time they had reached the office of Jones & Robinson, with whom, it will be remembered, Frank had once before had dealings.

“If you will come in here, Mr. Peters,” he said, “you will be sure of honorable treatment. I will introduce you if you like.”

“I should be obliged if you would,” replied the farmer. “Out in Craneville I am at home, but I ain’t used to New York business men, and don’t know how to talk to them.”

It pleased Frank to find that, in spite of his inexperience, he was able to be of service to one more unaccustomed than himself to city scenes and city ways.

He walked up to the counter, followed by the farmer, and said:

“This gentleman wishes to buy some government bonds. I told him that he could transact his business here.”

“Thank you! Mr. Benton, you may attend to this gentlemen.”

Frank was about to leave the office, when Mr. Robinson called him back.

'You have been in the office before, have you not?" he asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you not the boy who assisted in the capture of the man who robbed Mr. Henry Percival of Madison Avenue?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I thought so. I have been trying to find you for the last week.”

Naturally Frank look surprised.

“Mr. Henry Percival was at that time in Europe,” said Mr. Robinson. “On his return, a week ago, he called on us, and expressed a desire to have you call upon him. We had mislaid or lost your address, and were unable to give him the information he desired.”

Frank’s heart beat high with hope as the broker spoke.

“Perhaps,” he thought, “Mr. Percival may offer me a situation of some kind, and I certainly am greatly in need of one.”

“Did Mr. Percival recover all his bonds?” he asked.

“Nearly all,” answered Mr. Robinson. “He considered himself exceedingly fortunate, and he certainly was so.”

“Do you know of how much he was robbed?”

“Rather more than five thousand dollars. Of this sum all has been recovered except three bonds of a hundred dollars each. Mr. Percival is a rich man, and he won’t miss that small amount.”

“I wish I were rich enough not to miss three hundred dollars,” thought Frank. “If I had my rights, I could say the same.”

Just now, in his extremity, the boy thought regretfully of the fortune he had lost. Had he been so situated as to be earning enough to defray all his expenses, he would scarcely have given a thought to it.

“You had better go up to see Mr. Percival this evening,” advised the banker, “if you have no other engagement.”

“Even if I had an engagement, I would put if off,” rejoined Frank. “Will you give me Mr. Percival’s address?”

“Number — ,” said Mr. Robinson.

Frank noted it down and left the office. By this time Mr. Peters had completed his business, and was ready to go out also.

“I’m much obliged to you,” he said to Frank. “I was afraid I’d get into a place where they’d cheat me. I guess Mr. Jones and Robinson are pretty good folks.”

“I think you can depend upon them,” assured Frank.

“If ever you come to Craneville, I should like to have you stay a few days with me on my farm,” said Mr. Peters, hospitably. “We are plain folks, but will treat you about right.”

“Thank you, Mr. Peters. If I ever come to Craneville, I shall certainly call on you.”

Though Frank was so near the end of his money, he had something to look forward to in his approaching interview with Mr. Percival. He had been able to do this gentleman a service, and it was not unlikely that the capitalist would wish to make him some acknowledgment. Frank did not exaggerate his own merits in the matter. He felt that it was largely owing to a lucky chance that he had been the means of capturing the bond robber. However, it is to precisely such lucky chances that men are often indebted for the advancement of their fortunes.

[In subsequent chapters Frank’s “lucky chance” leads to employment with Mr. Percival and his “advancement” in the world.]

Source: Horatio Alger, The World Before Him originally serialized in Golden Days (1880). Reprinted in Horatio Alger, Jr., Adrift in New York and The World Before Him, Popular American Fiction Series, William Coyle, ed. (New York: The Odyssey Press, Inc, 1966), 249–252.

See Also:Gimme A Break! Mark Twain Lampoons the Horatio Alger Myth
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