Keep Away from People Who Try to Belittle Your Ambitions

Mark Twain? Gay Zenola MacLaren? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following compelling advice is credited to Mark Twain in self-help books and on websites. It is valuable guidance in my opinion:

Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.

While searching to learn more about the saying I came across another version which used a different wording. The word “people” was replaced with “those”, and “feel” was replaced with “believe”:

Keep away from those who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you believe that you too can become great.

Did Twain say or write either of these expressions?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI was published in 1938 in the memoir of an extraordinary elocutionist who gave recitals at Chautauquas around the United States. Chautauquas were assemblies that combined entertainment and education by presenting lecturers, preachers, musicians, and other performers to a largely rural audience. Gay Zenola MacLaren wrote in her memoir that she met Mark Twain when she was still a child who aspired to be a great performer. Twain offered her the following counsel:[ref] 1938, Morally We Roll Along by Gay MacLaren (Gay Zenola MacLaren), Section: I Meet Mark Twain, Quote Page 66, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with photocopies; thanks to Professor Charles C. Doyle and the University of Georgia library system) [/ref]

He opened the door for me himself. As we said good-bye, he put his fingers lightly under my chin and lifted my head up so that my eyes met his.

“Little girl,” he said earnestly, “keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

The date of the meeting was not listed in the book. The distinctive artistry of MacLaren was described in a promotional brochure for her act:[ref] Brochure Cover Title: Gay Zenola MacLaren, Date: Undated, Digital Collection: Redpath Chautauqua Collection, Repository: University of Iowa Libraries: Special Collections Department: Iowa City, Iowa. (Accessed on March 23, 2013) link [/ref]

Gay Zenola MacLaren attends the production of a modern play five times, and then, without ever having read the original book or dramatization, or, in fact, any of the lines in any way, can go upon the Lyceum or Chautauqua platform and give an imitative recital of the entire production, impersonating every character. This, at once, places Miss MacLaren as an entertainer in a class entirely by herself.

In 1901 a review of a performance by MacLaren was published in a Brooklyn, New York newspaper:[ref] 1901 March 11, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Miss McLaren’s Reading: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Interpreted at the Saturday Meeting in Association Hall”, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Brooklyn, New York. (The article title used the spelling “McLaren” instead of “MacLaren”) (Old Fulton) [/ref]

She has an almost ventriloquistic power of changing her voice from the light tones of women to the heavier speaking of men, so the recital was thoroughly well balanced and was given with intelligence.

In 1909 the periodical “The Lyceumite and Talent” printed an advertisement for Gay Zenola MacLaren that included a testimonial statement from Mark Twain:[ref] 1909 November, The Lyceumite and Talent, (Advertisement for Gay Zenola MacLaren: Presenting Imitative Recitals of Famous Plays), Unnumbered Page (4th page after cover page), Published at Steinway Hall, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

Opinions from Prominent Men

An unusually gifted young lady. Mark Twain.

I do not hesitate to say that I think Miss MacLaren’s work phenomenal. She is a genius. Major James B. Pond.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1938 Time magazine reviewed MacLaren’s memoir and noted that she “got her big chance at the New York Chautauqua”. The magazine presented an eclectic list of participants at Chautauquas:[ref] 1938 May 23, Time, Books: Tent Culture, (Review of Morally We Roll Along by Gay MacLaren), Time, Inc., New York. (Online archive of Time magazine) [/ref]

Thereafter she followed the Chautauqua circuit, along with chalk-talk artists, bell ringers, evangelists, yodlers, zither performers, magicians, bagpipe players, ventriloquists and the strange assortment of educators and entertainers who, in brown tents pitched in small towns all over the U. S., spread culture to apathetic audiences before the War.

In 1948 a large compilation of quotations titled “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger was published. The statement was included, and the accompanying citation pointed to MacLaren’s memoir:[ref] 1948, “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips”, Edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Quote Page 354, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.
P. 66—Morally We Roll Along—MacLaren

In 1952 a newspaper in Warsaw, Indiana and a newspaper in Canton, Ohio printed the quote. Both papers credited Twain and used a version that matched the one in “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips”.[ref] 1952 September 12, Warsaw Times-Union, Thoughts, Quote Page 2, Column 6, Warsaw, Indiana. (Google News Archive) [/ref] [ref] 1952 September 13, The Canton Repository, Thoughts for Today, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Canton, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

In 1959 the saying ascribed to Twain was printed in “Dale Carnegie’s Scrapbook: A Treasury of the Wisdom of the Ages”.[ref] 1959, Dale Carnegie’s Scrapbook: A Treasury of the Wisdom of the Ages, Edited by Dorothy Carnegie with writings by Dale Carnegie, Quote Page 155, Published by Dale Carnegie & Associates, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref] In 1962 Forbes magazine published the expression.[ref] 1962 September 1, Forbes, Section: Thoughts On The Business of Life, Quote Page 50, Column 1, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm) [/ref]

In 1965 a different compact phrasing of the statement was printed in a newspaper in St. Albans, Vermont:[ref] 1965 February 5, St. Albans Messenger, Thought for Today, Quote Page 4, Column 1, St. Albans, Vermont. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

Small people belittle your ambitions. The really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great.—Mark Twain

By 2003 a version of the quote with “those” instead of “people” and “believe” instead of “feel” was in circulation. This version matched the second one given by the questioner above:[ref] 2003, Joy in the Workplace by Chris Alexander, Quote Page 91, Published by 1+1=3 Publishing. (Google Books Preview) [/ref]

“Keep away from those who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you believe that you too can become great.” – Mark Twain

In 2004 a variant with a re-ordered phrasing appeared on the Island of Malta:[ref] 2004 February 14, Times of Malta, A valuable man of great values by Nadia O’Flaherty of Birkirkara, Malta, News source for Island of Malta. (Accessed on March 22 2013) link [/ref]

“The people who are really great are not those who try to belittle your ambitions but those who make you feel that you too can become great” – Mark Twain.

In conclusion, Mark Twain died in 1910, and this quotation first appeared in a book in 1938. The saying was based on the memory of Gay Zenola MacLaren who was recounting a childhood encounter with Twain. The precise date of the meeting was not clear to QI because MacLaren did not give guidepost dates in her memoir. MacLaren was capable of remarkable feats of memory as shown by her elocutionary performances.

(Great thanks to Charles C. Doyle who obtained and examined “Morally We Roll Along” by Gay MacLaren; Doyle also photocopied key pages. Thanks to Christian Higgins whose tweet of inquiry on this topic gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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