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: 1

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: 2

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: 3

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: 4

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.

Continue reading Keep Away from People Who Try to Belittle Your Ambitions

Notes:

  1. 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)
  2. 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 uiowa.edu on March 23, 2013) link
  3. 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)
  4. 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