A Historical Tangent on Mark Twain's "The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper"
The Myth of the American Dream
"Thus perished the good little boy who did the best he could, but didn’t come out according to the books. Every boy who ever did as he did prospered except him.
His case is remarkable. It will probably never be accounted for."
With these words, Mark Twain closes The Story of the Good Little Boy. His satirical vignette captures the hope offered by the American dream as well as the disillusionment that comes when that dream fails. It serves as a counterpoint to the prolific rags-to-riches stories written by his contemporary, Horatio Alger. The great American dream to Alger is the great American myth to Twain: the paradigm that a good person who works hard can find success. Twain’s literary voice is a celebrated American personality. His localism and witty pragmatism lend a good-natured ironic tone that softens the impact of his criticism of society.
Mark Twain lived during the latter half of the nineteenth century, an era marked by sweeping social, economic, and political changes. The Industrial Revolution had firmly taken hold of the political economy, and the forces of specialization, mechanization, standardization, and centralization soon revolutionized the business landscape. Americans tended to welcome the technological changes that improved the general public’s quality of life, such as the improvements in transportation and communication. These changes, however, also irrevocably altered social connections.
Family, community, and small business relationships were often weakened by the centralization and division of labor, while the growing tension between labor and management sharpened class divisions. It was during this era in America, which Mark Twain coined “The Gilded Age,” that vast wealth became attainable through the rise of big business. Notions of a just price and usury were long gone from the market, and cutthroat competition set new precedents for wage and labor conditions. Workers came to be seen as just another type of capital. In this context, where underpaid workers slaved away while the owners of the growing industries prospered, the myth of the American dream still persisted. Models of fame and fortune were held out for all to achieve, but very few succeeded.
In “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper,” first published in 1870 in The Galaxy, Mark Twain illustrates what many Americans before and since have discovered: doing everything “right” does not necessarily lead to success. The Puritan work ethic, which associates economic achievement with morality, is an ideological cornerstone in America. The moral principle of industriousness may be a worthy one, and it certainly is more productive than idleness, but its exaltation in American economic rhetoric has been at the expense of acknowledging other significant variables such as social networking, class privileges, education, capital, and luck.
The clash of idealism with cynicism regarding the true potential for success in America continues to play out in political and economic dialogues today. The vision of a land of unlimited opportunities, where any moral, hard-working individual ought to be able to make it, persists. Through the story of a little boy who is both good and industrious but does not succeed, Mark Twain simply and eloquently expresses the shortcomings of this vision. By exposing the great American dream as a myth, Twain speaks not only for his own age but for every person who has failed to attain prosperity in America.
© 2013 Lurana Brown