Pollyanna is not all bubbleheaded gladness. She is instead one of the most cunning tricksters to appear in American children’s books since Tom Sawyer persuaded his friends to whitewash the fence.
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Eleanor Porter’s ”Pollyanna” seems in our time to be a book few people have read but everyone dislikes because of its reputation. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a Pollyanna as ”a foolishly or blindly optimistic person.” One postwar reference book describes Pollyanna Whittier as ”possibly the most exasperating heroine in fiction. . . . She seems the epitome of everything that is priggish and sentimental.”
That wasn’t the feeling when the novel first appeared. As one critic explained in 1947, ”The publication of the story in 1913 was only less influential than the World War. White Mountain cabins, Colorado teahouses, Texas babies, Indiana apartment houses, and a brand of milk were immediately named for the new character.” Recognizing a sure thing, Mary Pickford paid the then astronomical sum of $115,112 for rights to produce a silent screen version of the book.
Porter created a girl who preaches the gospel of Gladness. Living out West with her impoverished missionary father, Pollyanna wishes for a doll. The missionary society barrel arrives and contains only crutches; but Pollyanna consoles herself by finding that she can at least be glad she doesn’t need the crutches.
After her father’s death, the orphan moves to Beldingsville, Vt. In the next hundred pages, this juvenile social worker persuades the whole town to play the Glad Game. Cranky Mr. Pendleton, the bedridden Mrs. Snow, the dispirited Reverend Ford, the forlorn Dr. Chilton, a loose woman contemplating divorce and (finally) her sclerotic aunt succumb to the power of positive thinking and begin to hunt for and find things to be glad about.
An editorial writer declared hyperbolically: ”It is probably not putting the case too strongly when we state that it is the greatest game ever discovered since the foundation of the world.” Americans began to sport enameled buttons of a smiling girl to indicate that they were members of Glad Clubs -which included ”The Glad Kids,” a group of penitentiary inmates whose ages ranged from 32 to 76. By 1947, however, things had changed. Then, a writer lamented: ”Almost nobody plays the Glad Game any more. . . . [ It ] seems to belong to a more innocent time.”
An attempt was made to resuscitate Pollyanna in 1960 when Walt Disney released a movie based on the book and starring Hayley Mills. Time, Newsweek and other major reviewers agreed that such an enterprise promised to be a disaster – a tearjerker of a story presented by the master of schmaltz; what surprised the critics (their opinions were unanimous) was that it was his best live-action film ever. But few had reckoned the curse of the book’s by then saccharine reputation. When the movie failed to bring in half of the $6 million that was expected, Disney opined: ”I think the picture would have done better with a different title. Girls and women went to it, but men tended to stay away because it sounded sweet and sticky.”
Shortly thereafter, except for a small press that kept a library edition available, American publishers let the book drift out of print. This wasn’t true in other parts of the world. My own British copy, for example, lists this publishing history: ”1969. Reprinted 1970, 1972, 1973 (twice), 1974 (twice), 1975 (twice), 1976, 1977, 1978.” Dell has finally reissued it in paper this year. [And now Oxford classics.]
American distaste for the book may spring from our longstanding suspicion, even antagonism toward positive thinking. Porter herself had said: ”I have been made to suffer from the Pollyanna books. I have been placed often in a false light. People have thought that Pollyanna chirped that she was ‘glad’ about everything. . . . I have never believed we ought to deny discomfort and pain and evil; I have merely thought it is far better to ‘greet the unknown with a cheer.’ ”
An elaborate psychological study called ”The Pollyanna Principle: Selectivity in Language, Memory, and Thought” by Margaret Matlin and David Stang (1979), said that ”to a considerable extent we are all Pollyannas.” Their studies and others, they said, concluded: people take longer to recognize unpleasant stimuli and communicate good news faster than bad news; pleasant words are used more frequently in the English language than unpleasant ones; we ask ”how good” something is (a book, movie, restaurant) rather than ”how bad” it is.
If we are all, then, natural Pollyannas, perhaps the only way to explain our disenchantment with Porter’s novel is in terms of our tendency toward cynicism. For the last two centuries, the scholar R. W. B. Lewis has argued, American literature has divided into three camps: the parties of Hope, Memory and Irony. His argument uses the work of Herman Melville: there is Billy Budd (the innocent optimist whom Pollyanna closely resembles), his nemesis Claggart (driven by contrariness to a cynical disdain of innocence), and finally Melville himself (who pits the two characters against each other in his story and, by distancing himself, suggests the tragedy of preferring one over the other).
This was all phrased in humbler terms in a magazine quiz in a recent issue of ”Seventeen” titled ”Are You a Pollyanna or a Pessimist?” Teen-age girls were asked to evaluate themselves by answering such questions as how they feel when the alarm clock rings or someone arranges a blind date for them, and offered answers such as ”Good morning, world!” or ”Another day so soon?” and ” [ I know ] he’ll be Mr. Right” or ”If he’s so great, why doesn’t she date him?” The correct response is not to be a Pollyanna who thinks everything is ”peachy-keen,” nor a ”Melancholy Baby,” but someone in between – ”a levelheaded realist.”
What rough beast now slouches toward Bethlehem, then, if ”Pollyanna” is being brought back into print? Does its return indicate the apotheosis of ”happy face” buttons and the expression ”Have a nice day”? If there is good news, it is in Grace Isabel Colbron’s observation in a 1915 issue of ”Bookman” that Pollyanna is ”the supreme nonconformist.” She argues that it takes a skillful reader to recognize that Pollyanna is not all the bubbleheaded gladness she seems, but instead one of the most cunning tricksters to appear in American children’s books since Tom Sawyer persuaded his friends to whitewash the fence. When she speaks to the missionary society and assumes it will support a neighborhood orphan rather than spend money in other ways to look good on the national report, when she expresses gladness for the shabby room she has been given and thereby shames her aunt into giving her more reasonable accommodations, in these and a hundred other ways Pollyanna engages in what the contemporary American critic Ihab Hassan has called ”radical innocence.”
Unwilling to accept life on defeatist terms, she looks for (and assumes she will find) goodness, and her presumptions manipulate others until they become as good as they can be. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain might have been describing Pollyanna when he wrote in ”Reflections on America”: ”Deep beneath the anonymous American smile there is a feeling that is evangelical in origin – compassion for men, a desire to make life tolerable. This symbolic smile is a kind of anonymous reply of the human soul, which refuses to acknowledge itself vanquished.”
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Originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (October 25, 1987). I examine “Pollyanna” in detail in my “Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story.” I discussed “Pollyanna” with Lianne Hansen on her show “Weekend Edition Sunday” on National Public Radio (January 27, 2008). Hayley Mills (who played Pollyanna in the Disney film) was also part of the program. You can listen to the program here or download the audio here. You can read a transcript of the program here.