Pollyanna: Spirit of Optimism Born Out of War She was cute, she was cheerful, and she was famous for the creation of "the glad game." But today her name is synonymous with optimism — to a fault. Liane Hansen explores the roots of Pollyanna's story.
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Pollyanna: Spirit of Optimism Born Out of War

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Pollyanna: Spirit of Optimism Born Out of War

Pollyanna: Spirit of Optimism Born Out of War

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When the dark clouds of World War I began to gather over Europe, in America, the golden age of children's literature was coming to an end. Between 1865 and 1914, some of the best known juvenile characters had been introduced - Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March. Their stories became classics and sold very well at the time.

Perhaps because of the turmoil over there, people needed optimism. Perhaps because of the new industrial age, people wanted stories set in Utopian small towns where horses and carriages outnumbered cars. Perhaps because of the sales potential, Eleanor H. Porter's publisher asked her to write a cheerful book.

When "Pollyanna" was published in 1913, it was on the adult best-seller list. Today, the name of the novel's cheerful heroine still echoes in press conferences from Washington to Baghdad.

Lieutenant Colonel STAN COERR (Marine Corps Reserve): No one is as much of a Pollyanna as some who say everything is going well in Baghdad. No one actually believes that.

Unidentified Man #2: And so I think he can speak language in a way that says, without sounding a Pollyanna, we can see this thing through if we make this kind of reform.

Mr. SEAN O'KEEFE (Administrator, NASA): There is no one-trick pony at this. It is not something it happens simply because I send out a memo. I'm not a Pollyanna on that point at all.

HANSEN: Today, as part of NPR's In Character series, we are going to study "Pollyanna" and try to figure out how a beacon of optimism turned into an empty bubble head.

In Eleanor Porter's novel, Pollyanna is a poor minister's daughter, now orphaned, who goes to live with her wealthy uptight aunt who dominates a small town. Whenever Pollyanna encounters an obstacle, she plays what she calls the glad game.

This is from the 2003 masterpiece theater production.

(Soundbite of theater production, "Pollyanna")

Unidentified Woman #1: (As Pollyanna) Father told me it.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) What is it?

Unidentified Woman #1: (As Pollyanna) It started when I wanted a doll. And father (unintelligible) people. But he came out, it's just some crutches.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) Crutches? Does he know?

Unidentified Woman #1: (As Pollyanna) And the game is to find something to be glad about in everything.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) How can you be glad about getting crutches if you want is a doll?

Unidentified Woman #1: (As Pollyanna) Uh-huh, you're glad because you don't need them. I couldn't see it at first. Father had to tell me. I've played it ever since.

HANSEN: Jerry Griswold is a professor of children's literature at San Diego State University. He wrote a history called "Audacious Kids." He says "Pollyanna" came from the same mold as other novels of the golden age.

Professor JERRY GRISWOLD (Children's Literature, San Diego State University): In many respects, it fits perfectly with, for example, "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" and "Little Women," and the girl's tradition. It has a reputation, like "Pollyanna," being a sentimental novel but you really see a young child who's cunning and optimistic. But I think the other thing you see is that this repeating story of the time period that they're orphans, that they're being taken in by a sclerotic and unhappy people. And by having that child in their mitts, that hard-hearted person's heart is melted by this evangelical child.

HANSEN: By 1946, millions of copies of "Pollyanna" had been sold. Nationwide, glad clubs have formed. The novel was printed in 11 languages, produced as a Broadway play and made into several movies, including a silent one starring Mary Pickford. "Pollyanna" also entered the dictionary as a noun. Merriam Webster's definition of the term is a person of irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything. However, the American Heritage Dictionary's definition reads: A foolishly or blindly optimistic person. "Pollyanna" had fallen out of favor.

Prof. GRISWOLD: I think there's always been a sort of alternation in American cultural life that we see on everyday basis. That is when someone says something sort of upbeat and optimistic, the antidote or the next sort of reply that comes conversationally is, oh, kept real. I think what happened was maybe at this time in America, Americans needed that kind of optimism, that kind of positivity. But after a few years, it began to grow wearisome. In fact, there's a famous cartoon in the New Yorker about a - shows a little girl underneath a car. She's just been struck by a car. And making fun of "Pollyanna," the caption is, oh, I'm so glad it was a limousine.

HANSEN: Although the book's reputation was that of saccharin story about an empty-headed optimist, in 1960, Pollyanna was revived in a big budget Technicolor movie. This is Walt Disney's definition of "Pollyanna."

(Soundbite of movie, "Pollyanna")

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) It means somebody who is so everlastingly optimistic and sunny and cheerful that you can hardly stand it.

HANSEN: "Pollyanna" introduced British actress Hayley Mills to American audiences.

(Soundbite of movie, "Pollyanna")

Unidentified Woman #3: (As character) You know why I hate Sunday? Because it means the starting of another week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Me too.

Ms. HALEY MILLS (Actor): (As Pollyanna) That's when you can play the glad game.

Unidentified Woman #3: (As character) Here it comes, Miss-Goody-Too-Shoes is going to find something about Sunday to be glad about.

Unidentified Woman #4: (As character) Oh lay off, (unintelligible)

Ms. MILLS: (As Pollyanna) Well, there's always something.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MILLS: (As Pollyanna) You'd glad because…

Unidentified Woman #3: (As character) Well, because what?

Ms. MILLS: (As Pollyanna) Because it will be six whole days before Sunday comes around again, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Hayley Mills made "Pollyanna" when she was 13. She read Eleanor Porter's book when she was 12.

Ms. MILLS: I think Pollyanna is - she's all children, really, before they turn into adults. She's still somehow free of conditioning. She comes into this time that is controlled and run by her aunt, Polly Harrington. You know, she's a bit of a tyrant. She's a bit of a dictator. She even dictates to the church what's going to be served in the sermons. And this child comes in from a completely different world. And it's her originality as a human being that inspires and transforms that community. I think that that's what they've lost. They rediscover their intrinsic joy, and love, and connectedness with life to her. She just is like a mirror up to them.

I don't quite understand, well, I do to a certain sense the way that "Pollyanna" has become this kind of little Miss-Goody-Too-Shoes awful saccharin image of a person. I think she's a normal child.

HANSEN: Shortly after "Pollyanna" became a box-office hit and Hayley Mills received a miniature Oscar, Eleanor Porter's novel went out of print in the United States. But in 1969, two researchers wrote an article called "The Pollyanna Hypothesis." Margaret Matlin, a psychologist at SUNY Geneseo, co-wrote a 1979 book called "The Pollyanna Principle" based on the hypothesis.

Dr. MARGARET MATLIN (Psychologist, SUNY Geneseo): And this focused specifically on how people use positive words more often than negative words in the language. One of the things that is most relevant to "The Pollyanna Hypothesis" comes from the frequency of positive words in various languages. If you look at some of the specific counts in literature, for instance, the Bible has many more positive words than it has negative words, but that even applies to James Joyce and William Blake. I don't think anyone would have called either of them a "Pollyanna."

HANSEN: Why do you think "Pollyanna" became a negative? To be called a Pollyanna was…

Dr. MATLIN: Yes.

HANSEN: …a pejorative.

Dr. MATLIN: Mm-hmm, exactly. I think it's that uncritical optimism. A person who's a Pollyanna according to our current usage is always looking on the bright side and thinking that things will look up, things will get better, and in many cases that's not the case.

I imagine, for instance, many people whom many of us know are saying, well, I'm sure this war is not very pleasant right now in Iraq but things are going to get better. That's a problem that I think we need to deal with, and obviously "Pollyanna" didn't have any kinds of concerns of that nature but if you're simply uncritically optimistic, it is not useful.

HANSEN: It is useful to remember that Pollyanna was different from some of the other juvenile characters created at the time. Her friends were grown ups. There is only one other character in the book her same age. The themes of unrequited love, despair and poverty were adult ones. "Pollyanna" also had a universal appeal. Although her father was a minister and her message to rejoice comes from the Bible, gladness itself did not require faith nor analysis. Happiness simply was not dead.

If a new film version of "Pollyanna" were to be release today, how do you think it would fair?

Dr. MATLIN: I think it would fair wonderfully well because the things that we've just been talking about are perennial. Look at "Forrest Gump." You know, he expected the best and got it.

Prof. GRISWOLD: Oh, that's terribly clever, because, really, what "Pollyanna" is "Forrest Gump" are full figures.

HANSEN: Children's literature Professor Jerry Griswold.

Prof. GRISWOLD: If you just look back at your own childhood, do you remember those moments when you were able to, like, manipulate these huge people called adults in one - and maybe your parents? So there's whole sort of notion that you can, you know, act like Lucille Ball with these big people, these grown ups and finally get your way, shows you that there's this great connection, I think, between the full figure and the child.

HANSEN: Do you think Eleanor Porter became aware of the criticism of her character, that kind of bubble headed optimism?

Prof. GRISWOLD: Her position was she said I've been made to suffer because of "Pollyanna." She says if I was denying that there was any pain or wrongness in the world, she said that that really wasn't what she was doing in "Pollyanna." She was just saying that given a choice, she would rather meet the world in a sort of upbeat and cheerful way rather than in some other way.

HANSEN: The novel "Pollyanna" is back in print in the United States and still sells modestly. Eleanor Porter's archives are kept at Dartmouth University. Hayley Mills is living and working in New York City. And to see the Utopian main street of a small American town where Pollyanna and other golden children still spread sunshine, you have to go to Disney World.

There's more on our character study on our Website npr.org. NPR's In Character series continues tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED with Scarlett O'Hara.

What great American inspired you? Nominate your favorite on our In Character blog, we might put your suggestion on the radio go to npr.org/incharacter.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Still smiling, I'm Liane Hansen.

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