Eleanor H. Porter's novel, Pollyanna, is one which met with unique
success. The book was number eight on the bestseller list in 1913 and
number 2 in 1914. In 1916 the story was written and produced as a broadway
play (Notable). Sparking "Glad Clubs" around the U.S., Pollyanna
soon became a household, and eventually a dictionary, term. Published
not long after Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Anne of Green Gables,
Pollyanna is also a story about a young girl with an optimistic
spirit and a gift for sharing that spirit with others; yet neither
of the former achieved the same level of success as Pollyanna. Singular
about Porter's success is the initial acclaim the book received
as an adult book, yet it doesn't fully explain its continued
success. In 1960 Walt Disney produced a Pollyanna film, which was
rereleased in 1992; and the book is still widely printed and read
today (Virgo, Worldcat). Critics describe the book as overly sentimental,
with shallow characters, yet millions of people, adults and children
love the Pollyanna stories. The biggest factor for the book's unique
success is Pollyanna herself and the message she brings to her readers.
In the years before 1913, the world was developing and changing. It was an age of
industrialization and urbanization. By 1913, industry was commonplace and
the automobile new and primitive. Only in the last twenty years had the internal combustion engine
been invented, and cars begun to be able to go faster than six
miles an hour. For people the age of Pollyanna's aunt and adult readers,
the automobile likely seemed a strange, scary creation (Columbia
Encyclopedia). In Pollyanna, in fact, it was an automobile that
caused Pollyanna to lose the use of her legs. After the accident,
no one in the book says a word about the driver's misuse of the
vehicle, instead they blame the machine itself. Nancy, the domestic
servant, says, "Ter think of it runnin' down our little girl! I
always hated the evil-smellin' things," (Porter, 201).
Also during this time, European countries were growing, adding new countries
to their own in a great imperial race. Porter refers to the role
of imperialism when she speaks of the Ladies Aiders who "had decided
that they would rather send all their money to bring up the little India
boys than to save enough to bring up one little boy in their own town," (Porter, 111).
A similar idea drove imperialism, the belief that the "heathen" in
other countries could be helped and civilized by the Western Powers.
Different political idealogies were being experimented with all over
the world. Anarchists assasinated leaders in many countries, including
a U.S. president. It was a time of psychologists like Freud, who
found that humans were only driven by animal desires and philosphers
like Nietzsche who sent up a cry that "God is Dead" (Noble). People
were looking for stability, for something to believe in and Pollyanna
offered them that.
In 1913 itself, war was impending and people were actually excited and ready
for it. Most people believed that the war would be short and just.
Pollyanna was higher on the bestseller list in 1914 when Europe was actually embroiled
in World War I (Hackett, 68). This timing aided Pollyanna's popularity.
Many people expected a good outcome to the war and Pollyanna echoed this
hopefulness in a general way. with so many dissenters about the
good and rationality of people, Pollyanna shouts that there is goodness
in everyone and always something about which to be glad. Pollyanna's
first words in the book are "oh, I'm so glad, glad, GLAD to see you"
The "Glad Clubs" likely increased the sales of the book and led more people
into Pollyanna's enchanting web. With no help from Porter herself,
the "Glad Clubs" brought the spirit of Pollyanna into people's homes.
In a time of much change, Pollyanna and the clubs provided a very simple
place to which people could turn. Gladness required no faith or
analyzation, not even Nietzsche could say that happiness was dead.
Porter even brings religion into the mix whith the reverend in her
book. When he is down about arguing amongst his congregation, Pollyanna
gives him the "rejoicing" verses. These are texts in the Bible which
tell people to rejoice and be glad. "Thus it happened that the Rev.
Paul Ford's sermon the next Sunday was a veritable bugle-call to the best that
was in every man and woman and child that heard it; and its text
was one of Pollyanna's shining eight hundred" rejoicing verses (Porter, 196).
Pollyanna's message is a similar "bugle-call." Whether or not one
believes in God, such texts can provide comfort and anyone can find
something in which to rejoice. In this way Pollyanna was somewhat
universal. Religious beliefs are not in any way a hindrance to believing
in Pollyanna's message.
Pollyanna is also universal in audience according to age. Unlike
heroines in other children's books, Pollyanna does not consort
with children but with adults. There is only one other child
Pollyanna's age in the entire book. Otherwise Pollyanna is
consistently meeting with and helping adults. The subject matter
of the book concerns specifically adult problems, such as
unrequited love and poverty. A doctor who is despairing in his
work looks "into Pollyanna's shining eyes, he felt as if a loving
hand had been suddenly laid on his head in blessing" (Porter,137).
The Ladies Aid is another element more readily understandable to
adults. These elements make the book appealing to adults and such
adults are more likely to share the story with their children.
Regardless of age, Pollyanna touches every person's heart.
The same year that Pollyanna reached number 2 on the bestsellers
list, two books about boys were on the list, one of which was
Locke's The Fortunate Youth (Hackett, 69). This shows a trend not
only for books about young children, but also a desire
among people for books that are unreservedly happy. Perhaps with
Europe in the first year of war people wanted books that shared
their own optimism about the war. Another interesting note to
this trend is the similar success of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. This book was number 8 on the bestseller list in 1904,
when the Russo-Japanese war was in progress. Again another time
of war that did not physically touch America. Also in that year
the New York Subway opened, a sign not only of increasing technology
but also of urbanization. During 1904 historical and romantic
fiction were consistently topping bestseller lists (Hackett, 68).
Such events result in a trend towards romantic or "glad" books,
which are not far different from events in the years Pollyanna
was most popular. Mott describes the primary virtue of Pollyanna
as "cheerfulness in the face of troubles," and this term could
also be applied to the other three books (Mott).
Another trait that Pollyanna, The Fortunate Youth and Rebecca of
Sunnybrook farm have in common is simplicity of landscape and a
movement away from urbanization. Perhaps this aspect of getting
back to a simpler life also appeals to people. In The
Fortunate Youth, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and even Anne of
Green Gables, which made it on no American bestseller lists, the
main characters rarely ride in cars, but travel in carriages. In
all four there is very little mention of new technologies or city
life. Although there are many similarities between Pollyanna and
these other popular books of the time, Pollyanna has enjoyed a
success different and perhaps greater than the other three.
The Fortunate Youth is no longer in print, Anne of Green Gables
wasn't a bestseller and when Walt Disney chose to make a movie in
1960 it chose Pollyanna, not the better selling Rebecca of
Sunnybrook farm. Aside from books about young children of the
early 1900's, there are few books that cause people to meet
together in clubs dedicated to a primary message of the book.
There are few books that become broadway plays. Pollyanna's
success makes the book stand out from the others as a phenomen
all its own. Porter, with a genre that was not unique or new in
itself, touched on an unprecedented popularity. There was
something about Pollyanna that caused people to love her.
The immediate appeal Pollyanna held for many Americans is readily
explainable. Less obvious is why the popularity has continued so
consistently. Of course, Americans of any era can appreciate an
ideal child and good family values, but that doesn't explain the
reach of the success. Pollyanna is a term still in use, and it is
hard to find anyone who doesn't know something of the story.
Other authors have written books about Pollyanna, and the story
has been translated into many languages. Another sign of the
continued popularity of Pollyanna is the fact that Disney made
the story into a movie in 1960. There must be a contiuing audience for Pollyanna,
as well as a continuing need for some part of the message she
Again current events provide part of the answer. The 1960's were
a time of turmoil for the US, there were demonstrations across
the country for a variety of causes and many people were questioning
what it meant to be American. Yet it was also a time of great hope. There
were strong leaders, such a John Kennedy in the U.S., and foreign troubles,
such as the cold war, seemed to be ending. Porter's story and her Pollyanna
could have been a reminder of sorts about what it is to live in
America. Parents probably appreciated a children's movie that
preached a good set of ethics, although the message of American
values was likely a subtle one. In a troubled era such a film
could remind viewers of a simpler time in America. It was likely
the movie itself which reminded a wide audience of Americans who
Pollyanna was, brought the name back into American households;
that is, if it had ever left. Through a mixture of these traits,
Pollyanna became a children's classic.
Pollyanna's message and her character are wholly American, yet
also universal, making her loveable in any language. Pollyanna
has traits that Americans claim for themselves proudly. In 1913,
when different political idealogies abounded and war was imminent
people probably loved anything that made them proud to be American
and to live in a democracy. In a captilist society, Pollyanna is
an entrepreneur of gladness. Pollyanna allows people to forget
about the fast-paced urban world and get back to a more traditional
image of small-town America, where everyone knows everyone else
and no one ever leaves. Porter's criticism of the Ladies Aid for
choosing to support an Indian boy rather than an American
emphasizes this focus on America.
Pollyanna herself epitomizes American values, such as independence
and self-reliance. Pollyanna, even from the start is very
independent, the first day she is at her aunt's house she goes
out exploring on her own. She sees a tree outside her window that
is a path to exploration of the outdoors. She decides to attempt
the climb, with the words, "I believe I can do it" (Porter, 30)
and she does. It is this attitude of faith, determination and
bravery that Pollyanna carries with her in her striving to
achieve various goals. When she sees a problem she doesn't ask
anyone else for help, but does what she can to better the
situation. Her "glad game" is a sadness solving device her father
developed and which she uses repeatedly to help every adult she
meets. Never does Pollyanna fail to believe in her ability to
make others happy or that there is always hope for a better
tomorrow. The first settlers in America helped their neighbors
erect homes and survive in the wilderness. In a similar way
Pollyanna helps her neighbors find happiness in the
20th Century. Pollyanna looks at none of what she does as a duty,
as does her aunt, but rather as a joy. She helps people altruistically
and has an innate understanding of right and wrong. Pollyanna is a
good child, along with the many American attributes she has and
so she makes a fine representative of an American child.
The Pollyanna books appealed to adults not only with the image of
the ideal American child but also because so many of the issues
with which Pollyanna dealt were adult ones. Many of these adult
problems reflect moral values, as well. Pollyanna finds a home
for an orphaned boy with a lonely man, emphasizing not only the
importance of family, but also the different shapes families can
take. Pollyanna makes a family with her aunt, when she is orphaned;
in America not all families must be traditional. It is also
important that Pollyanna helps an American boy rather than
looking abroad as do the Ladies Aiders. Another aspect of such
family values is mentioned near the end of the book when a woman
whom Pollyanna has helped comes to visit the injured Pollyanna.
Pollyanna's aunt at once recognizes the woman as someone of "ill-repute."
The stranger explains to the aunt that Pollyanna has helped her
to change her ways and prevented her and her husband from getting a
divorce. She said that Pollyanna, "didn't know, I suspect, that
her kind of folks don't generally call on my kind. Maybe if they
did call more, Miss Harrington, there wouldn't be so many--of my
kind" (Porter, 244). Thus, Pollyanna brings people and families
together in a wholesome way.
Porter's timing of Pollyanna was advantageous to the popularity
of the book. With the turmoil of the time and the fast rate at
which America and Europe were becoming industrialized, people
appreciated books that focused on a simpler, slower life. When
science was displacing religion and philosophers turning away
from religion people needed something to believe in and Pollyanna
offered them gladness. The popularity of the book was furthered
by "Glad Clubs" that came into existence not long after the book.
Porter wrote a book that is both age-centered and universal, she
does not write for a particular age group or an audience with
particular religious beliefs. Books about young children were
popular in Pollyanna's time, yet Pollyanna's popularity has
loomed larger and lasted longer than the others. This unique
success reflects the unique character of the book. It is Pollyanna
who wins people's hearts and spreads the message of morality and
joy. Pollyanna, makes up for what else the book lacks and is a
small symbol of America which will be remembered for decades.
Columbia Encyclopedia. Fifth edition.
Hackett. 80 Years of Bestsellers 1895-1975.
James. Notable American Women 1607-1950. 1971.
Mott. Golden Multitudes. 1947.
Noble. Western Civilizatioon. Second Edition. Boston, New York:
Houghton-Mifflin Company. 1998.
Porter. Pollyanna. England: Puffin Books. 1994.