Pollyanna – the ACTUAL book

The original Pollyanna,  written by Eleanor H. Porter, published by L.C. Page and Company, 53 Beacon Street, Boston, Mass. 1913, eventually spewed 15 sequels. I’ve referred to it myself in prior posts, using the now-ubiquitous, sometimes sneered, definition of “a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything (Merriam-Webster still rules the world.).” Consider this summary a dare for you to at least skim it.


The book led to a real-life board game, clubs, theatre productions. There is an article in Volume 8, Issue 1, February 1969, Pages 1-8 of the Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior which claims that a human tendency to use positive language ought to be called “The Pollyanna Hypothesis.” In 1978, researchers by the name of Matlin and Stang posited a “Pollyanna Principle” which basically says “people like good stuff and dislike bad stuff.” Maybe even to the extent of excessively avoiding “bad stuff” and overly-sentimentalizing or “prettying-up” memories. This is all broad paraphrasing, because I can’t find the original Matlin and Stang article and I’m therefore using bread crumbs from outside references about the original.


EXCEPT. None of these twits seems to have read the book. Which, by the way and in my humble English major opinion, is TERRIBLE. It made my ears ache the writing is so mannered. The plot twists were Gordian knots and scattered like boulders through the pages. There were undeniably some chuckle-worthy high camp bits. And some rather darkly comic references to the ugly adult tendencies of one-upmanship (reminded me of “Pick-a-Little” from The Music Man), pride and all sorts of other nasty habits.  I ain’t convinced Ms. Porter intended the blasted thing very much for kids at all – I can’t even unravel if she had any.


This is a quote from page 142.

“Matthew twenty-third; 13—14 and 23,” he wrote; then, with a gesture of impatience, he dropped his pencil and pulled toward him a magazine left on the desk by his wife a few minutes before. Listlessly his tired eyes turned from paragraph to paragraph until these words arrested them:

“A father one day said to his son, Tom, who, he knew, had refused to fill his mother’s woodbox that morning: ‘Tom, I’m sure you’ll be glad to go and bring in some wood for your mother.’ And without a word Tom went. Why? Just because his father showed so plainly that he expected him to do the right thing. Suppose he had said: ‘Tom, I overheard what you said to your mother this morning, and I’m ashamed of you. Go at once and fill that woodbox!’ I’ll warrant that woodbox, would be empty yet, so far as Tom was concerned!”

On and on read the minister—a word here, a line there, a paragraph somewhere else:

‘What men and women need is encouragement. Their natural resisting powers should be strengthened, not weakened…. Instead of always harping on a man’s faults, tell him of his virtues. Try to pull him out of his rut of bad habits. Hold up to him his better self, his REAL self that can dare and do and win out!… The influence of a beautiful, helpful, hopeful character is contagious, and may revolutionize a whole town…. People radiate what is in their minds and in their hearts. If a man feels kindly and obliging, his neighbors will feel that way, too, before long. But if he scolds and scowls and criticizes—his neighbors will return scowl for scowl, and add interest!… When you look for the bad, expecting it, you will get it. When you know you will find the good—you will get that…. Tell your son Tom you KNOW he’ll be glad to fill that woodbox—then watch him start, alert and interested!'”


This book IS NOT about being overly optimistic. It’s not about gullibility. It’s not about “finding good.” Porter was a guru of gratitude. Pollyanna’s favorite word, which I considered counting in the text, but gave up in despair, is “glad.” Her father taught her, as a game when she was very young, to find gratitude, and it became habit. Pollyanna looks at life unflinchingly – she’s lost her mother early in life (possibly her mother died during Pollyanna’s birth); her father dies when she’s 11. But Pollyanna struggles to find an outlook of (again, BROAD PARAPHASING) “I’m glad my Father could tell me about Mother. I’m glad I did have my Father, who taught me gratitude as a game. I can share the gift my father gave me.” rather than adopt an outlook of “Life isn’t worth living because I’m an orphan.”


More and more research is showing that consciously cultivating gratitude is incredibly healthy. “Gratitude Defined,” Greater Good Magazine, Greater Good Science Center,University of California Berkeley.


But if all the 15 sequels do as much damage to decent writing as did the first, they ought to have stopped with #1. I’d have been quite grateful to save the trees.


About Lauren Williams

Lauren Williams, Certified Professional Organizer®, Certified Virtual Professional Organizer®

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