One of my best friends in high school was a teenage Shirley Temple. Just seeing this girl was to step into sunshine. A cheerleader, a budding actress and director, and a member of student government, she always carried a smile, listened to the woes of any number of her classmates, and looked on the bright side of life. She was one of the happiest people I’ve ever met.
Though we lost contact after graduation, I recently searched for her online and found a newspaper article describing her teaching career in the Highlands of Western North Carolina. She taught literature and drama to two generations of young people, and from her comments in the article and the praise of parents and former students, I knew she had never lost her optimism.
Like her, others have crossed my path over the years who possessed this joy and the ability, as the old song goes, to “keep on the sunny side of life.” One of my sons always answers phone calls from me as if he were in the middle of a party. A teacher from my college days who became a friend never seemed daunted by any difficulty.
I’m not sure quite where I fit on this optimism-pessimism spectrum, but would guess that I’m more of a glass-half-full guy. I don’t light up a room when I enter it, and like lots of people, I have my down days, but overall I try to maintain an upbeat attitude.
Which brings us to Pollyanna Whittier.
Published in 1913, Eleanor Porter’s novel “Pollyanna” tells the story of an 11-year-old orphan who, after her father dies, travels to Beldingsville, Vermont, to live with her Aunt Polly, her deceased mother’s sister. Aunt Polly accepts the young girl into her home not out of love, but from a sense of duty. Despite the grandeur of her house, she assigns Pollyanna to a tiny attic bedroom, demands correct behavior of her at all times, and sets her young charge a rigorous schedule.
But along with her luggage, Pollyanna has brought a defense against her aunt’s rigidity, “The Glad Game.” Taught to her by her father, a minister, she is an enthusiastic practitioner of this game in which the object is to find some sort of happiness and gratitude no matter how dire or sad the situation.
As she encounters various people in the town—a crusty, old bachelor; an invalid; Aunt Polly’s servant Nancy—she teaches them the game as well, and soon they turn their lives around, becoming more appreciative of their blessings and able to pass that attitude on to others. Even Aunt Polly eventually has a change of heart regarding her niece’s philosophy.
Pollyanna faces her greatest test when she is struck by a car and loses the use of her legs. She falls into a depression in which she can find no gladness, but when the people she has encouraged visit her and she discovers how much she has helped others, she decides she can play “The Glad Game” with or without the ability to walk. (Spoiler alert: Aunt Polly marries her old flame, a doctor, and Pollyanna walks again.)
So how did it happen, some of you may be wondering, that an old man like me read “Pollyanna” for the first time?
In Need of Something Brighter and Lighter
In early March, I visited the public library and carried home Rachel Hollis’s self-help book “Didn’t See That Coming” to review for the Smoky Mountain News. At one point, Hollis recounted a conversation with a friend, Greg, in which she apologized for sounding “a bit like Pollyanna.” Greg paused and asked whether she’d ever read “Pollyanna.” When Hollis answered in the negative, her friend explained that his wife had read the novel to their young children and that he had listened to the story.
He then said, “Pollyanna turns a negative into a positive at least a hundred times in that book. … That’s not something to be ashamed of, that’s something to be admired. A person who can turn a negative into a positive can never be defeated. It’s a super-power.”
At the same time I read this account, I was trudging through Dostoevsky’s “Devils” and spending my usual hours online every day searching the news for ideas that might inspire good articles. This bleak goulash wasn’t exactly the healthiest of dishes. When I read Hollis’s account of her conversation, I thought “Why not?” and asked my editor if I might submit a piece on this children’s classic.
With her stamp of approval, I found the unabridged “Pollyanna” at bartleby.com and set off on my adventure.
A Cultural Icon
During my reading, I investigated the impact of “Pollyanna” on our culture. Many sequels to this novel, only a few of them penned by Porter, fed the public’s appetite for this girl and her “Glad Game.”
Several movies have brought the story to the big screen, including Mary Pickford in a 1920 silent film, Hayley Mills in the Disney version I saw as a kid, and the 2003 adaptation recommended by my editor, which I watched and thoroughly enjoyed. Only three years after the book’s publication, Helen Hayes starred in a Broadway production based on “Pollyanna.”
Though Porter’s story clearly had a major impact on American culture, that word “Pollyanna” has served in my own lifetime mostly as a pejorative directed at someone who is foolishly optimistic. Call someone a “Pollyanna,” and you may as well call him a fool. These negative connotations have even infiltrated the field of psychology. “Pollyanna syndrome” denotes “an excessively or blindly optimistic person,” and the “Pollyanna principle” is “the tendency for people to remember pleasant items more accurately than unpleasant ones.”
Most of us, I suspect, would agree that careless optimism can be dangerous. A man who packs for a camping trip but brings no slicker or waterproof tent may likely end up spending a long night shivering in cold rain.
Yet I wonder: Could we use a little more Pollyannaism in our daily lives?
Our Current Mood
Americans were once known around the world for their can-do spirit, their confidence in themselves, and their hope in the future. That attitude led to many accomplishments. In the 20th century alone, we defeated fascism abroad and polio at home, we won the Cold War, we built airplanes, automobiles, and roads on a scale never before seen in the world, and we sent men to the moon and invented computers and the internet. And that’s only scratching the surface of a very long list of achievements.
Lately, however, a sour pessimism seems to have overshadowed that American spirit. Some of the articles I read online are full of doom and gloom, and some people in our culture and the political sphere are always wagging their fingers at us like Aunt Polly writ large, reprimanding us for past wrongs, warning us to toe the mark they’ve set, and predicting dire events in the future unless we change our ways.
Seeking the Good
Few of us have the power or the ability to influence national events, but we can take charge of our own lives and so influence those around us. Near the end of “Pollyanna,” when Aunt Polly finally understands The Glad Game, she goes alone to her crippled niece, tells her of her many visitors, expresses her desire to play the game, and then says, “The whole town is playing the game, and the whole town is wonderfully happier—and all because of one little girl who taught the people a new game, and how to play it.”
At one point, Eleanor Porter writes: “When you look for the bad, expecting it, you will get it. When you know you will find the good—you will get that.”
We don’t have to become Pollyanna or play The Glad Game as relentlessly as she does. I’m not sure that’s advisable anyway. But we can look for the good in this fallen world and remember to feel gratitude even in the midst of our trials. By doing so, we may not make everyone around us “wonderfully happier,” but with any luck we can help them become stronger, braver, and better people.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.