Eleanor H. Porter
By Nava Atlas | On April 11, 2020 | Updated August 31, 2022 | Comments (0)
Eleanor H. Porter (December 19, 1868 – May 21, 1920) was best known as the author of Pollyanna, the children’s novel that took America by storm during the World War I years.
Most people today won’t know the name of the author of this classic, but many still understand what it means to be called a “Pollyanna.” According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, it’s “a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything.”
Pollyanna was published in 1913, on the eve of World War I — it would hardly seem the time for the story of a girl who could see the bright side of just about any situation, no matter how dire. But somehow the book struck a nerve and was an immediate hit with children as well as adults, and its popularity endured throughout those years.
Much of the following biography comes directly from her obituary in Cambridge Chronicle, May, 29, 1920.
Early years and education
Eleanor Hodgman was born in Littleton, New Hampshire, and was the only child of Francis Fletcher Hodgman, a pharmacist and Llewella (Woolson) Hodgman. She was of Mayflower ancestry and traced her lineage directly back to Governor Bradford.
When she was a very small child, Eleanor began to play and sing. Even before she learned to read notes she would make up little pieces to express her moods. Naturally, it was decided in her family that she was “musical,” and all her education was planned to cultivate that talent.
She had also, however, a taste for writing, and birthdays, weddings and other important occasions among her acquaintances were always celebrated with a little poem from Eleanor.
In school, on exhibition days, her part was singing, playing or acting, though all the while she was longing to be asked to write. During Eleanor’s high school days, ill health interrupted her studies and for a time all books were banished.
When she became well again, she came to Boston, where she studied music under private teachers and at the New England conservatory. She sang in concerts and in church choirs for some years.
The start of a writing career
After her marriage on May 3, 1892, at Springfield, Vt., to John Lyman Porter, of Corinth, Vt., they took up their residence for a few years at Chattanooga, Tenn., where Mr. Porter then was in business.
It was around 1900 that Eleanor began to turn her attention seriously to writing. Her first novel, Cross Currents, was published in 1907. Subsequent books included The Turn of the Tide, The Story of Marco, Miss Billy, and Miss Billy’s Decision. The latter two, published in 1911 and 1912, fared very well and set the stage for what was to become her most popular work.
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Pollyanna: Revisiting the Eternal Optimist
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Pollyanna, subtitled The Glad Book, became her best-known work. Following its publication as a full novel in1913 (it was first serialized in newspapers), it didn’t take long for the book to sell its first million copies.
Pollyanna is an 11-year-old orphan who comes to live under the care of her dour spinster aunt Polly in a Vermont town. Soon, her “glad game” — finding the good in any situation— wins over the residents of the town and transforms it into a place of hope and joy.
Pollyanna’s success was followed by Miss Billy Married (rounding out a series of three) and Pollyanna Grows Up. Later works included Just David and Dawn. All of her books of this era were enormous bestsellers.
Following the success of these books, Eleanor went in a somewhat different direction with her work. The Road to Understanding, to a certain extent like Dawn, dealt mainly with older characters, as did her short stories, published in three volumes, each with a certain unity of subject: The Tie That Binds, Tales of Love and Marriage, The Tangled Threads, Just Tales, and Across the Years Tales of Age.
In Mary Marie, she went back to the scene of her greatest popular successes, once again creating a lovable child character. At the time of her death, Eleanor had been working on a story which had been contracted for by a Boston monthly magazine.
She also had recently finished a book entitled Sister Sue, which a New York magazine had contracted for, to be issued serially in the fall.
The last fifteen years of Eleanor Hodgman Porter’s life were spent in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was only 51 when she died of tuberculosis on May 21, 1920.
She was survived by her husband, with whom she had no offspring, though she demonstrated a great affinity for children in her literary work.
At her funeral service, the reverend noted in his eulogy that she was “mourned as a beautiful woman who had won her way into the hearts of everyone who had read her stories; that her books had blessed thousands of lives of old and young. She was loved for her winsome gladness; her buoyant and joyous nature was reflected in her characters.”
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Stage and film adaptations
Pollyanna was first adapted to the Broadway stage in 1916, with Helen Hayes in the title role. It received great accolades and went on the road to be performed in Philadelphia and other locations. It debuted as a silent film in 1920 starring Mary Pickford, the actress then known as “America’s sweetheart,” also to resounding success.
The 1960 Disney adaptation is the best known. Hayley Mills won a special Oscar for her portrayal of Pollyanna. The film departs in some significant ways from the book; still, it was a major success. These are just a few of its film and stage adaptations.
Eleanor H. Porter’s Legacy
Pollyanna came just about in the middle of Eleanor’s prolific writing career. In her time, she became quite well known. Throughout her writing career, she also wrote numerous short stories.
As a work of literature, Pollyanna is sentimental, corny, and somewhat simplistic. It doesn’t have the grace, humor, and subtle subversiveness of L.M. Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables, a book that also deals with an unwanted 11-year-old orphan girl, published just five years earlier.
In turn, Anne of Green Gables debuted five years after Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin (1903). Pollyanna has endured as part of this trio of early twentieth-century books about irrepressible orphan girls who melt the hearts of dour aunts and flinty spinsters.
Despite the book’s incredible success and staying power, Eleanor was often roundly criticized for unleashing this cheerful-to-a-fault heroine. In an interview, she explained:
“You know 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’ at everything. I have never believed that we ought to deny discomfort and pain and evil; I have merely thought that it is far better to ‘greet the unknown with a cheer.’”
Pollyanna, though in the public domain, continues to stay in print, has gone through countless editions, and has been translated to numerous languages.
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More about Eleanor H. Porter
On this site
In addition to some fifteen published novels, Eleanor H. Porter wrote numerous short stories, perhaps some 200, for various publications, too many to list here. The following are a few of the collections:
- Across the Years (1919)
- Money, Love, and Kate (1923; posthumous)
- Little Pardner (1926)
- Just Mother (1927)
- Cross Currents (1907)
- The Turn of the Tide (1908)
- The Story of Marco (1911)
- Miss Billy (1911)
- Miss Billy’s Decision (1912)
- Pollyanna (1913)
- The Sunbridge Girls at Six Star Ranch (1913)
- Miss Billy Married (1914)
- Pollyanna Grows Up (1915)
- Just David (1916)
- The Road to Understanding (1917)
- Oh, Money! Money! (1918)
- The Tangled Threads (1919)
- Dawn (1919)
- Keith’s Dark Tower (1919)
- Mary Marie (1920)
- Sister Sue (1921; posthumous)
More information and sources
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