Porter, Eleanor H. (1868–1920)
Porter, Eleanor H. (1868–1920)
Bestselling American writer and author of the hugely successful Pollyanna. Name variations: (pseudonym) Eleanor Stewart. Born Eleanor Emily Hodgman on December 19, 1868, in Littleton, New Hampshire; died of tuberculosis on May 21, 1920, in Cambridge, Massachusetts; daughter of Francis Fletcher Hodgman (a pharmacist) and Llewella French (Woolson) Hodgman; studied music in public school, under private tutors, and at New England Conservatory of Music; married John Lyman Porter (a businessman), on May 3, 1892.
Cross Currents (1907); Miss Billy (1911); Miss Billy's Decision (1912); Pollyanna (1913); Miss Billy Married (1914); Pollyanna Grows Up (1915); Just David (1916); The Road to Understanding (1917); Oh, Money! Money! (1918); Dawn (1919); Across the Years (stories, 1919); Mary-Marie (1920); Money, Love and Kate (stories, 1925).
Merriam-Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary defines a Pollyanna as "a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything." The name of the brave little heroine of Eleanor H. Porter's most memorable novels has thus become part of the English language, an accomplishment few writers have achieved.
The only daughter of Francis Fletcher Hodgman, a pharmacist, and Llewella French Woolson Hodgman , a descendant of William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony, Eleanor Porter was born on December 19, 1868, in the tiny village of Littleton in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Although she showed a talent for writing from a very early age, her first love was music. Porter's public school education in Littleton was cut short when ill health forced her to leave high school and spend time recuperating in New Hampshire's clean mountain air. The frail health of her high school years mirrored in many ways the life of her mother, who for much of her adult life was an invalid. When Porter had regained her strength, she continued her studies under private tutors, and later studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music and privately in Boston. She taught music after concluding her studies and also gained local fame for her singing in church choirs, public concerts, and private homes.
On May 3, 1892, Eleanor married John Lyman Porter, a Boston businessman who in time would rise to the presidency of the National Separator and Machine Company. The two spent the next decade on the move, living in a number of cities throughout the eastern United States, including Springfield, Vermont; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and New York City. Eventually, they settled into an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which they shared with Eleanor's invalid mother.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Porter set aside her music and began to concentrate on writing. Initially, she spent much of her time turning out short fiction and is said to have had more than 200 of her short stories published by 1915, many of which appeared under the pseudonym Eleanor Stewart. (Six collections of her short stories eventually were released.) She published her first novel, Cross Currents, in 1907, but first achieved real success in 1911 with Miss Billy, the tale of a girl who transforms the lives of three bachelor brothers with whom she goes to live.
The appearance in 1913 of Pollyanna was met with both popular and critical acclaim. Porter's story of an orphan so dauntless in her optimism that she turns those around her into believers touched a nerve in America. The book and, more important, its title character, are without question the author's chief contributions to American literature and the popular culture of the day. Pollyanna quickly sold over one million copies and was translated into eight languages, becoming an international success; "Pollyanna Clubs" sprang up around the nation, and by 1920 the book was in its 47th printing. In years since, the almost unbelievable ability of Pollyanna to endure hardship and adversity has made the character and book leading candidates for satire. However, the orphan heroine's insistence on looking for the "glad" side of even the most unfortunate events still strikes a chord with many readers and with those who have seen the eponymous film versions of the book, 1920's excellent silent film starring Mary Pickford as Pollyanna and 1960's Disney movie, for which Hayley Mills won a special Academy Award for her performance in the title role. (The story was also adapted for the stage in 1916, starring Patricia Collinge as Pollyanna, a role taken over by Helen Hayes on the national tour.)
A recurrent theme in Porter's work is the ability of an individual, by sheer force of personality, to transform the world for the better. Just as the heroine of Miss Billy alters forever the lives of the three Boston bachelor brothers with whom she lives, upon her arrival at her Aunt Polly's home Pollyanna sets in motion a chain of events that ensures that her aunt and all of Beldingsville, Vermont, will never again be the same. In later years, reflecting on the immense success of her Pollyanna books, Porter happily acknowledged the preoccupation in her writings with "the agreeable, decent qualities of life." Her books reflect the influences of her childhood in New Hampshire and her love of music. Perhaps created as a counterbalance to some of the illness and unhappiness of Porter's early school years, Pollyanna possesses the almost magical ability to make things right no matter how badly awry they have gone. The character's "glad game" had been born before she was orphaned, when she unhappily announced to her father that her rummaging through the church's charity barrel had yielded only a pair of crutches and not the doll for which she'd hoped. Her father counseled her to look always for the bright side of things, in this case to be glad that at least she did not need the crutches.
Pollyanna returned in 1915 as the title character in Porter's Pollyanna Grows Up, in which the cheerful orphan "enlarges her sphere of activity and attempts to bring joy to all Boston, a prodigious and, of course, quite impossible task," according to the Boston Transcript. One year later Porter published Just David, in which an orphan named David is taken in by an elderly couple after his father dies. The boy's sole possessions
are a couple of violins (one of them a Stradivarius) he has inherited from his father, who was once a musician of note, and an ability to make beautiful music. Through the sweetness of his music and the essential goodness of his personality, David soon changes forever the lives of the people around him. This book, too, became a bestseller, as did Porter's novels The Road to Understanding (1917), Dawn (1919), Mary-Marie (1920), and Oh, Money! Money! (1918), in which she explored the powers of riches to both transform life and destroy character. The book's leading character, a wealthy man, leads relatives he has never met to believe that he has been lost in the wilds. They inherit part of his fortune with the promise that they will receive all of it once he has been declared legally dead. Changing his name and moving to the town where they live, the hero observes with consternation how this newfound wealth changes—and not for the better—the lives of his relatives.
Porter's wildly successful writing career ended on May 21, 1920, when she died of tuberculosis in her Cambridge home at the age of 51. Pollyanna remains in print, with numerous new editions published through the year 2000.
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Marchalonis, Shirley. "Eleanor H. Porter" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9: American Novelists, 1910–1945. Edited by James J. Martine. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1981.
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Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania