I’ve loved the following essay since I came across a condensed version of it over thirty years ago.
“A person can never get true greatness by trying for it. You get it when you’re not looking for it. It’s nice to have good clothes—it makes it a lot easier to act decent—but it is a sign of true greatness to act when you haven’t got them just as good as if you had. One time when Ma was a little girl they had a bird at their house, called Bill, that broke his leg. They thought they would have to kill him, but next morning they found him propped up sort of sideways on his good leg, singing! That was true greatness. One time there was a woman that had done a big washing and hung it on the line. The line broke and let it all down in the mud, but she didn’t say a word, only did it over again; and this time she spread it on the grass, where it couldn’t fall. But that night a dog with dirty feet ran over it. When she saw what was done, she sat down and didn’t cry a bit. All she said was: ‘Ain’t it queer that he didn’t miss nothing!’ That was true greatness, but it’s only people who have done washings that know it! Once there was a woman that lived near a pig-pen, and when the wind blew that way it was very smelly, indeed; and at first when she went there to live she couldn’t smell anything but straight pig, but when she lived there a while she learned to smell the clover blossoms through it. That was true greatness.”
This gem has been attributed to several different people, two of whom are not named.Nellie L. McClung presents it as a composition written by a little girl named Pearl, a character in her novel “The Second Chance.”Several people have given credit for it to an English girl from an underprivileged home. H. Allen Smith, on the other hand, wrote in his collection of children’s writings, “Don’t Get Perconel With A Chicken,” [which is where I first read the essay]:
I have saved one of the finest items for the end of this little book. It is a little essay written by a twelve- year-old girl in Perry County, Alabama. Helen Essary came into possession of it about twenty years ago, checked it for its authenticity, and then sent it to the Reader's Digest and they checked it, so it must be genuine. It was published in 1939
I wonder who the real author is. Did Nellie L. McClung write it, or did she use it by permission of the the actual writer? (I haven't found any acknowledgements, so I'm inclined to think that she did write it. But... did she write it as an adult, or did she incorporate a piece of writing from her childhood into the novel? In either case, I'm glad... I'm thankful that this essay was written and published, and that I've had the joy of reading it.