Well, they're right. There's still a lot of the holler in this boy. That's why I like to cook with bacon grease and random pig parts; that's why I like to nap in pine needles; and that's why I like to watch The Waltons. Not only is the show set in a place that is dear to me, it is also first rate storytelling, and it bucked the mold for its day.
The Waltons illustrated a functional, loving family when other shows were exposing all of our real life dysfunctions (think Archie Bunkerand Maude). It faithfully recreated simple, depression era living in the 1970s and early 1980s--a time typified by poly-blend suits and space age television sets (think The Sonny and Cher Show). It wasn't bawdy or daring, but in its own way, it was revolutionary.
It treated country people with respect. These weren't the hillbilly rapists of Deliveranceor the vigilantly bigots of To Kill a Mockingbird. These were good hearted, fair minded people, living in a tight knit community. The show addressed hot button issues like race and gender equality, but it did so in the same way that many real people did at the time, quietly and thoughtfully in the context of their daily lives.
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="227"] Boyhood home of Earl Hamner in Nelson County, Virginia[/caption]
As you may know, this gem of Appalachian entertainment started with books. Earl Hamner published Spencer's Mountain in 1961. It was our first glimpse at the family that would later be called the Waltons. In this book and in The Homecoming: A Novel About Spencer's Mountain (1970), the family was called the Spencers, but they were largely identical to the clan we know from television. They even featured a character called Clayboy, who was the bridge between television's John-Boy Walton and the author himself.
Like Clayboy and John-Boy, Hamner was born into a large mountain family. He dreamt of going to college and writing, but nothing seemed less attainable. He wrote this conflict into the plot of The Waltons. In a recent post on his blog, Hamner describes the way the storyline mirrored his real life and how he managed to go to college:
John-Boy’s mother has just discovered a tablet the boy has hidden under his mattress. She demands to know what is in it. He replies:
“You know what’s in this tablet, Mama? All my secret thoughts- how I feel, and what I think about. Things I never told anybody ‘till now. What it’s like late at night to hear a whippoorwill call and its mate call back, the rumble of the midnight train crossen the trestle at Rockfish, watchen water go by in the creek and knowen that some day it’ll reach the ocean and wonderen if I’ll ever see the ocean. Sometimes I hike over to Route 29 and watch the people in their cars and wagons go by and I wonder what their lives are like. Things stay in my mind, Mama. I can’t forget anything. It all gets bottled up and sometimes I feel like a crazy man. Can’t sleep or rest till I rush off up here and write it in that tablet.
“I do vow,” replied Olivia.
“If things had been different, Mama, I think I could have done somethen with my life. What I would have liked, Mama, was to have tried . . .to be .. a writer!
“If that’s what you want, couldn’t you still try? “ Asked Olivia.
“It wouldn’t be right,” he answered. “Not in these times. It takes a college education to be a writer and even if we had the money it wouldn’t be right to risk it all on me. And anyway I can’t disappoint my daddy. He’s got his heart set on me taking up a trade.”
Olivia replied, “He just want you to know how to make a living.”
“I could sure never do that scribblen things down in a tablet.”
But time would prove me wrong. Through the intervention of Laura Horsley, the wife of our company doctor I received a scholarship to the University of Richmond. But that was only half the battle. The scholarship paid for tuition only. There was still food and board, textbooks to be bought, fees of several kinds. Through the generosity of three of my father’s sisters I was taken into their home in Richmond and given food and lodging. Our local Baptist minister gave me a crash course in Latin, one of the requirements the University needed before I could qualify to accept the scholarship. My father ruefully parted with the white shirt he had planned to be buried in, and my mother spent the money she earned from selling eggs and buttermilk to buy me a suit from Sears and Roebuck. She showed a picture of it to me in the catalogue before it arrived – “the fabric is of green herringbone, with vest to match and an extra pair of trousers.” And it cost nineteen dollars and ninety-five cents. Took every cent of my mother’s buttermilk money!
Lucky for us, Hamner made it through school and became one of the Appalachian region's most successful sons. Honoring the deep impact that he has made on literature, the Library of Virginia will award Hamner with the 2011 Literary Lifetime Achievement Award on October 15.
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="270"] Hamner Family Kitchen[/caption]
Now a resident of California, the 88 year old Hamner will return to Virginia to accept the award. The ceremony will be in Richmond, where he will headline a lively conversation on the role of television in American life and culture over the past 60 years. In addition to The Waltons, Hamner created the long-running, night-time soap opera Falcon Crest and wrote for Rod Serling's classic series The Twilight Zone. If you're in the area, it should be a fascinating discussion.
If you're not able to attend, you can read an excellent interview with Hamner in the Library of Virginia's quarterly magazine Broadside. The author discusses the impact of the Blue Ridge Mountains on his work and his latest projects--a children's book about a goose that escapes a death warrant, another children's book about an American boy and an Aboriginal boy raising an orphaned kangaroo, and a "light hearted guide to the golden years", which this prolific writer certainly seems to be taking in stride.
Now, I have to ask, are there any other fans of The Waltons out there?
If so, please oh please post a comment and tell us why the show matters to you. Also, be sure to check out Earl Hamner's April 2010 update on the lives of your favorite cast members. One has recently appeared on Broadway. Another has had a touring cabaret act. A third actually lived in Hamner's home county--Nelson County, Virginia--for many years.
Hamner says that even though they are spread out and living disparate lives, they all stay in touch. Thirty years after the television show stopped running, it sounds like they still function like one big family.