Thursday, December 22, 2016

Growing up in the Shadow of Walton's Mountain

My grandfather used to say that nobody owns a mountain; but getting born, and living, and dying in its shadow, we loved Walton's Mountain and felt it was ours. The Walton family had endured in that part of the Blue Ridge for over 200 years. A short time in the history of a mountain. Still, our roots had grown deep in its earth.
When I was growing up there with my brothers and sisters, I was certain that no one on Earth had quite so good a life. I was fifteen and growing at an alarming rate. Each morning I woke convinced that I had added another inch to my height while I slept.

I was trying hard to fill my father's shoes that winter. We were in the middle of the Depression, and the mill, on which our village depended, had closed. My father had found work in a town 50 miles away and he could only be with us on weekends. On Christmas Eve, early in the afternoon, we had already started looking forward to his homecoming. (Prologue from The Homecoming, http://www.the-waltons.com/homecoming.html)

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Last summer my family and I drove from our house down route 29 to Jefferson County, Virginia, specifically to the town of Schuyler. We turned at the junction of route 6, then drove along a winding country road along the Rockfish River "to a place where the road just stops." (p xix) Many of us know this destination as Walton's Mountain.

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While I was at Walton's Mountain I bought the biography, Earl Hamner: From Walton's Mountain to Tomorrow by James E. Person, Jr. It was even autographed by Earl Hamner, himself! That is pretty good validation for the author's work, so based on that I assume this biography is approved by the man it is written about. In fact, the author says he worked quite closely to Mr. Hamner in developing the book. In fact the author even has a quote reflecting Hamner's surprise that anyone would have any interest in writing his biography. Ahhhh! Perhaps that is why I've been finding so little information regarding the Hamner/Jefferson connection that I set out to discover. My inspiration for conquering this information comes only from my own fascination with the 18th century and knowing that the Hamner family lived in the Blue Ridge quite near Thomas Jefferson at the same time. Surely, there had to be a connection. And I found it! Stay tuned for that blog post.

Even though this book has some family history, this book is enormously heavy with literary analysis. For those of you into that sort of business...you have bonus material in numerous books that influenced Mr. Hamner as well as Hamner's own works being thoroughly analyzed as compared to Hamner's life. However for those of you who feel that is a little over the top, no worries! I think you'd still like the book. It is filled with numerous photographs of Hamner and his family and plenty of details from his life to count as a biography. It is easy to skim the literary parts as you wish. I think fans will find the book a good investment. As for me, I have two more blog posts coming from having read this book.

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For myself, I've taught plenty of literary analysis, so I actually enjoyed the intermingling of biography with literature. It helped me to explore Earl Hamner, the writer. Also I had lots of interest from having grown up with the television series, The Waltons. It was a must for my mom to watch, which meant I watched it too. Key for me was John Boy's character. I have always enjoyed writing...so I always felt he was a bit of a kindred spirit. I've also always enjoyed Richard Thomas's voice inflection as he read stories aloud, which encouraged me to fall in love with reading books aloud to children in my classroom and in my own home. (Richard Thomas famously portrayed John Boy, who represented the creator of the show, Earl Hamner.)

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Reading this book was quite the adventure into history and literary analysis. If I were still homeschooling, I would use portions of this book to teach 20th century literature. This is one of the forthcoming blog posts I have planned. In all the analysis, the part that especially spoke to me was the contrast of the Great Depression and the Cold War. Um, what? How could they compare? Regarding The Waltons television show, a comment was made in the book about Cold War children portraying Great Depression children. Hmmm...my wheels began to turn.

With that I begin the story of my own adventure in learning more about a Virginia mountain I experienced from afar as a child in Texas through a television show. Today I live in Virginia, not far from route 29, a common road the Waltons often traveled. In some ways, perhaps, Walton's Mountain overshadowed my life as well as John Boy's.


The Cold War years in which I grew up were indeed frought with tension that was sort of set in the background of day to day life. My family, neighbors and classmates didn't dwell on that tension, yet we certainly spoke out during history class when we studied the Cold War. Many of us were military families. Classmates had seen the Berlin Wall first hand. Few of us had a lot of stuff. We lived life rather simply due to economics. Yet we seemed to create great memories of fun moments with what we had. My friends and I focused on God and family.  We took life realistically, enjoying the good moments when they came, and dealing with the difficult as needed. Most of us grew up with The Waltons. It was interesting reading Person's argument on the Cold War/Depression connection.  Perhaps the impact that The Waltons made on the Cold War generation was indeed profound.

Even though families are said to be shattered these days, and God is said to be dead, if people can revisit the scenes and places where these values did exist, possibly they can come to believe in them again, or...to adapt some kind of belief in God, or faith in the family unit, or just getting home again. (Hamner quote, xviii-xix)

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It was true that Hamner had always wanted to be a writer. (p5) There were two books in Hamner's home: the Holy Bible and a book on beekeeping. (p6) The town's economy was centered around a soapstone quarry, which we drove by as we entered town. Below is a piece of soapstone from the original foundation of the Hamner house (shown above). Amazingly, the quarry is just around the corner.

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Like many families that lived through those desperate times, the Hamners were poor, though they did not consider themselves as such; like others who lived through the Depression the Hamners reasoned that they, after all, were experiencing the same circumstances as everyone else. This was the hand life had dealt them, they believed, and it fell to them simply to make the best of it. (p7)
All during the school year, my mother supervised all eight of us children as we gathered around the long wooden kitchen table to do our homework. Then one by one we drifted off to bed and there, sometimes with snow falling outside, we would call goodnight to each other, then sleep in the knowledge that we were secure. We thought we lived in the best of all possible times. (p8)
During one summer vacation, we played the Walton game of calling out "goodnight ________" to one another. My family didn't usually get this silly, but we did that night. And it was wonderful.


"In the twilight years of the American youth movement of the mid to late 1960's, with its emphasis on se*ual adventuring, protesting American involvement in the Vietnam conflict (and the American military in general), throwing down the established order, and sneering at all things beloved by earlier generations, a wave of nostalgia came to the fore in American culture. This was manifested during the early seventies by a fashion for collecting and displaying memorabilia of days past: old photos, movie posters from Hollywood's golden era, soft-drink signs from store displays, penny-banks, and dozens of other artifacts from the 1930's and earlier. Amid a faltering economy, strong evidence of political corruption, and immense social upheaval, many younger people wondered if things had always been as unsettled and unsettling as they were in the present era, and if there was any truth to the old stories told by their parents and grandparents of quiet joy amid struggle and hardship during the Great Depression. Hamner's short novel, The Homecoming, the television special it inspired, and The Waltons arrived on America's cultural landscape at precisely this time of widespread reassessment and yearning for a simpler life." (p58-59)

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I've never made a connection in my childhood between escaping the Cold War with nostalgia...yet in my history studies I've learned that this tends to happen. Looking back, I suppose that could be so. It certainly was fun seeing and experiencing a different era through The Waltons. I learned lots of history. Although I listened to the news growing up, it was something I preferred to avoid. However a show like The Waltons was a place where I was willing to hang out.

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As in The Homecoming we will be telling warm stories about the Walton Family who live in the Blue Ridge Mountains during the mid-thirties. We never mention a specific year and the time is roughly: The Depression...In each show we wish to capture as much color of the times as possible: Radio broadcasts, songs of the thirties, Burma Shave signs, NRA posters, etc. We feel that this is important not only for authenticity but for the nostalgia today's audiences feel for the recent past. (Hamner's description of The Waltons to Lorimar productions, despite critic complaints that the show was dripping in saccharine nostalgia., p58-59)

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These days I am always telling my kids that life was different when I was a kid. Thus I have to step back and smile when I read these words of  nostalgia with the Waltons. Yes. My mom and grandparents would watch the show with me and tell me of the past, not that my mom had been born yet. But she'd tell me of her past. My grandparents told me of their past. I guess this has been done for generations past...and will continue for generations to come.

In The Homecoming and The Waltons, Hamner spoke to America's historical consciousness, which had been numbed by the rapid and jarring events of the post-World War II era. Writing of the importance of a people's collective memories, historian Wilfred W. McClay has claimed, 'In the end, communities and nation-states are constituted and sustained by such shared memories-by stories of foundation, conflict, and perseverance. The leap of imagination and faith, from the thinness and unreliability of our individual memory to the richness of collective memory, that is the leap of civilized life; and the discipline of collective memory is the task not only of the historian, but of every one of us. Historical consciousness draws us out of a narrow preoccupation with the present and with our "selves," and ushers us into another larger world-a public world that "cultures" us, in all the sense of that word.' (p59-60)
And this is the common tie that binds together all the fans that watched The Waltons.We instantly connect to the past in our shared memories.

This is important because, as the eighteenth-century English statesman Edmund Burke has noted, 'People will not look forward to posterity, who never looked backward to their ancestors.' During the 1970's-a decade riven by the worst economy since the Depression, political corruption in the highest office of the land, the collapse of American resolve in Southeast Asia, and widespread cynicism-The Waltons gave many Americans a weekly glimpse of a time when hope was the nation's lifeblood, during an almost-forgotten era in their history as a people. (p61, Note: This book was written in 2006)

Oh, how I remember those years of the political corruption that the above quote refers to. I'd come home from school, day by day, anxious to see after school programming on tv. However to my dismay, day after day, the senate hearings continued. I'd agonize to my parents, "When will this ever stop?" They agonized with me, "We have no idea." I'd run off to play with friends, burying my frustrations in the autumnal leaves that my friends and I would rake, pile up, jump in, then rake again.

Yes, my memories are of watching a family, based on a real family of the Depression, showing us week by week how they pulled together during tough times. That is a heritage that my families in the past held on to. When I taught the Great Depression in my homeschool, I asked my mom how her family got through those difficult times. She hadn't been born yet, but she knew the stories of how the family pulled together by offering lodging and food to other family members seeking work. Family sticks together. They banded together. We see that in The Waltons too.

In 1933 we were in the grip of the Great Depression. The soapstone mill and quarry upon which our village depended had closed and with it went payrolls, the company operated commissary, the cheerful sounds of a busy industry and a pleasant sense of security. People struggled to keep their families fed. In my family we relied on our family vegetable garden, my father's hunting and fishing, fruit and berries that were free for the picking. For some modest monetary income, my father took a job forty miles away in Waynesboro. He worked there five days a week and returned home on Friday evening. To get home he had to take a bus to Hickory Creek where Route 6 meets Route 29. From there he would either hitchhike or walk the six miles [to Schuyler].
On Christmas Eve of that year my father was late arriving home. A heavy snow had fallen and there were reports of accidents on Route 29. My mother was worried and, in the age-old practice, the mother sent the oldest son to look for his father. That is what happened to me that night, and the events of that night became the inspiration for this book. (Hamner's description of The Homecoming, p60-61)

Although The Homecoming is based on this true story of that one Christmas Eve where John Boy searched for his father, there is one key difference that stuck out to me. John Boy in The Homecoming was 15. Earl Hamner was 10. Our modern sensibilities probably could not conceive a boy of 10 going on a man's job, of traveling through icy and snowy conditions at night to search for his father who might have been in a bus accident. It is beyond the imagination. Yet for Earl Hamner, that was reality.

In The Waltons, the character of writer Earl Hamner Jr. was called John-Boy, and he was the oldest son. No matter what John-Boy experienced in a particular story, each episode was wrapped up nicely in Hamner's own voice, expressing gratitude for his family and the values he was taught growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during the Depression.
Those tributes were often the most touching parts of the show. Critics called The Waltons saccharine and unrealistic, but the family members weren't portrayed as perfect, and they faced many challenges. They often stumbled along the way, even the adults, but each family member struggled hard to live life under the framework of the family's principles and values. Honesty, hard work, respect, responsibility, self-sacrifice, compassion, and kindness-today they package it and call it 'character education.' (p85-86)

"By Hamner's own admission, family life in the Walton household is a bit idealized: it is truthful in essence, though some aspects of fact are veiled to protect his family's privacy." (p87)

Since The Waltons is autobiographical, I was interested to know how his real family felt about seeing their lives unfold on television. Of course they had already experienced this 'exposure' to a limited degree in the publication of Spencer's Mountain. 'Not shock, but delight at reliving those times,' Hamner told me. 'You know, Thomas Wolfe "couldn't go home again" because of the things he'd written, but I can go home, and do, because I've written with affection about our life together. (Margaret Fife Tanguay's interview with Earl Hamner, p87)

The Waltons experienced various "themes as theft, displacement from one's home, death in wartime, life-endangering injuries, kidnapping at gunpoint, vandalism, arson, miscarriage, and despair; though some episodes also dealt with lighter issues such as handling loneliness; caring for injured animals; and coping with the honest mistakes, misunderstandings, and hardships common to everyday life." (p87-88)

People used to attack the show for being too sweet, too idealistic. But it honored the lives of ordinary people, and the simple passages of their lives have as much significance on Walton's Mountain as they do in Buckingham Palace. Growing up is growing up. Getting old is getting old. Coming to terms with your children is coming to terms with your children. (Richard Thomas, p88)

Earl Hamner "was able to look at all the different characters and personalities he grew up with and find a way to prize them with their flaws. People sometimes accused the show of being saccharine, and sometimes it probably is saccharine. But there are also moments of human frailty or friction that he also captured, that I think really did resonate with people. And I think that if it was completely saccharine, and we weren't dirty and grubby and barefoot and bickering and noisy and doing all the things real groups of children do, it wouldn't have been as meaningful for people." (Kami Cotler, p88)

So, for all the naysayers who focus on the saccharine image of The Waltons, there is plenty of reality that they dealt with. We can all identify with the struggles the Waltons have been through. That is what makes them classic. People from around the world can identify with this mountain family of the Blue Ridge, who struggled, who endured, who loved.

There is a view around the world from Walton's Mountain. Watching the program in syndication, some German viewers have declared that they believe the series is set in the Vienna Woods. The series is beloved in India, with Hamner occasionally receiving fan letters from the subcontinent. Families who view the program in Sweden and in Greece identify with it, as do the Irish and Australians. In England, The Waltons continues to be especially popular with television audiences. In the United States (and today, from around the world), fans of the series have written often to Hamner to say that The  Waltons reminds them of the way they remember their childhood during the Depression, or the way they wish their childhood had been. (p91-93)

All of us who grew up watching The Waltons can say that we too grew up in the shadow of Walton's Mountain.
Resources:
Earl Hamner: From Walton's Mountain to Tomorrow by James E. Person, Jr.

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