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Story Archives: 'Waltons' author born in family of storytellers
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|'Waltons' author born in family of storytellers|
By Jack D. Elliott, Jr.
(Second in a Two-Part Series)
Earl Hamner, Jr. was born in 1923 in the small mill village of Schuyler, Virginia, located in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains not far from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.
He grew up to become a writer and created the television series "The Waltons" that aired from 1972 to 1981 and recorded the lives of the Walton family in the rural community of Walton's Mountain during the 1930s and 1940s. There was John Walton, Sr., his wife Olivia, and their brood of seven red-headed children, the oldest of whom, was John, Jr., or John-Boy. To a large degree the characters and places of the television show were based on the world that Earl Hamner knew while growing up in the Blue Ridge, and to a large degree the show accentuated what he considered to be the most important things in life, things that are often overlooked in the frenetic pace of modern life.
Earl Hamner's boyhood was much like that of John-Boy's. He lived in a white two-story house and for a time his father ran a sawmill adjacent to the house. The church and school were nearby, and there were even two ladies who made moonshine liquor as did the Baldwin sisters in the television series. (In real life the moonshiners were mother and daughter, not sisters.) All provided inspiration for "The Waltons."
Then there was the Christmas of 1933. During the depression the soapstone plant closed, and Earl, Sr. had to get a job in Waynesboro, fifty miles away, which required bus rides and hitchhiking. His return home on a snowy Christmas Eve -- having spent his pay check on presents for the children -- was the inspiration for Earl Jr.'s 1970 novel "The Homecoming" which was made into a movie the following year and served as the pilot for the television show.
On the television series both the community and the nearby mountain were known as Walton's Mountain. In real life there was no exact equivalent to Walton's Mountain; instead there was the village of Schuyler and a number of nearby mountains. The creation of Walton's Mountain (or Spencer's Mountain as it was originally called), reflects Earl Hamner's creative linking of place – i.e., the mountain – to family, community, history, and God.
The mountain first came into being as the central image of Hamner's 1961 novel "Spencer's Mountain," where the mountain was near but distinct from the village, which was called, "New Dominion," a mill town built around a soapstone plant, very similar to Schuyler. The idea for the mountain came in part from the aspirations of Earl, Sr., who used to tell his family, "One of these days, I'm going to have enough money to buy us a mountain and I'm going to build a house on it. It's going to have ten rooms and a fireplace and a front porch where we can all sit and rest of an evening. I'll put up what they call a 'picture window' so we can see everything from a rainbow to a red bird flying over the Blue Ridge." However, the dream remained only a dream; a mountain wasn't purchased and a house was not built. The harsh reality of life for a working man was summed up by Earl, Sr.: "The sun goes down too soon for a poor man." So the family continued to reside in the two-story white house in Schuyler.
In "Spencer's Mountain," the family had originally owned and resided on the mountain since the late 1600s. However, with the establishment of the soapstone plant at New Dominion the Spencers like many other families moved there for work. There the father dreamed of returning to the mountain to build his own home. So, as envisioned in the novel, the mountain recalled the Hamner heritage as farmers in Buckingham County while simultaneously embodying the aspirations for the future. In the end the dream of the mountain top home had to be abandoned and the land sold to put the son through college.
In the television series the mill town, New Dominion, was replaced by the village of Walton's Mountain. Furthermore, the mountain itself was not sold; the Waltons continued to own it, a presence throughout the series, close yet remote. The family visited there on special occasions and at other times individual members journeyed there to be alone and reflect, probably because the mountain offered a sense of specialness. One is reminded of the ancients for whom mountains symbolized divinity; through their height they seemed to border on heaven. So Walton's Mountain offered a sense of eternity and of the presence of God, always far and yet near.
The focus of the show though was on the people who lived in the shadow of the mountain. Events surrounded home life, the Walton's saw mill, the store, the church, and the school. Many characters were permanent residents while others were passing through. The social world of Walton's Mountain consisted primarily of "ordinary" people who were not without significance as John-Boy indirectly pointed out after reading the poem "The Windhover" by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) to his mother. After he finished she asked him what it meant, and he explained that he interpreted it to say that "some things which may seem too simple, or unimportant, or even just downright plain, those things are really every bit as important and every bit as beautiful as the most magnificent things in the whole world."
As Hamner once noted about places like Walton's Mountain: "The small towns are the breeding ground and the refuge of family values. . . . The family is the basic unit by which civilization survives. The family provides ritual and a place to learn, and a place where we get a sense of history and who we are and strength in time of distress and trial. . . . Something does not have to be big to be meaningful, and I think in worshiping bigness we lose a lot of what makes us human, the small things of life, the gentle things, the Waltons."
Earl Hamner incorporated such insights into his vision of the everyday sort of people and places, and events on Walton's Mountain. For him the past is more than dry facts. The image of the mountain and the human and natural communities that it shelters symbolized the interrelatedness of Creation.
Hanging on the wall of Earl's office in Hollywood is a copy of William Faulkner's 1950 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech which Earl has referred to as a "touchstone" for his work. In his speech Faulkner indicated the importance of "the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed." Recognizing this it becomes the duty -- and privilege -- of the writer to "help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past." No words could better summarize the work of Earl Hamner and the meaning of Walton's Mountain. Images winnowed from the past become the images of hope for tomorrow; the old Jerusalem, as tawdry as any earthly city, becomes the model for the New Jerusalem descending from heaven.
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