By James E. Person Jr.
“My grandfather used to say that nobody owns a mountain, but getting born and living and dying in its shadow, we loved Waltons’ Mountain and felt it was ours.”
Spoken in the gentle, Southern/Scotch-Irish accent typical of rural Virginia, those words provided the opening narration of the Christmas movie The Homecoming, which first aired on network television in 1971. This homespun story of an impoverished, tight-knit family growing up in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains during the Great Depression struck an instant chord with viewers and led to the creation of the long-running TV series The Waltons.
The Homecoming and The Waltons also introduced millions of viewers to the work of longtime novelist and screenwriter Earl Hamner, the programs’ creator, executive producer, and narrative voice. Hamner, who died in 2016, would have turned 100 years of age on July 10 of this year.
For roughly a decade, this soft-spoken Virginian ruled the network television airways with The Waltons, which ran throughout the early 1970s and into the ’80s. With its affirmation of family love, loyalty, simple living, and finding joy in small things, it brightened the corner of a medium that was increasingly given over to the cynical, the formulaic, and the empty. The stories presented weekly on the program arose from Hamner’s heritage and affirmed what many who had come of age during the Great Depression had long believed about their upbringing and the world around them.
Born in the obscure village of Schuyler in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, Earl Henry Hamner Jr. was the oldest of eight auburn-haired children born to Earl and Doris Hamner—his father, a laborer at the local soapstone quarry; his mother, a homemaker and the family’s chief teacher and disciplinarian. From the beginning, his siblings looked to their eldest brother as an example, role model, and leader among the children, and young Earl took that responsibility seriously—helping them with their homework, settling their arguments, and otherwise setting an example for them. As followers of The Waltons know, Earl Hamner Jr. was the model of John-boy Walton, the big brother who had a passion for writing and dreamed of becoming a professional writer in New York City.
After seeing active service in the U.S. Army in France during World War II, Hamner studied writing at the University of Cincinnati. This opened the door for him as a radio writer, first at the 50,000-watt station WLW in Cincinnati (where he met another veteran and budding writer named Rod Serling) and then at NBC in New York. Hamner had arrived.
In New York—then still very much a writer’s mecca—he contributed to several of NBC’s best-known radio programs. As television became the dominant electronic medium, Hamner began writing for The Today Show, for which he worked throughout the 1950s. It was during this time that he published his first novel, set in the hill country of Virginia titled Fifty Roads to Town (1953) which was well received by critics and readers. He also met and married Jane Martin, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, and started a family.
In the early ’60s, with the center of network television shifting from New York to Los Angeles, Hamner left NBC and shifted his base of operations to the West Coast to work as a freelancer, with little to commend him in that crowded field other than a list of possible contacts. For a short, anxious time he was without work; but then one day, in a lunchtime meeting with one of his contacts, Ray Bradbury, the latter suggested that Hamner get in touch his old friend from Cincinnati, Rod Serling, who was overseeing a strange new series on CBS called The Twilight Zone. Intrigued, Hamner submitted a spec script to Serling, who liked what he saw and invited the Virginian to become part of his stable of top-drawer scriptwriters for his program. Hamner was never without work again. For the rest of the decade, he wrote for not only The Twilight Zone, but many other programs, including Wagon Train, It’s a Man’s World, The Invaders, Gentle Ben, and Nanny and the Professor, among several others. Perhaps the highlight of his non-series-related projects was the screenplay Hamner wrote for an animated version of Charlotte’s Web, with music provided by the Sherman Brothers and dialogue voiced by Debbie Reynolds, Paul Lynde, and Henry Gibson, among others.
During the early 1960s, Hamner also published his second novel, Spencer’s Mountain (1963), which was blurbed by fellow Southerner Harper Lee, whose own career was on an abrupt upswing due to her recently published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Spencer’s Mountain was soon transformed into a successful film and introduced America and the world to the Spencer family: to Clay, the fun-loving father; Olivia, the devout mother with a spine of steel; and their eight auburn-haired children led by the eldest of the brood, Clay-boy Spencer, who aspires to be a writer. Hamner’s career was churning upward, and there were even greater things to come, but not without a history-making speed-bump along the way.
In 1968 Hamner wrote the screenplay for a television adaptation of the classic children’s book Heidi, to be directed by Delbert Mann. Set in the Swiss Alps, the story recounts the tale of the titular heroine and her struggle to bring healing and joy to her beloved grandfather and a crippled school friend. The entire experience was a highlight of Hamner’s life, and all seemed to be moving swimmingly with the project—until the very night of the broadcast on NBC. Unfortunately, the television movie pre-empted the conclusion of a championship football game, cutting away with less than two minutes remaining. Outraged fans immediately flooded telephone switchboards from coast to coast with their angry, sometimes profane objections. For months thereafter, jokes about Heidi practically became a running part of late-night television, while Hamner and everyone associated with the production felt as though their work had been largely for nothing.
The Homecoming and Its Rewards
The next year Hamner’s father died; and his eldest son wrote about a boyhood incident that had occurred during the Great Depression. That small event—when his father was seriously late coming home from work on an icy Christmas Eve—had led to an hours-long search for the man, who had been delayed by an accident on the slick highway and culminated in a joyful reunion of the entire family. In Hamner’s hands, this family episode was crafted into a short novel titled The Homecoming, which again features the Spencer family and their oldest, Clay-boy, a lightly disguised portrait of the author as a young man.
For reasons of copyright, in the television version of The Homecoming the Spencers were transformed into the Walton family. Viewers took to the story immediately, enthralled by the warm narration, the closeness of the family, and particularly by the portrayal of mother Olivia Walton by Patricia Neal and of John-boy Walton by Richard Thomas. These two anchored an attractive supporting cast that was remarkable for interacting in a manner closely reminiscent of a real family. For many years, The Homecoming was a Christmas staple on CBS television.
The series that was spun off by The Homecoming, The Waltons, was an enormously successful show, depicting the everyday adventures of day-to-day life during the 1930s and early ‘40s and enjoying worldwide appeal; and it is still rerun in syndication to this day. Thousands of viewers, some having lived through the Depression years, wrote to Hamner to say that the Waltons reminded them of their own families or (alternately) the way they wish their families had been.
Family was also the theme of the series Hamner conceived and launched as The Waltons was winding down: Falcon Crest, a decidedly different nighttime drama which ran from 1981 to 1990. This program focused on the greed, machinations, and intrigues of a wealthy family living in California’s wine country. Falcon Crest was something of a shock to viewers of the wholesome Waltons; but as Hamner explained, the new program showed the other side of human nature, with which he had contended throughout his life, being no stranger to observing betrayals and double-dealings throughout his life.
Until the very end of his life, Hamner knew he had one more great idea for a television special that might be made into a series, one last presentation that would play a part, however small, toward redeeming the time. It was a modern-day story that would revisit the Virginia Blue Ridge and take the viewer to the stone foundation of a long-vanished family farmhouse, in search of the lost bedrock qualities that give life purpose and centeredness. It was to be called Foundations, and Hamner, his agent Mike Wise, and I did everything we could to interest the decision makers who would green-light the program, but none were interested. Despite this disappointment, Hamner held to his vision of television and motion pictures as media for affirming the better angels of our nature, and to remind us that the past is never dead; it’s not even past.
As he wrote in one Waltons script, “My people were drawn to mountains. They came when the country was young and they settled in the upland country of Virginia that is still misted with a haze of blue which gives those mountains their name. They endured and they prevailed. . . . I have walked the land in the footsteps of my fathers. Back in time to where the first one trod, and stopped, saw sky, felt wind, bent to touch Mother Earth . . . and called this ‘Home.’ . . . To walk the old paths. To look back in pride in honored heritage. To hear its laughter and its song. To grow, to stand and be themselves, one day remembered. I have walked the land in the footsteps of all my fathers. I saw yesterday and now look to tomorrow.”
They endured and they prevailed, wrote Hamner, echoing the words of one of his literary heroes, William Faulkner. In his 1950 Nobel Address, Faulkner had said that it is the writer’s duty, indeed his privilege, “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. The poet’s voice . . . can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
“Without courage, honor, compassion, pity, love and sacrifice, as William Faulkner pointed out, we know not of love, but lust. We debase our audience,” said Hamner. “But we can ennoble and enrich our viewers and ourselves in our journey through this good time, this precious time, this great and wonderful experience we call life.”
Hamner fully concurred with Faulkner’s emphasis that the writer must ignore the noise and distraction of flash-in-the-pan current events and to leave nothing in his or her workshop for anything but “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths, lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”
By the time he entered his final illness during the spring of 2016, Hamner had lived long enough to have his work sneered at by some as corny and nostalgic, and to have it praised by a great many more people, worldwide, who embraced his vision of family and community. He was fully aware of the hugely favorable impression The Waltons had exercised upon its many viewers, and he knew well that he had worked with many legendary people within the world of entertainment and publishing; but at heart he remained to the end a fun-loving storyteller who would be perfectly comfortable sitting down with a few close friends to enjoy a quiet evening of wine and conversation about fishing or any number of things.
Through his work, Earl Hamner not only became one of America’s favorite storytellers; he also became a conservator of the truth that though the modern world disdains the past and elevates immediacy, wealth, and power, the true measure of life’s meaning lies in love, grace, gentleness, forgiveness, and joy. As it was with his friend Ray Bradbury, his lost world of wandering boyhood and moral imagination can never stale. In all his works, he created worlds for us to delight in and revisit time and again.
James E. Person Jr., a Senior Fellow of the Russell Kirk Center, is the editor of The Unbought Grace of Life: Essays in Honor of Russell Kirk and Imaginative Conservatism: The Letters of Russell Kirk. He is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind and Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow.
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