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Earl Hamner: A Voice of the Appalachian Past

One day last week, my wife wanted to stop at our local library for some books, and I went in with her. I wasn't planning to check out any books myself, of course. As I noted in last week's post, I was immersed in Engineers of Victory and wanted to finish it without yet another interruption. I was just browsing the stacks, whiling away time while waiting on my wife.



Suddenly, amid the plethora of books before me, one title leapt out: Earl Hamner: From Walton's Mountain to Tomorrow (Cumberland House, 2005).


My curiosity was piqued. My friend and fellow author Joy Neal Kidney (joynealkidney.com) had mentioned Hamner to me some time ago. I was already familiar with his voice. He was the narrator of the popular The Waltons television series. But I knew nothing about him.


Despite my best intentions not to check out any more books until I had finished Engineers, I came out of the library carrying the Hamner biography. Here was yet another serendipitous interruption of my planned reading!


I flew through the book, each chapter amazing me by its descriptions of Hamner's versatility as a writer and yet his consistency of theme. The guy was the voice behind The Waltons, of course, but he was much more, both for that program and for many others.


The Waltons was based on a novel Hamner had written, Spencer's Mountain, and was amazingly autobiographical. As they say, "Only the names have been changed to. . . ."


Everyone has--and needs--a story. Hamner's writing, whether in novels or screenplays or radio scripts, tells his personal story. "At the heart of Mr. Hamner's work is hope," his biographer, James E. Person Jr., wrote. "At a time when modern literature began to look toward the grotesque, the violent, and the cynical side of life, Mr. Hamner's work hung on to deceptively simple, well-told stories that actually made the reader feel good."


Wasn't that exactly how you felt every time after you viewed an episode of The Waltons?


But it wasn't just in that series. It was a characteristic of nearly everything else Hamner wrote. And he wrote a lot, including many of the works you've no doubt read or watched and enjoyed without knowing of his involvement. (Who reads the trailing credits anyway?)


Hamner wrote the screenplay for the animated version of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, the work of which Hamner said he was most proud. He also adapted the novel Heidi for the screen. And he wrote eight episodes for The Twilight Zone.


But what impressed me most about Hamner's biography is not so much his versatility in writing for so many different media but the fact that in everything he wrote is a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) looking back at one's roots, to the time-tested values of one's ancestors.


Although he acknowledged that so many people today are rejecting and discarding the values of the past (e.g., faith and family), "if people can revisit the scenes and places where these values did exist, possibly they can come to believe in them again. . . ."


Throughout Hamner's biography, one sees glimpses of his life in The Waltons. For example, he grew up during the Depression; The Waltons is set during that period. His father seldom attended church with his family, just as the fictional John Walton attended only "when he thought it would do him some good."


Hamner's father sometimes drank moonshine brewed by two neighbors, a widow and her unmarried daughter, eerily similar to the Baldwin sisters in the series. And both Hamner's acquaintances and the fictional characters called their brews "the recipe."


Hamner, too, came from a large family, and all the kids did homework at a long kitchen table. And they all called out "Good night" to each other. John-Boy aspired to become a writer, and so did Hamner.


In fact, Hamner eventually wrote scripts for radio programs and continuity for The Andy Williams Show, The Today Show (when Dave Garroway hosted it), and The Kate Smith Hour. Oh, he also wrote for a later TV series called Falcon Crest and, more recently, Snowy River: The McGregor Saga.


Hamner's novels include Fifty Roads to Town, Spencer's Mountain (adapted for Reader's Digest Condensed Books and chosen by President Kennedy for distribution to a hundred world heads of state), You Can't Get There from Here, and The Homecoming (adapted for TV as a Christmas special).


Hamner was an Appalachian writer through and through. He "deeply admired" Eudora Welty, another Southern writer, and, like her, he became "an inquisitive and observant student of human beings and how action springs from character." He used simple language and a spare style.


Central to almost everything he wrote is reflection upon his ancestors and the values they lived. He believed, as Edmund Burke did, that "People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors."


Consequently, Hamner was disillusioned by the direction he saw television going. He wanted to inform and lift up his viewers, giving them hope as lived by those who have gone before us. But TV was moving in the opposite direction. To return to those qualities, however, we must go back to the past, not reject it just because it is past.


If you're tired of how society is going today, perhaps viewing a few reruns of The Waltons will give you some hope. And you have Earl Hamner to thank for it.


Now, where did I put Engineers? I'm determined to finish that book--unless another interesting book interrupts my reading again!



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