Watching the Waltons…Fifty Years Later
If you have watched as much television as I have, you probably have a vault somewhere in your mind for treasured TV memories. The most precious shows and characters and storylines. Favorite Saturday morning children's shows and memories of family time in front of the television set. In the back of my vault, bundled together in old twine and wrapped in yellowed copies of the Blue Ridge Chronicle, untouched since the early eighties, is nine seasons of a family drama called The Waltons. Anyone who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s remembers this show and if you watched it faithfully as I did, the Waltons were as familiar to you as a family that lived just down the street, if just down the street was a mountain in Appalachia during the Great Depression. Recently, I removed the Waltons from my vault, unwrapped it, and binged all 221 Episodes in less than two months. I hadn’t thought much about The Waltons in almost forty years. I was surprised by what I found.
Before I say more, I will admit that I am obsessed with the Great Depression. How strange this must sound to some of you. Why would anyone want to dwell on that era in American history? The Stock Market Crash? Breadlines? The Dust Bowl? "Brother can you spare a dime?" The Depression evokes a distinctly American nightmare, the fear of a sudden, precipitous loss of income and status. The threat of losing your job and your home, and of being cast adrift in the heartless heartland, of being banished from the American Dream. Historian David Kennedy has written that many people who suffered through the Depression felt a deep sense of shame about their circumstances. Ninety years later, that shame still stalks the American psyche like a dark shadow moving on the wall.
And yet, I was endlessly fascinated by the Depression as a child. It was like an alternate reality version of America that I could detect in the living memories of my own family, an America in which people went hungry and could not find work. A world in which people used things until they wore out. I could hear it in my grandfather’s stories and see it in the way my grandmother carried herself, the way she reused pieces of aluminum foil and patched the fraying cord of her iron. My grandmother never wasted anything and never threw anything out. The very idea of an “impulse buy” or frivolous purchase was completely alien to her. She never spoke of the Depression to me, but the great shame of it was still alive in her until the day she died.
The Depression left its mark on me as well, one step removed, in the way that the experiences of grandparents can seep into the minds of their children’s children. Over time, it has become a reference point for me, a way of measuring the value of people and things. Whenever I am disillusioned by the egotism and crass materialism that pervades my society, whenever I am overexposed to spoiled, entitled, delusional people who have no sense of history or proportion, I think about the Great Depression. Lately, there has been a lot to think about, so I have found myself drawn back to Walton Mountain again.
If you have never seen The Waltons, it would be difficult to describe, though I will try. The series, which first aired in 1972, revolves around a poor white family living in rural Virginia struggling with effects of poverty and war—A mother, Olivia, a father, John, two grandparents, and seven children, four boys and three girls, ages 8 to 18. The series opens in 1933 in the depths of the Depression and finishes 13 years later, just after World War II has ended. The show was created by a writer named Earl Hamner who based it on his experiences growing up in Nelson County, Virginia. Hamner provides a voiceover at the start and close of every episode, speaking as John-Boy, the oldest son, who is now grown and living in California. The writing is exquisite, especially in the first four seasons. Many of the episodes are conflict-driven, and over the span of the show, you see the children grow into adulthood while the family grapples with serious issues along the way.
The writers and producers never let you forget that the Waltons were poor. The family lumber business is always teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Dad wears the burden of it in his weathered face, his broad toothy smile barely concealing the weight he carries for everyone. The Waltons own one car, a green 1929 Ford AA pickup truck, and they share it among eleven family members. They go to extraordinary lengths to keep this vehicle running. In one episode, John hocks his wedding ring to buy new tires. The cost of things is woven into the script. Nearly every time someone walks into Ike’s General Mercantile Store, the audience knows exactly how much money was spent. The exorbitant expense of John-boy’s college wardrobe haunts several episodes in Season 2. The family is always borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, refitting old dresses and repurposing furniture.
But the writers also never let you forget that these financial difficulties were offset by the family’s fierce love for and loyalty to one another. The kids fought like real kids do in a big family over everything from bathroom time to shared crushes, but most differences were ultimately resolved at the communal family dinner table. Nearly every episode famously ends with a nighttime shot of the family house with one or two windows lit on the second floor, while they all say goodnight to one another. When I was a freshman in college living in the dorms, we would sometimes say goodnight to one another by shouting down the hallway: “goodnight John-Boy, goodnight Maryellen, goodnight Jim-Bob.” We had all grown up with the Walton family, and even though they were a kind of Hollywood-generated comfort food, they were also deeply familiar and dear to us.
Critics complained that The Waltons was too “sweet” or “Pollyanna,” but I always felt that this was an unfair criticism. Real hardship plagues this family. Olivia struggles through a miscarriage and bouts of depression and occasional doubts about her commitment to marriage and family life. Towards the end, she contracts tuberculosis. A fire nearly destroys the house in one episode. In later seasons, World War II begins to loom and the family is inexorably drawn into the conflict. Grandpa dies. Grandma has a stroke. Maryellen’s husband is killed at Pearl Harbor. Friends from the community die in the war.
The series aired its final episode in 1981, and over time, The Waltons was gradually absorbed into the American cultural bloodstream, broken down and smoothed out, memified and transformed into a series of badly remembered cliches. It was also ensnared in the nation’s long-running culture wars. In 1992, President George Bush said in a campaign speech that he would “keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” The producers of the Simpsons immediately fired back by releasing an episode in which Bart Simpson hears the president’s speech and says “Hey, we’re just like the Waltons. We’re praying for an end of the Depression, too.”
Today, many Americans simply assume that The Waltons was a “conservative” television series, placing it on one side of the cultural/political divide because they remembered that the family went to church and said grace before dinner. It is true that the network greenlighted the series as an answer to religious conservatives who were complaining about sex and violence on television, but if you look closely, episode for episode, the Walton family is an ideological ecosystem unto itself. Grandma and Olivia are fundamentalist bible-believing Christians, but John is a self-described “backslider” and “heathen” who seldom sets foot inside of a church. John-Boy is a secular humanist with his head in the classics. Jim-Bob is a budding techno utopian, thoroughly modern, his mind soaring in the clouds with the hero aviators of his time. Maryellen is a medical progressivist and proto-feminist who sometimes rages against the sexist traditions of her time. Grandpa is an impish wild man with a poet’s heart who quotes Wordsworth one minute and in the next, recites all of the species of wildflower on the mountain. Somehow they all sit down to dinner together, say a blessing, and work out their differences. Over at Archie Bunker’s house on CBS, ideological differences were tearing the family apart, but at the Waltons’, tolerance and decency kept the family together.
Others have noted the show’s quiet progressivism. Writing for Entertainment Weekly in 2013, Sean Smith observes that The Waltons was
the kind of show that was—and still is—lauded by conservatives (and just plain folks) as an example of "traditional family values." But simmering beneath that sepia-toned sentiment was a quiet, unabashed liberalism. "The Waltons," says Mary McDonough, who played middle daughter Erin, "were New Deal Democrats." In just the first season, the show addressed—and took a stand against—sexism, anti-Semitism, religious fanaticism, book burning, xenophobia, and intolerance.
Beneath its episodic treatment of issues, there is a still deeper layer of morality in the Waltons. It preached the collectivist values that FDR spoke of in his fireside chats, values that were also reflected in the art and literature of the 1930s, from Diego Rivera’s Chicago mural to Earnest Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, in which the main character concludes at the end that “The individual alone does not have a chance.” This might have been a motto carved into the side of Walton Mountain because the Waltons practiced a kind of community-based mutual aid, always helping neighbors and strangers, and taking people into their home.
Watching the show as an adult, I also realized that my environmental consciousness was shaped at least in part by actor Will Geehr’s portrayal of Grandpa Walton, the family patriarch. Grandpa, with his wildman beard and overalls and Mason jar of bootleg whisky stashed in the barn, is a flesh-and-blood encyclopedia of the land who draws physical and spiritual sustenance from the few square miles in which he will be born, live, and die. Grandpa reveres Walton Mountain as if it is a primitive, life-sustaining deity and while Grandma and Olivia are well read in the Bible, Grandpa and John are students of the mountain’s pagan rhythms. They are masters of the art of sustainable living, knowing exactly how much to take from the land without destroying its natural balance.
A friend recently said that The Waltons shaped his morality as a child. I know what he means. Even though I attended Mass every Sunday and grew up in a religious household, The Waltons left its mark on my moral development as clearly as anything derived from the Catholic faith. In saying this, I am not siding with conservative moralists who have complained that television erodes traditional family values, but I am saying that the greatest television shows create their own distinctive moral universes, and they influence the way we think about the world. I felt this way about The Waltons, then and now. It was not, as some conservatives falsely remember it, a show about traditional family values that are now in decline. Viewed in its totality, the show is about American values of flexibility in the face of change, tolerance for difference, and adherence to the Golden Rule. The values are not necessarily religious nor are they particularly endangered. You can still experience them at the dog park, town restaurant, neighborhood barbecue, or at your child’s swim meet.
The series certainly has its problems. The soundtrack is too intrusive. The acting is sometimes uneven, especially when each of the child actors hits puberty. The storytelling is episodic. There are very few narrative thru-lines or long story arcs. Threads are often left hanging, and some of the episodes are not well done. There are more than a few hammy, cornball moments. But if you look and listen closely, you can find an entire catechism in story form. If I were to summarize its teachings, it would sound something like this:
Take care of your family and they will take care of you. Learn everything you can about the mountain on which you live, the names of every tree and wildflower, the medicinal plants, the bears and foxes and turkeys and squirrels and wild mustangs, all creatures wild and beautiful. If you cut down a tree, plant three more. Get to know your neighbors--the owner of the general store and the elderly sisters who make whiskey they call “the recipe,” the single guy who lives in a shack and occasionally steals chickens, the rich folks, the poor folks, the black folks and the backcountry white folks. Be prepared to drop everything to help them when they are in need and they will do the same for you. Sit down to dinner with your family and loved ones as often as possible. Cultivate rituals and routines that celebrate love and togetherness. Respect traditions but accept that not everyone will. Give the people you love the space to grow and evolve. Create a community where baptists and backsliders, teetotalers and moonshiners, traditionalists and progressivists, Hoover Republicans and FDR Democrats can live together in harmony. Respect the land and never sell it to land speculators or miners or hoteliers.
And always look the other way when Grandpa slips out to the barn to find his mason jar.