In a complete shift from recent posts, I am writing today to mark the death in March this year (but which I have only just heard about) of Earl Hamner Junior, aged 92. He was the creator of the TV series The Waltons and the original of its central character John-Boy Walton. The series was in turn based on Hamner’s 1961 novel Spencer’s Mountain and depicts a large, rural American family struggling to cope with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Work, lack of work, debt, insecurity and poverty are the backdrop to the story.
The Waltons is an interesting show at lots of levels. In one way, it can be seen as a reactionary paean to family values as exemplified by George Bush Senior’s speech in 1992 in which he said “we need a nation closer to The Waltons than The Simpsons”. But I think it represents something more than, or anyway only overlapping with, that. Sure it seems like a story of hardworking, self-reliant, god-fearing folk of the sort that might resonate with the American Bible belt. However, read another way it is a story of communitarian values and liberal tolerance. On either account it has a strong moral dimension.
That it can be read in these two ways is reminiscent of the way that Woodie Guthrie’s folk song This Land is Your Land (written in 1940) has been received and used. Guthrie himself was formed by his experience of the Great Depression and the song expresses this and is emblematic of his radical left-wing politics. Its revival in the 1960s by Bob Dylan and others reflects these politics. Yet it was later taken up by Republicans as a patriotic, traditionalist anthem.
Despite its cosy image, The Waltons was quite bold in tackling issues about racial prejudice, female emancipation, environmentalism, pacifism and the trauma of war – all controversial and current themes in the 1970s when it was aired. I’m not trying to say that it was some kind of radical social commentary, of course. And it was schmaltzy, soapy and sentimental, for sure. But it wasn’t just that.
It can now be seen through at least three different lenses. As a story about the 1930s, as a story about the 1930s seen from the 1970s, and as a story about the 1930s seen from the 1970s as seen from today. Plus there is perhaps yet another lens which is that of the UK rather than US. After all, my memory of it is watching it in the UK in the 1970s, shown at 8.10 on a Tuesday evening if my memory serves me well. I’ve written elsewhere about how at that time popular TV shows were a kind of cultural glue in that the small number of channels meant that they were a shared experience.
The show ran from 1972 to 1981 and overlapped with the next big American soap that also was a hit in the UK and elsewhere. That was Dallas (which ran from 1978 to 1991). The focus again was the a family in the American south but this time a family riven by internal feuds and characterised by huge wealth rather than grinding poverty. Somehow this seems to capture the shift, on both sides of the Atlantic, from a post-war consensus formed in part as a reaction to the pre-war depression to the neo-liberal revolution of Reagan and Thatcher. The Waltons was a kind of reminder of where that consensus had come from; Dallas a harbinger of the harsher casino capitalism that replaced it.
I said that this post marked a complete shift from recent posts but perhaps not entirely. Viewed now, at a time when there is populist backlash against that casino capitalism and the globalization that accompanied it, The Waltons might be seen to resonate with this. Hard times are back for the white working class. But the Walton family were depicted as resolutely Democrat in their politics, supports of the Roosevelt New Deal and notably open-minded and tolerant on racial matters, and some episodes directly repudiate anti-immigrant prejudice. In this way it reminds us that there is no necessary connection between being poor and disadvantaged and being intolerant and close-minded.