The Waltons

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The headline is deliberate, and sincere, not in the least mocking, or drearily ironic: for a generation of viewers of The Waltons, Richard Thomas's sensitive reading of his great character John-Boy Walton became the most absorbing literary influence of their young lives.

In the episode I watched last night, 'The Literary Man', a self-styled writer turns up on Walton's Mountain - everyone turned up on Walton's Mountain; juvenile delinquents, Jews, hussies, carpetbaggers, New York intellectuals, etc. - and sends John-Boy's literary dreams soaring so high that the Waltons lose a much-needed woodcutting contract.

Well, the pen is mightier than the axe. It was exactly this kind of storyline that forced 70s viewers to look on literature with awe and respect. John-Boy lived for writing. He spent as much time as possible scribbling away in his journals. He wrote short stories, too, and began his first novel on Walton's Mountain, up in his bedroom, and then later in the charming little family shack by the lake.

He was so easy to believe, because Thomas played John-Boy with so much sympathy, and love. Thomas himself wrote poetry, played the dulcimer, and studied Mandarin. Also, he had roots in common with the Waltons of Virginia - his family were backcountry folk, from Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. His grandfather was a coalminer.

He was no muscle-bound Hollywood ape. He stood a mere 5'6", and weighed only 150lb; his eyes were blue, and his hair ash blond. A wimp, possibly, but his morals were stern, and his intentions honourable. His first job was as a journalist. He exposed all kinds of shameful secrets on Walton's Mountain, because it was the right thing to do.

The character was based on Earl Hamner Jr., who voices the show's opening narration. Hamner's autobiographical novel, Spencer's Mountain, told of his family's struggles during the Great Depression, in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains; it was sentimental, and it sold millions of copies. But John-Boy cared nothing for success. He read Thomas Wolfe, and so he cared only to write something epic, something profound, something that served literature.


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