Throwback Thursday: The Waltons

Throwback Thursday: TV Edition
The Waltons Season 1 Episode 11 – The Literary Man

TV was a large part of my childhood. You might say I was an early “latchkey kid” who spent many afternoons watching talk shows, soap operas, and reruns, which is how I got into I Love Lucy, a show that was popular well before my time. Primetime TV was also a big deal and most evenings were spent viewing the line-up on one of the big three networks of the time: ABC, NBC, or CBS. Throughout the 1970s, our evening viewing ranged from I Dream of Jeannie to Happy Days. One of my favorite shows aired from 1972-1981. Based on a book by Earl Hamner, Jr. called Spencer’s Mountain (1961), which also became a 1963 movie starring Henry Fonda, The Waltons was the semi-autobiographical television version of Hamner’s childhood during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The main character and narrator, John Walton, Jr. was based on Hamner. I could really relate to John, Jr, usually known as John-Boy, for several reasons: his large family, the family’s constant struggle to make ends meet, and the rural lifestyle. John-Boy, as played by Richard Thomas for a majority of the series, loved to read and desperately wanted to be a writer despite his background, which he felt to be a hindrance to his career choice.

I recently rewatched a season one episode of The Waltons called The Literary Man (IMDB link) which first aired 30 November 1972. In this episode, John-Boy was supposed to help his father and grandfather with the sawmill, but instead could be found reading Moby Dick. To make up for neglecting his responsibilities, he’s sent to the rail station to drop off a load of lumber.

When the family truck breaks down on the way, a stranger named AJ Covington (David Huddleston) offers to help. As Covington gets the old vehicle running again, John-Boy learns that the older man is an author who’s traveling the country looking for his one great story. After the two of them unload the lumber at the rail station, John-Boy invites AJ home to meet his family. Covington agrees and ends up spending several days helping out in various ways from chopping trees and working in the sawmill to diagnosing youngest son Jim-Bob’s acute appendicitis. As all this happens, AJ continues to tell a starry-eyed John-Boy about his travels to Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, as well as his interactions with a variety of well-known authors of the time.

Watching this episode again after many years reminded me just how much the character of John-Boy formed my earliest desire to write. Seeing the two discuss how life adventures can shape the work of an author reminded me of how the various things I’ve seen and done, and the places I’ve been, could serve as writing fodder. What really stood out most on this latest viewing was the ending. John-Boy is ready to give up his dream of becoming an author because feels duty and loyalty to his family. Covington realizes he has been a negative influence on the impressionable teen and also that he has been fooling himself all these years; his travels and tendency to “talk out” his stories have prevented him from writing much of anything. So AJ tells John-Boy what he has learned about himself and encourages the teen to write about his family, his poverty, and life on the mountain. The Literary Man then disappears from their lives, leaving behind a short note and enough money to cover Jim-Bob’s appendectomy, as well as a disappointed John-Boy.

My rewatch of this episode taught me a new lesson. The way the story is framed with John-Boy (Hamner) narrating his impression of the events initially made me believe that the author should be the hero of their own story when that’s not always the case. My writing is about other people who should have personalities and lives separate from my own. Though they might share similar experiences and interests, they need to respond to them in their own way, and not as I would. While I can narrate their stories, the stories aren’t about me.

This Throwback Thursday is the first in a series of weekly blog posts where I revisit some of the formative media I consumed as a child and young adult. If you’re also a fan of The Waltons, I hope you enjoyed this glimpse back at the series. Let me know which characters and episodes you enjoyed and why. I’d love to talk more about the show with you.

Good night, John-Boy!

Until next week…

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