Hamner, Earl, Jr. Essay - Critical Essays

Hamner, Earl, Jr.


Earl Hamner, Jr. 1923–

American novelist and writer for radio and television. Hamner is perhaps best known for The Waltons, a successful television series which is based on his autobiographical novels Spencer's Mountain and The Homecoming and on which he serves as executive story consultant. This series presents an idealized look at a large Depression-era family in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. The early episodes revolved around the eldest son, John-Boy, an aspiring writer based on Hamner himself. After a slow start in 1972, it steadily gained popularity with both viewers and critics, who found its essential gentleness and quiet messages both touching and inspiring. Hamner's series has been criticized for its sentimentality, unreality, and excessive wholesomeness, but his characters have become as familiar as friends to many viewers, whom critics seem to feel have found stability and security in the family's solid structure and who can appreciate the program's nostalgic simplicity. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

Charles Lee

If a novel may be described as an education in people, problems and places, Mr. Hamner has a claim to being a good teacher [with "Fifty Roads to Town"]. Not everyone will want to sit in on a demonstration of life among the Holy Rollers in a small Virginia mountain town, of course, but those who do will find their sympathies as well as their interest engaged. The book is picturesque in its psychological oddities and setting. But it does not so lose itself in hillbilly comedy and terror as to alienate the reader's sense of compassion. Indeed, it goes to the sorrowful core of the human condition.

Charles Lee, "Mountain Preacher," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1953 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 11, 1953, p. 28.

John Cook Wylie

In the apt phrase of the publisher, this Southern novel ["Spencer's Mountain"] is a "happy" one. Advance-reader Harper Lee colloquially called it "splendid," and Jesse Stuart spoke of the sheer beauty of its simple writing…. In short, the book shows every promise of realizing at least a brief sojourn on the cenotablets of best-sellerdom. Or, to put it another way, with his second novel Mr. Hamner has become unmistakably the full-fledged William Makepeace Thackeray of Nelson County, Virginia…. [Mr. Hamner] remembers the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood with clarity. He reports them sometimes with brilliance and always with affection. His plot is simplicity itself: Country boy grows up, meets city girl, runs up against Latin syntax, sinks same.

Two things about the work (besides its obviously wide appeal to the vast public of happy-novel readers) call for comment. One is the messing around with symbols. There is an early intrusion of a white deer as a non-symbol, and there is a delicately unjelled use of the myth of Sisyphus in a father image. Neither of these, of course, will bother anyone except reviewers.

The other thing is more important, because it unobtrusively makes the work something of a social document in the history of the passing of the Old South. The author has his philosopher's stone resting at the sectarian University of Richmond, and he makes the object of his youth the breaking free from rural chains. Nothing of this sort could possibly have been written by members of an older generation. They wanted only to keep their children down on a farm, which in most cases was no longer a farm.

That Mr. Hamner belongs to a vibrant, new guiltless generation striving for the metropolis and the liberal arts, is clear everywhere in his book….

Apparently the Civil War at long last is over and the old shibboleths no longer work. The past is suddenly dead, even if it is still lovely. The young, in their freedom, can now remember the days of their youth with happiness and tranquillity.

John Cook Wylie, "A Boy Grows Up in Nelson County, Virginia," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 14, 1962, p. 48.

Orville Prescott

[The] one thing we don't expect to find on the sidewalks of New York is fantasy, sentimentality and simple goodness. Yet these are the elements to be found in Earl Hamner's novel, "You Can't Get There From Here," a modern tale about the search of a sixteen-year-old boy for his wandering father through the symbolical dream world of an improbable city called New York. Is this a good novel? It's hard to be certain, but I don't think so. It is a little too sweet and its gossamer thread of story is too frail and artificially contrived. On the other hand, this is an appealing novel, one that makes one feel young and innocent and good just for the few hours it takes to read it. If there is nothing in these whispy pages that can be taken seriously, neither is there anything that isn't pleasant, gently humorous and likable.

It would be as difficult to dislike "You Can't Get There From Here" as to dislike a basket of spaniel puppies. In the cold, hard, raucous world of modern fiction there ought to be room for a sensitive plant like this. (p. 29)

Orville Prescott, in The New York Times (© 1965 by The New York Times Company: reprinted by permission). June 11, 1965.

Martin Levin

"You Can't Get There From Here" … is Joe's punchline. "It's too late." Joe is a radio comedy writer whose profession has become obsolete, which is just one of the reasons he has gone A.W.O.L. from his home in Brooklyn Heights with a bad case of "the dooms" and with his 16-year-old son Wes in close pursuit.

You can't get to New York from Mr. Hamner's directions either. The Manhattan through which young Wes hunts for his father is a far cry from the Blue Ridge Virginia the author described so well in "Spencer's Mountain." For the most part, it's real Oz country, inhabited by charming characters…. This is the New York that Robert Nathan invented, and if you can take your mind off the smog and the uproar of the city long enough to believe in Wes's innocence and his father's saintliness, it's not a bad place to visit. (p. 32)

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 20, 1965.

John J. O'Connor

The plot [of "The Homecoming"] seems to be the problem. Just as one story line gets under way, another appears to sidetrack it.

At the center is the Walton family, seven attractive children overseen by mother … grandpa … and grandma…. The family is awaiting the weekly return of father, who is forced to work fifty miles away during the Depression years….

Traditional family routines keep stumbling into dramatic crises that are oddly resolved. At one point, the oldest son is sent in the middle of the night to look for his father, who may have been hurt in a bus accident. His trip includes a stop for Christmas services at the local Negro church with Cleavon Little doing the preacher-man shtick from "Purlie." Then he winds up with two genteel spinsters who are part-time boot-leggers.

That is about the extent of the son's search for his father, who finally shows up anyway and turns out to be a fount of love and understanding. "The Homecoming," unfortunately, turns out to be a string of incidents, varying widely in quality, that are never pulled quite firmly enough into a cohesive whole. (p. 75)

John J. O'Connor, in The New York Times (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 21, 1971.

John J. O'Connor

The mode [of "The Waltons"] is almost brazenly sentimental.

The narrator is John-Boy, the oldest son, reminiscing from the present. As he puts it, though, the Depression years were harsh, the family was "sustained with gingerbread, laughter and sharing, but, most of all with a wonderful mother and father."

As a special, "The Homecoming" disintegrated into a series of episodes that finally lacked cohesion. The episodic form, however, is precisely what is needed for a weekly series, and "The Waltons" should prove a more satisfactory vehicle for the stories of Mr. Hamner….

The key operating device is a disarming simplicity that carefully avoids becoming...

(The entire section is 234 words.)

Robert Berkvist

"The Waltons," CBS's gift to viewers who were hoping for one, just one, different show this season, seems strangely out of place until you realize what makes it different: you're being asked to care…. The wonderful and unusual thing about the Waltons is that they come across as real people.

Add to that a bit. The really unusual thing about the Waltons is that they're poor. All right, let's concede that these aren't the ghettoized victims of today's prosperous poverty…. [The] show can't boast the relevance of … well, what's your favorite relevant TV show? "Bridget Loves Bernie"? No, the Waltons relate to something else, something important….

The Waltons' adventures, if they...

(The entire section is 293 words.)

John W. Donohue

[The] famous opening sentence of Anna Karenina suggests that happy families aren't particularly interesting. Why, then, has The Waltons done quite well…. The reason usually given is that its characters are real! But to tell the truth, they are not all that real. Of course, they are immeasurably more human than the flat cutouts in most TV shows. (p. 549)

Nevertheless, no actual families are this uniformly good-looking and sweet-tempered…. And even in happy families, as Willa Cather once said, there's an unavoidable tension, for each one "is clinging passionately to his individual soul, is in terror of losing it in the general family flavor." The Waltons doesn't peer...

(The entire section is 374 words.)

Peggy Hudson

When I say that The Waltons perpetuates a myth, I am saying that the show is based on a certain concept of what life was like in the 1930's—and that there is probably little resemblance between this view and the way things really were.

I agree that the trappings of the story are enormously appealing—the big family, the simple life, the strong father figure, the household at rest and peace as darkness falls. Whatever happens, safety and security close around the family at the end of each show. What a welcome relief from the problems of so many other TV shows, and the strains of our own lives.

Of course, things go wrong on The Waltons, but somehow a miraculous...

(The entire section is 231 words.)

Anne Roiphe

A bobwhite cry breaks the quiet of night among the firs and pines of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia…. "Good night, Ma." "Good night, John-Boy." "Good night, Pa." "Good night, John-Boy…." and the lights of the Walton house on Walton's Mountain sometime in the early nineteen-thirties dim and a million viewers turn away from their television sets, eyes wet, souls heavy with false memory and hopeless longing. C.B.S. has filled another Thursday night with nostalgia, bathos, soap opera, formula plot, tear-jerking junk, and I and all those other viewers share a moment of tender shame at having been so painfully touched by such obvious commercial exploitation….

What myth or memory has caught so...

(The entire section is 1491 words.)