Anne Roiphe

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1491

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….

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What myth or memory has caught so many of us? Why are we watching Mary Ellen go to a dance with her first boyfriend; Grandpa and Grandma relive a youthful jealousy; John-Boy befriend a midget, an actress or a big-city delinquent; Ma give up her career as a singer, overcome polio and gentle a wild, dying raccoon? What keeps us watching this obviously corny, totally unreal family?

Since every Thursday night I am reduced to ridiculous tears, I had to ask these questions and explore the program's skill at piercing tough hides, revealing sentimental ooze that can no more be controlled than the shift of dreams that still wake us screaming every now and then….

Man has always invented stories, gods and heroes to give him a sense of understanding and control of the lightning, the thunder, accident and death. I think we use our television set in many of the same ways. We huddle about its blue light looking for relief, control and understanding, magic to be worked on all those confusing forces that push us about. "The Waltons" may be romantic nonsense, may bear only superficial and misleading resemblance to real life, but it is very good magic. It is a good, workable dance to scare away the evil spirits of loneliness, isolation, divorce, alcoholism, troubled children, abandoned elders—the real companions of American family life, the real demons of the living room. (p. 40)

[The] Walton family is the ideal family as we all wish ours was: the one we would choose to come from; the one we would hope to create. Three loving generations live in one large house in the beautiful mountains where nature has not yet been destroyed by strip miners or other industrial nightmares…. (p. 41)

Is John Walton, who carries his sick child in his arms to the hospital, who teaches an arrogant young Baptist preacher humility and grace, who protects a troubled juvenile delinquent, who teaches trust and honor, love for all God's creatures to his children—is that John Walton too good to be true? Of course he is. Why do so many of us believe him, then—work-stained but proud, his seven children and two parents depending on him week after week? It can only be real to us, not a cartoon or a mockery of truth, because we want to believe it, we need to believe it. John Walton's down-home goodness (American as apple pie, turkey and cranberries, Mom) isn't a lie—or so our magic circles tell us on Thursday nights, weaving designs of make-believe we willingly admire. (pp. 41, 130)

[Olivia Walton] is the mother we all wish we had. She is the mother we all would like to be. She is the image that gives us guilt on days when we are irritable or tired, when we are selfish, when we wander away from home, when we fail to stay married; when we produce children who drop out of school, turn to drugs; when we can't find what's wrong or remember how to talk to our parents or how to explain to ourselves the disappointments that line the edges of our life. Olivia Walton has confidence in herself. Her strength seems infinite and we mere mortal mothers and wives shrink to nothing, contorted twisted versions of what was once good and pure. Not for one mad second do I think Olivia Walton is a real person, but watching her serving an enormous breakfast to 10 people, scouring pots and saving money in the kitchen cabinet, I ache with wanting the television to be presenting a documentary—not a soap opera but a genuine model of what it might all be. (pp. 130-31)

In our days of middle-class affluence we tend to associate poverty with an elevated moral sense as if it were our refrigerators, cars and swimming pools that were the source of the corruption of moral values, as if in the good old days without such material excesses people were better. A romantic myth if ever there's been one, and yet I suppose we need to feel that in the past, in the rougher, harder moments of our history, we were a fine people because surely we don't feel that way about ourselves now, and just as surely a John Walton character set in modern suburbia would be so unbelievable that the show would be howled right out of the Burbank studio, where it originated, into oblivion.

From a feminist viewpoint Olivia's decision to abandon her career as a singer is dreadful—one hopes she is not an inspiration to the next generation of women whom we are counting on to lead productive, intellectual, active lives outside of the home. However, Mrs. Walton's refusal to follow the now-popular path reminds us that, after all, happiness is the point and some women may indeed still find—even with fewer children and modern appliances—deep happiness in the roles of wife and mother.

The Waltons are equal partners in their family just as truly as if they were a team of neurosurgeons. This, I suppose, is part of the unreality of the program, and it is an important factor in the ideal image of family life it presents. (pp. 131-32)

[The] program, like fake electric fires in the fireplace, creates an illusion of warmth. As with the myth of Achilles or Hercules, no real man should measure his success by the activities of the gods and yet humanly enough we all do.

The Walton show, which must produce a full-hour-length story every week, has found a very successful formula for easily capturing our attention. To Walton's Mountain come all kinds of strangers, all of them troubled outcasts, fragmented or harmed by the value systems, the dizziness of the world beyond this sweet rural community…. [All] these characters create some kind of tension in the Walton household, tensions which are resolved through understanding, love and growth of the family. The single characters themselves are somewhat healed by their contact with the Waltons and the simple values the Waltons exude. We, the audience, are suckers for these stories because we all know we are that outsider, that troubled person whose life, like an X-ray with dark spots, holds threat of bad things. We identify with the outcasts, the loners, the poorly valued, isolated people who don't have the security of the Walton family, and we also identify with the Walton family itself, not so much from recognition as imagination or mythical cultural memories of the way it ought to be. Since we think of ourselves as outsiders and we wish we were part of the cohesive, good, happy family, we eagerly sink into the story, two sides of ourselves playing against each other, and in the end we feel pleasurably sad—even though, of course, everything has turned out all right. We are sad because we know things aren't that way at all and yet we're not angry or provoked because we've enjoyed playing around with the images of family life as they might be (we determine, not consciously, to bring our own families closer together), and as with New Year's resolutions the lack of accomplishment is nothing compared to the sincerity of the attempt.

What really are the factors that make the Waltons' life so ideal? It is obvious that nothing disastrous ever does really happen…. (pp. 132-33)

The disasters, physical and economic and psychological, that would actually befall a real family only threaten here for purposes of dramatic tension. (p. 133)

God is always watching over the Walton family—that seems still to be a part of our happiness myth, if only a small part of our reality. (p. 134)

The Walton family drama takes place in our recent past, but all those experimenting with new forms of marital-family relationships, all those parents planning the birth of a first child, all those of us midway in family life are constantly trying to achieve in our private ways the protective, humane, decent loving family that seems to come so easily to the Waltons. Never mind that we all fail; it's a journey worth taking. (p. 146)

Anne Roiphe, "Ma and Pa and John-Boy in Mythic America: The Waltons," in The New York Times Magazine (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 18, 1973, pp. 40-1, 130-34, 146.

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