Hamner, Earl, Jr. John W. Donohue - Essay

John W. Donohue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 into depths of that sort, though it hints at them when John-Boy, the oldest of the children, feels himself divided between his hope of becoming a writer and his family affections and responsibilities.

But lack of realism is beside the point because what is being evoked here is not so much a real as an ideal world. Although it is a sophisticated, corporate work, The Waltons has something of the charm and purity of the Peaceable Kingdom, that world painted by such highly individual American primitives as Edward Hicks and Grandma Moses…. [The Waltons has the] power of suggesting what life ideally ought to be and of awakening a nostalgia for it.

In fact, it's a kind of morality play made unusually concrete and poignant by expert craftsmanship and the naturalness that films can achieve. Although in The Waltons, as Earl Hamner admits, even the "heavies" are not very villainous, many of its episodes are built around the morality's favorite theme: the conflict between light and darkness. Some outsider whose values are false or ambiguous comes across the Waltons and gets straightened out; a youthful preacher too preoccupied with sin and judgment; a German Jewish refugee who wants to forget his religious heritage; John Walton's World War I buddy who has never grown up. Sometimes the stranger, despite his own weakness, clarifies values for a Walton…. In each encounter the values the Waltons embody—family love, kindness, honesty, hard work—are not only highlighted but reassuringly prevail. (pp. 549-50)

John W. Donohue, "Arcadia Recalled: 'The Waltons'," in America (© America Press, 1972; all rights reserved), December 23, 1972, pp. 549-50.