Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 758
Few authors, writing at the peak of their creative years, live to see their most famous books remain popular and in print for sixty years. Such was the amazing longevity of Walter D. Edmonds and Drums Along the Mohawk, a classic regional novel few readers who savor pioneer adventure have missed. Edmonds—whose forty-first and final book, Tales My Father Never Told, was published in the fall of 1995, shortly after its author’s ninety-second birthday—always acknowledged the truth of his critics’ charge that he had limited skill in creating character. He happily accepted the balancing praise of his fervent clientele that he was a matchless storyteller whose tales have emerged from the fantasies of a boyhood imagination under the enchantment of rural New York State.
Walter Dumaux Edmonds was born in Boonville, a small town in the heart of upstate New York, which serves as the locale for his historical novels. His father, who operated a New York City law practice from his country farm, was a lineal descendant of the Reverend Peter Bulkeley of Concord, and his mother, Sarah Mays Edmonds, came from a family that had been involved in the seventeenth century witchcraft episodes around Salem. Edmonds grew up in the Erie Canal territory, and he spent many hours of his boyhood listening to the colorful stories of the old canallers in the region around Boonville.
His parents sent him to St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, and then to Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut. He later said that these years were “miserable” for him and that it was not until he attended Harvard University that he discovered learning could be enjoyable. At Harvard, Edmonds studied with Professor Charles Townsend Copeland and became editor of the Harvard Advocate. When Copeland, impressed by Edmonds’s work, sent one of his stories, “The End of the Towpath,” to Scribner’s Magazine, it was accepted for publication. In 1926, the year of his graduation from Harvard, Edmonds won second prize in an intercollegiate contest conducted by Harper’s. Ellery Sedgwick, then the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, suggested to Edmonds that he write a novel about the canal area he knew so well. The novel, which he wrote during the winter of 1927-1928, was Rome Haul, published in 1929. It proved an immediate success, and from that time on Edmonds concentrated his full effort on writing.
Most of his novels are historical in character, re-creating in place and period the history of the upstate New York region. The action of Drums Along the Mohawk covers the years between 1776 and 1784 and tells how events on the frontier during the Revolutionary War affected the lives of settlers in the Mohawk Valley. Erie Water is the story of the building of the Erie Canal between 1817 and 1825. Rome Haul shows the canal in the 1850’s, before the railroads stripped it of romance and glory. The Big Barn deals with the efforts of upstate landowners, in the period of the Civil War, to preserve the large estates which united the culture of the Eastern seaboard with the crude, bluff vigor of the frontier. Chad Hanna is a story of circus life along the canal in its heyday. The Boyds of Black River presents pictures of Mohawk Valley farm life shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century. The Wedding Journey is another story of the Erie Canal. Edmonds once summed up his work by saying that its purpose was “to tell, through the lives of everyday people, the story of New York State and its key periods in history.”
Edmonds fell into a prolonged (fifteen-year) dry spell in his forties and fifties. He ended the drought with a chronicle of the colonial settlement of North America and the struggle between France and England for its possession. “The Musket and the Cross got little change from academic historians . . . but I enjoyed writing it,” he subsequently recalled. After that book’s publication in 1968, six of his eight books were meant for juveniles, including Bert Breen’s Barn, which won a National Book Award in 1975.
In 1976, Edmonds sold Northlands, his Boonville estate, which one visitor, admiring the sound of water flowing over rocks, called “every writer’s dream retreat,” and moved to Concord, Massachusetts. In his ninetieth year, he accepted one of his many honorary degrees at Utica College of Syracuse University and read to an overflow audience of upstate “neighbors” several of the tales about his father that three years later went into his 1995 memoir. He died in 1998 in Concord at the age of ninety-four.
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