My roots in the Virginia earth are deep. My mother’s people came here from the walled city of Lucca in the Tuscany region of Italy. They came as indentured servants to Thomas Jefferson who intended to start a wine industry in Virginia. They brought cuttings from their vines but the grapes did not adapt to the Virginia soil, and withered away.
Not so the Gianinni clan. On land granted to them by Mr. Jefferson they became farmers in the shadow of Monticello Mountain. They prospered in Albemarle County and intermarried with a group of footwashing Baptists.
At the same time my father’s people had emigrated from Wales, leaving their village of Hanmer near the northern border of Wales and England. They had acquired land along the James River and were raising tobacco. They tended to be tall and thin, a sentimental crew, who loved their families, and their wine, and who had to be goaded by their wives to attend church, but once there they could out sing the clearest and loudest voice in the choir.
Somehow descendants of these two clans, in the Great American Melting Pot tradition, found each other, married, and their descendants, the families of my mother and my father, early in the new century moved to a small village in Nelson County to work in the soapstone quarries and mill. When my Grandfather Hamner developed polio, and was no longer able to take care of his family, my own father, at twelve years of age quit school, and took a job toting water to workers in the soapstone quarries at Schuyler. My mother graduated from high school but, as she used to claim, she went through high school eight more times while coaching each of her children through to graduation.
Of their eight children seven of them were normal, but one was strange. That was me.
I was an odd looking boy, leaping to six feet tall when I was fourteen, all long, skinny wrists, unruly red hair, shoulders slumped in an attempt to lean closer to my companions.
Earl and friends at Schuyler High School. 1939.
We were in the midst of the Great Depression of the Twenties and Thirties. Like our neighbors we were self-sufficient but cash money was almost non-existent. And I had a secret, strange and impossible dream.
Years later, when I was writing the screenplay for my television movie “The Homecoming” I tried to put into words some of those alien, confused, and mysterious yearnings.
In the play, Olivia, John-Boy’s mother has just discovered a tablet the boy has hidden under his mattress. She demands to know what is in it. He replies:
“You know what’s in this tablet, Mama? All my secret thoughts- how I feel, and what I think about. Things I never told anybody ‘till now. What it’s like late at night to hear a whippoorwill call and its mate call back, the rumble of the midnight train crossen the trestle at Rockfish, watchen water go by in the creek and knowen that some day it’ll reach the ocean and wonderen if I’ll ever see the ocean. Sometimes I hike over to Route 29 and watch the people in their cars and wagons go by and I wonder what their lives are like. Things stay in my mind, Mama. I can’t forget anything. It all gets bottled up and sometimes I feel like a crazy man. Can’t sleep or rest till I rush off up here and write it in that tablet.
“I do vow,” replied Olivia.
“If things had been different, Mama, I think I could have done somethen with my life. What I would have liked, Mama, was to have tried . . .to be .. a writer!
“If that’s what you want, couldn’t you still try? “ Asked Olivia.
“It wouldn’t be right,” he answered. “Not in these times. It takes a college education to be a writer and even if we had the money it wouldn’t be right to risk it all on me. And anyway I can’t disappoint my daddy. He’s got his heart set on me taking up a trade.”
Olivia replied, “He just want you to know how to make a living.”
“I could sure never do that scribblen things down in a tablet.”
But time would prove me wrong. Through the intervention of Laura Horsley, the wife of our company doctor I received a scholarship to the University of Richmond. But that was only half the battle. The scholarship paid for tuition only. There was still food and board, textbooks to be bought, fees of several kinds. Through the generosity of three of my father’s sisters I was taken into their home in Richmond and given food and lodging. Our local Baptist minister gave me a crash course in Latin, one of the requirements the University needed before I could qualify to accept the scholarship. My father ruefully parted with the white shirt he had planned to be buried in, and my mother spent the money she earned from selling eggs and buttermilk to buy me a suit from Sears and Roebuck. She showed a picture of it to me in the catalogue before it arrived – “the fabric is of green herringbone, with vest to match and an extra pair of trousers.” And it cost nineteen dollars and ninety-five cents. Took every cent of my mother’s buttermilk money!
I entered the University of Richmond in the autumn of 1940. I was unsure of myself, in an alien world, among other boys who were obviously more sophisticated in their manner and dress. The largest city I had visited until now was Charlottesville, usually on a Saturday morning when country people clogged Main Street in their horse and buggies. I had never ridden a streetcar, driven a car, or talked on a telephone.
But I was on time for my first class, and the strangeness gradually went away. The tall boy with the red hair wearing the green herringbone suit was on his way! A writer was in the making!
That was the autumn of 1940. And just recently, decades later, I received the following stunning announcement.”
LIBRARY OF VIRGINIA ANNOUNCEMENT
Earl Hamner to Receive Lifetime Achievement Award
Nelson County native Earl Hamner, writer of novels, television shows, and movies and the force behind the semiautobiographical television series The Waltons, will receive the 2011 Literary Lifetime Achievement Award from the Library of Virginia at the 14th Annual Literary Awards Celebration on October 15, 2011.
Hamner grew up in Schuyler, Virginia, with seven brothers and sisters. From an early age he exhibited a love of words and writing. When he was six his poem, “My Dog” was published on the Children’s Page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. His potential was recognized and he received encouragement from his teachers and members of the tight-knit community.
Hamner received a scholarship to the University of Richmond, but midway through his sophomore year Hamner was drafted. He spent time learning to drive tanks and diffuse mines, but his ability to type landed him in the Quartermaster Corps. While in the U.S. Army Hamner began to submit stories for publication.
After his discharge in March 1946 he returned to Richmond and briefly worked for local radio station WMBG. In the fall of 1946 Hamner enrolled in the school of broadcasting at the University of Cincinnati and graduated in 1948.
Shortly after graduation Hamner went to New York City and found work as a radio writer for NBC. His first book, Fifty Roads to Town, was published by Random House in 1953 and in 1961 his novel Spencer’s Mountain was published by Dial Press.
He began writing scripts for episodes of the Twilight Zone and CBS Playhouse. The film rights to Spencer’s Mountain were purchased by Warner Bros. and Hamner was on his way as a success in Hollywood. In 1970 The Homecoming was published by Random House and became a CBS special starring Patricia Neal and later was the basis of the long-running and hugely popular television series The Waltons. Hamner garnered additional fame as a writer for Falcon Crest, a prime time soap opera, which aired on CBS from 1981 to 1990.
Hamner has received numerous honors including:
TV-Radio Writers Award (1967)
George Foster Peabody Award for Distinguished Journalism (1972)
Virginian of the Year Award from Virginia Press Association (1973)
An Emmy for Best Drama Series for The Waltons (1974)
National Association of Television Executives Man of the Year Award (1974)
Virginian Association of Broadcasters Award (1975)
Frederic Ziv Award from the University of Cincinnati for Outstanding Achievement in Telecommunication
P.S. I know I'm shameless, but I couldn't resist adding that my new book ODETTE, A GOOSE OF TOULOUSE, has just been published and is selling briskly on Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com.
And I just received word that a new short story, 'The Woods Colt," has been selected for inclusion in an anthology of mystery and fantasy to be published in the fall.
Warm Virginia greetings by way of California!