Recently I was scanning with the TV remote – a skill most men master at an early age, but one that has become more difficult with the proliferation of cable channels – and I happened to run across an episode of The Waltons, the TV show about a Depression-era family in rural Virginia. This particular episode was about a young man pursuing a musical career, and as I watched him pounding on the piano in the family’s parlor it got me to thinking. If times were tough and money was tight, how could they afford a piano? And in a larger sense, how realistic was the whole series?
For those who might have been on the moon for a couple of decades, first let me explain that The Waltons was a Top Ten show for a lot of years beginning in the early 1970’s, and even if you’re not too sure how much you remember about it, you might at least recall the theme song. You also might remember that the musically-inclined young man was second son Jason, who was often shown playing and singing, sometimes with an old-style country music group that appeared in local honky-tonks.
But putting aside the music, let’s get back to that realism thing. In all fairness, I don’t think that show’s creators ever pretended that it was anything but an idealized view of life in those days. After all, most story-lines were pretty benign and were always neatly wrapped up by the end of the episode. This usually involved a learning experience for the saintly oldest son John-Boy, who was quite possibly the most annoying character on TV.
Since I live and breathe nostalgia (and write about it) I can’t really fault them. After all, fondly remembering the good times while conveniently forgetting the bad is the very definition of nostalgia. But I do think that they could have been a tiny bit more realistic about some things.
I’m not setting myself up as an expert on conditions during the Depression because I wasn’t around then, but my mother and her siblings spent much of the era on a tenant farm. And even though I never saw their house, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it would have fit into the main room of the Walton house, which appeared huge on TV. The Walton family also had electricity and indoor plumbing, including a modern bathroom — a luxury my mother didn’t have until she was much older. (Apparently the Walton house had thin walls too, judging from how easily they could all say goodnight to each other, even with their bedroom doors closed. Makes you wonder how ma and pa found enough privacy to keep making all those kids.)
In addition to the house, the Waltons also owned a lot of property — in fact, the mountain was named after them. They would have been considered the American version of landed gentry, temporarily down on their luck but respected and admired by their neighbors. And now that I think about it, they were often depicted that way on the show, and maybe that was at least part of the reason for it’s success. The people behind The Waltons knew that nobody would want to watch a program about the worst parts of the era, so they were smart enough to make it about a strong family struggling through the Depression with optimism for the future. Nothing wrong with that.