The Land of Lost Content:
Living in the Past with The Waltons

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2008, Volume 7, Issue 2


Stephen Brie
Liverpool Hope University

 That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

-A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad


As Pam Cook points out, one of the most significant developments in film and television studies in recent years has been the growing interest in the relationship between texts and the propagation of memory (the process of mental recall of past sensations, events, and knowledge) and nostalgia. Cook defines nostalgia as "a state of longing for something that is known to be irretrievable, but is sought anyway" (1); nostalgia can also be defined as a yearning for the return of past circumstances and events and/or a pain or longing to return to an idealized "home." This paper will build on that interest, taking as its focus the way in which the producers of the drama series The Waltons attempt, via the visual and aural mise-en-scene, to manipulate their American audience’s text-based nostalgic memories in order to propagate and perpetuate conservative values and myths, specifically the notion of the past as depicted in the show as an ethically superior "place" to be, and the idea of the existence of an idyllic rural life based on family values and moral certitude. Both of these ideas are presented as natural, desirable templates for the way in which late twentieth century and early twenty-first century American life should operate. In concluding, the paper will seek to gauge the extent to which these aims may or may not have been successful.

Before undertaking an analysis of the text, a discussion of the ways in which the memory process works in relation to the generation of nostalgic experiences is necessary. When considering the mechanics of the memory processes relating to nostalgic experiences generated by The Waltons, the terms primary memory, secondary memory, episodic memory, and semantic memory, are useful descriptors. These are terms first developed by Canadian psychologist Endel Tulving in Elements of Episodic Memory. Primary memory is short-term memory and relates to recollection, recall and recognition of recent events and facts. Of greater importance in relation to gaining an understanding of the relationship between the text and nostalgia is secondary memory, the process of long-term memory. Also of importance are episodic memory, the memory of events in our own life history, and semantic memory which relates to memory-based knowledge that is independent of our own life history. Both of these processes play a role in the development of nostalgic memory experiences. A semantic memory process will operate in relation to younger viewers without first-hand experience of the period; in such cases imagination will more than likely play a major role in processing the text as a representation of the past. This audience demographic may have prevailing memories of other media representations of the period or of the geographical location. In such cases, they will remember and match up these pre-existing, second-hand representations with those offered in The Waltons, the combination of the two allowing them to imagine"‘what it must have been like," a form of memory by proxy.

Alison Landsberg highlights this phenomenon in discussing the way in which mass media technologies (in our case television) allow viewers to experience, as if they were memories, events which they have never experienced first-hand; such experiences she calls "prosthetic memory," which relates to second-generation memory (21). In such cases, according to Landsberg, viewers may experience "a bodily, mimetic encounter with a collective past they never actually had" (21). Such memories, as Landsberg points out, can become "part of one’s personal archive of experience" (21). Waltons’ viewers experiencing "prosthetic" memories may, in common with episodic memories, experience second-generation nostalgia induced by aural and visual nostalgia prompts deliberately placed within the narrative by writers and producers. Such prompts were aimed at producing a desire or longing for the constructed ideologically conservative past presented by the text.

Memory and nostalgia are symbiotic processes and both are slippery customers. Both often operate selectively, employing perceptual filtering invoking a positively evaluated past. They can also, with the benefit of hindsight, or what Freud termed nachtraglichkeit (translated as "afterwards"), confer meanings on experiences that did not initially possess such meanings (King 11). As Bakhtin argues, "In the world of memory, a phenomenon exists in its own peculiar context, with its own special rules, subject to conditions quite different from those we meet in the world we see with our own eyes" (18).

This perceptual filtering results in a tendency to focus in on pleasant events and/or emotions while repressing painful or disturbing ones. The result is invariably a rose-tinted personal or social history, a heavily edited reconstruction of our past that often leads us down Housman’s "happy highways" to those cosy halcyon days of childhood as depicted in The Waltons. Like Derrida’s notion of language as a process of constant deferral, memory can only ever make distant reference to a past experience, including experience relating to viewer response to television drama.

Of all the subjects that become the focus for the memory processes, events from our childhood are the most likely to diverge from reality. In his epic memory poem The Prelude, Wordsworth identifies what he calls "spots of time," cherished nostalgic memories from moments in our childhood. These memories repeatedly make it past the often cumbersome and obstructive process of recollection, often becoming nostalgically distorted and/or embellished, a fact acknowledged by Mark Freeman: "Each and every time we return to the past an entirely new monster will have been created; what had already been rewritten will have been rewritten yet again, the latest version, this being another step away from the original…all we have are memories of memories of memories" (90).

The writers and producers of The Waltons utilized adult memories from childhood as the basis for the narratives, an extremely significant fact as there are usually differences in form between memories produced by children, which tend to be non-linear or non-sequential events "seen" in an almost photographic or eidetic format, and adult memories, which tend to be linear but often less sharply defined and often crafted out of nostalgic longings. As Steven Rose points out, "A thirty-year-old man does not remember his ten-year-old self in the same way as a fifty-year-old remembers his thirty-year-old self although the time-lapse is the same in each case…Only a few individuals seem to retain in adulthood the eidetic memory of their childhood" (104-6).

Thus the older we get the more unlikely it is that we will reconstruct our childhood lives accurately. The longer we live, the more fictional our pasts become. If, as is statistically likely, the creators of The Waltons are in the majority in not retaining eidetic memories of childhood, we cannot and should not expect the depiction of childhood as presented to us in the show to be an accurate or nostalgically unmediated representation. It follows that there may be two layers of perceptual filtering at work, the first relating to recollections of childhood and the second relating to viewers’ nostalgic editing of those representations. However, as Proust argued, while nostalgic memories may not be accurate, the experience of reworking memory traces (erfahrung) can sometimes be even more powerful than the original experience (White 128-9). Memory can give the past a definition and shape by creating a personally meaningful narrative out of disparate and often irrationally recalled fragments. Memories are often, especially when nostalgically driven, not memories of facts but edited, conservative, versions of our wistful imaginings of the past. It is this conservative element of memory and nostalgia that the producers of The Waltons set out to exploit. According to Theodor Adorno, however, such pleasures, which he claims are rooted in a misguided desire for wish-fulfilment, are only transient experiences, a "scant liberatio"’ from reality (17-48). Adorno’s perspective echoes that of Arthur Schopenhauer who argues, "No attained object of willing can give a satisfaction that lasts and no longer declines; but is always like the alms thrown to a beggar, which reprieves him today so that his misery may be prolonged till tomorrow" (qtd. in Budd 85).

Surely, however, even an ephemeral pleasure has a positive value. The process by which viewers respond nostalgically to the glamorization of time and place as portrayed in The Waltons’ narratives, can result in what Richard Dyer calls "entertainment utopia," a transcendental experience induced by a text, whether written or visual (2-13). Such nostalgic "drifts" should not be considered to be lapses of concentration temporarily taking viewers away from the narrative plot into a desirable other world as presented by the mise-en-scene, but should be understood as therapeutic aspects of the viewing process (whether at the time of first transmission or during subsequent repeats), offering at least a temporary diversion from the personal traumas inherent in viewers’ personal lives. This therapeutic aspect of the text is also relevant in relation to the wider context of world affairs.

Looking back at the turbulent 1970s, the decade in which The Waltons was first transmitted, it is perhaps not surprising that a series set in a slower, bygone age in a rural mountain community, has proven to be such compelling and pleasurable viewing for a large number of people, providing as it does a gentle escape from the trials of modern life. By 1970, the spirit of communality generated during the early years of the "love and peace" sixties had largely evaporated; the Vietnam War and the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy destroyed the nascent optimism. By the time The Waltons hit the airwaves in 1972, the Watergate scandal had rocked the United States. In the light of this collective pessimism, television network executives and program producers felt that the time was right for a show that would appeal to an audience demographic seeking a therapeutic flight of fancy from the sharp-focus of lived reality into a comfortable soft-focus, home-y world promoting a positive perspective on life, underpinned by moral certitude and the primacy of family values.

Having discussed the relationship between memory and nostalgia, and the manner in which these processes develop and function, and having suggested ways in which they may influence viewers’ interaction with the show, it is time to turn to the text itself. After offering an overview of the history and critical reception of The Waltons, specific examples of ways in which the narrative attempts to highlight and promote the efficacy of the adoption of moral and ethical values inherent in myths relating to the concept of a simplistic, stress-free rural existence and to the idea that, contrary to the problems associated with the Great Depression and the agricultural crisis brought on by Dust Bowl conditions, the 1930s, as portrayed in the show, was a "golden age" for those Americans living in the Eastern mountain regions.

The Walton family was first introduced to U.S. television audiences through a pilot movie called The Homecoming, broadcast on 14 September 1972. The resulting series, The Waltons, made its debut later that year on Thursday night prime-time television. Produced by Lorimar, it ran for nine seasons. It was also exported to numerous countries including Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Fiji, Ecuador, and England where it was broadcast on BBC2 between 1974 and 1982. The series was set during the depression years of the 1930s and the years leading up to and including the second World War. Set in the Blue-Ridge Mountains of Jefferson County, Virginia, the memory narratives were developed around a family which eventually extended to four generations from Grandpa (Will Geer) and Grandma (Ellen Corby), through their son John (Ralph Waite) and his wife Olivia (Michael Learned), their seven children, John-Boy (Richard Thomas), Mary-Ellen (Judy Norton-Taylor), Jason (Jon Walmsley), Erin (Mary Elizabeth McDonough), Jim-Bob (David W Harper), Ben (Eric Scott), Elizabeth (Kami Cotler), and grandchild John-Curtis (Marshall and Michael Reed). The show also featured supporting characters including storekeepers Ike (Joe Conley) and Corabeth Godsey (Ronnie Claire Edwards), Sheriff Ep Bridges (John Crawford), and the Baldwin spinster sisters Emily (Mary Jackson) and Mamie (Helen Kleeb).

Critical reviews of the show were overwhelmingly favorable. In concluding what was a glowing commentary on the first episode, New York television critic J. J. O’Connor wondered if the 1970s American public would have an appetite for good family entertainment" (qtd. in Hamner and Giffin 58). Almost immediately it became clear that the answer was a resounding "yes!" The show attracted consistently high viewing figures both in America and abroad. Fan clubs and appreciation societies were set up around the world and still function today, decades after the final episode was first transmitted. The critical and popular reception of The Waltons, which viewed the show as a template for moral and ethical good practice, was exactly what the sponsoring network (CBS) hoped to promote as, according to writer John McGreevey, executives and producers saw the series as "a sop to placate the reformers in the U. S. Congress who were concerned about the predominance of sex and violence on U.S. network television" (qtd. in Hamner and Giffin 65). The American right-wing "family values" religious groups valued the show’s inherent conservatism. Thus the series received commendations from the Council of Christians and Jews, the Society of Southern Baptists, and the Religious Public Relations Council of the Methodist Church (Hamner and Giffin 9). In addition, The Waltons also attracted industry praise, including six Emmy Awards, six Christopher Awards, a Golden Globe Award from the Foreign Press Association, and the Peabody Award.

In the light of such approbation for the lifestyle promoted by the show, ratings-conscious producers sought to ensure that the tried and tested format, based as it was on the principles of ethical and moral certitude, would be maintained. In order to do so, they were particularly concerned to ensure that prime-time viewers were not confronted with the kind of documentary-style realism that was depicted in John Ford’s 1940 adaptation of Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath. In the production notes for the pilot episode of The Waltons, for example, it clearly states that "there should be no hint of squalor or debased living conditions usually associated with poverty" (Wilson). This philosophy was put into practice and underpins the content of the mise-en-scene and the narrative development of the series.

In terms of structure, each episode presented a short story told in retrospect as a memory narrative by the adult John-Boy. At the beginning of each episode, Earle Hamner would voice-over an adult John-Boy’s introduction to the story; at the close of the narrative, John-Boy would offer a monologue aimed at delivering a moral message to the audience. The homodiegetic voiceover was whimsical and engaging, inviting the viewer into the cozy world of the narrative. Although The Waltons’ narratives were from the perspective of a male character, John-Boy was presented as a sensitive, caring male, a fact which allowed both genders to develop alignment with his character and his stories. After establishing a sense of cozy normality, the narrative introduced some form of societal or interpersonal conflict which would bring disruption to Walton’s Mountain. For the most part, this conflict was perpetrated by an outsider who would disrupt what was essentially a tight-knit, self-sufficient community. The narrative would then lead to a resolution of the conflict in which equilibrium was restored either by integration as the outsider embraced the community’s moral and ethical values or by elimination as the outsider departed the mountain.

These stories presented viewers with "common-sense" moral and ethical messages aimed at invoking viewer alignment with the conservative principles presented in the show. Viewer alignment can be segmented into stages as proposed by Julia Hallam and Margaret Marshment in their study Realism and Popular Cinema (122-45). These range from an initial stage of what they call "interest alignment," in which viewers experience sympathy for a character’s predicament, through the more intently engaged "concern alignment," in which viewers experience empathy for a character. Both stages can then potentially incorporate what Hallam and Marshment term "moral alignment" based on shared ethical beliefs aa well as "aesthetic alignment" involving an aesthetic appreciation of the iconography of the show’s mise-en-scene.

During the hard times of the Depression-era, the Walton family is depicted, as a predominantly self-sufficient unit, living a relatively comfortable existence. We see the male characters out hunting for game, but crucially viewers are never confronted with the reality of the kill. In the nine seasons of The Waltons not a single profanity is uttered. The children are well fed and happy. We never see a Walton child being physically or mentally abused. The Walton children respect their elders in a way that viewers (both in terms of first transmission and subsequent repeats) may feel is no longer the case in American society. With these points in mind, the main element contributing to the attraction of the show for many conservative Americans may be the way in which both aural and visual elements of the mise-en-scene act as vehicles for the evocation of nostalgia for past-times and conservative ethics. Such nostalgia encourages viewers (both those with primary memories of the period and those experiencing "prosthetic" memories) to imagine living in the idealized place and time portrayed in The Waltons, and/or to wish for their lived world to move towards an embracement of the ethical values which underpin the show. Others may be influenced by the nostalgic elements of the narrative to desire a more abstract, safe place, which may not necessarily be a physical or historical place, but an ideal founded upon a psychological longing for the return of a lost sense of physical and economic security. The producers of The Waltons specifically encourage such responses by infusing the show’s visual and aural mise-en-scene with nostalgia-inducing period signifiers aimed at promoting the idea of a superior, archetypal "land of lost content" based on "old-fashioned" values as well as the idea of a rural, mythical idyll.

Having discussed the history and critical reception of The Waltons and suggested the potential for nostalgia-based responses to the show, the paper will now move on to examine a number of specific examples of visual and aural period and geographical signifiers which operate as nostalgia prompts. These elements of ideological content were utilized by episode producers in their creation of a period drama which eulogizes both the idea of the past as a desired Other and the notion of rural bliss in a community heavily underpinned by conservative, Christian values.

The focus on the solidity of the Walton family and the idealistic family values to which they adhere is evident from the opening title sequence of the first episode when the audience is presented with a gilt-framed group photograph depicting the entire Walton family happily posing outside their "homestead." ’The family is presented here as a close-knit one with three generations living together in rose-tinted harmony. The representation of familial fraternity is picked up at the end of every episode when the vows of intimacy are renewed in the communal "good night" sequence, a sequence which has become something of a cliché. For many, the idea of the nuclear, generational family as portrayed in The Waltons is a fading paradigm associated with the nostalgic, idealized past.

In addition, the musical soundtrack that plays over the title sequence acts as a sonic nostalgia prompt. Composed by Gerry Goldsmith, the theme music begins with a "country" style, acoustic guitar then segues into the main body of the piece which alternates between trumpet and fiddle passages. The melody is essentially a waltz, based on the repetition of a single six note motif. The arrangement is a watered down play on Bluegrass, a form of country music associated with the mountain regions of Eastern America where The Waltons is set. Traditional Bluegrass is played at a much faster tempo than Goldsmith’s arrangement and foregrounds the dexterity and virtuosity of the fiddle player. This composition, with its gentle guitar, fiddle, and trumpet passages offers an "easy listening" experience, a sanitized backdrop to the visual introduction of the pastoral location: the Walton family period "homestead" with its gables and inviting front porch.

Another nostalgia prompt consistently foregrounded in The Waltons is the period radio featured in many episodes of the show, including the title sequence, when the entire family expresses excitement as the newly acquired device is lovingly transferred from the truck to the house. The radio is also depicted on the rear of the Season One DVD box set. The "old fashioned" Zenith Tombstone table-model radio takes a prominent position in the Walton family’s living-room, functioning in the show as a means of bringing the whole family together.

During the 1930s, the radio was a central feature in many homes. The physical enormity of the early radios made them a piece of furniture which, as is the case with the Waltons, was often given pride of place in the main room in the house. Earle Hamner recalls how, at the end of the working day his family would "gather around the old Atwater-Kent table model and share One Man’s Family [the night time soap of its day], or listen to Charlie McCarthy ribbing Edgar Bergen, or Gene Autry singing…or one of President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats" (qtd. in Hamner and Giffin 5).

The radio also brought the latest country music from the Grand Ole Opry and news of the exploits of sporting heroes from the world of boxing and baseball. Like Hamner, those viewers old enough to have memories of early radio may look back fondly on time spent listening to the signal fade in and out while they listened to such dramas as The Green Hornet and The Shadow. The desire to return to "radio times" is underscored by the vibrant market for vintage radios, now selling for high prices at auctions as enthusiasts attempt to recreate the zeitgeist of the past.

The safe, reassuring world signalled by these nostalgia prompts allows viewers with a longing for a lost ideal to, as John Keats phrased it in "Ode to a Nightingale," "Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget." The "land of lost content" may not actually be a land at all or, for that matter, even be related to a specific historical time period, it may, rather, be the idea of the past as an abstract entity, an entity which produces a nostalgic sense of "pastness." Although some viewers may accept the historical accuracy of the narrative, the actual representation of history as history in The Waltons is a subsidiary element. The show was not presented to its audience as a mimetic representation of the history of the painful and difficult Great Depression; it was, in the words of its creator Earl Hamner, promoted as a series of nostalgic tales about "hearth and home in the Blue-Ridge Mountains" (qtd. in Hamner and Giffin, back cover). Fredric Jameson’s claim that pastness supersedes history, in what he terms "the nostalgia mode," supports the idea that Waltons’ viewers engage with, and gain pleasure from the general representation of the zeitgeist of the period, rather than with any specific reconstruction of history as dates, facts, historical truth, or lived events (7).

The desire for an idyllic, rural past can be traced back to the growth of the cities and the resulting encroachment upon the countryside which developed once the Industrial Revolution was underway. The Waltons can be placed alongside such literature as David Henry Thoreau’s Walden: or Life in the Woods (1893), which also expounded the benefits and practices of a pastoral (although not a communal) lifestyle. With the speed of urbanization and suburbanization showing little sign of slowing down, nostalgia for the rural landscape and the rural way of life has correspondingly increased. Most of us have only to look back a few generations to discover relatives who worked the land. As Philip Wander suggests, the myth of the rural idyll has become part of the collective consciousness, "We know how it was…the air smells sweet, cicadas sing in the evening, children laugh and play in the yard; grandmother takes a fresh peach pie out of the oven...This is a suggestion of what life might hold for people who do not have to be at some place five days a week from nine until five" (148).

The Waltons allows viewers to experience, albeit by proxy, the dream of country living, nurturing and perpetuating the myth, never allowing the idea of the rural idyll to be tarnished. The desire to escape into a "garden of Eden" is not necessarily contingent on a trip back in time; it is essentially a form of what might be termed "geographical nostalgia" in the sense of returning "home" to the land. The lingering shots of the Blue Ridge Mountains offered in The Waltons are lovingly crafted to look like vividly coloured Ansell Adams photographs. The scenic landscape images which are generously infused into the mise-en-scene operate like postcards depicting an area of outstanding natural beauty; they draw the viewer in in the same way that images in travel brochures and travel shows do, rhetorically asking the viewer "wish you were here?" The landscapes are introduced to us as friendly characters, characters which are inextricably part of the community in general and the Walton family in particular. For those characters conceived to be living the dream on Walton’s Mountain, familiarity does not breed contempt; all the main characters consistently reflect on their good fortune in inhabiting such a magnificent picturesque environment. This drawing attention to the positive Otherness of the mountain region in relation to the city, keeps the myth in the mind of the viewer. It is continually celebrated and offered for enjoyment. The evocation of the wonders of the natural environment is an obvious focus for what Hallam and Marshment call "aesthetic alignment," the aesthetic appreciation of a filmic or tele-visual image (136). Urbanites may wistfully imagine themselves transported from their projects in smoggy Los Angeles to this healthy, sublimely attractive, rural landscape.

The "real world" does impinge on Walton's Mountain life. In the second episode of season one, for instance, the family’s finances are so precarious that the children have to forego a long anticipated visit to the carnival because the entrance fees were needed to purchase a new pair of spectacles for Ester. In episode fourteen of season one, Mary Ellen is forced to sell a treasured antique teapot, and John-Boy leaves home to take up a job in the city in order to make ends meet. There are many other examples of real-world trauma. For example, John-Boy is mugged while seeking work in the city (1:14), Olivia contracts polio (1:22), Jason’s friend Seth (Ron Howard) is diagnosed with a fatal disease (2:17), Olivia has a miscarriage (2:18), Grandpa has a heart-attack (3:13), John Walton is diagnosed with pneumonia (3:23), the Walton’s house is almost destroyed by fire (4:18), Grandma Walton is hospitalized (5:12), when Ellen Corby has a real-life stroke, Elizabeth breaks both legs and suffers nerve damage (6:18), Olivia contracts tuberculosis (7:15) and John-Boy falls into a coma (8:9). Despite these scratches on the veneer of idealism, The Waltons’ narratives offer a utopian representation of a lost America, a sepia vision which contrasted sharply with other 1970s television dramas such as Kojak and Starsky and Hutch, cop shows that presented the viewer with an impression of twentieth century American urban life as hostile and dangerous, as a time and place to escape from rather than into. The presented coherence of the Walton family unit despite the troubles mentioned above also works as a binary opposite to the angst-ridden problematic urban families portrayed in 1970s American sitcoms such as All in the Family (1971-83), and in more contemporary shows such as The Simpsons (1996-). George Bush Sr. seized upon this fact, and in a speech made at the Republican National Convention in Houston in 1992 he pledged to "keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons" (qtd. in Hamner and Giffin 64).

Writing in The New York Times, television critic Robert Berkvist also saw The Waltons as a benchmark for behavioral standards: "The Waltons reminds us of where we have been" and suggests there was "value there…a time when both young and old had their dignity" (qtd. in Hamner and Giffin 58). The show promotes the idea of monogamous, lasting relationships, and although characters fall in love, the narratives have little to say about sex and sexuality. The Protestant, pioneering work ethic is expounded with vigour and offered up as a common-sense virtue. For the duration of each episode, Walton’s Mountain is effectively presented as a rural utopia populated by decent God-fearing folks who exist in a world in which, no matter what difficulties may develop, good always triumphs over evil. The Waltons consciously reconstructs mountain life in the Depression-era as a slower, safer, gentler bygone time where friends and neighbors join the family on the porch on hot summer nights for homemade lemonade.

The concept of pastness as a form of highly desirable Other, in comparison with an increasingly traumatic present, was and is a marketable commodity which the show’s producers deliberately exploited. The world depicted in the series was consciously constructed using a template designed to engage viewers and hopefully tempt them to buy into the concept of what was essentially a kind of zeitgeist theme park which opened its gates once a week offering fifty minutes of narrative conducive to the propagation of nostalgia. The need to escape into memory relates to prevailing myths surrounding the idea of the rural idyll and the positive Otherness of past times.

Works Cited

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Wander, Philip. "The Waltons: How Sweet It Was." Journal of Communication 26.4 (1976): 148-156.

White, Edmund. Proust. London: Phoenix, 1999.

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