The Underground River: Case 1, Will Geer, actor
As a child growing-up in small-town Missouri, weekends spent “out in the country” visiting grandparents were special treats.
Saturdays were spent fishing, climbing cherry trees, chasing grasshoppers and lightning bugs, or just sitting on an old rail fence beside the smokehouse, talking to “Bessie”, the ancient, blind, retired milk cow.
Sundays always began with a giant breakfast of bacon and pancakes before church, after which us kids were free to run wild again until Sunday dinner was served on the long wooden tables under the shade tree on the front lawn beside the dirt road.
After dinner, kids were sent away from the eating tables, so the older folks could talk in peace.
Once or twice a year, grandma would stand up at length from the dinner table and announce something which never failed to scare the bejeezus out of the younger kids.
They were bringing “The Table” down from the attic into the living room. Anyone interested in doing a “table rising” should head indoors now…
It might seem strange to say so, but the life of Queen Victoria cast a shadow reaching deep into the heartlands of 1970s rural America.
There has always been a weird tension at the heart of American identity, with the nation founded on a rejection of class and nobility, while nursing a well-hidden sense of class insecurity.
This is why the American working-class insists on calling itself “middle class”.
It is also probably the reason for America’s lingering, pervasive inability to put racism behind itself once and for all. A damn good argument could be made that when Americans threw-off the yoke of aristocracy and privilege, they merely stepped into the newly available position, making themselves the “new nobility”, while lording over an indentured or enslaved underclass.
But again, behind it all, a sort of “national impostor syndrome” lay constantly lurking behind the noisy bravado.
It is why 19th century English writers like Charles Dickens could tour the USA, and be celebrated like any modern superstar.
It is why British royalty is an ongoing obsession, and “royals” like Prince Harry, and Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson (from the preceding generation), can leverage the happenstance of their birth into a fine living on the USA media circuit.
But I digress from the first point. No British royal ever left a deeper impression on America than Queen Victoria.
Almost everything used to signify social class other than money – worldliness, education, or “quality” – in 20th century America was a clumsy aping of Victorian manners, fashions, and attitudes to everything from table manners to sex.
This social and class anxiety is also why children of my generation were scolded for having our elbows on the table at eating times. It is why we were told that “ain’t” isn’t a word. It is why working-class people bought cutlery sets with special fish knives, thinking them a sign of refined gentility.
Queen Victoria’s taste (or her German husband Albert’s) is why we have Christmas trees indoors to this day.
A Victorian Anglo-Irish clergyman invented the “Rapture” idea still embraced by millions of Americans today.
The Victorian obsession with spiritualism – communication with the dead – would have normally been seen as The Devil’s Work by American evangelical Christians. But once it was embraced by Queen Victoria herself, the American desire to be in tune with upper-class trends outweighed any religious reservations.
And this is why the oldest folks in southern Missouri were still holding séances and “table knockings” in the 1960s and 1970s.
Once “The Table” had revealed its secrets from The Other Side, it was put away for another few months, and the old folks would drag every chair available to a place near the sofa and TV. Children would sprawl on their bellies, chin-in-hands-elbows-on-the-floor at the feet of the grown-ups.
Time for the Sunday episode of The Waltons.
For those born later than the 1960s or 1970s, it is almost impossible to overstate the cultural significance of this TV show, which was set during The Great Depression and WWII- era rural Virginia.
The Waltons spoke to a rapidly suburbanising working-class and lower middle-class America whose parents had come from mostly rural backgrounds. The stress of The Cold War, and the strife of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the rise of feminism and the “hippy movement” had left this first truly suburban generation dreaming of a return to some simpler, mythical past.
Parents watched The Waltons to vicariously re-live what they believed had been lost, and they made their children watch it, in order that the new generation might absorb some “old timey” values and morals.
But like fish knives and table-risings, much of what we believe about our past and ourselves is shown through a lens of our own longings.
We believe what we want to believe.
It was with all of this in mind, at a remove of 50 years, that I was unsure whether to burst out laughing, crying, or cheering this week while researching the ethnic origins of the real-life family upon which The Waltons was based (the Hamner family), as well as some of the actors who portrayed the fictional Walton family.
The much-beloved Grandpa of the series was played by the late Will Geer, a gentleman of mostly German ancestry, with the usual “people of color” joining his melting-pot along the way via the Rippey family (a prize for anyone who can locate the source of that surname…?)
At this stage, I am more surprised when Americans DON’T have a family of color in their ancestry – so no particularly big deal there.
What surprised me more was that our 1970s Sunday morality hour at grandma and grandpa’s house was being performed – at least in part – courtesy of a man who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his communist leanings.
And there was even more to “Grandpa Walton” than his decades-long commitment to the American Labor Movement and other left-wing causes.
For many long years prior to marrying his eventual wife, Mr. Geer had a much-loved boyfriend.
If my folks had known, I suspect “The Table” would have ended-up in the TV screen.
#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #The Waltons #TableRising #WillGeer #GrandpaWalton
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