April 1993

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Walter Edmonds

Our Stalwart


Bill Kauffman


Part I

In December 1991, I drove along Governor Dewey's dubious legacy, the New York State Thruway, to visit Upstate's biographer, novelist Walter D. Edmonds. Mr. Edmonds lives in Concord, Massachusetts, Valhalla of American writers. His circa 1870 home and garden stand along the banks of Thoreau's river and not far from the hillock in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in which repose the families of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Edmonds's ancestors, the Alcotts. This is a curious place for Edmonds. He has roots in ghostly Concord, but the plain folk of his novels are far removed from fey Transcendentalists and earnest reformers. One shudders to imagine Chad Hanna running into Bronson Alcott.

Mr. Edmonds is courtly and eighty-eight (at the time of our meeting); his accent, fittingly, is a hybrid of high Brahmin and Oneida County hick. He has wrapped an old flannel shirt around his button-down and tie; his cat, Poupette, ambles over couch and table and tape recorder and guest with feline insouciance.

Walter Dumaux Edmonds was born in 1903 to the central New York aristocracy. His father practiced law in New York City, so the boy early on understood that New York is two—at least two—different states. ("Upstate is a country," as Carl Carmer, the Oak Orchard-bred folklorist, used to say.) He speaks with obvious pride of his birth—on the farm in Boonville rather than in Babylon on the Hudson—and he says that Edmund Wilson envied him his local nativity. One of the news clips he is proudest of is from the Boonville Herald: "Boonville Boy Writes Book."

(What is it about Utica? Although it is upstate New York's eighth largest city, its environs nurtured three of our finest literary men: Edmonds, Harold Frederic, and Edmund Wilson. Not to mention the two greatest political personages of their day—Horatio Seymour and Roscoe Conkling.)

From the first, Edmonds was enchanted by life in the Black River country. "I was much closer to the farm life than I was to the family life, and much more at home in the farmhouses," he says. The Black River Canal, a feeder to the Erie, was "right within view of our back porch. You couldn't see the boats, but you could see the steersmen and the mules or horses. It was about three-fourths of a mile, and I regret to say that we used to throw tomatoes at them. They'd done nothing to us—it was sheer vandalism—but we knew they couldn't pursue us for any length of time."

This son of an aestivating laird was filled with curiosity about the lives of the local people. He recalls one eventful stay in Boonville: "I spent a winter on the farm. Father thought it would be good for my health and he made me promise to be outside every day for at least three hours. Most of the time I would snowshoe up and down the river. I had a good many friends up and down the river and I'd spend time with them. Most of the material [for Rome Haul] came out of things they told me. Also, in the farmhouse that winter I found two scrapbooks my grandfather in Utica had kept from before father's birth in 1850. A lot of them had to do with happenings on the canal. That's where I got the reference to the canal agency for bachelor boaters. Supplying girls—I don't know what that would be today!"

At Harvard, young Edmonds began writing about life along the canal. An early story, "The End of the Tow-Path," caught the eye of Professor Charles Townsend Copeland, who helped him sell it to Scribner's. "It was the only story I wrote in longhand," remembers Edmonds. "[Copeland] said, 'You take it back and get it typed and I'll send it down to Max Perkins at Scribner's' That was the opening of my junior year but they didn't publish it till I graduated. I was very cross about that."

Rome Haul appeared shortly thereafter, in 1929, and for the next two decades Walter Edmonds established himself as the most significant Upstate novelist since Harold Frederic. His early novels sold well and received mostly friendly notices; his short stories, some of which were collected in Mostly Canallers (1934), appeared in such magazines as the Atlantic Monthly and the Saturday Evening Post. Drums Along the Mohawk (1936) was kept from a lengthy stay atop the best-seller lists only by the contemporaneous issue of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind. (Edmonds's original title, The Starving Wilderness, was scrapped because "in the Depression that wasn't a happy title at all.")

Edmonds recalls the writing of Drums: "I read [Harold Frederic's] In The Valley and that was an influence. I was thinking about it as I wrote Drums Along The Mohawk. I had a terrible time getting Drums Along The Mohawk started. I worked at it for over a year and I had 800-900 pages of manuscript stacked up...[It] became a children's book called Wilderness Clearing. But then I finally hit on the beginning that I have. It's not a terribly good beginning: it's serviceable...I [started] in July of 1935...and I finished it on New Year's Eve."

Frederic was an influence, but Upstate's other eminent American novelist was not. "I thought [James Fenimore Cooper] was perfectly ridiculous," chuckles Edmonds. "I remember mother reading all of Fenimore Cooper and I was fascinated but I said this is nonsense. Nobody could see a nail at 400 yards: even if he could hit it, he just wouldn't see it! I know just what happened. He came back from England to his father's planned development in Cooperstown and he threw his weight around as the squire and then he got around, asking about tilings in the woods, and I can just see the old-timers telling him ridiculous things and he swallowed the whole works and they came out in his book."

Hollywood filmed Drums Along The Mohawk, as well as Chad Hanna and Rome Haul (twice), which had been adapted by Marc Connelly and Frank B. Elser as The Farmer Takes A Wife. "I didn't like it very much," says Edmonds of Drums, one of director John Ford's few botches. The pampered French poodle Claudette Colbert was badly miscast as a frontier wife, although Henry Fonda made a fine Gil Martin. (Fonda, whose family name graces a town in Montgomery County, appeared in film versions of all three Edmonds novels. His first big break came on stage in The Farmer Takes A Wife. Drums Along the Mohawk, sandwiched between the extraordinary Ford-Fonda collaborations Young Mr. Lincoln and The Grapes of Wrath, secured Fonda's burgeoning reputation as the apotheosis of the "good old American type.")

Beginning in the 1940s, Walter Edmonds wrote a series of books for young adults. But his muse was deserting him. A year's research on Anti-Masonry failed to fructify; a planned Civil War novel petered out after just one installment in the Saturday Evening Post. The well was dry. His friend Bernard de Voto later told him that early success is the worst thing that can happen to a writer—Edmonds agrees.

Edmonds came back nicely with the National Book Award-winning Bert Breen's Barn (1975), a novel for young adults. He is now at work, "haphazardly," on a series of vignettes about his early life with father.

Mr. Edmonds is a solitary man, not given to schmoozing with the literati or chumming it up at Writers Conferences. Although he spearheaded the second great efflorescence of Yorker prose, he barely knew his comrades-in-arms Carl Carmer and Samuel Hopkins Adams, and knew Henry W. Clune not at all. There was, he says (and Mr. Clune concurs), no Upstate literary mafia as existed among say, the southern agrarians. Certainly clannishness has its drawbacks, but we could have used our own I'll Take My Stand in the 1930s.

Mr. Edmonds tells a funny story about the first time he met Mr. Adams: "Samuel Hopkins Adams came up a couple of times to Northlands, our place [in Boonville]. He went all around the house on his first visit, saying what furniture was worth having and what was bogus...He was a very forceful old boy. Most of the furniture there had been in my grandfathers house in Utica, so unless they were making spurious Victorian furniture in Utica... [He was] without any animosity or scorn, he was just interested in it. My wife was trying to suppress a giggle and I felt much the same way."

Walter Edmonds was born five years too late to serve in the first World War; his work bears no trace of Lost Generation cynicism or world-weariness. Nor was he affected by the debunking stepchildren of the local colorists: he never even read Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio or Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, and not until our Main Streets had been knocked down or boarded up did he acquaint himself with Sinclair Lewis.

"I'm not an intellectual," Mr. Edmonds insists. "I've always tried to make my characters real through their behavior, which I think is as good a way to judge a person as any. I don't try to practice psychiatry in their minds."

Among contemporary writers, he admires Eudora Welty above all. (In One Writer's Beginnings, Miss Welty writes that her father offered her mother a choice between living in Jackson, Mississippi, or the Thousand Islands. Of what literary riches were we deprived when Mrs.Welty made the wrong choice?)

Edmonds claims not to have had an overarching plan, but his oeuvre suggests otherwise. Drums Along The Mohawk shows us the settlement of the Mohawk Valley and the price of Independence; Rome Haul and Erie Water (1933) describe the canal, the first great stimulus to development; Young Ames (1942) and Chad Hanna (1940) give us Jacksonian America in all its enterprising, democratic exuberance; The Big Barn (1930) depicts agrarian New York at its pinnacle; and The Boyds of Black River (1953) traces the decline of the rural gentry. Edmonds had little interest in what came after: upon reaching the twentieth century, he turned his cart around and went back to the beginning, writing The Musket and the Cross (1968), a voluminous history of the struggle between the French and English for colonial America. Appropriately, Tom Dolan, the boy hero of Bert Breen's Barn, one of Edmonds's only excursions into our century, spends his time spelunking about an old barn, looking for a hidden nineteenth-century fortune.

The hallmarks of Edmonds's novels are a robust frontier humor and a respect for the pioneering virtues. His characters are plain people—Dan Harrows, Gil Martins—who by dint of hard work and native sense create a life and community in a big country.

A note of elegy plays through Edmonds's works. The agrarian, Jeffersonian New York that Edmonds sees as the Revolution's happy result is altered, in ways subtle and obvious, by the first great internal improvement of young America, the Erie Canal. When Chad Hanna's Mrs. Huguenine says, referring to the spirit of 76, "I wish I'd been born in that time. I'd have liked it," we are sure that she speaks for the author.

In Rome Haul, the appositely named Dan Harrow leaves his Tug Hill farm to make his fortune on the canal. He finds adventure, and a facsimile of love, but after a season or two he returns to the plow. At the outset of his journey, Harrow is befriended by a grizzled peddler, who hails the canal as "the bowels of the nation! It's the whole shebang of life!" The whore with whom he takes up warns Dan that "people live by different notions" on the canal, but Harrow plows ahead, mindful of the peddler's maxim that "canawlers keep a-moving." Tired of moving, deserted by his Molly, Dan leaves the canal to take a job superintending a dairy farm north of Boonville—where we find him ten years later in The Big Barn.

Dan Harrow is torn between the canal and the farm: he wants to be a yeoman, yet he also yearns for the footloose, independent life of a canaller. The vast farm that Harrow oversees in The Big Barn seems, as rootedness sometimes does, like a prison. How much more exciting—and, Edmonds suggests, ultimately meaningless—is the brawling, boozing, wenching life on the canal.

The Big Barn is an elemental tale of strong-willed tyrant Ralph Wilder, autocrat of 100,000 acres of the Black River Country. Ralph determines to build an immense barn that will be "bigger than the Ark," marvels one loafer at the general store. Ralph is pure action: "He'd own slaves down south, but he almost manages that up here anyway." observes his son Henry, a frail aesthete who has returned from Massachusetts with his wife, Rose Lane. (I had assumed the "Rose Lane Wilder" was a nominative nod to the woman who persuaded her mother to write the Little House on the Prairie books; not so. "I've never read them," says Edmonds.)

Ralph Wilder's obsession with the barn is concomitant with a growing awareness of his mortality: "That barn will stand a while...Maybe people will say who built it. That's something." Personal tragedies rob Ralph of his reason to believe: Henry is reported missing in the War Between the States, and his other son, Bascom, is killed by a cuckolded husband. The burden of the farm falls on Rose's shoulders; her life, suddenly, is informed by purpose. "The rhythm of daily labor had made its claim; she began to feel that she had always lived this daily round, that she would always live it. When Ralph was gone, she could see herself following it to the end, and her body growing older in the shadow of the barn." Rose may be Edmonds's fullest female character, Ralph is his most tragic.

For a man somewhat patronizingly known as a "canal writer," Edmonds can seem surprisingly ambivalent about Clinton's ditch. His third novel, Erie Water, is full of those minor characters that he drew so well—itinerants, preachers, snake-oil salesmen. They prophesy in dire tones about how the canal will destroy the old, and presumably honorable, way of life, and usher in a new world of bills and credit and debt and impersonality.

Erie Water follows a stout lad from Uniontown, Jerry Fowler, up and down the towpath. Fowler is enterprising and hard-working; in Edmonds's world, such qualities guarantee success. ("I'm a Horatio Alger type," admits Edmonds.) Jerry Fowler signs on to build locks, and labors so single-mindedly that his wife lights out, moving in with a farm family, the Hallecks, who remind one of prosperous Joads.

Erie Water is Edmonds's weakest novel; Jerry and his wife Mary are curiously lifeless, more ciceroni than characters. But the book nicely illustrates Edmonds's ambivalence about the canal, whose ardent fan he is said to be. Edmonds is nigh-reverent toward the sweat and toil off Irish and African brows that built the canal, and the seat-of-the-pants engineering and solid craftsmanship that undergirt it. Nevertheless, the canal "is changing this whole land," the eldritch Merwin Gandy tells Jerry.

Gandy is a stock figure in the Edmonds repertory: one of those eccentrics, often a backwoodsman or itinerant preacher, who is part sage, part holy fool. Erie Water features a passel of rascals and their view of the creeping ditch is far from roseate. A salty farmer early on bemoans, "This canal ain't going to do me no good.. .It's too far off. All they're going to do is tax me for it. Don't I pay high enough anyway? Here's my wife needing a new wheel and we're trying to get round to hire a schoolmaster now." Crack carpenter Self Rogers observes, "Afore this damned canal a man just said he'd work. Now he signs a paper. A man is captured and held legal." Snake-oil salesman cum Shaker Isachaar Bennet complains to Jerry of the declining sense of community now that progress has come: "It seems these people want to get to being gentrfied. Learning is a splendid thing if you can take it just for knowledge. But to them it means money, setting up above your neighbors. One year a man will go to help his neighbor, Joe, nine miles off. Next year that same man's in a town, incorporated under statute, and he says, "That Joe must be a backward man. He's still living under logs.'" Finally even Jerry, monomaniacal canal builder Jerry, the classic ambitious poor boy on the make, has his doubts. Aboard a canal boat, pompous ass Vanderbilt Blue is bloviating about the progressive "vision" the canal represents. "I should think the diggers had the hardest job," Jerry offers. Blue scoffs, and points at a barn in the distance. "You don't want to look at that farm, nice as it is," he lectures. "That's not the wonder. The wonder is the canal that made this farm prosper." Edmonds concludes the scene: "But Jerry saw the barn."

The canal may be in some respects a baneful thing, an engine of unwanted progress, but it's also a monument to the toilers, to the workaday "Paddy on the Canal." Edmonds writes:

Roberts wanted to see [the water pour into the canal] because of the shape it would have, the form for the picture be had seen in his mind's eye; the rodsmen and the axemen because it meant the end of their stay in this piece of wilderness; the cooks because it meant that they would no longer have to wash the plates of Irishmen and negroes. To the contractors it would mean profit or loss. To the fanners in Ohio it would mean a decent price for wheat. To the merchants in the east it would mean cheap transportation. Even in New York City it would mean money in the hope chest of Tammany Hall.
His face lengthened.
But to himself and to these wild Irishers, who had chopped at stumps, who had shoveled where half of each shovelful ran back at their toes, who had wheeled barrows, who had had the sun on their backs, the frost in their feet, the cold wet against their bellies, the ague and fever in their lungs, who had had stumps to pull, and piles to drive in quicksand, limestone to blast, and rock to devil which no force but their own could loosen, this water meant the sweat they had dropped in labor; it meant the blood of life in their veins; it meant the end of the job.

This marvelous feat of engineering and bullwork was the ne plus ultra of American Whiggery-never mind that the American System was a mere glint in Henry Clay's eye when the first shovel broke ground. The canal was what the Jeffersonians liked to call an "infernal improvement," a subsidy to the merchants who were gradually supplanting independent farmers as the backbone of the republic. The farm that transfixed Jerry Fowler is gone now. So is the prosperity that the canal brought. The bleakest vaticinations of Self Rogers and Merwin Gandy may not have been realized, but their decentralized agrarian republic lies amouldering (Actually, these cussed old men foresaw an Upstate very much like that depicted in Kurt Vonnegut's 1952 dystopian Player Piano. Set in Walter Edmonds; territory, Player Piano presents an America in which craftsmanship and independence have vanished. The young men of Upper York—those not lucky enough to become mandarins in huge government-run corporations—are forced into the army or onto public-works crews performing make-work. The Jerry Fowlers of Vonnegut's Central New York are sots or insurrectionists; the Erie Water is spookily stagnant.)

© 1992, Bill Kauffman.
Reprinted with permission from the July 1992 of New York History
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