A Matter of Fifty Houses: A New Vermontiana Collection, Walter Hard, 1952
I found this old, used book on the shelf in Commonwealth Books in downtown Boston. Selling originally for $3, it was a bargain at $12.50 and the perfect counterpoint to Miller’s photography/interview book. While the latter was pessimistic, negative, backward-looking, Hard’s book of 88 prose poems in 90 pages tells the stories of the people in a small Vermont valley village in the late 19th C and early 20th C. Here, the Vermont whose loss is mourned by Peter Miller comes alive in laconic, hard-working farmers, blacksmiths, general store owner, minister, and others who get through life without much in the way of expectations, surrounded by natural beauty and the cycle of the seasons. The characters are not all positive, successful, or happy, but they live their independent lives with humor, courage, and a steady faith in themselves and their community. The flatlanders that Miller and his interviewees condemn, are here the objects of a gentle and sarcastic humor. When Ezra Hopkins’ farm must be sold because of his rheumatism and move to the village, a flatlander makes an immediate offer and says that the first job will be to tear down the barn that Ezra had lovingly built with his own hands 30 years earlier. When asked why, the flatlander says that it ruins the view. Ezra snorted in response, “View? View! Well let me tell ye,/ There ain’t one damned thing behind that barn/ But some mountains.” Lines like that keep the reader engaged with Hard, one of the 20th C.’s great folk poets. The cover blurb from 1952 is from Carl Sandburg: “Walter Hard is a poet, annalist, anecdote finder. I find his Yankees more fascinating than most of the Greeks in Greek mythology. I treasure and reread his volumes.” Hard’s mythology of Vermont may, ironically, be partly responsible for the influx of outsiders that resulted in the loss of traditional values so regretted by Miller and his interviewees. The more the world changes…..