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Our Collections: Walter and Margaret Hard

October 2, 2012

A Matter of Fifty Houses upper bindingWayne writes: Walter Rice Hard (1882–1966) was one of the 20th century’s most eloquent American folk poets, as he was sometimes called. In his youth, he longed to be a journalist, but his father’s death left him in charge of the family drugstore in his native Manchester, Vermont. In 1911, he married Margaret Steel (1886–1974), who like her husband had been born in Manchester, where her parents had a summer home. Together they had two children, Ruth and Walter, Jr. Walter, Sr. operated the drugstore dutifully, but found time to write, publishing local anecdotes in Vermont newspapers. It was his wife who advised him to change his straightforward prose into colloquial free verse, which with its distinctive rhythm served Hard well in conveying the character and language of Vermont.

His poems – and they are poems, as confirmed by admirers such as Robert Frost, Louis Untermeyer, and Carl Sandburg – capture the essence of life in its infinite comedies and tragedies. His humor is dry and often ironic, as in ‘Behind the Barn’ in which farmer Ezra Hopkins complains to the man come to buy his property, who says that he plans to tear down Ezra’s beloved barn because ‘it ruins the view’:

Ezra snorted. ‘View? View! Well let me tell ye,
There ain’t one damned thing behind that barn
But some mountains.’

Of course, Vermont is the Green Mountain State, and its hills and valleys and forests give it its character as much as its people, and attract the tourists that are its lifeblood.

Some parts of the largely rural world Walter Hard portrays have not survived into the 21st century. Others, however, may still be seen or are a timeless ideal, like the view presented in one of Hard’s most frequently quoted poems, ‘The Village’:

There. From this hill look down.
That’s the village.
It’s like a man lying flat on his back.
The wide village street is the body.
There’s an arm stretched to the east
And one lower down to the west.
Those two converging roads
Are the legs spread wide apart.
Where the head ought to be the figure fails,
Unless you make those wandering roads
Wisps of hair waving in the breeze.

Hard collected some of his early verse in book form as Some Vermonters, published at his expense in 1927. It was a financial disaster, but it helped to make his work more visible. His later books were published commercially and with much more success. His literary reputation grew beyond his native state. Life magazine published a feature on him in 1963. None of his books is now in print except for The Connecticut, his contribution to the ‘Rivers of America’ series, first published in 1947, but he is not wholly forgotten.

Margaret Hard was also a writer, in (rhyming) poetry and prose. With her husband, she wrote the popular This Is Vermont (1936), a guidebook in the form of a conversation. Her novel This Is Kate, about a young convent girl, appeared in 1944. Most notably, as it had a profound influence on my life, Margaret wrote A Memory of Vermont: Our Life in the Johnny Appleseed Bookshop, published in 1967. Her daughter Ruth had begun the Johnny Appleseed Bookshop in Manchester in 1930, so that she could have practical experience with books as a business before going into a career in publishing. Margaret and Walter were involved from the start, and became the shop’s proprietors in 1935.

It was A Memory of Vermont which led me to live in New England. As I wrote earlier, I found a copy on sale for ten cents at the Cleveland Public Library, and snapped it up as I did many books about books. New England had been a favorite place for my family to travel, because of its history and natural beauty, and by my college years Cleveland had become to me a place of concrete and traffic and pollution I hoped to leave behind, probably as a librarian of some sort. Margaret Hard’s portrait of Vermont, though much of it had vanished or was in the process of passing away, opened a door to a place that appealed to me with its quiet pace and, at least as seen from a bookshop, a remarkably civilized life among books and literature. When I was close to finishing my library degree, I sent letters of application for employment to many libraries in New England – not putting all of my eggs in a Vermont basket, though hoping for something to open up in Manchester or Middlebury. Instead, I ended up in Massachusetts, just at the Vermont line – close enough, and not far from Manchester.

Both before and after I moved to Williamstown, I made pilgrimages to the Johnny Appleseed Bookshop. The Hards were gone, but the business continued for many years, located in an old bank building in the village center, next to the Equinox hotel. Although mainly a new book seller, it had secondhand books as well, shelved appropriately in what had been the bank’s tiny vault. I had begun to collect Walter and Margaret Hard’s books, many of them mentioned and sampled in A Memory of Vermont, and found quite a few at Kay’s Books in Cleveland, all priced very low, for these authors were not widely collected. A few more turned up in Manchester, as one would expect, and in catalogues. Some of the copies were even autographed by Walter, which I learned is not uncommon for his books, but a nice feature nonetheless. One of my copies of A Matter of Fifty Houses (1952) has a tipped-in letter signed by Hard, on Johnny Appleseed Bookshop letterhead, noting that a man who ran the tap room at an inn in Salisbury, Connecticut had told him that when men came in to drink he gave them one of Hard’s books to read (probably, from the date of the letter, A Matter of Fifty Houses), which worked just as well as liquor to lift their spirits. Hard remarked that he should send this story to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Altogether, our Walter and Margaret Hard collection isn’t very large, just over two linear feet, including a box of Vermont Life magazine to which Walter contributed and an LP recording of him reading some of his poems. (By coincidence, the album was issued by ‘Bert and I’, Robert Bryan and Marshall Dodge, the popular Maine humorists whom I would later meet when designing a book of their stories.) I need to look at our Hard shelf again sometime to see what may be missing – not much, I think – and what copies might be improved. And of course the books deserve re-reading.

I tend not to read poetry very much, preferring prose, but there are exceptions, and while I’m on the subject I’ll mention one other poet I particularly like: Robert Francis (1901–1987). Not Robert Frost, though Frost was one of his mentors. Francis was from Pennsylvania, but lived most of his life in Amherst, Massachusetts, not far from Williamstown to the east. He was still there when I began to work for Williams College, and I recall suggesting to the then chairman of the English Department that Francis should be invited to campus to give a reading. The response was: Who is Robert Francis? I had first heard of him, indeed heard the man himself, when he gave a reading in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was in library school. One of his poems in particular, ‘Like Ghosts of Eagles’, struck a chord, and I had to rush out to buy a copy of the collection of the same title (published in 1974, so Francis was probably on a tour to promote it when I heard him the following year). The poem concerns American rivers, and the names of the rivers:

If the rivers themselves should ever perish
I think the names will somehow somewhere hover
like ghosts of eagles
those mighty whisperers
Missouri    Mississippi.

Our Robert Francis ‘shelf’ amounts to only a few linear inches, only six volumes. Francis didn’t publish much, but everything he did publish is worth reading. He also made an LP recording, which I found on eBay.

Image: Upper binding from Walter Hard, A Matter of Fifty Houses.

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