Walter Hard, Sr.: Vermont's Storekeeper-Writer, 1924
Oral history transcriptions
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Vermont claims several writers and artists who, intentionally or otherwise, have become the makers or recorders of the Vermont mythology, the shapers of its image of itself or the image the rest of the world appears to share of the place and its people. Writers Rowland Robinson, Daniel L. Cady, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and Robert Frost; as well as painters Thomas Waterman Wood, James Franklin Gilman, Norman Rockwell, and Wolf Kahn are some of the best known. Few, however, seem as universally admired as Walter Hard.
Walter Hard was born in Manchester, Vermont, on May 3, 1882. He grew up in that town and left only long enough to attend Williams College for three years, where he planned a major in journalism. As a student he wrote for Williams’ Weekly Magazine, and served as a correspondent for the Boston Transcript and the Troy [Vt.] Times. The untimely and unexpected death of his father brought Hard back to Manchester before he graduated from college. For the next thirty years, Hard dutifully but reluctantly ran his father’s drug store. In 1935, he finally shook himself free of the drug store and became the owner of the Johnny Appleseed Book Store, which his daughter had founded some years earlier. Hard held several offices in his town, served one term in the Vermont House of Representatives (1937-38), and four terms in the Vermont Senate (1939-1946).
Hard’s literary career began in earnest in 1924 when he started writing a regular column for the Manchester Journal. Not entirely satisfied with his own prose sketches and commentaries, he began appending to them short poems, unrhymed, with no apparent scheme of meter or form. In these he found his true medium and an effective way to distill and share with readers his many years of observing people and the dynamics of small-town Vermont life. By 1930, Hard had produced his first collection of poems, Some Vermonters, and his column regularly appeared in the Rutland Herald, Boston Transcript, Boston Globe, New York Herald Tribune, and Chicago Tribune. When he died in 1966, Walter Hard left behind nine books of poems and two prose works, one of which he wrote with his wife, Margaret. He was an Editorial Associate for Vermont Life from its first issue in autumn 1946 until spring 1951; wrote the “Green Mountain Post Boy” feature in Vermont Life from summer 1947 until the winter of 1955-56; and continued to write an article of observations on Vermont and Vermonters in that magazine twice a year through the autumn 1960 issue.
Hard also submitted articles to other journals and magazine with national audiences. His article, “Vermont, A Way of Life,” appeared in the August 1932 issue of Reader’s Digest. In the midst of the Great Depression, Hard described to a nationwide audience the life of rural Vermont farmers, emphasizing the contrast between the barter economy of rural Green Mountain society with the cash economy of urban America. Vermonters were surviving the Depression, Hard wrote, precisely because they were not much connected with a cash economy in the first place. With an eye for the practical and without much fuss or reluctance, a Vermont farmer could swap his Chevy for a milk cow.
It was Walter Hard’s poetry, however, that won him near universal acclaim inside and outside Vermont. In a review of his 1960 book, Vermont Neighbors, Ella Shannon Bowles wrote:
The strength of Mr. Hard’s writing...lies in his ability to bring Yankee characters to life without overdoing it...Though all have the common denominator of sturdy self-sufficiency plus the independence of thought, deed, and pith speech for which Vermonters are noted, they never are “quaint,” nor “homespun.”
Carl Sandburg praised him by writing: “The books of Walter Hard present a likeness of a land and its people that deserves a place in the gallery of the best that has been done by the regionalists of the earth.”
Yet Hard’s poetry has caused some problems for readers. Neither rhymed nor easily scanned, the free verse seems to some like prose written in short line—not like poetry at all. Dorothy Canfield Fisher invented this encounter between Hard and a critic for her introduction to A Mountain Township (1934):
Asked insistently, as he often is, by serious-minded critics if he considers his work as “poetry” he only laughs. Questions—perhaps with some impatience—by a self-appointed judge used to more formally literary writers, “But if you won’t claim that it is poetry, why print it in short lines as if it were?” he answered with perfect sincerity, “Because I think, if I do, people will read it more as I mean it.” Informed severely by a doctrinaire of verse, “I can’t see the faintest trace of rhythm in your work,” he remarks good-naturedly, “Can’t you? I can.” Adding perhaps, as he looks with meditative eyes past his interlocutor at the irregular, unexpected but flexible and never-broken lines of our Vermont landscape, “It’s a kind of Vermont rhythm, you see.”
These are subtle distinctions that demand a subtle ear and eye. Moreover, they do not really account for the popularity of Hard’s writing. It is the content rather than the form that draws readers to Walter Hard’s poems. In each sketch, Hard has distilled a bit of folklore, a proverb, and expression, phrase, or some other aspect of the character and tradition of Vermont in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This is what endeared Hard to people who read his poems and listened to him read them. Like Rowland Robinson and Daniel Cady, Hard was the recorder of the tales and the language of Vermont. His poems are the mythology of a Vermont that is disappearing, but still lies within the memory of some and continues to fire the imagination of most of the people who live here or visit.
For Further Reading:
Sound recording (33 rpm) of Walter Hard reading selections of his poetry. VHS library.
J. Kevin Graffagnino, “Introduction,” Walter Hard’s Vermont People. (Middlebury, Vt.: Vermont Books, 1981): ix-xiii.
Citation for this page
Woodsmoke Productions and Vermont Historical Society, “Walter Hard, Sr.: Vermont's Storekeeper-Writer, 1924,” The Green Mountain Chronicles radio broadcast and background information, original broadcast 1988-89. https://vermonthistory.org/walter-hard-sr-1924