Episode 11: The Literary Man


(30 November 1972)


Writer: Colley Cibber.

Director: Philip Leacock.

Music: Jerry Goldsmith.

The Literary Man


"Growing up on Waltons Mountain in those depression years when times were lean and money was scarce I learned early that hard work was a central fact of life and a key to survival. I wasn't afraid of work, but above everything else I wanted to be a writer. Gripping a book, reading and re-reading the wonderfully colored sentences, this was as close as I could get to another writer, until one afternoon I met someone who showed me the way I must take to be a literary man".


One afternoon John-Boy is reading the book Moby Dick but is interrupted by his father wanting him to drive a load of lumber to the railroad station, with only three days to complete the order. On the way to Rockfish John-Boy has engine trouble. While investigating the problem a stranger walks up to the truck, offering to look over the engine. His name is A.J. ‘Andy’ Covington, a writer traveling around the country. After fixing the engine, John-Boy offers A.J. a ride towards Rockfish where the pair unloads the timber from the truck. After learning that A.J. worked as a stevedore with Carl Sandburg and knew Anderson, Drieser, and Lindsay, John-Boy invites him for supper, wanting to learn more about writing. A.J. tells John-Boy that writing must come first over anything else (family, friends, and the comforts of life).


Back home, Grandma organizes the children for the picking of berries, everybody except Jim Bob who doesn’t feel well. Olivia thinks his forehead feels clammy. After supper, John worries about why his son hasn’t returned home. John-Boy soon arrives with A.J. and relates the problem he had with the truck and how A.J. solved the problem. After eating A.J. relates to John-Boy his experiences with Steven Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage. A.J. learns from John about the mill contract, saying he has experience cutting timber in Seattle. A.J. agrees to help them with the order in return for “bed and board”. As John-Boy readies a bed of hay for their guest, John tells A.J. that his son is “a very trusting boy”.


The next morning John-Boy and A.J. cut trees until lunchtime. A.J. tells John-Boy that he started to write because he was having so many discoveries and had to write them down. He left his parent’s Indiana farm when he was seventeen so he could write his “big story”. John-Boy shows him a piece of his writing, whereupon A.J. suggests, “chopping a few adjectives”. At the same time, Olivia watches over Jim Bob, who is worsening. John, Grandpa, and Jason cut the last of the logs, hoping A.J. and John-Boy return soon with more logs. Suddenly John-Boy realizes they should return to work. At day’s end the pair return home with less than a full wagonload. At the supper table John and family ask why they didn’t return earlier. John-Boy realizes he did wrong when he is told the supply of logs ran out mid-day.


After supper John-Boy apologizes to his father. John responds by saying, “writing is a fine thing but today you had a job to do for the family”. Suddenly Olivia rushes out to tell John that Jim Bob is in terrible pain. A.J. tells the family that he has worked in a hospital, and asks to check Jim Bob. A.J. thinks the boy has acute appendicitis and feels Jim Bob should be taken directly to the hospital. John and Olivia drive Jim Bob to the hospital, after John tells John-Boy that they can still complete the contract tomorrow. As A.J. reads in the barn John-Boy says he can’t turn his back on his family, knowing he can’t place his writing before them. He decides to give up on his writings. A.J. is concerned about putting wrong ideas into John-Boy’s mind.


In the morning A.J. asks Ike at the store about buying the old Tabor place. Ike says it can be bought for the back taxes of fifty-eight dollars, seventy-six cents. A.J. offers to sell his watch to Ike, and settles for thirty dollars as a down payment. Later, John-Boy and A.J. work feverishly at cutting trees. At the hospital John and Olivia wait while the doctors perform surgery on Jim Bob. John-Boy and A.J. return to the mill with a load of logs. A.J. suggests that they modify the saw so it cuts the logs faster. Unfortunately, the motor burns out. Dr. Vance tells John and Olivia that the surgery was a success. John and Olivia return with the good news. John-Boy tells John the bad news about not being able to meet the deadline. John says that it will be a long winter because the operation costs twenty-two dollars. A.J. listens.


After John-Boy milks Chance, he writes in his journal: “I feel a terrible, achy emptiness, but I will fill that empty place in myself with what I feel instead of my father, mother, brothers and sisters instead of living in the private world of my thoughts and feelings.” Grandma calls him away, and later A.J. comes across these writings. He reads: “After this writing I will lay aside my journal, forever. I will try to accept this and learn to live with the knowledge that I can never follow in the footsteps of those who gave their lives search for the one great story they were born to write.”


Later A.J. speaks with John-Boy about piecing a story together about a boy growing up in farm, going to the big city, and coming away with bogus thoughts. After forty-five years of living, A.J. admits he has done very little writing, mostly talking his stories away. A.J. tells John-Boy about a story he is thinking about (maybe about he or John-Boy), about writings of his family and farm and happenings in a small town nearby. He goes on to say not to search for the ‘great’ story, but just to write ‘a’ story. He says:


Moral stories are out of style, but then so am I. But my story has a moral. Don’t waste your life searching for the one big story that you were born to write. Write the little stories. Who knows, the sum total of them may be the big one. Write about Walton’s Mountain, your feelings about your family and your place, just the way you’ve been doing. Write about being young and confused and poor, groping but supported by a strong father and a loving mother, surrounded by brothers and sisters that pester you and irritate you, but care about you. Try to capture that in words, John-Boy. That’s as big a challenge as the Klondike, or the white whale, or flying the Atlantic Ocean alone. It was too big for me, but I think you just might be up to it.”


John-Boy thanks A.J. for his advice. Later, A.J. looks over the Tabor house and thinks: “It needs new paint and shingles and the vines should be trimmed and tied, but what it needs the most of all is some people living inside”. At home, Jim Bob describes his experiences at the hospital when John-Boy walks in with news about A.J. He has gone, leaving a note and twenty-two dollars to help pay for the loss of the contract. Part of what he says is: “My road calls me, it lures me west, east, south, and north. Most roads leads men homewards, my road leads me forth.”


"We never saw nor heard from A.J.Covington again [but see Notes, below]. He wandered into our lives, touched them and wandered away. Often when I face the silent challenge of a blank piece of paper I remember the literary man and the advice he gave me. I struggled to keep faith with him and set down the small things, the seemingly trivial things which perhaps taken all together will eventually give at least some suggestion of the love and sacrifice and joy, that sustained one family who lived out the Depression at the foot of Waltons Mountain".


Jason: Mama?

Olivia: Yes, Jason?

Jason: I got a sharp hurt in my side. You reckon I could be getting appendicitis?

Olivia: I hope not. Try turning on your back.

Jason: It's alright Mama.

Olivia: Hurt gone?

Jason: I was laying on my harmonica.

Olivia (laughing): Goodnight, Jason.

Jason: Goodnight, Mama.



The license plates on John’s truck are “35-178 Virginia”.

A.J. began writing at age fifteen. His first literary accomplishment was a second place finish where he won a watch. At seventeen, A.J. left his parent’s farm in Indiana for Chicago. The book Moby Dick was his inspiration while “learning the craft”. He is now forty-five years old.

The book Moby Dick that John-Boy reads in this episode was a gift from Tommy Trindall in The Carnival (season one, episode two).

A.J. worked as a stevedore (worker who loads/unloads ships) with the author Carl Sandburg. For more information on Sandburg, go to: http://carl-sandburg.com/biography.htm.

A.J. tells John-Boy his experiences with Steven Crane. For more information on Crane, go to: http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/stephencrane/.

A.J. mentions the author Anderson. It is possible he was talking about Sherwood Anderson. For more information, go to http://www.digitex.net/renard/anderson.htm. He also mentions the author Drieser. It is possible he was talking about Theodore Drieser. For more information, go to http://www.randomhousebooks.com/catalog/search/38548724.html. Thirdly, A.J. mentions Lindsay. It is possible A.J. was talking about Vachel Lindsay. For more information, go to http://garlic.aitec.edu.au/~bwechner/Documents/Hitch/lindsay.html.

Comment: At the end, we are told that the family never sees A.J. again, but the writer returns in The Abdiction (season four, episode eleven).

NOTE 1: This episode won for Gene Fowler Jr., Marjorie Fowler & Anthony Wollmer an Emmy for Cinematography for a Single Episode of a Drama Series.

NOTE 2: The character of A.J. Covington once more in an episode during season 4, called The Abdication.

David Huddleson also appears in The Homecoming: A Christmas Story as the sheriff.


Also appearing:

Ike Godsey (Joe Conley), Sheriff Ep Bridges (John Crawford), A.J. ‘Andy’ Covington (David Huddleston), Dr. Vance (Victor Izay).


(synopsis written by William Atkins and edited by Arthur Dungate)