Where do you usually find your next book to read? Recommendations from friends, the New York Times Sunday Book Review, the new books shelf in your local library, the shelves in your own library that hold dozens of books bought with the best of intentions and then forgotten, your book group's "book of the month," the "tailored to your tastes" lists on Amazon, Goodreads or another favorite web site — the possibilities are endless. With estimates that there are one million new books published every year in the United States alone, what is one to do?
Personally, my favorite activity is to leisurely browse the shelves in a used book store. These stores tend to be small and comfortably furnished with chairs, lamps, and tables ideal for sitting and thumbing through a potential purchase. They vary from the compulsively organized, "neat as a pin" establishments to those where the books are stacked on the floors and window ledges in glorious piles, threatening to spill out the door. From the huge and overwhelming (The Strand in New York City) to the modest and humble (The Bryn Mawr Book Sale in our Cambridge, Mass., neighborhood which I've been visiting for 47 years), these shops hold treasures for the eclectic reader.
It was on a visit to one such establishment, Commonwealth Books, tucked into tiny Spring Lane in downtown Boston, that I came across a plastic-encased, slim volume by Walter Hard. Entitled "A Matter of Fifty Houses: A New Vermontiana Collection," it was in mint condition and reasonably priced at $12.50, only four times its original jacket price in 1952!
I love old books, especially books about Vermont, so this was a done deal before I even opened it. But what a wonderful discovery! Upon returning home and firing up the old computer and Google, I learned that Walter Hard was one of the 20th century's best-known and best-loved folk poets. With a blurb on the cover by Carl Sandburg ("I treasure and re-read his volumes") and lauded by Robert Frost and Louis Untermeyer, Hard wrote nine books of prose poems and two volumes of essays about his beloved Green Mountain State between 1930 and 1966. He is often credited with establishing the image of Vermont as a rural Eden through his magazine articles, newspaper columns, and poetry and prose books.
Hard was born in Manchester in 1882 and except for his three years at Williams College, he lived in Vermont his whole life. He was forced to leave college to run the family drugstore in Manchester when his father died, and he reluctantly but dutifully did so for 30 years.
Along the way, he became involved in town and then state politics serving in the Vermont House for two years and the Senate for three terms. He also began to write for the Manchester Journal, and before long, his newspaper columns about Vermont appeared in major papers from New York and Boston to Chicago. At his wife's suggestion, he began to attach brief poems to the end of his columns, and soon, his focus turned from prose to poetry.
"A Matter of Fifty Houses" is a delightful and engaging work with its 88 brief poems spread over 90 pages. From the porch at Bayley's General Store to the fields, barns, and falling down houses of the valley and mountain-side farms, Hard lovingly captures the villagers, their quirks, language, and hard work wringing a living from the rocky soil and difficult weather.
As he writes in "The Village:"
"There it lies/ Dozing peacefully under the maples;/A church, a school, a tavern, some stores,/And a matter of fifty houses ./A sleepy village in a peaceful valley,/Yet, friend, there life stages its drama ./Fifty houses offering the life of the race."
The famous laconic and ironic Vermont argot is much in evidence. In "Behind the Barn," a flatlander buys a run-down farm and informs the farmer that he's going to tear down the barn which the farmer had built and lovingly cared for over 30 years because it "ruins the view." The farmer responds:
"Ezra snorted. 'View? View! Well let me tell ye,/There ain't one damned thing behind that barn/But some mountains."
My favorite poems are the ones about the village doctor at a time when medicine was limited in its ability to cure but wonderfully focused on the caring delivered in the home. In "Rest for the Weary," Dr. Mosely had "been run ragged" during a tough winter. On his way home late one February night, he stopped to check on Mrs. Holland who had been very sick for some weeks. Before the days of stethoscopes, he listened to her breath sounds by placing his head against her ample bosom and told her to count slowly until he said to stop.
"She started - "one-two-three-four-five"/The tired Doctor found himself in a comfortable position/Sitting in a low chair with his head on a soft warm pillow./He heard `twenty six - twenty seven - /Then off in the distance he heard a voice:/'Five thousand seven hundred and fif - /The Hollands could never say enough/In praise of Dr. Mosely./Worn out as he had been he had sat up half the night/To make sure of the safety of his patient."
There are quotable, insightful and humorous observations throughout this wonderful volume. If you can find one of Walter Hard's books, I recommend you buy it and read it, though this may be a challenge. Even in this 1952 volume where Hard's previously published books are listed, six of the seven titles are followed by the sad words: "Out of Print."
Hard died in 1966, but his legacy continued in the Johnny Appleseed Bookstore in Manchester, which his daughter established, and in Vermont Life, where his son, Walter, Jr. was the editor from 1950-1972. A fine son of Vermont, Walter Hard deserves to be read and remembered today.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville and Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at email@example.com