By late September of 1936, Grant’s Book Store on the corner of Genesee and Hopper streets in downtown Utica had already sold 500 copies of Walter Edmonds’ latest novel, “Drums Along the Mohawk.”
The story, set in the Mohawk Valley during the American Revolution, caught on quickly in upstate New York after it was released 75 years ago. But its popularity spread far wider and the book hit No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list for one week. It was knocked off its lofty perch by another piece of historical fiction, Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind,” but remained on the best-seller lists for two years and continues to be printed in paperback by Syracuse University Press as part of its New York Classics series.
“It’s a wonderful book, and a great historical novel,” said Utica College’s Frank Bergman, an American literature professor who met Edmonds in the summer of 1987 and remained friends with the author until Edmonds’ death in January of 1998.
“If I was teaching a course on American historical novels, it would definitely be on the reading list, without a doubt. I think ‘Drums’ belongs right up there in the same category, in terms of quality, as [James Fenimore] Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels. It’s a very important piece of work.”
Lover of upstate
Edmonds was born in Boonville, on Route 12 about 32 miles north of Utica. It was the family’s summer retreat, Edmonds’ father having been an attorney in New York City. But, while Walter split time between upstate and the big city growing up, there was never a question where his heart was. His first novel, “Rome Haul,” came out in 1929, three years after he graduated from Harvard, and was about life on the Erie Canal.
All of his 34 books — about half of them were aimed at children — were set in upstate New York and focused on the lives of real people with either the canal or Colonial New York serving as the backdrop. He had a number of successes, including “Rome Haul,” “Chad Hanna” and “The Matchlock Gun,” but his most noteworthy work was unquestionably “Drums Along the Mohawk.”
Made into a Hollywood movie directed by John Ford in 1939 with Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert, “Drums” finished 1936 as the fourth best fiction book, and by 1937 had dropped just one spot to fifth on the best-seller list. “Gone With the Wind” was first in both of those years, and in 1937, Kenneth Roberts’ novel about upstate New York and the French and Indian War, “Northwest Passage,” had climbed into second place.
Parts of “Drums Along the Mohawk” had been originally printed in the Atlantic Monthly before that magazine and The Little Brown Press of Boston formed a partnership and published the book. After 60 years, it was finally out of print. The following year, 1997, Syracuse University Press secured the rights to keep on publishing it.
Bergman had been serving as the series editor of New York Classics for the university press, which had already reprinted two of Edmonds’ books, “Rome Haul” and “Mostly Canallers,” and had also published Edmonds’ last work in 1995, “Tales My Father Never Told Me.”
“We licensed the rights from the original publishers for a paperback edition of ‘Drums’, and we’ve sold 11,000 copies since 1997,” said Alice Randel Pfeiffer, director of Syracuse University Press. “That’s a lot for that kind of book. It’s part of our New York Classics, it’s definitely Edmonds’ most well-known work, and it continues to sell. We have a good inventory, and we can also print more copies. We’ll keep it readily available.”
That’s good news to history teachers around the state, including Siena College’s Tom Kelly and University at Albany’s Warren Roberts, both big fans of the book.
“It’s a historical novel, so it’s essentially romance and therefore doesn’t have to be held to the same kind of factual focus you would if it was a work of history,” said Kelly.
“But with those limitations, yeah, I think it’s a very good book. It gives you the whole notion of the militia going off to relieve Fort Stanwix, and it deals with all the issues those early settlers had to deal with, the soldiering and the Indians. And, you can tell Edmonds has a real affection for the whole region.”
“I think it was a very well-researched book, and Edmonds explains in the introduction all the company documents he worked with when he was writing the book,” said Roberts. “I read it, enjoyed it, and I thought it captured the actual history of New York and that time period very well.”
Meeting the author
Bergman grew up in Germany and came to Hamilton College just south of Utica on a Fulbright Scholarship 50 years ago. He returned to the area in 1969 to take a teaching position at Utica College, but it wasn’t until almost 20 years later in the summer of 1987 that he met Edmonds at the author’s home in Concord, Mass.
“Whenever Syracuse University Press reprints a book, they usually have an author’s copy that gets mailed to the author,” remembered Bergman. “Well, I told the press, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll pick them up and take them to Concord.’ I thought it’d be a real good excuse to meet the author.”
His plan worked.
“I knew some reporters from the Utica newspaper that knew Edmonds, and they told me that he didn’t mind these kind of visits,” said Bergman. “So I contacted him and he told me, ‘Fine, come on out.’ I did and we had a wonderful conversation. Here was this man with an upper middle class background, a prep school kid and a Harvard graduate, and he was a man with absolutely no attitude at all. He was as down to earth and as friendly a man as you would ever want to meet.”
Edmonds returned to Utica College in 1992, where he received an honorary doctorate from Syracuse University. He died in January of 1998.
“He also came back in 1993 and I saw him a couple of other times after that,” said Bergman. “He was 94, but his death still took me by surprise when I heard. He was still remarkably lucid right up until the end.”
Along with “Drums Along the Mohawk,” two other Edmonds works, “Rome Haul” and “Chad Hanna,” were turned into Hollywood movies. Both also had Fonda in the lead male role, and “Rome Haul” was originally turned into a Broadway play and had its name changed to “The Farmer Takes a Wife.”
Movie falls short
In 1937, Edmonds was one of six authors in the running for the Pulitzer Prize, which eventually went to Mitchell. And, as with the book, the movie version of “Drums” was overshadowed by Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind,” starring Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh. “Gone With the Wind” won eight oscars in 1939; “Drums” was nominated for just two.
“He was always very generous toward other writers,” said Bergman, when asked if Mitchell’s success with “Gone With the Wind” ever bothered Edmonds.
“I think he saw it as a decent book, although after all these years I don’t think it stands up as well as ‘Drums’ does. But ‘Gone With the Wind’ was certainly a better movie — at least it had more universal appeal — and I know Edmonds wasn’t very happy with John Ford. He was a great director, but he did some things with the movie that Edmonds didn’t like.”
Kelly said he enjoyed both the film versions produced by Hollywood, but in novel form, he prefers Edmonds’ rendering of history over Mitchell’s.
“I love the Civil War, and I’ve taught it for years at Siena,” he said. “But ‘Gone with the Wind?’ I’ve never really been able to get into the book. If I had to be somewhere and had to take just one of those books, I’m taking ‘Drums Along the Mohawk.’ ”
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