top of page
Skip to Main Content
1987 Payne Hallow
After the death of Anna, Harlan was alone in Payne Hallow. He reflects: "The first forty-three years of my life were spent under my mother's domination and the next forty-three years of my life were spent under my wife's, Anna. Now I don't mean by domination that they ruled my life entirely, they were both very considerate in a way, and I just mean that everything that I did I had to take them into consideration and they influenced me greatly. Those two forty-three years add up to eighty-six and since I'm eighty-seven, I've had one year on my own and I feel like I'm starting a new series."
A year after Anna
"That's all in the past now and here at this point, several months beyond a year, I'm doing much better. I'm quite pleased that I was able to regain my command of things, and I grew stronger, could do more physical work, and even all the details of business that I'd never had to bother with before because Anna did it all -- had done it all, I at least managed to get through somehow, and now I think I keep things going better. I think I was a natural for living alone anyway, and that talent had been obscured by all the years that it was not -- didn't have a chance to show itself. But now, when I was faced with living alone, I made the transition very easily. [pause] I think the thing that, the condition that made it much easier was that I was very busy, my mind was occupied, and I had things to do every day, all day long. And especially my interest in painting had increased and the excitement of it all, of the new vistas and new ways to follow and my interest in all that. Without that, I don't know if I would have done so well. I've been helped by my interest in music, too. I might say, in general, my life alone has tended toward the primitive."
Music after Anna
“I know that you and Anna played music quite a bit together; do you still play the violin now?”
“Well, my music since Anna's gone has been very, has run a very irregular course. For a long time I did nothing about it at all and the piano’s not being used or tuned and in this climate was beginning to deteriorate and I thought we'd have to get it out of here before it got so bad that nobody would want it so I gave it to Ted Wadl, which was what Anna wanted to do with it. And after I was alone, I began to think about the violin and when I tried to play I couldn't do a thing; I couldn't get a tone out of the violin or anything. So I thought, well, that's the end of that. The urge was -- kept bothering me and I kept at it and I finally found that I had to go way back to the very simplest music and give up all hope of playing the kind of things that violinists usually play.”
“Was it that you hadn't played in a long time or just the mood?”
“Partly because I had gotten so used to the piano . . .
“The support for intonation and rhythm. And Anna played so well and she was such a good accompanist that I could get through pieces that if I played them alone and listened to them with no outside help from the piano it was very discouraging.”
Hubbard on loneliness
“How do you deal with the loneliness now? You mentioned before that before you met Anna was a lonely period."
“I mentioned that in the dedication. Maybe that was just to please Anna. It was a nice dedication, didn't you think? I really meant it but as you say, loneliness is something can be dealt with and now since I've become used to being alone so much I never feel that I need someone any closer than I have. I have many people coming to see me and coming here to stay, three or four days at a time sometimes, and I always feel that they're imposing on my time in a way because I can't do what I would normally do if they weren't there. But I guess their company is worth it and I always make the best of it and try to make them happy. It seems like in the relations between people one person has to give and the other doesn't change. It seems like all the people I know are solid rocks and I have to adapt to them. Maybe it's because I am so unus -- have such unusual ideas. Sometimes I think it would be better if I would come out and say what I mean and be more myself but that doesn't seem to be my way. “
Hubbard's unanticipated fame
Harlan Hubbard sought a life that was self-sufficient and in harmony with the natural world. It is ironic that because of this lifestyle he received a lot of attention.
Life without fame
“What do you think your life would be like if you had not written books and pursued your painting? Because that would have brought fewer people to Payne Hollow. You would have -- I guess you would have had to reach out to be around people rather than having them coming to you.”
“I don't know. We sometimes felt like we had too much intrusion. On the other hand, I find from my experience now that you can't live without people; your life would be -- wouldn't be complete. I feel more strongly now than I did with Anna and she would, too, because we had each other then. But all through my life, I've never tried to explain to people just what I was thinking about. If I did, and I wrote it in the Journal, they either didn't understand the passage or the man who selected the passages left it out. There was one point in my life where I think I made a great change, a change that doesn't come over everybody. I was so immersed in nature in my practical life and in my art work and I felt so strongly, the beauty of the earth.”
“Harlan, I wanted to ask you, do you think you are more or less inhibited as you grow older in terms of speaking your mind and expressing yourself?”
“Well, I think if there is any difference it would be that I was less inhibited now. But there hasn't been any radical change. All my life I'm so – I’m used to adapting myself to other people, to their ideas; it was the only way I could get along. It was either, if you want to get along with people you’d have to do that, in my case, or if you said just what you thought and what you thought of them and their way of living, you wouldn't have many friends and they wouldn't understand you. And all my life I've had to adapt myself; it's not a routine affair, either. Everybody is different and requires a different policy . . . . And I think it was worthwhile because I got to know people real well and what they were thinking about, because if I sympathized with them they would do their best to tell me what they were thinking about. It reminded me a little bit of Erasmus, the old philosopher in the fourteenth century, was it? -- and later when the Reformation came along, he had a lot of very radical ideas and wanted to go along with them but he still clung to the old faith and seemed to be doing about the same thing I'm trying to do, trying to think one way and act another. And I think I still do that to some extent even today but I feel that people, there's been a change in people, they're not so, not so bigoted and straitlaced as they used to be in general, and they can understand a person wanting to be different. And now there's many people that even think that I'm on the right track, living simply and quietly instead of getting involved in all the turmoil of today. So I really have an easier time today than I used to have.”
Though Hubbard found the attention "disruptive" he is still flattered by the notoriety.
Hubbard on fame
“Are you flattered by the notoriety?”
“Oh, I can't help but be in some ways, but I don't take it seriously. I feel that nobody yet has really understood me, understood how strongly I feel about things. For one thing, you can't understand anybody unless you've had an experience, something like it, or if a man is entirely different you just can't, can’t understand him.”
Hubbard on getting used to attention
“You strike me as a private person, one who likes your solitude and to be away from the hustle and bustle of the city, yet you seem more than willing when asked the question to answer this as well as you're able. Do you mind people asking you questions about your life and your lifestyle?”
“Well, I've gotten used to it. Maybe there's a strain of vanity in it but I don't think that amounts to much. My nature, as you say . . . I've been a loner in ways, too, and choose to be alone than to live among people, but I've learned a lot to be here. At first I rather resented even people coming, strangers wanting to spend an afternoon taking up all that time and asking questions but as I got to know these people better I found that they were really sincere, especially the country people. And sometimes the most unpromising person will turn out to have something very interesting to say if you just give him a chance and let his defense mechanism wear off a little bit and let him talk naturally. And I've learned a lot from people and gotten to admire them very much.”
Hubbard on the coast of his beloved Ohio River, by Guy Mendes (1983.)
Hubbard admits that the oral history is first time he discussed religion at length. He is an "unbeliever" in an orthodox sense.
Hubbard on Religion
“Some of it's really dogmatic and some of it is historical and some of it is really the invention of clever teachers and leaders to bring people under the sway of the church. I think they insist too much on good and evil, they seem to base the whole thing on that and they tell people, or used to anyway, if you're good, a good Christian, you'll go to Heaven. But the Heaven they describe, even as a boy, I couldn't see any particular reason for wanting to live there. I'd much rather live on earth and I still believe that way.”
“Is there a Hell? “
“Just as much as there is a Heaven but it's not the identical Hell that they used to talk about with fires and pitchforks and devils poking people into the fire. That would take a pretty low mentality to accept, I think; I don't see how they put it over as long as they did. And it seems to me now that the whole Christian church is just coasting along because there has to be something like that and people go to church. . . . There is something nice about a country church and the sound of the organ and people singing.”
“That sense of community appeals to you?”
“I never had a feeling of community when I was at church. I felt like I was an outsider in there on false pretenses.”
“I felt so strongly that I began to be afraid. I felt like I was living in a new frontier, which in, just standing on the earth and look up into the blue sky. It wasn't just a blue sky, it was clouds sailing across as if they were cut out of paper, it was a vast, empty space where life was impossible because the conditions were too severe and nature itself was so relentless. I feel that the savages understood that and they consoled themselves by inventing gods, someone that they could appeal to in their misery and derive comfort from the fact that they believed that the gods would help them.”
“Do you think that serves a useful purpose?”
“That's a good question because it's the same thing they do nowadays; they've invented a whole theological scheme that people turn to and if things go wrong they'll pray, pray to God for relief. But I've seen the earth so closely I can't believe anything that I haven't seen and I haven't seen anything like Heaven except on earth. The earth itself is a heaven, couldn't be more beautiful or more adopted to man. Of course, it doesn't spoil him and make him a pampered darling; it's rugged, you have to, even the ruggedness about it is appealing to a person who understands what it's all about.”
But Hubbard does have a religion - the natural world. All his life he has sought to live in harmony with the "heaven" that is nature.
Nature as religion
“I was telling about how much nature meant to me in a different way than most people. It was purely aesthetic and spiritual; it wasn't so much a matter of hunting and fishing or gardening but it seemed like it meant as much to me as the whole Christian revelation. Then I began to see the difference between this earth that we live on and the lives of the people. They don't live on the earth at all; they live in a sort of cloud which is made up of the customs of today and the urban atmosphere and surroundings and they live, that means so much to them that they very seldom stick their head out and see what the earth is like.”
Hubbard on death
“So what does happen to a person after they die?”
“It's just like when a dog dies or an animal or a melon rots or something, it just goes into the earth. That's one of the mysteries of life that you can't solve; all you can do is enjoy life and enjoy the earth which seems like a great opportunity when you think of the vast forces that . . . and no other place in the universe that man could live like, I guess, and he just happened to respond to these favorable conditions and over the ages he was developed from much lower forms of life and I don't think the whole structure though that they put out about Heaven and Hell and salvation and all that. . . . There's no reason they should have to make people be good by threatening with punishment or torture. Being good is more fun and more pleasure than trying to take advantage of people and doing things that aren't fair and being cruel to people. As I say, I couldn't write a book on this because my ideas are not, they're the soft side; I'm more interested in the earth I’m living on than what might come after I'm dead. All these things are, should be more important to me now, because I'm closer to being dead than most people than when I was, ten or twelve years ago, of course. But I still can't see anything to be alarmed at. The worst thing would be to endure perpetual punishment and torture for not being a good person on earth. But I don't claim to be good but I have enjoyed life and I can't imagine any Heaven that would be more beautiful. And that's the remarkable thing: the way the people have turned their backs on it and destroyed it is comparable to the crucifixion of Christ in my mind. It's just about as dramatic and meaningful as that.”
“You mean by taking advantage of the land and. . .?”
“Yes, by thinking they're taking advantage of it for their own purposes and not thinking of what they're doing to the earth and destroying it for themselves and they can't live without it is all very foolish and complicated.”
Harlan Hubbard died in January 1988, a year after the oral history was conducted. He reflects that he never lost "amateur" status in any of his endeavors, but he is grateful for this. He has no regrets, if anything he wishes to take a steamboat ride. Hubbard says that his legacy lies in his creations.
Hubbard on his legacy
“Would you say that you're foremost a writer, a painter or, for lack of any other word, a naturalist?”
“No, I don't claim to be a naturalist, that sounds too scientific; I think whatever I do I'm sort of an amateur, still, I haven’t lost my amateur standing and I like that, too, because it throws off these people who judge things by a certain standards, you know. Poetry, for instance, should be like certain other poets that have written and been published. Anything simple is…and sometimes those simples -- things can be very complicated in ways that people can't see because they're prejudiced by their own ideas about what poetry should be. Paintings especially because I still paint, one of my prime objects is realism and I reverence the true proportion and shape and construction of things so much that I wouldn't distort them at all unless it's by accident. And that doesn't go with the art today, ever since modern painting came in, art has to, even if it's realistic, it has to have some quirk to it that'll make it not like the old paintings that they used to do which were simply copies of nature. But as I've often tried to say, I feel that there's more in my paintings than just realism but people can't see it because it's not emphasized at all. So I just move on and maybe somebody will understand that someday. But I'm sure that internal design of a painting, apart from its realism, affects people when they look at it, the painting, but they don't realize it.”
“Is there anything that you haven't done that you'd like to do in terms of your life's work?”
“Well, that's a question I hadn't thought about much. I'd like to take a long voyage on a steam ship but nowadays there are no steam ships; we all have to ride in airplanes so I don't want to go anywhere. There are things that I have not accomplished which I think . . . one of the things that I haven't developed enough, I think I have a strong feeling for music and if I could just . . . but I feel that that hasn't been developed at all because I made the mistake of thinking all the musicians could be somebody who played an instrument. I think if I could make music more a part of myself, more of a natural means of expression instead of something very complicated as playing a violin or something, I might have produced some music.”
Hubbard on the future of Payne Hollow
“Several people have asked me what's going to become of Payne Hollow when I leave it. I don't think I'm going to die and leave it but I might have to leave it because I can't meet the demands of it; living alone here presents, you have to be able to do some things, take care of yourself, you know, and if it ever comes to the time that I need somebody to take care of me I'll have to leave here, I guess. Anyway, I'm not much interested in what happens to Payne Hollow. Other people have seemed to be more interested than I am; people come here and enjoyed it and admired the life that Anna and I lived and the house that we built and think it ought to be preserved in some way but. . . . I think the best way I could preserve it would be in the books I've written and the pictures I've made.”