Come, O, Come to Raintree County
We will never know what additional marvels might have come from the literary talent of Ross Lockridge, Jr., the Indiana sensation who set out to write the Great American Novel. But an exemplary biography by the author’s second son, Larry Lockridge, comes close to telling us. Larry’s book, Shade of the Raintree, is an enquiry into both the creative process and the eventual disintegration of a powerful writer. A centennial edition, marking the 100th anniversary of his father’s birth, is published this month by Indiana University Press.
Novelist Ross suffered from severe depression and died in the family garage of carbon monoxide poisoning at age 33, an event all the more tragic because modern medicine probably could have helped him. Just three months before, in January, 1948, he had produced the blockbuster novel Raintree County, his only published work.
By chance, I had pulled the novel off the shelf of my unread books about a year ago and was immediately hooked. I had not realized the story was centered in my home state of Indiana nor did I expect it to be such a page-turner. I was also surprised how sexually charged it was for its era. The jacket design, first sketched by the author himself, suggests a nude female form half-concealed in the undulating southern Indiana landscape. The opening scene includes an erotic daydream of considerable detail. Within minutes, I wanted to know where this author was taking me, and I read the book in a series of great gulps to find out.
But at the same time I wanted to know much more about the writer and his seemingly untroubled passage through life. I discovered the Shade of the Raintree biography, then tracked down Larry Lockridge at New York University where he still teaches literature courses. We chatted about his several years of research into the Raintree saga. His investigation culminated in this absorbing 500-page account – a kind of personal catharsis for him – rummaging through his father’s creative agonies. It stands as one of the finer literary biographies of any American author. Herman Wouk called it “a Kaddish for his father and mother too, beautiful and memorable.”
Larry Lockridge, only five years old when his father died, undertook Shade in a quest to understand what happened to him and to set the public record straight. He specifically wanted to correct the tone and content of novelist John Leggett’s treatment of his father in the 1974 book Ross and Tom. That book struck Larry as “under-researched” and “novelistic” in the way it papered over some of the missing parts. “Leggett is an Easterner who draws on the Midwest Bumpkin paradigm” to portray his father, he writes. Ross “comes off as a lightweight.”
Larry, in the preface to his own book, rightly rejects Leggett’s misapprehension. Ross was anything but a lightweight and certainly was no country bumpkin.
The “forensic” research, as Larry calls his quest, led him back to aging Indiana relatives and friends, and through thousands of pages of manuscripts and correspondence, including archives kept by Houghton Mifflin, Raintree’s original publisher. He concludes that his father was mentally swamped by three converging forces: his high-flown but unsatisfied literary ambitions, his genetic disposition to depression (mental illness had surfaced in a cousin) and overpowering pressures to succeed, particularly among American authors.
Without the premature death, what might have come next? Lockridge’s son says that at the time of his father’s suicide no new novel was underway and only a few random notes on possible next challenges survive. His depressive state would have lifted, son Larry writes, although at the end he could not have known that. Raintree had left him physically and mentally “depleted.”
Ross initially thought Raintree County had achieved something great. Many critics agreed with him. He led best-seller lists for several months and won substantial sums in literary prizes. Exact figures are unknown but probably more than a million copies were sold, says Larry. The book has been in and out of print over its 66-year history, first with Houghton Mifflin, then Viking Press, and now Chicago Review Press. Translations, mostly abridgements, have appeared in Dutch, French, German, Spanish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Japanese. After publication, prominent reviews in Time and the Saturday Review of Literature called Ross the equal of Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis and said Raintree signaled the dawn of a new vitality in American fiction. Other comments were somewhat tempered. The Atlantic called the book “the Hoosier War and Peace” and “the freshman Faust.”
Was this really the Great American Novel so many had been waiting for? For perspective, Larry acknowledges in his new preface to Shade that the novel remains stalled “on the periphery” of American literature, partly because of its 1060-page bulk. Other factors, I might add, are literary fashion, the complex structure, and the American compulsion to replace the old with the new. Further muddying the waters, most people probably remember only the movie version, a typical Hollywood rewrite job that extracted one element from a multilayered novel and traded on the name. MGM hoped the film would rival Gone with the Wind, but instead it flopped at the box office, all three hours of it. Perhaps the movie is best remembered for Elizabeth Taylor’s Southern accent and Montgomery Clift’s off-center face that was damaged in a near-fatal car crash during the shoot.
The story surrounding the novel Raintree County has its own drama. Writing it was a very American saga of hubris, talent and grit, ending in the author’s self-doubt, paranoia and death. Son Larry says in Shade that Lockridge tends to be remembered today as much for his suicide as for his book. His final collapse is part of a sadly familiar pattern. He joins a morbid pantheon alongside Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Hart Crane, Anne Sexton, William Inge, and David Foster Wallace, among the 300-odd other writers who are known to have taken their own lives in modern times.
Larry believes the novel deserves a wider public today, and I heartily agree. I find it a “warm bath” kind of work, with characters that still spring to life and stories that race ahead with humor, compassion and wisdom. American milestones — the Civil War, emancipation of the slaves and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, industrialization — punctuate the narrative. Themes of ecological preservation, feminism and racial tolerance are dealt with powerfully and well ahead of their time.
Raintree may be on the margins today but there are signs of revival. Indiana University (where Lockridge graduated in 1935, with the highest grade point average ever achieved at IU at the time) has just opened a five-month exhibition celebrating the man, the novel and circumstances of its creation. The Lockridge collection, kept at IU’s Lilly Library, has recently been expanded to include private correspondence, drafts of other works and a surviving portion of the novel’s final manuscript. Scholars in American studies programs will benefit from this treasure trove. And in a further sign of a mini-revival: Chicago Review Press has sold more than 2,000 new paperback copies, according to Nielsen BookScan.
Raintree County ranges widely but is anchored with a clear sense of time and place, an Indiana only recently granted statehood and developing into farmland and small towns. At the time of the story, Indiana still remembers itself as a frontier outback not far removed from “Indian territory.” (Traces remain. As a child, I attended Camp Tecumseh, named for the iconic Shawnee chief who resisted encroachment of settlers in what became Indiana – the name itself evoking past Indian history.)
In the novel, an unwritten code of behavior influences daily life among an innocent but not particularly well-behaved population:
It was a code of breezy, cocky men who had no fear in heaven or earth they would admit to. The code involved never hitting a man when he was down, never turning down a drink, never refusing to take a dare, never backing out of a fight — except with a woman. The code involved contempt for city folks, redskins, varmints of all kinds, atheists, scholars, aristocrats, and the enemies of the United States of America. Actually, every Raintree County man had a little of the code in him.
The story is built around a day in the life of John Wickliff Shawnessy, an aspiring poet with grandiose ambitions, in the fictional Raintree County, Indiana (modeled on the current Henry County). It is July 4, 1892. Frequent flashbacks take the story through 48 years of love and life, comedy and tragedy. Added gravitas comes from the many classical symbols and allusions – the county as the Garden of Eden, the raintree as the Tree of Knowledge dropping fertile spores on the land, and religious skepticism borrowed from The Golden Bough : A Study in Magic and Religion. The core of the plot was inspired by Nathanial Hawthorne’s short story The Great Stone Face. Lockridge takes Hawthorne’s four American heroes – wealthy merchant, army general, renowned politician, brilliant writer – and recycles them as his main characters. John Shawnessy becomes Hawthorne’s returning hero, noblest of all.
Lockridge anticipated reader resistance to his ambitious design: he included an index to his 52 flashbacks to help navigate the sprawling story. He had in mind James Joyce’s Ulysses, only in more readable prose and architecture. His overarching intent was to explore the vision of young America around the time of its centennial and dramatize how its innocence gave way to a more materialistic outlook. He rated his novel in the same class as Plato’s Republic, although he told friends he thought Raintree was probably better. Other works he felt he had bested were Ulysses and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. But he rejected out of hand any comparison with Thomas Wolfe, despite the views of several critics who saw similarities, especially in their prolixity. In his private notes, Lockridge admitted to some ambivalence about Wolfe’s talent. He saw Look Homeward, Angel as a “Strange mad book! Character-drawing dreadful. No sense of form — and yet a strangely wonderful book.”
As the story unfolds, John Shawnessy’s innocence is first explored in his relationship with the beautiful Nell Gaither. In their teens, they showed signs of budding intellectualism:
it made him a little uncomfortable to see her sit down and become absorbed in the exquisitely beautiful canto in which Don Juan falls from innocence with Julia and is apprehended and sent off on his travels … The happiest hours in Johnny’s life during this time were those spent in translating some of the Metamorphoses of Ovid with Nell. They were both deeply touched by the myth of Daphne and Apollo.
But before long, John’s eye turns to the more sultry, olive-skinned Susanna Drake of New Orleans, who was visiting Raintree County. Their sexual encounter is sufficient to change his life forever. This device hints early on at the theme of loss of innocence. Susanna returns to Louisiana, only to come back to announce to John that she is pregnant with his child. For reasons of decorum, if not love, John marries Susanna, abandoning his beloved Nell.
Lockridge then moves his story to the South, giving him an opening to comment on the nation’s tensions that ultimately led to the Civil War. Predictably, Shawnessy was a Yankee misfit among Susanna’s family and friends, and made no secret of his disgust with the practice of slavery.
Johnny, as he was known to all, discovers that Susanna’s mother was mentally unbalanced. Both her parents had died in a house fire, along with a female slave. Here Lockridge dares to suggest miscegenation, with the implication that her father had been intimate with the slave girl. Worse, Susanna concludes that the slave was probably her mother – hence the olive skin. It is hard to imagine more incendiary themes in the popular fiction of the day.
During the New Orleans visit, Susanna begins to show signs of her own mental illness, complete with crying jags and erratic social behavior. Eventually she admits that her pregnancy was faked to tempt John into marriage. The unhappy couple finally leave the South, settling back in Freehaven, the capital of Raintree County. It is the eve of the Civil War, and John goes to work as a teacher at the local high school. A child, Jimmy, is born to them just as the war erupts. By the third year of the war, Susanna begins to suffer from incurable paranoia, and runs away with their son. John joins the Union Army and goes off to war.
Lockridge uses this turn of events to embark on a 100-page description of conditions suffered by both sides in the Civil War, one of the more successful sections of the book. He based this passage on extensive reading, much as Stephen Crane had done for his Civil War classic The Red Badge of Courage. Neither author actually participated in the military.
Describing the battle of Gettysburg, Lockridge achieves a remarkable degree of realism. He uses his colorful “Perfesser” Jerusalem Webster Stiles — a “homespun Voltaire,” said The Atlantic critic — to explain what war was really like:
Soldiers making a battle are just poor lost bastards trying to improvise out of smoke, fear and confusion something that a bunch of brassheads called generals can agree upon as won or lost… Yet no battle was ever more the farce of brute chance. The armies blundered into each other, blundered into their positions and blundered for three days trying to figure out where they were and what was really happening. Lee, the military genius of the war, achieved the murder of ten thousand men by blindly and brutally pounding away at an impregnable position.
Improbably, John survives vicious battles but is wounded seriously enough to win a discharge from the Army. After the surrender of the Confederacy, John begins to understand how the myth of America has been overturned and replaced with something new, something fearsome:
Out of the shocks and changes of the War and the equally great shocks and changes of the homecoming, there emerged a new hero of Raintree County and a new County. The old (that is to say, the young) Johnny was really gone … In his stead was John Shawnessy, a sober young man of twenty-six, who had now a new life to live, a new love to find, a new poem of himself and the Republic to create… He hadn’t foreseen the sooty monster that stood alone after the smoke of battle had cleared, the Vanquisher alike of vanquishers and vanquished. Before the War this monster had been an awkward babe. But during the War he had put on muscle. His name was Industrialism.
Following the peace, Johnny travels to Washington and New York, finally returning to Raintree County unannounced. He receives no hero’s welcome but finds solace in another way: “It seemed to him that he would never come any closer to the secret of Raintree County than the instant when he saw again the faces of his mother and father.”
More than the fine points of the complex story, it is the skillful manipulation of the English language that has stayed with me since the experience of absorbing the narrative a year ago. Lockridge confidently alternated his style from straight exposition to poetic flights of fancy to psychological exploration to dream sequences, journalism and historical detours. His son reports that the writing exploded from his father’s mind in volcanic bursts, committed directly to his 100-words-per-minute typewriter, then edited, then retyped by his wife Vernice. Their four small children remembered later in life that the household rattled with the clack of typewriter keys well into the night. Larry told me in our chat that he remembers dropping off to sleep to the sound of a constant “drone.”
Lockridge’s prose was his own, at once sophisticated and natural. He considered his plot structure more disciplined than Wolfe’s and, as judged by Larry, it was elaborated in “intricate, discernible, meaningful form.” Nevertheless it is easy to get lost in Raintree, as I had in Wolfe’s giant tomes, not to mention War and Peace.
The Lockridge style is rich in his own neologisms that pepper the text: a rock is halfsunk in the dirt, a woman has Indianblack hair, a tough character is majuscular, a young man is fleetfooted and broadsholdered, the earth in Raintree County was steamdivided, the fertile land is gardenground and a tumescent bull is lovetortured. One innovation that never caught on with other writers was his clever linking of chapters and subsections with continuous sentences. Each section ends at mid-page in mid-sentence, with no punctuation, and is picked up seamlessly on the following page in a new section. Son Larry believes he was influenced by cinematic devices in Citizen Kane linking the story together. The book ends with no period, implying that this story has no end. Combined with the linking sentences, it must have been a proofreader’s nightmare.
I found myself riveted both by the unfolding narrative and by the wild ride of the writing itself. In one passage Lockridge takes wing with this lyrical aside:
Come, o, come to Raintree County and to the central gardenground thereof, where hills slope circularly to form the ancient scar. Here was an old uprooting. Here grew perhaps the Tree that flowered above the garden in ancient days. O, little transplant from the Asian homeland of the race! O, Biblical tree! O, mysterious seedling, lost and only vaguely remembered!
Throughout the book, profanity lends realism to the dialogue (bastards, hells, damns and goddamns) that in the 1940s drove prudish American readers into fits of rage. Shade quotes a letter to the editor of an Indianapolis newspaper as saying, “Have just read Raintree County and am now going to bury it in my garden. It should make good fertilizer.”
Lockridge’s respect for nature reads today like a modern plea for ecological appreciation:
The creatures of the river swarmed, shrieked, swam, coupled, seeded, bloomed, died, stank around him. He appeared to be in the very source of life, a womblike center. River and shore were one; leaf and flesh, blossom and genitalia, seed and egg were one cruel impulse … Farther away in the summer afternoon, this furious fecundity became enfeebled – there was a genteel creature called man.
He also drew upon his own personality, using the Stiles voice as his free-spirited alter ego. Larry interprets the book as “in part a continuous testing of aspects of his own personality, parceled out to various characters in situations of opportunity and crisis.”
Puritanical Midwesterners were also offended by the sexual content, some of which, though mild by today’s standards, was clearly over the line in the 1940s. Lockridge fearlessly pushed at the boundaries. (Yet to come, some 10 years later, were obscenity trials on Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.) In one passage, Johnny had dropped off to sleep by the Shawmucky river. As he awoke in his secret hiding place he saw a “skein of gold hair floating backward on the current”:
Then while he watched in sleepy bewilderment, a fabulous creature rose slowly from the Shawmucky, walking from midriver to the far shore. Glistening whitely from the green water, the neck emerged, the long back, the stately buttocks, the smoothfleshed thighs, the tapering calves, and at last the long slender feet. On the left of the deepfleshed hemispheres was a brown mole, pennysized. Then as the creature half turned a moment and stretched up its arms full length in the sunlight, he saw the brightnippled breasts, the wide, smooth belly, and three gold tufts of hair.
It was a daring description that left just enough — but not too much — to the imagination.
Country folk in Indiana, including in his home town of Bloomington, perhaps recognized themselves in this parody of a local busybody telling the preacher of bad behavior that she imagines taking place near her home:
He went up to the house there, and they was there all evening. I come out to my gate again and again, and I knowed he hadn’t left. They was no one else in or out of that there gate all evening. They was hardly any light at all in the house – I know because I walked down the road once to see more clearer, and they was only a little low light burnin’ in a front room. I says to myself, I bet I know what’s a-goin on in there.
Some of the strongest language is reserved for organized religion, relayed through the voice of the atheist “Perfesser” Stiles. He calls typical Christians “just plain crazy” to believe that the universe was made by a “grand old man squatting on a cloud.” And in a line guaranteed to rankle the faithful, he has his character write in the local newspaper that “Jesus will go into the records as an old forgotten court case – you know, another one of those young Jews that are always coming out of the hills pretending to be God.”
Such passages, while important to characterization, were sure to clash shockingly with contemporary Midwestern values. Larry reports that Lockridge’s depression magnified his fears of hostile reaction. The crackup came upon him slowly and inexorably after he finished the manuscript. He delivered the book, originally titled The Riddle of Raintree County, in a suitcase to Houghton Mifflin in Boston while he was teaching at Simmons College. A junior editor politely received it, and Lockridge returned to his modest apartment in Cambridge to await the publisher’s judgment. The manuscript totaled a massive 600,000 words, well in excess of Gone With the Wind. A month later, he got the word of enthusiastic acceptance.
Correspondence from the period shows how elated and giddy the news must have made him feel. One letter is illustrative: “Now that I’ve finished the darn novel, I think I’ll conduct a research to see if I can find out what’s causing all these children.” And later, as money started coming in, he wrote jokingly to another friend, “We are planning to wear shoes most of the time and even get an indoor toilet.”
Although worn down by producing the book, Lockridge now had to face Houghton Mifflin’s editors who wanted about 100,000 words cut out, most of it a long dream sequence that was dear to him. He defended his original text but finally agreed. He jousted with Houghton Mifflin for a year and a half, their correspondence totalling almost a thousand pages, most of it from Lockridge.
More mixed blessings awaited him. The MGM studios in Hollywood awarded Raintree a pre-publication $150,000 prize for film rights for the most outstanding novel of the year, conditional upon another 50,000-word cut. Both these critical editorial assessments took the wind out of him and made him wonder if the book was as good as he thought it was. After one round of editorial quibbles, he caved in. “He was too tired to fight,” Larry writes, “and thought maybe they were right anyway … He had lost confidence in his book.”
Although chosen as Book of the Month Club’s main selection, guaranteeing the sale of over 300,000 copies, more outside opinion was making its way into his masterpiece. The book’s “Perfesser” Stiles says, “Nature puts no premium on chastity. My God, where would the human race be if it weren’t for bastards? Wasn’t Jesus God’s?” BOMC considered this to be self-evident blasphemy and insisted it be struck from its edition. The line had already been printed in Houghton-Mifflin’s 50,000 advance-sale copies. But Lockridge had to agree to allow the passage to be lopped off in future Houghton-Mifflin printings and in the BMOC edition. Later it was restored in a Viking Press edition and it remains in the Chicago Review Press edition today.
As the editors sharpened their blue pencils, Lockridge’s doubts grew and accumulated, prompting him to write to a friend that he had hoped in vain that his publisher would provide “the same conviction and backing … that Wolfe had from (Maxwell) Perkins … Bref, what I want is a chance to liberate the classic that is in it.” After publication, several critics had similar thoughts. Newsweek said Raintree “might have been a really magnificent work” if Lockridge had found a Maxwell Perkins. “Obviously there was no such word craftsman about.”
Simultaneously, Lockridge became concerned about family reaction to the thinly disguised roles he had ascribed them in the story. He had fictionalized each incident, each person, but now felt he had offended them all. Larry writes in Shade that his mother Vernice later recalled hearing him say at one point, “How did I ever think I could get away with writing such a book?”
Larry’s research turned up other memories of “bizarre behavior” on his father’s part as pressures built up. “He was frequently inspecting knives in the kitchen…. At first somewhat amused, his wife asked him what he was looking for, and he replied, in dead seriousness, ‘I’m looking for a way out.’” Battered by the objections thrown at him, Lockridge and his wife decided to take a break in California, possibly to relocate there, and to look in on the MGM film project, including the script. None of the MGM experience was what he had hoped.
In the end the West Coast did not appeal to them at all. Larry said in our chat that another plan, more advanced, was a possible move to France where Lockridge had spent a productive junior year abroad studying at the Sorbonne. Unlike most Americans, he enrolled in serious courses and competed with the French for the good marks he achieved. His correspondence shows that he felt he needed to put some space between himself and his extended family. At the very least he needed to get out of Indiana.
En route to Los Angeles, the Lockridges had visited a cousin in Illinois. “My father’s appearance alarmed them,” Larry writes. “He was thin and quiet and had a bad cough… He worried about what Hollywood was doing with his novel…” His worries were more than justified. The work-in-progress script, which he was not allowed to see, conveyed none of the book’s grand scope.
Meanwhile, critical acclaim was mixed with sharp ad hominem attacks. One Fordham University professor, Reverend Alfred Barrett, S.J., denounced the book in a review that circulated nationwide in an Associated Press story. Rev. Barrett dismissed Raintree as a work of “bombast, rank obscenity, materialistic philosophy and blasphemous impudicity.” Lockridge was stunned. Other reviews and events piled on the stress. The Atlantic said Raintree “has just about everything in it, including a vast amount of hokum.” Some booksellers in Philadelphia were arrested for selling it. Lockridge’s wife intercepted as much hate mail as she could, in order to spare her husband further insult.
Nevertheless, Lockridge’s disintegration and eventual suicide caught his family by surprise. Although clearly depressed, he seemed to be dealing with the stress. At his mother’s suggestion, he sought counsel from her contacts in the church of Christian Science but that led nowhere. He was also badly advised to check himself into an Indianapolis hospital where he underwent crude electroshock therapy without anesthetic. Both experiences only drove him further downward. “In the logic of despair,” writes son Larry, “he began to see his own death as a gesture that might renew the lives of those for whom his own life had become burdensome, people he loved and yet harmed by his novel – his mother, whose life he had exploited, his wife who had patiently worked with him all those years, and those beautiful children for whom he could do nothing.”
He may well have sought atonement in death. In his garage, he stealthily connected a vacuum cleaner hose to the exhaust pipe of the family Kaiser, stuffed a cloth around the car window to prevent the toxic gas escaping, started the engine and crawled into the back seat. He was found dead two hours later sitting peacefully upright.
Within minutes the quiet neighborhood was “lit up with fire trucks and police cars”, Larry reports. Bloomington’s emergency services could see that Lockridge had already begun to stiffen and was beyond help. “But my mother refused to let them stop. ‘Please, please keep on working!’” Larry quotes her as shouting. Resuscitation efforts continued for an hour and ten minutes. Two firemen then led Vernice Lockridge into her living room and told her that her husband had died.
Michael Johnson is a former AP foreign correspondent and McGraw-Hill veteran of 17 years. He now writes for the International Herald-Tribune, American Spectator, thecolumnists.com, the Washington Times and a couple of specialized classical music outlets.
Sketch of Ross Lockridge by the author.