An Extended Synopsis on Ross Lockridge, Jr.

--Biography, Significance, Selected Works, Further Reading--
From the Dictionary of Midwestern Literature Volume 2 published by IU Press July 27, 2016

Ross (Franklin) Lockridge, Jr.   April 25, 1914 - March 6, 1948


          Set in a fictionalized Indiana county, Raintree County (1948), the only novel by ROSS (FRANKLIN) LOCKRIDGE JR. (1914-1948), narrates the life of John Wickliff Shawnessy through a series of flashbacks prompted by events within the passing of a single day, July 4, 1892. A small-town schoolteacher and aspiring writer, fifty-three-year-old Shawnessy relives his own life, deeply embedded in the larger historical events and cultural forces of nineteenth-century America. Though most of the 1,060-page novel was written in the East, when Lockridge was supposedly writing a Harvard doctoral dissertation on Whitman, the principal setting is the Midwest. Many of the characters have counterparts in Lockridge's mother's forbears, and Raintree County itself is modeled on Henry County, INDIANA, where they were born, raised, and lived out most of their lives. The novel is structured around the celebratory homecoming to Waycross of notable Raintree County denizens who have made their fame beyond its borders: a United States senator, a railroad magnate, an army general, and a columnist for THE DIAL. Only Shawnessy, still obscure, is living in the county of his origin.
          Lockridge hand-delivered the unsolicited twenty-pound manuscript in a battered suitcase to a junior editor at Houghton Mifflin, Boston, on April 24, 1946, the day before his thirty-second birthday. Just as it was about to be rejected, two friends with Houghton Mifflin connections convinced senior editors to take a look. Generating much in-house enthusiasm, the novel was accepted on May 27. Lockridge immediately resigned a $2,500 teaching position at Simmons College and moved with his wife and four children to a lakeshore cottage in Manistee, MICHIGAN, where he undertook an extensive revision. During this period he renewed ties with his cousin, Mary Jane Ward (1905-1981), author of the best-selling novel, The Snake Pit (1946), based on her incarceration for mental illness at Rockland State Hospital, New York. He also engaged in a bitter contract dispute with his publisher and visited Hollywood.
          Not unlike Shawnessy himself but no longer obscure, Lockridge returned to his hometown Bloomington, Indiana with his family in time for the much-heralded publication of Raintree County on January 5, 1948, the same day fellow Bloomingtonian Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. The novel had already been excerpted as "The Great Footrace," in the September 8, 1947 issue of Life magazine (108-27). It was the main selection of Book-of-the-Month Club, had secured a very lucrative movie contract with MGM, and had sold out a pre-publication edition of 50,000 copies. On March 6, 1948, just as his novel reached the top of the New York Times best-seller list, Lockridge took his own life by carbon monoxide poisoning in the family garage. He was thirty-three years old.
          The initial popularity of the novel owed much to the post-war letdown and a widely felt need throughout America for renewal of its cultural mission in a world that had witnessed the Holocaust and Hiroshima and was then settling into the Cold War. Many early reviews of Raintree County emphasized its idealism, vitality, anchorage in American history, and affirmation of American values. But the novel was also deemed controversial for its eroticism and blasphemy. In the prepublication run, Jerusalem Webster Stiles, a Mephistophelean character, remarks, "Nature puts no premium on chastity. My God, where would the human race be if it weren't for the bastards? Wasn't Jesus God's? Pass the perfectos, John" (152, 1994 edition). In the remaining first edition run, the Book-of-the-Month Club edition, and all subsequent printings until 1994, "Wasn't Jesus God's?" was deleted. Prominently condemned by a Jesuit professor at Fordham, the novel was seized in late March, 1948 by the Philadelphia vice squad in bookstores throughout the city. Houghton Mifflin won an injunction against further seizures and eventually prevailed in United States District Court (Houghton Library, Ross Lockridge, Jr. Correspondence and Documents).
          The title Raintree County is familiar to Americans more for the movie version MGM released in 1957 than for the novel itself. Frequently shown on television, the movie-directed by Edward Dmytryk, with a screenplay by Millard Kaufman, and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Eva Marie Saint-bears slight resemblance to the novel, whose length has limited any potential for college course adoption. Though it has occasioned a fair number of critical essays and one monograph, Raintree County has had to date few serious readers in academe and has been on the fringe of the American canon.
          Lockridge's ambition was encyclopedic, and the resulting novel might best be termed "encyclopedic" in Northrop Frye's sense of a work that attempts to embody the life cycle and culture of a people. It explicitly incorporates a large number of well-known works, from the Bible, Oedipus Rex, and The Republic to Uncle Tom's Cabin, the Gettysburg Address, Leaves of Grass, and The Golden Bough. The plot is based on Hawthorne's short story, "The Great Stone Face." Its single-day framework comes from Joyce's Ulysses-though unlike Joyce's novel the flashbacks are fully narrated episodes. Lockridge felt that Joyce's novel, which he deeply admired in other respects, was inaccessible to the common reader. "The emotions are there, but not for the reader, who is too busy deciphering." (This comment, as well as all comments below on Midwestern writers, is taken from Lockridge's unpublished notes made on his reading, ca. 1939-1943.) Lockridge attempted a polyphony of voices, prose styles, and subgenres, but early critics heard mostly Thomas Wolfe. Having read the southern novelist, Lockridge disliked this comparison because of what he took to be Wolfe's egotism and formlessness. He thought of his novel as epic, even cosmic, and was dismayed when Hamilton Basso in The New Yorker treated it as the raw produce of a Hoosier hick, mistakenly calling him "Lockwood" throughout.
          Lockridge did pay his respects to Midwestern writers, taking notes on his reading of them as he geared up to write American Lives, an earlier 2,000-page manuscript he began in 1941. He abruptly turned it over one summer evening in 1943 and started writing Raintree County on the other side. American Lives, of which some two hundred pages survive on versos of the fragmentary Raintree County manuscript, was set in twentieth-century instead of nineteenth-century Henry County. It was more single-mindedly agrarian and small-town than Raintree County, which has portions set in New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, New Orleans, and many Southern sites associated with the Civil War.
          For American Lives he opportunistically read The Story of a County Town (1883), by EDGAR WATSON HOWE (1853-1937), calling that work, "A punk book, without even the historical importance generally ascribed to it." He wrote ten pages of non-judgmental notes on A Son of the Middle Border (1917) by (HANNIBAL) HAMLIN GARLAND (1860-1940) and plot summaries of the stories in WINESBURG, OHIO (1919) by SHERWOOD ANDERSON (1876-1941). Of (HARRY) SINCLAIR LEWIS's (1885-1951) MAIN STREET (1920) he commented: "An American version of Madame Bovary, but lacking the intensity and classic effect of Flaubert's masterpiece."
          Responses to other Midwestern writers suggest that Lockridge rarely felt they lived up to the ambitions he had set for himself. He thought An American Tragedy (1925) by (HERMAN) THEODORE DREISER (1871-1945) "very impressive, though the reader is nearly drugged to sleep in the first few hundred pages. Style and artistic presentation as bad as ever . . . A very depressing book." Of The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), by THORNTON (NIVEN) WILDER (1897-1975) he wrote, "Certainly a second-rate book and scarcely worth the popularity it has attained." Of Oil! (1927) by UPTON (BEALL) SINCLAIR (1878-1968). He wrote, "The usual strong socialist doctrine. Artistically weak . . . but a noble book, and of course on the right side."
          Lockridge had a higher estimate of U.S.A. (collected 1938) by JOHN (RODERIGO) DOS PASSOS (1896-1970), writing a lengthy impassioned defense of the novel when he ran into trouble at Simmons College for assigning portions to female undergraduates. Among Midwestern works, U.S.A. had the single greatest influence on Raintree County, more for its journalistic and cinematic techniques than for its literary sensibility. Not much taken by Faulkner, Lockridge read most of ERNEST (MILLER) HEMINGWAY (1899-1961) up through For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), admiring the "tough, honest writing" and dialogue. He envied Hemingway for his war experience. Declared 4-F for the draft, Lockridge wrote to his publisher that "while the Republic was bleeding, I hid behind a thousand skirts and let J. W. S. bleed for me all over the thousands of MS. pages of Raintree County." He fought World War II from his writing desk.
          Apart from growing up in it, Lockridge's greatest debt to Midwestern culture came by way of his parents. Ross Sr. (1877-1952) was known throughout the state as "Mr. Indiana," a state historian who wrote middle-school biographies of George Rogers Clark, ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1809-1865), and the standard textbook of Indiana history. He was better known for his "Historic Site Recitals," in which he told stories of the famous dead and orated their words on the very spot where great events had taken place. As a boy and high school student, Ross Jr. participated in these recitals and other historical pageants arranged by his father. But he began to chafe at the tasks his father set for him and, in time, developed a more critical view of American history.
          He had small interest in the Lockridge side of the family and found his main character Shawnessy in his maternal grandfather, John Wesley Shockley (1839-1907), a Hoosier schoolmaster who wrote belletristic poetry and dreamt of a larger life. Lockridge dedicated his novel to his mother, Elsie Shockley (1880-1961), who told him many stories of her Henry County childhood and of her revered father, who had died seven years before Ross Jr. was born.
          Lockridge's mysterious suicide, which prompted a spate of editorials, encouraged darker readings that emphasized the novel's pervasive sense of loss. Its critical stance toward racism and slavery, as America's "original sin," toward commercialism from the Gilded Age on, and toward a loss of mythic consciousness began to lead some critics to find in it the makings of cultural critique. Lockridge unabashedly attempted the Great American Novel. His novel has twice been termed at least the "Great American Studies Novel"-by Joel M. Jones in "The Presence of the Past in the Heartland: Raintree County Revisited" in Myth, Memory, and the American Earth, edited by David D. Anderson, 53; and by Charles Trueheart, "The Great American Studies Novel" in the September 1994 Atlantic Monthly, 105-11.
          The novel's dominant themes of homecoming, attachment to the land, eros, time and mortality, memorials, racism, FEMINISM, politics, war, religion, and the power of myth are large and perennial at the same time that they are anchored in nineteenth-century Midwestern culture. Asked by his publisher for promotional material, he wrote in July 1947 that, among other large aims, he wished to "embody in fiction a profound analysis of the social, anthropological, and sexual characteristics of Nineteenth Century American life" and to "provide a living document of the religious and political 'rites' of the American People" (Houghton Library, Ross Lockridge, Jr. Correspondence and Documents). Raintree County is an album of Midwestern county fairs, grand patriotic programs, revival meetings, county atlases, courthouse and marketplace culture, footraces, saloons, picnics, buggy rides, rough country weddings, temperance dramas, and outdoor sex. Lockridge spent untold hours in the journalistic archives of the Boston Public Library, reading old newspapers of Henry County and environs to get a better sense of the immediacy of events, both local and national. He revisited the old family sites in Henry and Miami counties with a historian's passion for repossession of the past. He read the manuscripts of his grandfather Shockley's poetry and pondered the Illustrated Historical Atlas of Henry County (1875).
          John Wickliff Shawnessy is the rememberer, but one so weighed by the past that he cannot get on with the epic he has in mind to write. Jerusalem Webster Stiles, the "Perfessor," tells Shawnessy that the past cannot be repossessed, sadly so since "all lovely things are old things." And all myths of homecoming are myths of death. The Perfessor enters into philosophical dialogue with Shawnessy in the "Day" sequences throughout the novel. He himself had left Raintree County for the East after the death of his mother, then returned as a philologist and classicist, heading up Pedee Academy where Shawnessy became his student. Learning the trade as a war correspondent, the Perfessor then becomes a successful Eastern journalist. The novel's large element of classical allusion sustains Lockridge's evocation of nineteenth-century Midwestern classicism, whose gentility attempted to civilize rubes by means of extracts from Cicero and Virgil. While he's a Hermes-figure, a messenger of the gods spreading such culture, the Perfessor is also a skeptic and debunker of the very myths he peddles. He is deeply anti-Christian. His dark humor owes something to the writings of SAMUEL LANGHORNE CLEMENS (1835-1910), writing as Mark Twain, which Lockridge was teaching at Simmons College. Clemens's Gilded Age (1873) influenced the novel's "City section."
          Shawnessy amicably counters with the values, convictions, and dreams of an American romantic visionary. Much of what he says and feels has its source in eros and worship of the land. Raintree County has been called an "ecological novel" by Fred Erisman, in his "Raintree County and the Power of Place" in Markham Review 8 (Winter 1979): 36-40. The Great Swamp, the Shawmucky River, the Raintree, and even Danwebster graveyard-overrun by myrtle, wild carrot, blackberries, and poison ivy-affirm the continuance of life amid tragic loss. Nell Gaither, Shawnessy's first doomed love, is seen by him rising naked from the Shawmucky, suddenly transformed from a fig-leafed Eve into a seductive Venus. The Shawmucky, whose original is Miami County's Eel River, the Kenapocomoco, is symbolic of the male life force just as the Great Swamp is female. That the eponymous Raintree, symbol of fecundity, renewal, and beauty, actually exists in Raintree County is only a legend Shawnessy would like to believe. There is no doubt raintrees exist in New Harmony, Indiana, site of two early-nineteenth-century utopian experiments. In his mid-twenties, for fifty dollars, as arranged by his father, Ross Jr. had written A Pageant of New Harmony (1937), some thirteen hundred lines of blank verse. He was ashamed of this work and did not attend the performance, but material produced under coercion fed later into his representation of the erotic life. It is under the raintree in the Great Swamp that Shawnessy loses his virginity to Susanna Drake, his second doomed love, a Southern woman haunted by the probability that she is the daughter of a mulatto.
          Throughout, the erotic life is hedged in by hoopskirts and disrupted by death, but erotic yearning persists. "Raintree County was itself the barrier of form imposed upon a stuff of longing, life-jet of the river" (116). Having lived through tragic loss, the Civil War, and a thwarting of professional ambition, Shawnessy settles down with his second wife and three children in a Victorian gingerbread house. His wife Esther, a former student and part-Native American, always addresses him as "Mr. Shawnessy." Eros has been domesticated but lives on in the strong current of feeling that dominates even the Day episodes.
          Beyond eros, Shawnessy argues another value against the Perfessor's clever, affable pessimism: the constructive power of myth. Shawnessy's own life has borne out the truth of the old stories. In beating frontier braggart Flash Perkins in the great Raintree County footrace, he lives out James Frazer's thesis that one hero will usurp another, often killing him. In having sex with Susanna under the raintree and paying quite a price, he lives out the truth of Genesis. In coming home from the war after being reported dead, he lives out the story of Lazarus. In being almost tarred and feathered by a righteous mob near the end of the Day section, he lives out the myth of Christ. The old stories still have power over us, but they need to be remembered and recited, and Lockridge, not unlike his father, recites them in his novel.
          The Perfessor laments, "I wish I could believe in sacred places. . . . But beauty and the gods can't survive the era of Darwin and the Dynamo" (912). Shawnessy disagrees, drawing on a tradition of cultural humanism that Lockridge is implicitly tapping into: from Vico and Schiller to Carlyle and Emerson, and anticipating Northrop Frye's "myth of freedom." New myth-makers are much needed. We think up our institutions, and, as Schiller had argued, it is only through the strong imaginings of aesthetic culture that a new politics is possible. As America's representative "dreamer," Shawnessy sees at the day's conclusion the possibility of a new Republic that will connect with America's original promise. Whether he will now be able to write the great epic of the American people is unresolved, but in a real sense Lockridge has attempted to write it for him.
          Shawnessy's is, of course, a fragile idealism that post-1892, not to mention post-1948, history has not treated kindly. Where is the evidence that "courageous dreamers" are prevailing? But for the duration of his novel's composition, Lockridge tried to believe Shawnessy was getting the better of the argument with the Perfessor.
          Subsequent writers have rarely acknowledged a Raintree County influence. Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) mentions Lockridge in a 1948 poem, "Que despierte el leñador." Lynne Doyle's The Riddle of Genesis County (1958) is an explicit brief adaptation. Paradise Falls (1968) by DON ROBERTSON (1929-1999) parallels Raintree County in some respects and was initially publicized with references to the novel. John (Hoyer) Updike (1932-2009) has on occasion referred to it, as in In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996). Thomas Mallon (b. 1951) makes Lockridge's suicide a leitmotiv in Dewey Defeats Truman (1997), but his narrator is critical of Raintree County itself. Tears of the Mountain (2010) by John Addiego (b. 1951) is a direct homage, utilizing a single day, July 4, 1876, with flashbacks beginning in 1831, and set in Sonoma County, California; it makes use also of the technique of one chapter leading linguistically into the next. Some important novelists and poets have indicated to this writer a felt, if indirect, influence: for instance, Herman Wouk (b. 1915), Marguerite (Vivian) Young (1908-1995), Thomas (Michael) Keneally (b. 1935), Philip D. Appleman (b. 1926), and Joseph (Prince) McElroy (b. 1930). Edna Rydzik Buchanan (b. 1939), a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist-journalist, has said that Raintree County is her all-time favorite novel, but her own genre is crime fiction.
          MGM/Turner has thus far blocked many initiatives by producers for a new film adaptation. Lockridge reserved only live stage rights in his confining 1947 contract with MGM; and all attempts at operatic, musical, and dramatic adaptation have failed as of this writing.
          Raintree County was initially published by Houghton Mifflin in 1948. Concurrently, a Book-of-the-Month edition was issued. In 1949, a British hardcover was published by Macdonald. In connection with the MGM movie, a paperback was released in 1957 by Popular Library, and an abridged version by Dell. The novel was issued in a 1984 Arbor House paperback with a preface by Joseph Blotner. Book-of-the-Month Club printed a facsimile hardcover edition in 1992. The 1994 Penguin Books paperback, edited by Larry Lockridge, corrected a few typos and restored the censored words, "Isn't Jesus God's?" A new edition of Raintree County was published by Chicago Review Press in 2007; it features a notable foreword by Herman Wouk. Raintree County has been translated, in abridged form, into Japanese, Spanish, Dutch, German, French, and three Scandinavian languages, Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish.
          The first book-length study of Lockridge's novel is Fred Waage's Raintree County: The Foremost American Environmental Novel: uncovering the Deep Message of an Undervalued Text (2011). This volume was published with a foreword by Barbara Stedman by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2011. Other extended discussions include Larry Lockridge's "The Author in the Epic," chapter 8 of Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr. (1994), 271-309. DAVID D(ANIEL) ANDERSON (1924-2011) has edited two collections of critical essays: Myth, Memory, and the American Earth: The Durability of Raintree County (1998), with essays by Ray Lewis White, Gerald D. Nemanic, Joel M. Jones, Park Dixon Goist, Dean Rehberger, Douglas A. Noverr, David D. Anderson, and Larry Lockridge; and Midwestern Miscellany 26 (Spring 1998), with new essays by some of these critics as well as essays by Patricia Ward Julius and Theodore R. Kennedy. See also Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism 109 (2001), 316-74., maintained by Ross Lockridge, III, contains many manuscript materials, photographs, and links to other sites. The small portion of the original Raintree County manuscript that Lockridge did not burn is in the Lilly Library, Indiana University. In late 2011 the four Lockridge heirs-Ernest, Larry, Jeanne, and Ross, III-donated forty-seven organized cartons of Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s papers and related materials to the Lilly Library. Containing 75,000 items, the archive is inventoried in a two-volume 457-page descriptive bibliography, compiled by Larry Lockridge, available in the reference room at the Lilly Library, which has also made it available online. An inventory can be found on the Lilly Library website:, see Lockridge mss. III. This archive and other Ross Lockridge, Jr. papers are available without restriction to scholars and critics. An exhibition, "Raintree County: A Celebration of the Life and Work of Ross Lockridge, Jr," containing about 300 items from the Ross Lockridge, Jr. Collection, occupied the Main Gallery of the Lilly Library, January 21 through May 19, 2014, marking the centennial of the author's birth. In conjunction with this exhibition, Indiana University Press reissued Larry Lockridge's Shade of the Raintree, with a new preface by the author. For a fuller bibliographical survey, consult The Dictionary of Midwestern Literature l (2001): 328-29.

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