Copyright 1998 by The Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature--All rights reserved. LARRY LOCKRIDGE'S INFORMAL RESPONSES TO
PAPERS ON RAINTREE COUNTY
delivered in East Lansing and San Diego and by Dean Rehberger, Douglas Noverr, David Anderson, and Theodore Kennedy. Larry Lockridge, Professor of English at New York University, is a son of Ross Lockridge, Jr. These papers are published in MIDWESTERN MISCELLANY XXVI (Spring 1998).
Response to Dean Rehberger:
You've given a reading of the novel seemingly unavailable to the critics of 1948. James Baldwin, for instance, got his own career underway with a pan of Raintree County. He read it as a very sunny narrative--an affirmation of the American dream, an optimistic fiction that didn't acknowledge the dark underbelly of America. You've argued that another reading is available to us, that the novel contains its own dark or at least problematic reading of American history and politics. Elsewhere you've written that the novel is a critique of the "ideology of nationalism." Certainly it is very critical of race relations in America, and I've always been surprised that Baldwin wouldn't have perceived that racism is portrayed in the novel as what Ross Lockridge called "the mental illness of America."
And, yes, I'd agree that the novel is political in such a way as to have made it an outsider to the canon--though as a partisan I'm always eager to uncover motives for its exclusion that do not pertain to aesthetic judgment. John Shawnessy attempts to "look inward," but social reality, history, and politics always impinge. Shawnessy is the "rememberer" who cannot get on with his own epic poem. He's weighed down by the history and social reality and familial ties of which Dean Rehberger has been speaking. In some notes on his novel, my father said that his protagonist Shawnessy is such a debtor to his own past that he cannot write his way out of it. At the end we don't really know if Shawnessy is going to write that epic. Probably not, in any literal sense.
Certainly when Lockridge began his novel, he thought of it as affirmative. It would be a novel "that Americans need, goddam them," he said. It would be a spiritual testament. But there's a strong undertow of something else, of nostalgia and currents of the past. You say that the novel emphasizes barriers to desire, for all its contrary hope that barriers can be "burned away" in erotic fever and mythic invention. I agree.
In a real sense, though, Lockridge himself tried to write the epic that his character Shawnessy couldn't write. In that sense he was trying to outdo his own hero, to write a transcendent novel, if one grounded in history. With his death by suicide at age thirty-three only two months following publication of Raintree County, it's clear that the author himself felt that he too had failed.
I make the argument in my biography that the novel was conceived in "anticipatory grief," in a strong awareness of all that might be lost. His mother's mortality was weighing on him at the very moment in 1941 that he began work in earnest. In the novel his mother is Eva, Shawnessy's daughter, who will forever be twelve years old--forever young. Lockridge's personal preoccupations were projected onto a very large screen.
And speaking of screens, Raintree County is still known mostly as a bad movie starring Liz Taylor and Monty Clift. It was scripted by Millard Kaufman, who was the creator of the cartoon character Mr. Magoo. To the extent that it's registered in the popular mind at all, it's read through the lens of the movie, which was, in turn, a northern version of the movie Gone with the Wind. One reason I wrote a biography of my father [Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr., Viking Penguin, 1994, Penguin Books, 1995] was to try to get the novel back on the literary map. I managed to get it republished at Penguin simultaneously with the publication of my biography on what would have been my father's eightieth birthday.
Ross Lockridge obviously tried to write the Great American Novel. Two critics have said recently that at least he wrote the Great American Studies Novel. I'd settle for that, since at least it'd guarantee a readership. The value judgments of literary offspring are worthless, so I myself try to avoid them with respect to Raintree County. The novel has a great many fans among reviewers and common readers, and even in academe, but it has uncertain status within the American canon.
Response to Douglas Noverr:
Douglas Noverr gives a somewhat brighter reading of the novel than Dean Rehberger. I'm sympathetic to both readings, for I think the novel provides for both.
Your emphasis on American history puts me in mind of my father's relationship with his father, Ross Lockridge, Senior, who was an Indiana historian. He took groups of people all over the state, performing what he called Historic Site Recitals. He'd try to evoke the great names associated with cow pastures and other featureless parts of Indiana. His conception of history was based on heroes, on giants in the earth, who can be evoked through memory and especially memorials. So Ross Senior was responsible for historical roadside markers throughout the state. He was known as "Mr. Indiana."
Ross Junior's version of history emphasized instead the irony of memorialization, the difficulty of historical retrieval. Certainly he had a greater sense of loss.
At the same time I think of Raintree County as an incorporative novel--not so much an allusive novel. It attempts to retrieve and shore up the great texts of the past through its own version of recitation. It incorporates the great texts of American history, often in counterpoint to elements that might seem to subvert them. For example, the Gettysburg Address is recited in a Chattanooga whorehouse while the hometown sprinter and braggart Flash Perkins dances a jig with a whore. This isn't exactly the context that Ross Senior had in mind for these great words of history.
The question that Shawnessy and the Perfessor pose, as constant antagonists, is whether American history is progressive or in decline. The cynical Perfessor intones that all beautiful things are old things. Douglas Noverr cites the phrase "valorous dream." And the novel ends with the phrase, "endlessly courageous dreamer." The Dreamer for Lockridge is not someone who evades history, rather someone who courageously imagines new possibilities within history. This is straight out of Schiller's notion of aesthetic culture. We see it also in Wilde's Decay of Lying and Northrop Frye's "myth of freedom." Certainly Shawnessy believes with them that we invent our institutions--they're not here by nature. The bright implication of this is that we could imagine better institutions, a more aesthetic human culture; this requires a mythic imagination, an awareness of the old myths and a reanimation of the spirit that created the possibility of a true human "Republic." This is Shawnessy's great hope.
So at the very end John Shawnessy is the courageous dreamer, and in that sense he has prevailed over and against the Perfessor. But we might remember that it was the Perfessor who first dubbed Shawnessy a "courageous dreamer." In that sense the Perfessor might be said to have the last word.
It's interesting to me that Ross Lockridge was writing this novel in the midst of World War II and that Raintree County was published in 1948, a period of disillusionment loosely comparable to the years after the Civil War. The great response to the novel as a best seller in 1948 had something to do with a collective hunger for meaning in American history. Meaning, of course, can be both bright and dark. Lockridge tried to write an affirmative book, but one that confronted the implications of slavery, racism, the exploitation of the land and of workers, and the darker side of American capitalism that led to the Gilded Age.
Response to David Anderson:
All three talks so far have dealt, in different ways, with the place of history in Raintree County. It's surprising that so little attention has been paid this aspect of the novel over the years.
You mentioned Whitman in passing. Raintree County was originally billed as the novel Walt Whitman might have written of his America. The plot is based on Hawthorne, however--"The Great Stone Face" One could undertake a Whitmanian reading on the one hand and a Hawthornian on the other. That is, a visionary reading emphasizing the possibility of emancipation from the past, and a darker one where history is a form of entrapment.
History is one form of narrative, novelistic plotting another. In Raintree County the one owes much to the other, since the events of Shawnessy's life parallel the growth of the Republic. But one interesting aspect of the novel's plot is that it violates chronology. The climactic moments in Shawnessy's life converge at the very end and have been suppressed from the readership, if not from Shawnessy himself. The crises of his own earlier life, its major upheavals and reversals, are reserved to the end, in a series of epiphanies. His own past becomes luminous and usable by the time he says goodbye to the Perfessor at the train station and meditates on his own life and that of the American republic. Perhaps one implication is that America must become more aware of its own history, however late in the day, to make that history a usable past. But not in its chronological ordering--rather, in its immanent meaning, its pivotal and horrific but sometimes luminous moments.
You mention that the neo-Freudians, the formalists, the Marxists, the deconstructors and postmodernists, and what have you, have largely ignored the novel. It seems to me that they would all have a field day. You note that it has great formal integrity. But it's bursting at the seams in other ways the violation of chronology, the openendedness, not even a period at the end. We're in a post-formalist era now when such things are valued. Raintree County has some frayed edges that might appeal to such critics. We hear much, too, about intertextuality. This is a novel deliberately constructed out of other literary texts as well as the texts of American history. Also, feminist criticism: three of the four narrative perspectives are female--besides Shawnessy, we are put into the minds of his daughter Eva, his second spouse Esther, and the feminist Evelina. Another critic has called this an "ecological novel," for its passionate evocation of the American landscape and its scorn of industrial blight. So where are the ecocritics when we need them?
I hope Jim Morrison proves a true prophet: he said that Raintree County was the novel for the new millennium. We'll just have to wait and see what kind of audience turns out for the centennial celebration of Raintree County in the year 2048.
Response to Theodore Kennedy:
I hope your daughter finishes the novel.
1,060 pages: the length does work against Raintree County. I write about it in terms of what Northrop Frye calls "encyclopedic form." My father thought of it as a compendium of sorts, making use of a large variety of subgenres. For instance, it makes use of philosophical dialogue, conspicuously of Plato's Republic. Most contemporary editors would probably request him to kick such dialogue out. But he thought that it belonged there, feeding also on the American tradition of debate. So it's crammed with all sorts of subgenres. Also many different kinds of language that I discuss in terms of Bakhtinian theory of discourse. And all this makes for a long book.
It was originally much longer. The Dream Sequence that his editor insisted be cut was 351 pages at the very end. He snuck some 40-50 pages back in, here and there. Perhaps they just seemed like 200 pages to you.
I'll have to consider the time line question you raise, but will say for now simply that Ross Lockridge was a fanatic about that sort of thing. He wanted to have everything plausible with respect to time and sequence. For instance, he checked the almanac to make sure the moon was out and setting at such and such a time on July 4, 1892. He wanted to get that right. So I'm sure that if he committed an improbability of this sort, he's squirming as we speak.
New York University
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