RAINTREE COUNTY AND THE EPICISING POET
IN AMERICAN FICTION
LEONARD LUTWACK © 1972 Ball State Univeristy Forum -- (Vol. 131:14-28) --Including an appendix summary of the structure of Raintree County used as the basis of this discussion--
Perhaps Raintree County may appear a little more from behind the critical cloud that covers it if instead of being placed for adverse comparison beside Joyce's Ulysses it is considered among those American novels which present an epicising poet who fails to become another Homer and yet whose story in itself presumes to be an epic. Frank Norris's The Octopus is such a novel, and John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor is another, which takes as a subject the centuries-old American ambition to produce a native epic poem. The first of these is a serious attempt at epic, the latter a mock-epic, and Raintree County lies somewhere between the two extremes.1 The poet in Raintree County, John Wickliff Shawnessy, takes his place alongside of Norris's Presley, who hopes to capture the story of the west in thundering hexameters, and Ebenezer Cooke, who plans to write a Marylandiad honoring Lord Calvert's colony, "an epic to out-epic epics." The three epic poetasters fall far short of their ambition: Presley produces a short social protest poem, "The Toilers"; Shawnessy writes a trivial play "on the theme of love"; and Eben has nothing to show for his effort but a Hudibrastic poem satirizing colonial manners. But while they have failed to rival Homer, their creators go on to write novels that fulfill the requirements of the epic genre. The Octopus, Raintree County, and The Sot-Weed Factor are, so to speak, accidental prose paraphrases of the epic poems their poet-heroes wanted to write and could not. The anomalous result is that the American ambition to produce and epic poem is rejected in the very works that present themselves as epics. Of the three novels Raintree County is the most ambitiously epic since it attempts to weave together the history of the United States from 1842 to 1892, the life of Shawnessy, and an eventful day in the life of Shawnessy. To express this undertaking in terms of literary derivations, Lockridge tries to take one giant step beyond Virgil by adding the materials of Ulysses to those of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Presley, Shawnessy, and Eben are poet-heroes, and their heroism, as it turns out, consists simply in recognizing the epic potential of the American experience--in the West, the Midwest, and the colonial East, respectively--and persisting in their dream of someday expressing it in a literary form of great distinction. Each feels the influence of a different literary fashion: Eben is full of the conventions of the Renaissance national epic, Presley (like the young Norris) is inspired by the colors and moods of romantic poetry, while Shawnessy, influenced presumably by the realistic movement in America, wants his work to spring from native American sources and be couched in a plain, even journalistic, idiom. Virgil may govern the form in which Shawnessy states the subject of his great poem, but it is the realistic and nationalistic spirit of Emerson and Whitman that governs the selection of subject:
Of the people from whom the hero sprang, the eternal innocent children of mankind, latest of the mythic races and of their mythical republic. Of their towns and cities and the weaving millions. Of their vast and vulgar laughters, festive days, their competitions, races, lusty games. Of strong men running to a distant string. Of their rights and their reforms, religions and revivals. Of their shrine to justice, the court house in the middle of the square. Of their plantings, buildings, minings, makings, ravagings, explorings. Of how they were always going with the sun, westward to purple mountains, new dawns and new horizons.2
This "epic vision" came to Shawnessy after his participation in the Civil War, which he recognizes as the very heart of his material:
The epic of America, her youth, her martial vigor, her innocent dedications, her great crusades, were back in the years when a divided people fought, each side for its dream of human freedom, when a race had been emancipated, when the face of Abraham Lincoln brooded above the wartorn nation. [pp. 819-20]
With such a great subject available it was to be expected that a "still unlaureled Homer" would eventually emerge, for Americans are "an absolutely legendary people" quite capable of rewriting the old epics and adding some myths of their own. Shawnessy conceived of himself as "the bearer of a sacred fire" and his poem-to-be "a godlike exertion" that would make him "the epic poet of the people" and the leader of his generation. Being thoroughly representative of man in the New World, he considers himself eminently suited for the task. The very initials of his name, JWS, are spelled out in the meanderings of the ancient river running through Raintree County:
Who else could discover the secret of the Shawmucky, except him whose name had also flowed from remote ages? If he triumphed, there would be triumphs for all, but if he died, there would be deaths for all. It was still his legend, and they couldn't take it away from him. [p. 1046]
The poet of the people is the new democratic hero of the people, "a single, simple person not easily overcome." Consequently the subject of his poem was to be his life as well as the nation's, an Odyssey intertwined with an Iliad, and it is so stated at the end of the book:
Of a quest for the sacred Tree of Life. Of a happy valley and a face of stone--and of the coming of a hero. Of mounds beside the river. Of threaded bones of lovers in the earth. Of shards of battles long ago. Of names upon the land, the fragments of forgotten language. Of beauty risen from the river and seen through rushes at the river's edge. Of the people from whom the hero sprang, the eternal, innocent children of mankind. Of their towns and cities and the weaving millions. Of the earth on which they lived--its blue horizons east and west, exultant springs, soft autumns, brilliant winters. And of all its summers when the days were long. [p. 1060]
In spite of the poet's vision, ambition, American origin, and capability, the epic poem remains unwritten; it is such a huge project--"Seventy times seven years might not be enough for such an undertaking"--and Shawnessy does not know "just what form the story would take." He does not make Presley's mistake of selecting romantic materials and traditional metres; he knows that the material must be native American and the language "rich and daring--equal to the theme." But even though "this poem was himself and his memories of the Republic in War and Peace," he still does not make much progress with it:
Out of himself he was always creating it, but he had as yet only discovered a language of conundrums in which to express it. Maps, patriotic programs, sheets of music, old letters, newspaper columns, negatives of photographs taken in the years 1859, 1863, 1865--only in these did he hint the vast comedy, more true than Dante's. [p. 751]
At the age of thirty-three Shawnessy interrupts the project and tries another way to lead the American people, politics, in which of course he fails miserably. Sometimes he is led to think that even though Americans are "the new mythmakers" it is not in their power to record their legends: "If we have a recorded epic in this country, Mr. Shawnessy said, it's the newspaper. A hundred years from now the newspapers of this day will provide the epic fragments of our time."3
Through doubts and failures Shawnessy persists in his ambition; "the urge to impose form would possess him like fire and hunger." Still he is able at times to view his dreams with ironic detachment: "Yes he would plant the great fair dream, again and ever; he would record it on paper so that it might be found from time to time among old manuscripts in a forgotten drawer of the Cosmos." In his serious, mythical frame of mind he can describe an Indiana girl bathing in a creek as "a goddess foamborn and beautiful, sprung from the waters of an island ocean," but in a more realistic mood he must admit the difficulty of maintaining traditional imaginary visions in nineteenth-century America. In reporting the incident to the local newspaper, Johnny writes:
If Raintree County were ancient Greece and Seth's bony figure resembled that of the noble hunter Actaeon instead of a scarecrow, we would have no hesitation in saying that the strange new visitant in the waters of the Shawmucky was none other than the goddess Diana or at very least the nymphic deity of the river. But as we are living (according to the best authorities) in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, it is pretty certain that nothing in the shape of a woman, goddess or otherwise, will ever be seen by any Raintree County man bathing in the radiant garment of Nature. [p.109]
He will not descend, however, to the downright vulgar interpretation taken by his constant rival, Garwood Jones, who reports the same incident from the viewpoint of a country bumpkin:
"I see suthin white," a man sez. Then and thar we wuz all treated to the excitin' spectacle of Horace Perkin's cow Jessica, who kum down to the ford fer a drink. I wish to report to yure readers, Mr. Populus, that Jessica wuz clad only in the coztoom of Natur and that she is an onusual attracktive and well-preporshuned annimule, whooze daily milk-output is unsurpassed in these parts. [p. 112]
Nothing can shake Shawnessy's epic vision, not the scepticism of his friends, nor the inconsequence of his own life, nor the shameful corruption of his beloved nation during the Gilded Age. But Johnny is able to take a humorous as well as serious view of his ambition, just as Lockridge is able to take a humorous as well as serious view of his materials. Raintree County is "a comic epic," among other things, writes Joseph Blotner, citing as evidence Johnny's amatory adventures and the characterization of his associates. 4
The closest approach Shawnessy makes to an epic poem is the Grand Patriotic Program for the Fourth of July celebration. Arranged by Shawnessy, the program consists of recitations of the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"; patriotic songs and old favorites like "My Old Kentucky Home"; and an address by a United States Senator, whose hour-long speech, the "living breath of history," probably gave him a better claim to epic achievement than Shawnessy, "the maker of a huge manuscript that might never see print." It is against the background of this program on July 4, 1892, that Lockridge projects a fifty-year period of American history and the life of John Shawnessy. Using the Fourth, "the ritual day," as the base upon which epic narratives are erected accords well with the fact, as stated by one scholar, that Homer's poems were "perpetuated...by recitation at a patriotic festival not wholly unlike an old-fashioned Forth of July celebration."5 This particular Fourth is of special importance to Shawnessy because he is the host of four distinguished guests who are coming to Waycross, their former home, for the occasion. Hawthorne's "The Great Stone Face" supplies the idea of the four returning native sons and gives Lockridge a native American myth as the means to organize his massive work.6 Each guest has had something to do with a particular period in Shawnessy's life, and this period is evoked in flashbacks as the appropriate guest arrives in Waycross. Senator Garwood Jones (Hawthorne's Old Stony Phiz) has competed with Johnny all through his youth and eventually steals his sweetheart for his bride; General Jackson (Old Blood and Thunder) is the town's outstanding war veteran and prompts the recollection of Johnny's Civil War experiences; Cash Carney (Hawthorne's Gathergold), who does not get to Waycross until late in the afternoon, presides over the Gilded Age in the lifetime of Johnny and the nation. "Perfessor" Jerusalem Webster Stiles, teacher and journalist, has been Shawnessy's mentor throughout his life and is the amused confidant of his literary ambitions. He is the first guest to arrive and the last to leave, and his presence is the occasion for reviewing episodes from all periods of Shawnessy's life. He is Johnny's alter ego, has the same initials, and has lived through the same experiences, and in addition, being a vagabond and a journalist, has "lived among poor and mean realities,' like Hawthorne's poet. To Johnny's idealism Stiles opposes a hard-bitten cynicism, to Johnny's epicising spirit he opposes the voice of American humor. The "Perfessor's" epic poem is the daily newspaper, his Aphrodite the minister's wife. A "genuine comic creation of substance and depth," in Blotner's opinion, Stiles is John Shawnessy's Satanic doppelgager, and his constant presence is a safeguard against the tendency of Shawnessy to mythicize everything beyond recognition.
The four guests stir memories of Johnny's past. They are also foils to Johnny's character since each will be found to represent the corruption of a value kept pure by Johnny. Garwood Jones has debased love in his personal life and political power in his public life; General Jackson has turned war into a source of personal profit; Cash Carney has made the progress of the country, the westward expansion, a means of enriching himself; and Stiles has turned his literary gifts in the direction of mockery and cynicism. Only Johnny, though ineffective in terms of worldly success, has remained true to love and art and to the genius of his native land, symbolized by the raintree growing in a swamp in the very center of the county. Just as Ernest in Hawthorne's story always remained close to the Great Stone Face in his native region and was therefore filled with "wider and deeper sympathies than other hearts" and had "thoughts and affections . . . of a higher tone." so Johnny in his fierce devotion to Raintree County has turned out to be better than his illustrious friends who sought the truth elsewhere.
In the flashbacks set in motion by the four visitors, four women emerge as figures dominating certain periods of the hero's life: Nell Gaither, his first sweetheart; Susanna, his first wife; Laura Golden, a temptress he meets in New York; and Esther Root, his second wife and mother of his children. Three of the women are related in various ways to three of the visitors: Nell becomes Garwood's wife while Johnny is away at war; Susanna is probably seduced by Garwood; Laura is Cash Carney's mistress. In the influence she extends over Shawnessy's entire life Nell is the counterpart of Stiles in that she is the ever-receding dream of perfect love while he represents the unattainable truth.
Four men and four women mark stages and themes in the life of Shawnessy--its periods of youth, manhood, and middle age--just as the day on which his life story is told is very clearly divided into morning, afternoon, and evening. Johnny meets his guests at appropriate times during the day: Garwood Jones in the morning, to correspond to Shawnessy's youth and young love affair with Nell; General Jackson at noon, to correspond with the ripe manhood of his age when he went off to the Civil War; Cash Carney in the late afternoon, to correspond with his middle age. This much is clear and relatively simple. Complications are multiplied when two other planes are made to intersect with the life of Shawnessy: events in the history of America and myths of the ancient past.
The ferment of new political parties and the expansion westward occur in Johnny's youth, the Civil War dominates his coming to manhood, and the Gilded Age casts a shadow on his middle age. Although Johnny participates in only one of these events, the Civil War, all correspond to some thematic phase of his life: the expansion westward is related to the deep love in the boy for the land, the war involves him in family tragedy, and the Gilded Age arouses doubts about the dream of America he has longed to immortalize in art. The Civil War receives the fullest treatment and is related most particularly to events in the life of Shawnessy. He is married to Susanna Drake, a Southern girl, on the day John Brown is hanged, and there is an ironic juxtaposition of the newspaper account of Brown's execution with the consummation of Johnny's marriage. One of the headlines thrust upon his attention reads:
THE EXECUTION OF JOHN BROWN
HE MAKES NO SPEECH
HE DIES EASY
THE BODY HANGS HALF AN HOUR
BROWN FIRM AND DIGNIFIED TO THE LAST
THE BODY GIVEN TO HIS WIFE
Susanna's son is born on the day Fort Sumter Falls, and this is the beginning of her mental deterioration. While the Battle of Gettysburg is in progress (July 2-4, 1863, Johnny is frantically searching for Susanna in Indianapolis, where she has fled in her madness. On July 4, 1863, "that night when ten thousand dead young men lay unburied on the picnic slopes, cornfields, and familiar grounds of a little town in Pennsylvania," Susanna sets fire to her home in Freehaven, killed her infant son and disfiguring herself. Just after the war is over, on April 15, 1865, the day Lincoln died, Johnny almost succumbs to his wounds as he lies in a Washington hospital.
The other plane intersection with Johnny's life is the mythic. It is much more complicated than the historical plane because Lockridge uses not one but many various myths in the syncretistic manner of Melville, Norris, and Wolfe. His poet-hero, we are told, "passed through the years of his childhood steeping himself in legends old and new." American as well as ancient, Greek as well as Christian. "Perfessor" Stiles jokingly suggests that Johnny's great poem be called "the Mythic Examiner, being a kind of fabulous newspaper in which the deeds of these fabulous people, the Nineteenth Century Americans, shall be recorded in a mythical American style." The blending of American and ancient myths he calls "an amazing synthesis.... How you ever managed to make this bleak little county conform to a universal pattern amazes me." The Perfessor is of course referring to the conception Johnny has for his great unwritten poem, but his words apply equally well to Lockridge's method of relating his hero's life to various myths. Hawthorne's story "The Great Stone Face" is the native American myth which lends shape to Shawnessy's day; his life is related to various Greek and Christian myths. In justifying to the skeptical Stiles the use of myth in a poem written so long after the "pre-alphabetic" era when myths were taken seriously, Shawnessy in effect describes the way in which myth enters Raintree County:
--Americans have rewritten the old epics and have added myths of their own. From the Greeks, we've taken the plural gods, the rape of beauty, the long war, the wandering and the return. From the Hebrew and Christian myth, we've taken the lost garden and the divine man. But to all this we've added our own national experience. ...America is mankind returning upon itself through the circle of the earth and defeating time and space. In a new Eden, we began by calling the aborigines of America "Indians" and have pursued the delightful fraud ever since. We're the new mythmakers. [p.887]
The Civil War turns out to be America's "long war," and Johnny is the returning Odysseus; Paradise Lake at the center of an Indiana county, where the raintree grows, is the new Eden, and Johnny its "divine man."
Several mythical versions of "the rape of beauty" are drawn upon to embellish Johnny's youthful passion for Nell Gaither. The affair begins when he spies her bathing in the Shawmucky River:
Not twenty yards from where he lay was 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 smooth-fleshed thighs, the tapering calves, and at last the long slender feet. On the left of the deep-fleshed 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...
With his eyes, he had suddenly stripped the costume of Raintree County from its most lovely flesh. With his eyes, he had possessed the white secret of Helen and the Greeks. With his young eyes, he had learned the lesson of the deepfleshed loins of Venus.
For the face had been the face of a Raintree County girl. But the form had been the form of a goddess foamborn and beautiful, sprung from the waters of the inland ocean. [pp. 107-108]
There is a suggestion in this contrast of girl and goddess of the passage in Book I of the Aeneid when Venus appeared before Aeneas first in the disguise of an earth-maiden and then in her own person. Johnny, however, is struck with the analogies of his experience with the stories of Venus and Adonis and of Diana and Actaeon. He reads Shakespear's Venus and Adonis and presents to Nell one of his own poems entitled "Actaeon." As a school exercise he and Nell translate the story of Daphne and Apollo in Ovid's Metamorphoses. A humorous balance to the seriousness of young love is supplied in the story of Perfessor Stiles's seduction of the minister's wife, and later in the book this country tale is set off by a parody of the rape of Pasiphae in the story Lockridge tells of Preacher Jarvey's seduction of a townswoman called Widow Passifee. The scandalous affair begins thus:
Rear protrudent, the Widow Passifee was at the back of her yard, cutting away a load of flowers with her yardshears. Colossally voluptuous in a white dress, she bulged silently on Preacher Jarvey's vitreous world still stricken with the sun. [p. 581]
In the period of Shawnessy's manhood it is the Trojan War that is made to figure prominently as the mythical counterpart of his Civil War experiences. Again it is a woman who is the center of attention. Susanna Drake, Johnny's first wife, is a Southerner, the daughter of a planter and a mulatto named Henrietta Courtney, who is described as "the black Helen of an epic rape." Although she conceals her identity from others, Susanna is the "lost child of a stained republic," another Helen of mixed blood: "her name was musical and proud like names of cities razed. Her body was lovely like Helen and the Greeks:" Susanna is actually two Helens: in her Negro blood she is a Helen violated by the South and redeemed by a war in which her Troy (Atlanta) is destroyed by fire. The burning of Atlanta is described in great detail. On the night of the fire, Flash Perkins, Johnny's heroic comrade-in-arms, takes for himself, as a spoil of war, a pretty Negro girl, who seemed to Johnny "a darkskinned Helen for whom the epic war was being fought." Henrietta Courtney, Susanna, and the dark-skinned girl are all the "black Helen," the American Negro who has been abducted and becomes the cause of a war of liberation. In her white blood Susanna is the Helen who is torn between the land of her adoption and her homeland when they go to war. Maddened by divided loyalties, she is unfaithful to her foreign husband and finally sets fire to their home.
Laura golden, the woman dominating the postwar period in Shawnessy's life, is not specifically related to a single myth. As a professional actress she has played the parts of "a hundred different women" and has had many aliases, among them Daphne Fountain and Diana Lord. There is even some talk "about a great love in her obscure years from which she hasn't yet recovered." If she is a contemporary Daphne carrying the torch for Apollo, her virginity is certainly well disguised by the life she leads in New York. To the innocent poet from Indiana, at least, she seems to thrive in an environment long associated in the Christian imagination with luxury and sin: the rich, mysterious orient and imperial Rome. Nell Gaither, whom he surprised bathing in the Shawmucky river, was his Greek Artemis, an artless goddess of the woods; Laura Golden is his Roman Diana, a devious queen of rich city temples and orgiastic rites. In her mansion on Fifth Avenue, Laura accepts the homage of her worshippers, including Cash Carney, who is described as "the high priest of the temple in ceremonial robes stained with tobacco juice." As a woman endowed with "regal beauty" and more than a touch of divinity, Laura takes her place alongside of Nell. The temptation and bewilderment Laura creates in Shawnessy are further heightened by imagery of the Golden Calf, Circe, and the Sphinx. Smitten as he is by this "symbol of the city," he sets aside his epic poem and starts a play, Sphinx recumbent:
A verse-drama gorgeous with rich words and violent scenes, it had for its heroine a woman sensual, proud, enigmatic. He set her in the gilded world of the City like an idol blazing with a stony light, against which men beat themselves to death. [p. 820]
For Shawnessy, Laura Golden represents very much what Esther Jack represents for George Webber in Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again: the corrupt, materialistic life of the city and the false art of the theatre, constituting a trap for the artist from the country. At work here, too, is the old European prejudice, curiously taken over by naturalistic fiction, that actresses are false and evil. "Now that all passion has departed from my life, I express it on the stage," Laura confesses. This could have been said by Sister Carrie as well, if she had been that thoughtful. Hurstwood succumbs to Carrie and to the city; to save his career as a writer Webber fled Esther and her part of the city to find truth among the wretched people of Brooklyn; to save his soul Shawnessy must flee the city and return to Raintree County in response to a message "recalling him to himself again."7 And in returning to Raintree County he is leaving self-interest, or turning his back on the Diana of Ephesus as she is known in Acts XIX:
For his part, he had been seeking the Tree of Life as an act of self-glorification. In affirming himself, he hadn't affirmed the best part of himself--Humanity. [p. 864]
The proper tree to seek is the raintree which grows near the sacred place where he saw Nell bathing, and Nell is his proper Diana to worship, Diana Nemorensis, from whose sacred tree the golden bough must be broken. Shawnessy thus returns home, marries again when Susanna is pronounced a suicide, and continues his quest for the Tree of Life.
So dreaming, he held the golden bough still in his hand. So dreaming, he neared the shrine where the tree was and the stones and the letters upon them. [p. 1060]
Greek myths embellish the passionate youth of Johnny Shawnessy; Helen and the Trojan War symboloze the tragic years of manhood; oriental opulence and mystery characterize the confusion and doubts of his middle age. For the whole sweep of the hero's life no fewer than three mythological figures are employed: Adam, Odysseus, and Oedipus.
Raintree County is a new Eden. As a child, Johnny "had supposed that because Raintree County was the whole world, therefore Eden was somewhere in Raintree County, especially since there was a lake in the center of the County called Paradise Lake." The child's error is duly corrected by his father but crops up again in the dreams of the adult. In An Illustrated Historical Atlas of Raintree County it is discovered by a delighted Perfessor Stiles and Johnny that an "unknown artist" has pictured "above the Main Entrance" of the county courthouse not "the stern yet necessary lady with the scales" but rather "the father and mother of mankind in beautiful nakedness, tasting the Forbidden Fruit." The story of Adam and Eve, not justice, thus underlies the whole existence of the county. Paradise Lake is Johnny's particular Eden and it is there that he learns to love life and beauty and is made aware of the mystery of sex. Even the topography of the place has sexual significance, with its deep pool, three nearby mounds, and "tawny tree" shaking down pollen into the clear water.
Three women in his life are closely associated with the place. Although his love for Nell is never consummated, on the night before his induction into the army Nell visits him and "he had the most intense possession of a person he had ever known." In a brief embrace under a gas lamp the association of Nell with the Eden in Raintree County is made:
Desire. Desire was of the river and the pale flesh that moved in a green pool of the river. Desire.
He had come back to Raintree County sooner than he had expected, had come back briefly to his older memory of it, had become again the poet and possessor of its beauty. The river ran, a sinuous green, swelling and swelling between treebordered banks to heatblurred horizons. He would climb up again with a slow stroking of oars to the summit of that serpent water, glide upward in the swooning heat, upward to where the river joined the lake, to where with a slow anguish the strong waters found their way through marsh and shallow, tarn and tangling swamp into the tepid pool of Paradise, in the very center of Raintree County. Oft was I weary when I toiled with thee.
Desire! He would know desire, noontide young desire beside the river. O, he would dig his hands into the tingling earth of the twin mounds. He would breathe grass and warm earth in the sunshine, clover and cut hay and dandelions. He would rise and run through clover-stubble toward the third mound, the flowering one a little way off. His cheeks would be raked with a thousand tingling tips of shaken hair beside the river.
He would return to Lake Paradise. Somewhere here the tawny tree was standing, bright pollen fell at noontime by the river.
He would also be the runner through a public place, the stringbreaker, applauded by thousands. He would not stop but keep right on until he reached the place of secret waters, thrust to the very quick of life, his form softly flayed and flung by the vines and the beautiful flowers, the tall tough weeds and the odorous grasses in the place where the Raintree grows. [p. 615]
The possession of Nell, which is never consummated, is here sublimated by the possession of a place conceived in sexual terms. With Susanna, his first wife, there is actual consummation, and it occurs of course in Johnny's private Eden, "an ultimate place." Separated from another picnic couple, Susanna and Johnny swim in Lake Paradise, disrobe, and make love in "a place of ancient memory . . . a grove of flowering trees beside memorial waters." A "flood of words . . . describing mythical Events" descends upon Johnny, and the possession of a place is again made the equivalent of sexual possession:
As the young hero approached the tree, he passed by flowers that kissed his body like soft mouths. . . . And the earth here became more moist and seemed as if it swayed beneath his feet. Looking upward he saw the sunburst of the tree in the very middle of the sacred grove while. . . .
Shore and shallow, tarn and tangling swamp seemed now to mud his feet, but he would get the golden bough, regain the lost garden, achieve what no man ever had before. Still fired to hero fury by the elixir he had drunk from a flagon of enchantment, he rushed on reeling earth toward the trunk, which seemed now touched with motion. Somewhere the dragon brood was waiting, the guardians of the tree, and one, the dragon of them all, lay mudded to forty fathoms in his lair, stirring the coiled length of his great tail. But before the beast awakened in his cave, the hero ran to the base of the tree and catching the supple trunk in his arms thrashed it back and forth. The whole earth swayed and swam beneath this plucking and this shaking, the roots of the tree throbbed and tightened in the deep soil, the dark vegetation lashed itself against him. . . .
. . . one last godlike exertion, whereupon, with a great cry, as if the earth were stabbed with pleasure to its center, the tree gave down the seeddust from its laden branches. This seed raining goldenly upon the earth was warm with exultation and the promise of eternal life. . . . [924-26]
The scene is the grove of Diana at Nemi, and seizing the golden bough is a metaphor for sexual fulfillment. The Cosmic Tree, Yggdrasill of Norse mythology, also seems involved here with the lover' passion and orgasm. Appropriately, though, the Eden story is reasserted after their embrace, when shame sets in:
With him arose the woman his companion, and together, silently, not holding hands, they found their way back to a place where they had left their costumes. They entered again, un-naked, the cold lake, and they swam back silently across, feeling as if an eye were watching from covert. [p. 926]
It is not only shame that spoils their match: Susanna is Adam's first wife, Lilith, a woman marked by a scar "descending just to the roots of her left breast." Their lovemaking in the garden, just as later on their wedding night, is parodied by trivial newspaper items that pass through Johnny's mind along with sublime mythical events: a balloonist over Fort Wayne ascends to a giddy height and then, "a storm having torn a great rent in the balloon," is plunged into "the cold water of the lake"; a man by the name of Professor Sweet, performing headstands and bodyflips on the tightrope over the Niagara River, totters "on the very brink of the chasm." And indeed Johnny's first marriage leads him to disaster.
When he is asked by Perfessor Stiles the subject of his unfinished epic, Shawnessy replies, "It's the story of the hero who regains Paradise." Paradise to Johnny was his youth in Freehaven, his happy days at Paradise Lake, and especially his love for Nell Gaither. But Nell remained an "unconquered Paradise," and upon his return from the war he discovers that before her death she was married to Garwood Jones. He then marries Esther Root, a former student, whom he rescues from the Calvinistic world of her father and introduces to the careless joys of Paradise Lake:
For two weeks she lived entirely in this rival world, had bathed in its green lifegiving pool, had become lost in its primitive serenity, had shared its images of beauty, goodness, truth. [p. 872]
At the very end of his day of recollections Johnny comes to the realization that he has indeed returned to Eden and has another Eve in his wife:
Yes, he had overcome the aloneness of the garden. On an unsuspected path he had found her waiting. He had helped to fashion her, and yet she had lain at the very sources of himself. In her, he had rediscovered Eve. [p. 1053]
He is not a very orthodox Adam, however. Esther is his Eve, but a pagan Eve: "Half-shutting his eyes, he seemed to see the statue of a goddess waveborn and beautiful, begirt with foam . . . standing on her pedestal in the robe and attitude of the island Venus." Shawnessy's vision "was not only Hebraic but Grecian," and Eve and the garden are conceived as being the same as Diana and the sacred grove. Esther Root is thus Eve, Venus, and Diana, but then, alas, she is also all too human. Escorting her to the front of their house before taking the Perfessor to the station for his train, Shawnessy says to his wife, "You'd best go to bed, Pet." And so it is throughout Raintree County; myth races ahead of reality until fact intervenes giving myth pause. As we are told in the very last line of the book, Shawnessy is a "young hero and endlessly courageous dreamer."
Two odysseys are accomplished in Raintree County: one, a Homeric Odyssey, encompasses the life of John Shawnessy; the other, a Joycean Ulysses, covers in great detail a day in his life. Although he has not been the perpetual wanderer or the wily warrior, he does go off to the great war, is presumed dead by his family and neighbors, and returns a stranger to find his sweetheart married to a rival. He leaves home once more, is tempted in bizarre ways by a Circe in a great city, and returns home again to a woman, Esther, who is substantially the same as his lost Nell. The story of Johnny's day begins with a visit to the underworld, the Historical Museum of Raintree County, where Shawnessy goes in search of An Illustrated Historical Atlas of Raintree County. Over the entrance to "the land of shades" is a line of verse from an American bard, "Footprints in the sands of time"; the custodian of the museum is Persephone R. Mays, a former student of Shawnessy who once had taken the part of Productive Institutions and wore "a skirt made out of corn husks" in one of Shawnessy's patriotic pageants. It is expected that the Atlas contains long hidden revelations of Raintree County's past, and all through his day Shawnessy carries it with him. At the end of a day crowded with his comings and goings and with recollections of a lifetime Shawnessy returns home. His day, which began in a dream, ends in his return to "dreaming dreams in an upstairs bedroom of a little town beside a road in America."
Dreams are the substance of Johnny's life, dreams to which he returns after travels in the actual America of war and peace. In this respect he is the opposite of Homer's Odysseus, who returns to a real land after travels among lands that exist in a kind of dream. Also, Odysseus learns from his travels, while the knowledge Johnny needs cannot be acquired abroad; rather it is bred in him--as it is bred in Stephen Dedalus and George Webber--in the homeland during his youth. To the Homeric prototype, Lockridge, following Joyce and Wolfe, adds a Freudian dimension.
As Adam, Johnny Shawnessy loses and regains Paradise, as Odysseus he wanders abroad amidst realities and returns home to his dreams, as Oedipus he seeks the answer to the riddle of life. The story of Oedipus he has always considered to be 'the profoundest myth in antiquity," and the riddle is "propounded by that composite beast, the earth--feminine, secret, recumbent." July 4, 1892, begins with Shawnessy dreaming of being pushed by the celebrating crowd through the doorway of the local post office, where he encounters a very strange person:
The woman was lying on a stone slab that extended dimly into the space where the window usually was. She lay on her stomach, chin propped on hands. Her hair was a dark gold, unloosened. Her eyes were a great cat's, feminine, fountaingreen, enigmatic. A dim smile curved her lips. [p.4]
The ancient question is then posed: "What creature is it that in the morning of its life--" The mysterious stone lady then disappears and Johnny stands at the doorway: "Holding a branch of maize loaded with one ripe ear, he stood on the threshold of the door, about to lunge into the delirious crowd. The ceremonial day that he had spent a lifetime preparing, a web of faces and festive rites, trembled before him." Oedipus merges with Aeneas and Frazer; and the life of John Wickliff Shawnessy, as it is unfolding in its three phases of morning, afternoon, and evening, is itself the material from which an answer to the riddle can be drawn: "the life of a man's days upon the breast of the land."
The riddle of the sphinx is repeated in one form or another by the actual women in Johnny's life. Of these Laura Golden is most specifically associated with the sphinx. On their visit to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia on July 4, 1876, Shawnessy, the Perfessor, and Laura stop in front of a painting:
It was the picture of a great stone cat with the head of woman. It lay couched on sleekly powerful haunches. Its jade-green eyes looked forth upon an Ozymandian desert backgrounded with vague temples and broken columns. The face, a little mutilated, wore an expression of imperial disdain, cruelty, self-indulgence, enigma. The picture bore the title SPHINX RECUMBENT. [p. 808]
The Perfessor happens to be a collector of sphinxes. "I used to collect women. Now I collect the real thing--sphinxes," he declares, and then asks Laura, "What would it cost me to add you to my collection, dear?" Laura rejects the Perfessor but boldly flirts with Shawnessy; she "undertook to educate Mr. Shawnessy into certain ways of the City." To the bewildered poet, Laura was "the woman who had teased him with the enigma of herself during his sojourn in the City." Finally she gives him the key to a secret chamber on the third floor of her Fifth Avenue mansion, and there, expecting to solve the enigma, he finds only "a kind of little private theatre with its own little stage and an audience of receding mirror reflections." He knows then that it is not in the city that he can find the answer to the riddle of life, not in the tantalizing sexuality of Laura (which is perhaps not sexuality at all, he half suspects, but disguised frigidity); nor is the way to true art to be found in the theatre of the city, which prefers "the thin music of a billion clichés" to his own epic writing.
The answer, for Shawnessy as for Oedipus and for Hawthorne's Ernest in "The Great Stone Face," is to be found in himself and in the place of his origin. Raintree County, the Shawmucky River, and Paradise Lake have given Johnny whatever value there is in his life, have nurtured him in the same way that the Great Stone Face has nurtured Ernest to true greatness. The answer, for him as for Oedipus, is to be found in Woman, in Nell Gaither, Esther Root, and Eva, the daughter Esther bore him; for Shawnessy finally realizes that Woman has been "the Lady Custodian of his life, his mother-daughter-wife-and-sweet-companion."
Hawthorne's poet, Ernest's last visitor, recognizes that Ernest has fulfilled the local prophecy and is indeed "the greatest and noblest personage of his time." Perfessor Stiles, the last visitor to leave town, accords the same high position to Shawnessy when he leans out of the departing train and with his Malacca cane describes in air the initials JWS. But the honor is not unambiguous, for the Satanic quality of Stiles is clearly accented in this last appearance:
He and Mr. Shawnessy shook hands, and the Perfessor swung onto the coach behind the coalcar. The glare from the furnace showed a long, thin body in a soiled white suit, a face old and cunning, black eyes shining through pince-nez glasses. Already the engine was beginning to puff. the smoke and the furnace glare stung Mr. Shawnessy's eyes so that they smarted. [p. 1056]
The effect is only momentary, however, for Shawnessy suddenly realizes that Stiles must have written the initials backwards and "what was in reverse for him had come out right for Mr. Shawnessy." Whether God or the Devil recognizes his merit is of little importance to the man who lives his life in the Great Republic, at the mysterious center of things, with a succession of women to give his life direction and with his epic poem to expand his dreams on.
Our three would-be poets set out as innocents to gather materials for poems hopefully intended to glorify the New World in America. Experience of the sordid truth makes it impossible for them to maintain their original plans to write laudatory epics. Presley and Eben Cooke abandon their projects--Presley after he witnesses the ugly fiasco of the ranchers' war against the railroad, Eben after he gets his fill of "poor shitten Maryland" ("What glory, to be singer of such a sewer!"). Both give up the epic for satire, the role of the poet-hero for that of the lover. At the end of The Octopus Presley leaves economic issues to the force that governs the world and for the first time surrenders himself to the influence of a woman, Hilma Tree. Eben leaves the fate of the colony to his friend Burlingame and ends as he began, the lover of the prostitute Joan Toast--if not, indeed, the lover of his sister Anna. Shawnessy also experiences disillusionment as a poet and turns, in the same romantic gesture, to woman, but he does not give up the epic or the dream of America, refusing to yield either to Presley's naturalism or to Eben's dark irony. It is this posture that places Lockridge in a tradition of hope that wins few readers in these times.
Readers have been dismayed by the juxtaposition of personal, historical, and mythic details and by the weaving together of different strands of time through the flashback method of narration used by Lockridge. Like Ulysses, the immediate texture of Raintree County seems impossibly complex, but upon a further remove the pattern of the whole emerges as quite simple. Present narrative time in Raintree County is divided into the four parts of the hero's day--morning, afternoon, evening, night. Five other dimensions are linked with these divisions and change in accord with them. The following outline makes these groupings clear:8
Time of day: Morning (from dawn until noon; trip to Historical Museum)
Period of Shawnessy's life recalled: 1839-1859 (from birth to age 19)
Events in U.S. history: Early settlers in Indiana, Polk's election, Mexican War, etc.
Dominant woman: Nell Gaither.
Visitor: Senator Garwood Jones.
Mythic accompaniment: Rape of beauty myths: Diana and Actaeon, Venus and Adonis, Pasiphae and the bull; Oedipus and the Sphinx
Time of day: Afternoon (Patriotic Program presented)
Period of Shawnessy's life: 1859-1865 (marriage, wartime experiences)
Events in U.S. history: Civil War (John Brown's raid, Battles of Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, etc.)
Dominant woman: Susanna
Visitor: General Jackson
Mythic accompaniment: Trojan War, wanderings of Odysseus.
Time of day: Evening
Period of Shawnessy's life recalled: 1865-1877 (trip to New York)
Events in U.S. history: Gilded Age (presidency of Grant, Great Railroad Strike, etc.)
Dominant woman: Laura Golden
Visitor: Cash Carney
Mythic accompaniment: Odysseus, Golden Calf
Time of Day: night
Period of Shawnessy's life: 1877-1892 (second marriage)
Events in U.S. history: Cleveland reelected, Populist Party convenes
Dominant woman: Esther Root
Visitor: Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles
Mythic accompaniment: Adam and Eve, Oedipus and the Sphinx -- [top]
1. For a discussion of Barth's novel as a mock epic, see Russell Miller, "The Sot-Weed Factor: A contemporary Mock-Epic," Critique, 8 (1965-66), 88-100. [back]
2. Ross Franklin Lockridge, Raintree County (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1948, p. 775. [back]
3. The idea is the same as that expressed by E.M.W. Tillyard, that the newspaper-oriented "documentary" novels of Dreiser and Dos Passos are the true American epics (The English Epic and Its Background, London: Chatto and Windus, 1954, p. 62). [back]
4. "Raintree County Revisited," Western Humanities Review, 10 (1955-56), 63. [back]
5. Wayne Shumaker, Literature and the Irrational (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1960), p. 218. Shumaker's source for this is Charles Autran, Homère et les origines sacerdotales de l'épopée grecque (Paris: Gembloux, 1938-43). [back]
6. Lockridge retells Hawthorne's story on pp. 58-60. See Boyd Litzinger, "Mythmaking in America: 'The Great Stone Face' and Raintree County," Tennessee Studies in Literature, 8 (1963), 81-84. [back]
7. The climax of Shawnessy's affair with Laura comes in a phantasmagorical Walpurgis Nacht scene something like Harry Haller's last night with Hermine in Hesse's Steppenwolf. Parallel details in the two treatments may be found in the drink, "a pale green liquid," which drugs the hero at the start of the scene; the little theater where he sees reflections of himself in mirrors; the review of the hero's past loves; the enigmatic woman whose love is promised to the hero but never given. [back]
8. I am indebted to Mrs. Elizabeth J. Yoder for working out the details of the structure of Raintree County which I have used as the basis of my discussion. [back]
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