© Fred Waage 2007 -- Used with his permission.

Seed of the Raintree: Raintree County and Postwar Environmental Fiction, 1945-1960

Fred Waage, East Tennessee State University

Presented June 15th, 2007
Seventh Biennial Conference of the
Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE)
"Confluence: literature / art / criticism / science / activism / politics"

Raintree seeds, Apache tears with July leaf & blossom


              Ross Lockridge, Jr., son of the prolific unofficial state historian of Indiana, spent the years 1941 to 1947 writing one of the longest U.S. novels ever published, Raintree County (1948), whose main setting is the heart of the state he knew so intimately. Most folks I've talked to about Raintree County, if they are familiar with it at all, know it from the 1957 film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift--a disastrous foreshortening--or because of sensation: its author committed suicide a month after its publication. The novel has been reissued only once since 1948: by Penguin Books in 1994, along with a powerful and moving memoir by his son Larry, Shade of the Raintree. But these two have also retreated from print, although, according to Ross III's website, Chicago Review Press is about to reissue it with a preface by Herman Wouk.
              In my fifteen minutes here, I'd like to share with you the basic argument of the text I'm writing, whose working title is Seed of the Raintree: Raintree County and 1950's Environmental Writing, and offer an incentive to explore what I believe, although the claim may seem outrageous to some, to be the greatest U.S. environmental novel of the 20th century.
              Raintree County fuses the discordant aesthetics of Thomas Wolfe and James Joyce to epicize one day in a fictional rural county at the heart of the U.S.--July 4, 1891. Through a complex structure that is both sensuous and self-referential, the events of this day, from dawn to dusk, are interwoven with previous events in the life of the county the country, and the protagonist, Johnny Shawnessy, from Election Day, 1844 to the 1891 present.
              Lockridge got his county's name from the Eastern hemisphere trees planted by the residents of the ill-fated Owenite utopian community New Harmony. His father wrote many books about New Harmony and he knew it well, touring the site with fellow Indiana "ecyclopedic" novelist Marguerite Young, for her history Angel in the Forest: A Fairy Tale of Two Utopias (1945). The quest for, and failure of, utopia--whether it be political, geographical, ecosystemic, gendered--roots many of the novel's branching meanings.
              Environmentalist Ross Lockridge III, according to his brother, reads Raintree County as "environmental prophecy;" Larry Lockridge considers it a work of "prophetic memory." It is this paradox, in which the past national, regional, and local environments are recreated to enlighten the present and suggest the future, that I feel connects the novel with so much imaginative writing in the subsequent decade--between Sand County Almanac and Silent Spring. Ross Jr., himself, characterized it as appearing "at the outset of the Atomic Age. . .[as] a nostalgic farewell to the America in which so much began that is sublime and tragic in the democratic tradition."
              Thus Lockridge sites his (mainly) post-Civil War novel at a point in the U.S. present analogous to the Civil War's aftermath, a dawning world of ostentatious materialism, urbanization, technological overdevelopment, environmental destruction, and death of myth and ritual tying humans to the earth. Larry Lockridge tells me that since the bulk of his father's novel was written before the end of the war, the postwar typologies are not too credible. I feel, however, that as a deep emulator of Whitman, poet and prophet, he was, even mid-war, knowing his country would never be the same afterwards, and writing his own view of "democratic vistas," as were so many political economists, sociologists, and students of international affairs in the 1940's. In fact, a term of art for postwar prophecy at the time was "reconstruction," as in Elton Trueblood's Foundations for Reconstruction and Karl Loewenstein's Political Reconstruction.
              The decade+ following 1948 was one of what Michael Barbour calls "ecological fragmentation," a complicated period when U.S. material prosperity was vociferously championed and bewailed, and newly-acquired economic security went hand in hand with devastating nuclear fear. It was this oft-neglected decade of environmental literature and history which saw the painful birth of environmental activism in the sense we think of it now, particularly in public response to specific threats like the Donora smog incident and the Echo Park Dam controversy, and the more general threat provided by cold war nuclearism. Also, "Immediately after the war," says Barbour, "holism in ecology and in life became unfashionable. Ecologists experience fragmentation, revolution, rebellion, as well as growth in their science." In particular, Barbour's ecologist interviews suggest a paradigm shift during this decade "from a taxonomic view of ecology to a functional view--that is, from a community-centered science to an ecosystem-centered one." This seems to describe a movement away from studying natural entities separately, and toward recognizing they can be accurately perceived only as contingent on others--e.g. the systems ecology of Eugene and Howard Odum. Lockridge's novel presents such a doubleness of cultural fragmentation and ecosystemic interdependence throughout its course.
              What do the above changes have to do with Raintree County's heritage? The reader of 1950's environmental writing will find in fiction a proliferation of stories about, or set in the time of, small-town agrarianism, filled with the presence of nature, and many, fiction and nonfiction, amid "small town renaissances." Flourishing postapocalyptic fiction created a counterpart to this kind of predictive nostalgia: a technologically-destroyed world reverts to a "state of nature." Bioregionalism like Lockridge's was a dominant feature of nonfiction also--the rediscovery of distinct traditional natural/cultural spaces, or the probing of new ones--Alaska, Hawaii, and the "new" Florida. The urban environment was chronicled and bewailed, and, ironically, many writers drove the steadily enhancing road system to chronicle U.S. natural and cultural diversity. Many novels chronicled the damming of rivers, at the same time volumes in the Rivers of America series were eagerly perused.
              A major presence in Raintree County is the undammed Shawmucky River, whose mysterious, dangerous, and female presence flows organically through the square county and through the novel's entire geometry. Johnny Shawnessy comes to maturity beside (and almost drowns in) the river, "a place of archaic lifeforms and primitive sounds," where he can be "free...from the geometry of fences, roads, and railroads...." The river's antitype is U.S. 40, the totally straight National Road that bisects the country. The Shawmucky flows to and through Paradise Lake, in an erotic topography slowly being overlaid by commercialization, represented by the straight lines of roads and railroads.
              The railroad can be seen as representing technological invasion of natural space. Lockridge is no anti-Crononite before the fact. He does present the evolution of Raintree County as a series of invasions, the invaders becoming natives. The only Native American name left in the county is the river's. (Incidentally, another important theme is that of naming, and its power to reduce nature to human cultural construction: "Let there be only the earth, which does not weep or have vanity. Let there be only the earth and the nameless memories that the flesh has. Does the frog have a name? Would it make the green frog happier to know that he is frog? Only the namers have names; only the bald mammals with the adroit hands write names on stones"). But the railroad is qualitatively different from earlier invasions. Johnny's ambitious classmate, Cash Carney, propounds the destructive industrialism enabled by the railroad: "The [civil] war is changing our ideas. We're learning how to do Big Things. The railroad and Northern industry are coming into their own." But to Johnny the train "doesn't know the land it passes over," it "wounds" the earth of Raintree County.
              Probably the most frequently used word in the novel is "earth." Earth, not "the Earth," fills every cranny of the novel. "What made the earth of Raintree County? Who holds up the earth?" Lockridge's earth is gendered as female; the human constructions which overlay it--names, political boundaries, transit routes, even habitations--are created by a male consciousness holding the illusion of control; control of the earth that in turn represents control or denial of human inevitability--death, the return to the earth. The human tool pierces the earth for two main purposes: growing food and burial of the dead. Thus Raintree County is filled with fertile fields and graveyards.
              The earth of Raintree County is also "the central, streamdivided earth of America" in microcosm, which is why the Civil War's cultural presence is so important. In many different ways the novel uses the Civil War to investigate American identity from an environmental viewpoint. Whatever its causes, the war was fought over boundaries, possession of the American earth, possession whose achievement the author posits as male fantasy. Johnny Shawnessy is on Sherman's march through Georgia, and witnesses vividly the environmental destruction wrought by this temporal dividing line of pillage. On the other hand, his marriage to Susannah Drake of Louisiana, and their wedding trip there, reveal inherent regional differences, both cultural and natural, so deeply rooted that they undermine any sense of a unitary America. These unities and fragmentations of the republic are one element of the mystery that Johnny, and perhaps his creator, as would-be national laureates, seek unsuccessfully to plumb.


              Much midcentury literature of environmental nostalgia uses the immanence of wars, as Lockridge did the Civil War, as a device of contrast to create a preservationist view of place, region, native earth. Therefore, much of the creative environmental writing of the late 1940's and1950's contains characters who experience, onstage or off, wars which affect their consciousness or their own physical being. In many cases, retrospective novelists evoke World War I; others, of course, World War II or the unimaginable nuclear World War III. The fragility and beauty of the earth is impressed on those who have experienced or imagined its destruction. Environmentalist and Wilderness Society co-founder Harvey Broome writes in 1957 "Every time I go to the mountains I tremble for their security," yet "preoccupation with possible war is coming between me and constructive activity. . ."
              For example, two 1950's novels of place, bearing their places as their titles, juxtapose harmonious environment and war. Paul Darcy Boles's Glenport, Illinois (1956), describes the natural presences in and around an Illinois town as the protagonist, Tone, grows up and through adolescence. Only at the end, in the spoken memory of a friend, do we find this sensitive young man whose growing nature awareness we have shared deeply, has been killed in World War II. Similarly, in what probably is the longest published U.S. novel, Madison Cooper's Sironia, Texas, 1700 pages (1957), World War I punctuates and redirects the complex urban environment Cooper has modeled on Waco, Texas--his Texas city as human ecosystem being an ironic commentary on the open spaces of 1950's Texas oil literature.
              Lockridge's kind of bioregionalism is central to many other environmental fictions of the postwar years. Examples: in My World is An Island (1950) novelist Elizabeth Ogilvie recreates Criehaven, her Maine island "not so much in a geographical sense but in a spiritual sense, for I can carry it with me wherever I go," despite the recent world war, "too close for a joke." She even suggests creating a Maine community of environmental writers that would include Elizabeth Coatesworth, her husband Henry Beston, and Louise Dickinson Rich, author of much creative nonfiction on nature, notably the bestselling We Took to the Woods (1941). Bernice Harris's Wild Cherry Tree Road (1951) is set in an ecotonal village, Pate's Siding, where human community and wild community, while separate, interpenetrate; Harris emphasizes that the neighborhoods, and family enclaves, that compose the community function by analogy to ecosystems, subregions, "a world of neighborhoods, each with a flavor and clannishness of its own," where "the line between tame and wild was too indefinite, and a man never knew when he had killed a neighbor's turkey." In this period Georgia novelist Vinnie Williams wrote four wonderful novels in which humans are enlaced with the natural world as much as with their own kind. Walk Egypt (1960) has, among others, one of Raintree County's main concerns, the problematic relationship between faith and nature, and in particular, Protestant Christianity's separation from the "pagan" worship of nature as spiritual. The female protagonist, Toy, listening to spirituals, thinks, "They always got to have blood. . .She turned and walked off. Birds were coming back; a heron waded in the shallows and stabbed snails. A water-thrush teetered along, toes longer than heels." George R. Stewart in Sheep Rock (1954), makes a fictionalized Black Rock, Nevada, the protagonist, one which endures through ecological change and changing, ephemeral, dramas of human community. Even Edward Abbey's autobiographical first novel, Jonathan Troy (1954), focusing on pubescent angst, is set amid the vividly described bioregion of western Pennsylvania: "a vision of that home which he had never seen: A dim road. . .an old wagon trail curving, winding slowly, dust-colored, among giant boulders shaded purple in the shade, golden in the light . . ."
              1950's nonfiction environmental writing is no less involved with the questions that impassion Lockridge's novel. Many urbanologists (such as Jane Jacobs) followed Lewis Mumford's lead in criticizing the growing concentration of population and what we would now call "urban sprawl" as fatally linked to a machine-dominated culture. A great generic array of texts formed what I call the literature of rustication: memoirs of (literal versus literary) "escapes from" urbs and suburbia to a great array of non-urban spaces--farms, woodlands, remote parts of the U.S.A. Satiric fiction and nonfiction held "suburbs" and suburbanites up to ridicule (John Keats's The Crack in the Picture Window) or critical analysis (A.K. Mezerik's The Exurbanites). What we now call environmental history began to engage expositorily the relationship of Americans to their earth and its nonhuman inhabitants as Lockridge did rhetorically in the famous dialogues between Johnny Shawnessy and his alter ego, the Perfesser, Jerusalem Webster Stiles (eg. Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land, Bernard DeVoto's The Course of Empire). Perhaps most important in perpetuating Lockridge's "lyrical ecology" were the widely-read writers of "creative nonfiction" about nature, led, of course, by Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson (who seems, from Linda Lear's biography, to have known almost all the others). These are the environmental writers who, as Harvey Broome says, "fuse sentiment with knowledge:" Edwin Way Teale, Sally Carrighar, Henry Beston, Louis Bromfield, Hal Borland, Donald Culross and Roderick Peattie, Roy Bedichek, Loren Eiseley, Sigurd Olson, and countless others.
              In the shadow of the bomb, many of these writers were motivated by an urge to cautionary reassurance, but even when writing in celebration, their work, like that of the novelists of nostalgia, implied a warning to take notice of how what they celebrated was threatened. As Johnny reflects at the end of the epic he didn't write: "A vast unrest was in the earth. The Valley of Humanity was turbulent with changing forms. The immense dream trembled on a point of night and nothingness and threatened explosion". Lockridge would agree with philosopher Holmes Rolston that "we have misread our life support system." But the efforts to read it right, expanding as the map of misreading also expands, are indebted to the spirit of Lockridge's earth-reading and can be enlightened today by reading his unparalleled work of environmental fiction.


              Fred Waage is professor of English at East Tennessee State University having received his Ph.D. in English and French at Princeton (1971). He has taught at Northwestern, Cal State L.A., Douglass College & College Misericordia and was junior research associate at the Huntington Library and on the staff of Friends of the Earth. Professor Waage's extensive publications and conference presentations include poetry, fiction, and critical studies particularly in the areas of Early Modern studies, popular culture, environmental literature, and creative writing. His literary biography of George R. Stewart was published in 2006 and he is co-editor of the forthcoming second edition of Teaching North American Environmental Literature, to be published by the Modern Language Association (MLA) later this year. The first edition (1985) played a significant role in the development of the environmental literature movement.

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