From, Myth, Memory, and the American Earth: The Durability of Raintree County
Copyright 1998 by the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature
BLURRED BOUNDARIES AND THE
DESIRE FOR NATIONALISM IN ROSS LOCKRIDGE'S
What is any nation, after all--and what is a human being--but a struggle between conflicting, paradoxical, opposing elements--and they themselves and their most violent contexts, important part of that One Identity, and of its development?
(Walt Whitman, Memoranda During the War)
In Raintree County, Ross Lockridge's main character, John Wickliff Shawnessy, quotes the conclusion of Abraham Lincoln's "First Inaugural Address." Lincoln's conclusion is a desperate plea to put off civil war by recalling a deeply embedded nationalism to save the union of states, a nationalism that the narrator of Raintree County calls "a mystical covenant" between the "individual and the Republic'':l
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break the bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.2
There is perhaps no more lyrical expression of middle-class nationalism in the English language. Lincoln's address both recalls the origins of the nation in the battles of the Revolution and the underlying mystical connection between all the people of the nation, extending from the individual ("every living heart") to the family ("hearth stone"), but his plea could not put off the conflict that had already torn the nation in half by the time of his inauguration. However, Lincoln's "Address" was more than a plea for national reconciliation; it was a move toward preparing the nation for war, or more to the point, a move toward awakening the people's desire to save the Union. For Lincoln, the Union and its Constitution are the only things that save the people from anarchy and chaos.
Similarly, at the end of Raintree County, Shawnessy imagines himself falling into chaos and thus losing his identity. As the narrator explains of Shawnessy, "The wall between himself and the world dissolved" (1058). To combat this "immense" sense of "nothingness," Shawnessy desires to find in the documents of the past a way to rebuild a whole and complete image of America. And like Lincoln, Shawnessy believes that it is possible to uncover this wholeness in an underlying mystical bond that connects all Americans and defines "the people." By imagining the boundaries of Raintree County and concomitantly the nation, Shawnessy is able to maintain the boundaries of the self. Yet his identity can only be maintained through his ceaseless desire to give shape and form to the nation by writing the American epic and thus becoming the American poet. That is, identity is maintained only by remaining in a ceaseless state of naiveté, a ceaseless state of desire for the whole and perfect Union. This desire is perhaps why the novel sold so well in post-World War II America. As Michael Kammen argues, 1945 was "surely one of the most fateful [years] in modern history" that "brought a pronounced sense of discontinuity between past and present.... Lacking an authentic or meaningful sense of continuity, many Americans managed to create one by dramatically increasing their attendance at museums, historic sites, and villages, and by participating in activities that ranged from battle re-enactments to historic preservation at the local level."3 The post-war citizens, Kammen argues, were particularly nostalgic for the Gay Nineties. Not only did Raintree County offer up memories of American history and a version of the small county in the 1890s, but its main character mirrored the desire of many Americans to find continuity in the nation's heritage that seemed increasingly lost in the modern world.
In this paper, I want to argue that Lockridge's Raintree County is one of the fullest expressions in novel form of the ideology of nationalism. However, by expressing nationalism, its contradictions and gaps, the novel calls into question the very possibility of imagining the nation as complete and whole. Unlike Lincoln who appealed to nationalism as the only way to save the republic during the Civil War, Lockridge is more ambivalent about American nationalism not only because he wrote the book during an era in which the racist nationalism of fascist states ignited a world war but because the ideology of nationalism with its promise of past and future wholeness negates the possibility of writing the American epic in the present. Moreover, by calling into question the ideology of nationalism, Lockridge writes the impossibility of producing the American novel.
Lockridge's experiments with the novel form recall Georg Lukacs' premarxist and heavily romantic writings on the theory of the novel. Like Lockridge's narrator, Lukacs imagines that producers of ancient epics were at home in their communities because they could capture the totality of the communities' experiences. This totality, Lukacs argues, expressed a world "where everything is already homogeneous before it has been contained by forms . . . where knowledge is virtue and virtue is happiness, where beauty is the meaning of the world made visible."4 Lockridge's opening sequence in the novel reflects this longing for national homogeneity and for a literary form that would capture the transcendent qualities of Raintree County. The novel opens with a report about the Semicentennial Edition of Raintree County's newspaper, the Free Enquirer, that comes out on July 4, 1892, the day on which the whole action of the novel takes place. Not only is the 4th of July a day of national reflection, but the edition of the Free Enquirer is "fifty pages crowded with memories of fifty years" that chronicles "an Era of Progress unexampled in the annals of mankind" (1). The next section shifts to a dream sequence that writes Shawnessy's desire to capture the essence of the community when he sees a naked woman stretched out on a "stone couch." As the narrator explains, "The dream had been vivid with promise of adventure and consummation" (6). But the dream never allows for consummation, never grants him a sense of home, and never allows him to capture the transcendent qualities of Raintree County:
the dream had left him with an uneasy feeling of being anchorless, adrift on an unknown substance. The formal map of Raintree County had been laid down like a mask on something formless, warm, recumbent, convolved with rivers, undulous with flowering hills, blurred with motion, green with life. (7)
As Lukacs argues, in contrast to epic, the novel is "an expression of transcendental homelessness" because the novelist can never recapture the perfect wholeness of the community.5 While the novelist desires to give expression to his/her vision of the world, the very act of giving novelistic form to the vision foregrounds the impossibility of rendering the vision in its totality, or as Lukacs explains "form giving ... points eloquently at the sacrifice that has had to be made, at the paradise forever lost, sought and never found."6
Timothy Brennan argues that the genre of the novel accompanied the rise of nationalism "by mimicking the structure of the nation, a clearly bordered jumble of languages and styles.... [The novel's] manner of presentation allowed people to imagine the special community that was the nation."7 In Lockridge's novel, Shawnessy imagines Raintree County to be a "special community" that represents both his desires and the desires of the nation. Shawnessy's image of Raintree County in terms of both synecdoche, the single county represents the whole Republic, and metonymy, the physical body of his childhood sweetheart, Nell Gaither, substitutes for the landscape of the county, works to condense into a single image the complex relations figured within the ideology of nationalism. Borrowing terms from Walter Benjamin, Benedict Anderson argues that the idea of a nation--the imagining of a "solid community moving steadily down (or up) history"--is analogous to imagining an organism "moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time."8 Shawnessy's image of Raintree County articulates the spatial and temporal boundaries figured in Anderson's definition of the nation. The image contains the static figure of a body forever young, forever to be desired, while articulating the sense of continuity between, the body and the ideal, the local and the nation, the individual and the state. As the narrator of Raintree County writes, "The Republic is an image that men live by. All life is a self--but in the Republic this self finds a greater self" (273). The image of the county as a woman's body not only figures the county and consequently the nation as an organic whole but it figures the nation in terms of the individual.
The essential connection imagined within the ideology of nationalism between the citizen of the Republic and the national will, the subject and the state, is made painfully clear in the description of Shawnessy's life, particularly during the Civil War period. Shawnessy marries Susanna Drake on the day that John Brown is executed; his baby is born on the day Fort Sumter surrenders; his search for his wife and baby coincides with the battle at Gettysburg. The marriage between Shawnessy and Drake is an all too obvious marriage between North and South that is destined to end in destruction and insanity. Susan Drake's character is loaded down with all of the stereotypical characteristics of the South: a lustful southern belle whose heritage is either insanity or miscegenation. That is, the marriage points out the impossible union between the products of a slave South and a free North. In the novel, the execution of John Brown symbolizes a moment of no return for the nation by making civil war inevitable. At the same time, Shawnessy's marriage to Drake symbolizes the unbridgeable gap between Shawnessy and his image of Raintree County (he can no longer pursue Nell Gaither). A wedding night dream about his marriage license, like the opening dream sequence, condenses these complex interconnections between the individual and the state, the organic object and the lined map, into a single image of a bleeding map being torn apart:
The print ran and blurred. The parchment [of the marriage license] was a map of Raintree County. A red gash had been torn in it, the wound was bleeding, staining his hands and covering him with shame and a hideous fear from which he kept trying to awaken with small choked cries. (353)
Although nationalism takes on the guise of religious dogma, an almost supernatural presence, what must be remembered is that the nation as an organic whole is a continual possibility in the "natural order," a secure part of the secular world. Thus Shawnessy's marriage to the sensual Susanna Drake, which represents the nation's fated union, and the image of the county in terms of Gaither's body, which represents strong images of desire, both emphasize the physical and secular nature of nationalism that requires a libidinal investment by the individual citizen. Nationalism is the desire for consummation, the perfect bond of individual wills. The images of sexual desire for this perfect bond are deeply embedded in the dreams sequences and in the controlling metaphor of the book, the raintree. While Shawnessy imagines the land in terms of the woman's body, the raintree is clearly imagined in terms of a phallus. Shawnessy envisions the "stately trunk of the tree and the clean isolation of it from the other trees" dropping "a rain of yellow pollendust and petals" (45). His attempt to find the raintree in the swamp of the Shawmucky river near Paradise Lake is explicitly described as a journey into "a womblike center" (103). In this way, Shawnessy's personal desires are mapped onto national desires. Moreover, the story that Shawnessy tells about the origins of the raintree--that it originated in Asia and has been moving ever westward--is the same as the story told by nineteenth century philosophers of nationalism about the origin of nations.
The idea that nationalism requires an awakening of male desire and a libidinal investment by the individual citizen of the Republic was commonplace during and after the Civil War. Within the many novels written about the Civil War during the nineteenth century, the war is figured as a symbolic act of both masculine preservation and masculine regeneration, serving to purify both the national body and he individual body. We could read Raintree County within this context as simply another novel that purports to write a national epic about the Civil War, showing how the war rejuvenates the country and fulfills its promise to be a great nation. Indeed, Lockridge is often heavy-handed both in his use of sexual imagery to draw a connection between the individual and the national landscape and in his use of history to draw a connection between Shawnessy's life and the life of the nation.
However, rather than seeing Lockridge's overdrawn use of conventions as a weakness of the novel, we can read the novel as one that attempts to undercut those conventions by exaggerating them and thus exposing their contradictions. Sitting in Ford's Theater on the night that Lincoln is to be assassinated, Shawnessy imagines that "he had assembled here the lost pages of a myth of himself and the Republic, and that he had only to put them together at last into a meaningful pattern. All was promise, excitement, near-fulfillment" (970). Unlike most novels about the Civil War, the reader is made conscious of Shawnessy's attempt to write a national narrative of the Civil War. In an Emersonian fashion, Shawnessy desires to compose the American epic by reading the signs of nature: "the branch quivered alive in his hands," Shawnessy dreams, "unrolled its bark, became a map covered with lines and letters, a poem of mute but lovely meanings, a page torn from the first book printed by man" (1060). But this belief has profound consequences for the artist, dooming him or her to producing endless copies, endless repetitions of an irretrievable original. As the "Perfessor" explains, "What is all speech, John, but a quotation?" (148). That is to say, the artist is left in a continual state of desire.
Lockridge re-enforces the contradiction between desire and fulfillment in the novel by showing that Shawnessy can produce only fragments of his epic; he is never able to find the "meaningful pattern" (although at the conclusion of the novel he still believes that he can do so). Within the ideology of nationalism, the fulfillment of desire must always be denied. The perfect bond of individual wills is continually deferred, promising--but never fulfilling--that the individual will be self-identical to the national identity. As the narrator explains, "For America was always an education in self denial. And Raintree County was itself the barrier of form imposed upon a stuff of longing, lifejet of the river" (116). The death of Nell Gaither on May 24, 1865, the day Sherman's army marched in Washington D.C. in a victory parade, emphasizes the impossibility of consummating Shawnessy's desires because the past and the image of Raintree County is hopelessly lost and irretrievable. As the "Perfessor" explains, "the War was the end of a rather gentle, rich old life and the beginning of something nobody really wanted" (478). The idea that the origins of the nation are impossible to recover is further emphasized by the inability to locate the raintree as well as the putative illegitimate births in both Shawnessy's family and Lincoln's family, making it impossible to identify the phallic origins and imagine continuity.
In addition to pointing out the contradiction between the promise of nationalism and the possibility of fulfillment, I will only mention a few more ways in which the narrative undercuts the ideology of nationalism. While nationalism focuses on maintaining the boundaries of the autonomous subject, Lockridge writes a double, a reverse image, of his main character: Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles. Unlike Shawnessy who wants to write the American epic, Stiles is a newspaper man who deals in the daily world of politics. Stiles constantly points out how Shawnessy's dream world ignores the economic and political reality of everyday life so that Shawnessy remains a romantic innocent. The tragic paranoia of Susanna Drake, who believes the United States' government is out to destroy her, becomes rather comic when set against how the novel writes the marriage as the mirror image of the relationship between the North and the South: the South and consequently Susanna Drake will be destroyed by the Union. The image of three old men looking through the Atlas for pornographic pictures parodies the idea of awakening national masculine desires by uncovering the mystical bond embedded in the old documents and epics of the nation. Unlike the convention of Civil War novels, Shawnessy is not regenerated and humanized by the war; rather, he is dehumanized by the war and left after the war an unchanged dreamer.
However, the most consistent way in which Lockridge undercuts nationalism is through the form of the novel. Although the main character of Lockridge's novel imagines Raintree County to be the "special community" that represents the nation, a vision of the nation with hard clean edges and precisely labeled landmarks, the structure of the novel emphasizes the break down and blurring of boundaries. The chapters run into one another without breaking sentences. The time of the novel is compressed into a single day so that the history is told in a series of flashbacks without a steady chronological order. At points in the novel, the narrative completely breaks down into chaotic streams of consciousness. Lockridge even blurs the traditional boundaries of dialogue by removing the quotation marks, and thus undercuts one of the strongest markers of realism, the reporting of direct speech. Without a clear distinction among what is spoken, the narrator's description, and the character's thoughts, the accuracy of the dialogue is undermined. But most important, the boundaries of the novel become permeable to all forms of writing: newspaper stories, editorials, speeches, fragments of epics, sentimental novels, dreams, songs, poems, and plays. Lockridge's inclusion of these different forms coupled with the different perspectives of the characters highlights the heteroglossia of the novel. Mikhail Baktin's term, heteroglossia, is appropriate here since Baktin meant it to describe the "diversity of individual voices" within "the national language," arguing that the novel accompanied the rise of nationalism because the novel works to centralize voices that are in constant conflict. That is to say, novelists would unconsciously mimic the ideology of nationalism by exploring the life of the individual within a larger social setting, giving that life a solid boundary and frame. Lockridge takes the novel form one step further by making the reader aware of the process of writing a narrative that attempts to put boundaries around the life of an individual and a nation by foregrounding the tension between the centripetal and centrifugal, the centralizing and decentralizing, forces at work in any culture. As Lukacs argues, "the novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.... The objectivity of the novel is the mature man's knowledge that meaning can never quite penetrate reality, but that, without meaning, reality would disintegrate into the nothingness of inessentiality."9
At the end of Raintree County, we feel sorry for John Shawnessy who still believes that he must
express, so that it would never die, the legend of his life, which was the legend of his people, the story of the republic in which all men were created equal, the amiable myth of the river and rock, the tree and the letters on the stones, the mounds beside the river, (1049)
because as readers we know the impossibilities of his task. But perhaps we feel more sorry for the author whose novel writes the impossibility of his desire. We can read the whole novel as a detailed search of Raintree County for the raintree, a symbol that stands in for the phallic origins of the nation, but as the narrator explains in the opening dream sequence, this search is continually doomed to failure. In the dream, Shawnessy is studying a map of the county and
He was certain that in the pattern of its lines and letters this map contained the answer to the old conundrum of his life in Raintree county. It was all warm and glowing with the secret he had sought for half a century. The words inscribed on the deep paper were dawnwords, each one disclosing the origin and essence of the thing named. But as he sought to read them, they dissolved into the substance of the map. (5)
Michigan State University
1. Ross Lockridge, Raintree County, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948, 23. All subsequent references to the text will be made in parenthetical references.
2. Abraham Lincoln, "First Inaugural Address," Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865 (New York: American Library, 1989), 224.
3. Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: Transformations of Tradition in American Culture, New York: Vintage, 1993.
4. Georg Lukacs, The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Form of Great Epic Literature, (1920) trans. Anna Bostock, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987.
6. Lukacs, 85.
7. Timothy Brennan, "The National Longing for Form," Nation and Narration, Home Bhabha, Ed. (New York: Routledge, 1990), 49.
8. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1983), 31.
9. Lukacs. 88.
Back to Essays Page Back to Table of Contents
The Novel Essays Other Writings RL Jr. Writer's Award Complete Contents Book Orders The Biography Photos / Postcards RC Source & Facsimiles Suicide & Prevention Movie & Score Site managed by RIII Web Page design by henley/graphics
Page last updated: 25 January 1998