Return to Raintree County Ceremony: Sunday, October 7, 2018
Address by Larry Lockridge, read by Dick Willis
Dear Henry County Citizens!
Representing the family of Ross Lockridge, Jr., I take great pleasure in this Return to Raintree County Ceremony and the planting of a Golden Raintree on the lawn of the Henry County Courthouse, which plays so large a role in my father's 1948 novel Raintree County. I wish I could join you. My special thanks to Mark Sean Orr, photographer, cultural historian, author of Raintree County Memories and the mover and shaker behind this ceremony; also to Commissioner Kim Cronk who began the search for a new raintree; and to Kaye Ford, Executive Director of the Henry County Historical Society, for her support of this event. And my warm thanks to [Dick Willis] for reading these few heart-felt words.
I'll tell a bit of the story behind the raintree and Henry County. In the summer of 1943 at the age of 29 in a refurbished barn on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, my father had already drafted a 2,000-page novel he intended to call American Lives, set in the early twentieth century and based on his mother Elsie Shockley Lockridge's Henry County relatives. He wasn't at all happy with his efforts so far. These pages seemed without energy and focus, and it was only when his maternal grandfather John Wesley Shockley, a Henry County native, made an occasional appearance as an old man that the novel perked up. One evening in late summer of '43 he had a eureka moment and decided to move the entire action back to nineteenth-century Henry County, with John Shockley, now John Wickliff Shawnessy, playing the central role. To save paper he didn't throw the 2,000 pages away; he turned them over and began writing Raintree County on the other side.
The following summer of 1944, again on Cape Ann, he had another sudden inspiration. He was, in his own words, "juggling words and trying out proper names by a process of sound-resemblance and free association." He stumbled onto the word "raintree" by its slight phonetic resemblance to "Henry," and the central motif of the Raintree, as he put it, "instantly fused with the already existing pattern of the book. Almost as if by magic the whole landscape of Raintree County . . . sprang into being." It felt to him less a creation than a discovery. He seized a pencil and in a few minutes sketched the first map of Raintree County, clearly based on Henry County. The entire novel Raintree County was written in white heat over the next few months, fully drafted by April, 1946, including a 400-page coda, the "Dream Section," that his publisher insist he cut.
The raintree itself, a complex symbol of aspiration, erotic love, and mystery, was transplanted in his mindís eye from Posey County, Indiana, to Henry County and today, by Henry County citizens, to this very lawn in New Castle. Back in 1937 my father had written A Pageant of New Harmony at the request of his Hoosier historian father Ross Lockridge Senior. For fifty dollars' worth of blank verse, this pageant celebrated the raintree that zoologist Thomas Say first planted in New Harmony in 1829 and that still flourishes there on virtually every street.
In the novel Raintree County, the boy Johnny Shawnessy grows up with the legend of the tree that had given the county its name, even though the actual raintree has never been discovered. As my father wrote, "the earth had taken back one of its legends--that was all. Nothing would remain at last except the name itself, itself a legend beautiful and talismanic, a sound of magic and of recollection, a phrase of music and of strangeness--Raintree County. Johnny Shawnessy never doubted the truth of the legend. He felt sure that a wondrous tree grew in secret somewhere in the County. . . [He] used to imagine that someday he would be walking in a wild, rarely visited part of the County and in late afternoon would come upon a tree rising jetlike from the earth and spreading to a fountain spray of dense leaves . . . Johnny felt that there was only one tree, one sacred trunk standing in the druid silence of woodlands . . . Someday, perhaps he would find that tree and thus become the hero of the County . . ."
John Shawnessy was an innocent when growing up as a boy with this legend of the raintree. Though the novel ends on July 4th, 1892, when he is all of fifty-three years old and very much alive, Shawnessy has endured tragic loss, as does America itself in the Civil War and the Gilded Age. It is a loss of innocence that threatens his youthful idealism. Two woman he loves--Nell Gaither, portrayed in the MGM film by Eva Marie Saint, and Susanna Drake, portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor--both die young. (MGM managed to rescue Nell Gaither--hurrah!) John Shawnessy settles into life as a modest Hoosier schoolmaster, living on the Great National Road in Waycross, based on Straughn, Henry County. He is married to a sober and serious woman, Esther Root, whose original was Henry County citizen Emma Rhoton, daughter of a farmer who much opposed her marriage to a free-thinker.
The original John Wesley Shockley, who wrote unpretentious poetry for local Henry County newspapers, could never have imagined that he would someday be portrayed by Montgomery Clift on the Silver Screen as life's aspiring young American! Though he is much challenged by the skeptical "Perfessor" Jerusalem Webster Stiles, played in the film by Nigel Patrick, John Shawnessy holds to his beleaguered idealism.
In the end, as the narrator says, "So he would plant again and yet again the legend of Raintree County, the story of a man's days on the breast of the land. So he would plant great farms where the angular reapers walk all day, whole prairies of grass and wheat rising in waves on the headlands. So he would plant the blond corn in the valleys of Raintree County. Yes, he would plant once more the little towns, Waycrosses and Danswebsters, and the National Roads to far horizons, passing to blue days and westward adventures, and progress, the cry of a whistle, arcs of the highflung bridges, and rails and the thundering trains. Hail and farewell at the crossing!"
May this raintree planted today on the lawn of the Henry County Courthouse flourish and soon begin putting forth its gorgeous blossoms of golden rain in late spring.
To the Raintree!
Professor Emeritus of English
New York University
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