A CLASSIC REVIEW of RAINTREE COUNTY Encompassing the American Spirit By Charles Lee January 4, 1948 -- New York Times
Ross Lockridge Jr., Indiana born, bred and educated, sometime college English teacher, now 33 years old, has written a huge and extraordinary first novel. Like the country it so eloquently extols, it is many things in one. On the surface it is the account of a single day -- July fourth, 1892--in the life of a tiny Indiana town. It is also the account, told in flashbacks, of the life of the town's central character, Schoolmaster John Wickliff Shawnessy. On another level, told partly in terms of John's life and partly in terms of his searching conversations with three lifelong friends during the day's celebration, it is a critical biography of America from the period of its agrarian innocence through the Civil War and into the era of ruthless industrial expansion. And on yet another level it is a brawny poem of man, history and God.
These levels are so intimately interrelated that they develop with a kind of breath-taking simultaneity. Thus, the beginning of the Fourth is linked not only to all other Fourths, and so to the origin of the United States, but to John's early years, the beginnings of civilization, the origin of man himself. The Civil War, taking place in the noon of the Republic's history and of John's own life, is hinged onto the midday of Raintree County's celebration. At the same time, it is connected with John's first disruptive marriage and man's expulsion from Eden. All through these historical and parabolic elaborations--some few of them, it must be admitted; too teasingly cryptic, even on second reading--run theological, literary, Darwinian, Frazerian and Freudian symbols.
THOUGH it would be possible to read and enjoy the novel as a story wholly apart from this sumptuous symbolical inlay, its entire inner meaning would be lost in the process. Waycross, for example, is a Bunyanesque instrument (John being Time's Pilgrim) suggesting at different moments the cross of Christ, the intersections of history, the way-crossings in every man's soul between right and wrong, paganism and conscience, earth and high heaven. "Raintree County's Illustrated Historical Atlas" turns all it touches into bearers of the destiny of the world. Raintree's Shawmucky River, Great Swamp and Lake paradise are allegorical devices obviously referable to procreation and religion.
John Wickliff Shawnessy, pagan and Pilgrim, poet and poem, idealist and idea, stands in the midst of Mr. Lockridge's imposing design. He is keystone of the architecture and the allegory. He listens to the banjoing sentimentality of pre-Civil War America and hears the "sooty monster" of Industrialism roaring menacingly across the land and into the twentieth century, carrying with it materialism, cynicism and the seeds of a serfdom greater than that which accelerated its growth in the Sixties. In his coruscating debate with his friends Cassius Carney, Senator Garwood B. Jones and Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles he becomes the personification of the American Dream, a localization of the great idea of the Republic, Democracy's soul and Humanity incarnate.
JOHN'S name also carries obvious symbolic reference. He is the reformer, the man of the Bible and the spirit. And it is no accident that he is a schoolteacher. Only education, says Mr. Lockridge, plus the passion of righteous indignation, can perform the miracle of Reconstruction necessary in an age that puts Gold before God, the Machine before Man, The great issue that once tore the nation, he clearly implies, still remains; human dignity still struggles against slavery, union still contests with anarchy; and the "theatre of operations" is not just along the Potomac but along all the Shawmuckys of the world.
"Raintree County" opens with a strange dream that leaves John adrift in memory early in the morning of July Fourth, 1892. Before he knows it he is plunged into "the eternal summer" of childhood, reliving the diary of his life and the drama of his country. In language poignantly sweet and mysterious with the "mortal pathos" of Time, Lockridge immediately begins to interrelate this life with all men, America with all history, democracy with all religion. John's earliest memories include Henry Clay (note the symbol of man's origin), a woman in childbirth (contrapuntally contrived with the opening of the West and the hastening of the Civil War), his mother's readings from the Bible, his discovery of "place," his desire to possess and be possessed by woman ("Happiness," said Nietzsche "is a woman"), his expulsion from the half-remembered paradise of youth into the world of manhood, marriage, war.
The river along which he was later to brood about the golden debris of his childhood pre-history reveals to him the naked shape of love in the form of this first sweetheart, Nell Gaither. Source of life, its mysterious waters are transformed in his blood again and again, to emerge at last, after roaring across the sharp rock of personal and national tragedy, as a streaming of pure spirit mystically Emersonian in its transcendental transmutation.
As Waycross' great celebratory day unfolds, John's life, pegged to this or that passing stimulus, unrolls celebriously too. We follow him through his joyous youth, when he dreams of outwriting Shakespeare, of outrunning the local braggart boygod, Flash Perkins. We watch him as he becomes a rural newspaper man exchanging witticisms with rival Garwood Jones. We feel his excitement and his torment as he is seduced by a sultry Southern belle, Susanna Drake (so was the North so long seduced); we share his alarm as he watches the Nation, like the sensational Blondin tight-rope walking across Niagara Falls, teetering in precarious balance over a cataract of blood.
We grieve with him as the divided national house burns an old dream of paradise to the ground along with his own quarreling abode. We endure with him through Lockridge's war-passages as he fights the "holy war" of freedom-for-all against the freedom-to-enslave. We hurt with him as he returns to a new tragedy and begins his long wandering through the Gilded and guilty cities of Post-Civil War America (the Reconstruction has still to happen), as he looks on the railroad strike of 1877 (another civil war for liberty and "union"), and as he struggles against the spirit of hate in Raintree County itself. In the end we rejoice with him as he regains paradise in the mysterious Republic of love and achieves inner content in a memory of all mankind wedded to spirit.
A DOZEN memorable characters, from children to patriarchs, mix with scores of memorable scenes. Lockridge is a creator of tantalizing women: golden-haired Nell of the caressing voice and enigmatic eyes, John's first sweetheart; blue-eyed voluptuary Susanna of the tawny skin and melodramatic past whom John weds on the very day that another John, strangely named Brown, is hanged; Laura, the notorious actress and city-woman who was more claw than caress; and Esther of the Hiawathan hair and stoic spirit who braved her pathologically possessive father, himself a vibrant achievement, to join the man she loved.
The author is equally skilled in his drawing of men. Outstanding of the broad canvas are John's father, T. D., local doctor-minister-reformer with this Micawberian propensity for taking "a hopeful view of the situation"; the Rev. Lloyd G. Garvey, primitive revivalist; Flash Perkins, a gaudy "yellin' Yahoo from the banks of Clay Crick," the untamed, amiably pugnacious Westerner with a history clear back to Paul Bunyan, Mercury and Bacchus; Abraham Lincoln, "doctor to Time's bloody birth," giver of "moral direction"; Cash Carney, always "a comer," controller of a feedstore and saloon at 20, dealer in railroads at 60; Senator Jones, glib dealer in promises for the people and opportunities for himself; and, above all, hatchet-faced Perfessor Stiles, John's other self, ruthless logician, Rabelaisian wit, jaunty, twirler of malacca canes and malicious epigrams.
High spots of the book are as varied as all this range suggests: the old-fashioned Fourth of 1854; the touching humors of John's first acquaintance with the riddle of birth, his struggle in the shimmering and repellant waters of the Great Swamp; the staging of his wonderfully droll Temperance play; his vision of Nell rising foamy and Venus-like from the reed-meshed shore of Shawmucky; their declaration of love as they exchange books upon graduation.
Following these episodes (and blending subtly with their essence) we have John's erotic substitution of Susanna Drake for Nell, in a truly pagan seduction on the shores of Paradise Lake, in the Great Swamp's summer-drugged heart . . . and, later still, a visit to Susanna's bedful of dolls and John's strange marriage proposal and acceptance; the charmingly iron-festooned and fascistic seductiveness of Old New Orleans; the clamorous confusions, slaughters and fatigues of Chickamauga; and Sherman's devastating March to the Sea; Flash's death; Johnny's hospital experiences, including a visit from President Lincoln; the Centennial Exposition and Lockridge's prose-poem on cities; the Railroad Strike; Esther's meeting with John in the Great Swamp (where life begins) and her heart wrenching defiance of her father; the immutable and inscrutable surface aspects of the County itself; and the long debate in the gathering night between John and the Perfessor.
It would be easy to pick minor flaws in the massive structure of this fascinating novel, winner of a huge film company award. One might quarrel with certain of its excesses. Puritans, missing its beauty, will quarrel with its amorous ebulliences. So-called realists will skim over Lockridge's poetic interpolations. Devotees of the spare phrase, missing his great gift of disciplined articulation, will quarrel with alleged linguistic intemperance. "Raintree County" remains an achievement of art and purpose, a cosmically brooding book full of significance and beauty.
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