A CLASSIC REVIEW of RAINTREE COUNTY LOCKRIDGE NOVEL IS LUSTY COMEDY --Indiana Epic Has Touch of Thomas Wolfe-- By Kelsey Guilfoil January 4, 1948 -- Chicago Sunday Tribune
Not since Thomas Wolfe's first novel appeared has there been a literary birth like this one. Here is a titanic endeavor to grasp American life in its entirety, to put on paper the vast legend which is the United States, to show in the life of one man how all that has gone into the making of the legend might be summed up in the loves, hates, and vicissitudes that one man endured.
Like Wolfe (the parallel is inescapable), Ross Lockridge has reached too far, written too much, delved too deeply. There is even a Wolfian note in the story that he lugged a suitcase full of manuscript to the publisher's office, from which was sifted out a novel of 1,060 pages. Like Wolfe, too, is the author's habit of mingling passages of prose poetry with lusty, realistic pictures of the human comedy. And if, as with Wolfe, his reach has exceeded his grasp, he also, like Wolfe, has achieved something prodigious, beautiful, moving and gripping.
It is the story of John Wickliff Shawnessy, who was born in Raintree County, Indiana, in the days when the republic was young, grew to be a lad of great promise, fought and bled in the Civil war, and returned finally to his homeland to grow old as one of the solid citizens of his community. But that was not all, for, like Ulysses, much had he seen and known. Into the core of his existence were blended many friends and acquaintances, some from Raintree County, and some not, who were figures of their times. At the periphery of his life were the historical personages he saw or met, all woven into the fabric of life in the United States.
But it is not simply the story of men and events, it is a story of man's ideals, of his ceaseless searching for a meaning in the pattern of days.
In the rich and fruitful earth John Shawnessy hunted the key to the mystery--the mystery expressed by the legend of the raintree which gave the county its name. And in his loves, fulfilled and unfulfilled, John Shawnessy sought unendingly the beauty and the magic which always seem so near yet are always so elusive.
The novel is written in a stylized form that is both exciting and irritating. It moves thru a single day--July 4, 1892--and by a series of flashbacks relates all that has gone before in Shawnessy's lifetime. These are episodes, mostly of Shawnessy's career but also much concerned with the lives of others. It is not hard to place each episode in time, and tell which is in the past and which is a part of that Fourth of July celebration of 1892. However, the episodes do not move in chronological sequence, but jump about in time so that the reader--at least this reader--is often confused in trying to relate them to one another. Numerous verbal and typografical tricks make the story different from anything one has read before, but do not add to the ease of reading.
Nevertheless, the story has such power and momentum that it carries the reader thru page after page, if only to find out what really happened to Shawnessy in his famous match race with the county's champion runner--an event foreshadowed and even referred to in the past tense long before it is related in full.
Make no mistake about it, "Raintree County" is unique. If I have compared it to the work of Thomas Wolfe, that was not said in derogation. In many ways it is better than Wolfe. It certainly comes closer to the heart of America, and is less distorted in its view of life than Wolfe often is. Ross Lockridge is not Wolfe's successor, but in the exuberant vitality of his storytelling, in the sweep and scope of his work, he belongs in the same class. He well deserves to win the M-G-M award and have his novel chosen by the Book of the Month club.
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