Copyright Ross F. Lockridge, Jr., 1947, 1948 / All rights reserved Selected Writings From Raintree County ~ Hard roads and wide will run through Raintree County. . .
--John, are you awake?
--Me too, the Perfessor said. I keep thinking of that poor dead boy.
John Shawnessy lay there in the lurid dawn also thinking of the dead boy, Johnny Fabrizio, who had been dead now for ages and forever. And he thought of other dead men, comrades--marchers and fighters. He thought of Flash Perkins who had lain in the arms of Corporal Johnny Shawnessy (also dead), Flash Perkins, a Union soldier, a bloodstained recumbent form in the glare of a distant fire. Had mankind, then, come so very far from the Great Swamp that was the underside of Raintree County?
And as he lay there, he wound and unwound in his mind the skein of a life that was lived in the City and knew nothing but the City for a home, a life rooted in the shadow of the factories, flowering in a space of sunlight between the fences and the sheds where the great trains thundered day and night, living a brief while in the crammed rooms of the City, and returning suddenly into darkness, the same web of darkness and blind hunger from which it had arisen.
Then he thought of another creature of the City, a woman whose recumbent form lay voluptuous in the darkness in a room not far from his. And it seemed to him that he was moving slowly through a drama of gorgeous and confused rhetoric toward a climactic scene that would perhaps show to him at last the answer to his quest in the City.
The next day John Shawnessy and the whole party returned to New York. And in the days that followed, the newspapers reported the continuing of the Great Strike and the spread of it from city to city in the Nation's transportation system. The Constitution of the United States was invoked against the Strikers, troops were sent in to quell the riots, and the great republic that had come one hundred years along the Path of Progress went on bleeding, groaning, blaspheming, and mutilating itself as
IT BEGAN THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS
ON THE ROAD
--PERFECTION, the Perfessor was saying, isn't attainable in human institutions. When I say I prefer a Communist State, with all wealth vested in the People, share and share alike, I don't mean to say that we'll have the Millennium. Human beings seem to have an invincible talent for being unhappy under all forms of government. But by taking money and property away from the individual, you take away most of his power to do evil to himself and others. Three-fourths of human vanity is derived from property. Property, money, all symbols of personal wealth nurture the illusion that the individual amounts to something, that he has a permanent vested right in the earth from which all blessings flow, and that his dividends will go on forever in the land which the Lord God Mammon has given him. Even a little property makes him one of the chosen--with all the arrogance of the chosen. Property's a religion, and like most religions, succeeds in keeping its priests fat and few and its devotees many and hungry. And all of its dividends belong conveniently to the Future, which is known as Heaven or Prosperity for All.
--If equal distribution of wealth would make men happier and better, let it come, say I, Cash Carney said. But it won't. Instead of the present ten percent wealthy and ninety percent poor with a chance of improvement, you'll have a hundred percent poor and no chance of improvement. Why? Because man's a competitive animal. If we haven't yet reached a condition in which all the people are well off, it's because we're still building America and because the world keeps pouring millions of poor dagos into this country to enjoy the advantages of our system. We just can't catch up with all that poverty overnight.
--But the capitalist state will never catch up, the Perfessor said. It derives its very life from the current set up between the two poles of enormously hungry demand and enormously profitable supply.
--What do you think about this, John? Cash said.
--My economics is improvised--like the Republic's. Capitalism and Communism in their pure form are both contrary to the spirit of American democracy. They both make slaves out of men--slaves to economic principles. The Capitalist stretches man on the rack of Supply and Demand. The Communist sticks him in an economic class and tells him that history will look after him. Both appeal to the Nature of Nature for their principles. Neither Capitalism nor Communism was foreseen by those who founded America. The Declaration of Independence isn't an economic document. Jefferson wrote the economics out of it when he changed the classic formula of the time from Life, Liberty, and Property to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
--But, John, the Perfessor said, let's admit it--the Declaration of Independence is a wonderful old piece of scripture that hasn't any more resemblance to the truth of man's nature than the first chapter of Genesis has to the real beginnings of the earth. We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal. Dammit, that's the most self-evident lie ever told! If you want truth, go to the Origin of Species. There we have the word of an honest scientist. Darwin cooked Tom Jefferson's goose for good and all. In fact, what is Communism but an effort to give some truth to the Declaration?
--The Declaration was true, Mr. Shawnessy said. The Signers spoke the language of moral beings, and what they said was true for the republic of men's souls. All men, as men, are created equal. Of course they aren't created equal as animals, as Darwinian contenders for life, as economic equations, as class-slaves and wage-slaves, as Proletarians and Capitalists. The Republic of the United States of America was intended as a government for men, animated by the virtues that we associate with mankind. This ideal republic was superimposed on the Darwinian Swamp, and the result has been this magnificent pageant of crusade and confusion known as American History.
Cash Carney consulted his gold watch. He fondled the solid, palm smoothed lump of it in his left hand, pondering.
--It's all right for you fellas that have no responsibility to sit around and criticize, he said. But suppose you had gradually got involved, as I have, in the economic and political life of this Nation. Suppose you were one of the men who thought of building railroads through the West when there weren't any and took the necessary steps and the necessary personal risk to build 'em and operate 'em. Do you think you could ever have stopped anywhere along the line? Do you think I can stop now, with other men like me, who came up the hard way, trying to horn in on my holdings, trying to squeeze me out?
Cash was breathing hard. His eyes had a fixed stare.
--You talk of security, he said. I'll be perfectly frank with you. I never have had a feeling of security in this country. I haven't had any more security than the guy that throws the switch out there. I feel driven all the time. Anything that threatens the financial stability of the Nation threatens everything I have. I tell you, I don't feel I can let up one minute. Every now and then I look at myself and wonder how it all happened, and I realize that it's all just on paper and I'm just one weak bastard holding together factories, railroad systems, and whole cities by my single vision and my willingness to take risks. Believe me, boys, I have to feel that the Government is back of me when I do that. Even now, with this Populist agitation and these big labor outbreaks and the clamor for cheap money, I begin to feel the whole thing trembling crazylike. Sometimes I dream that I'm in the middle of my office in Wall Street, and all of a sudden people start coming in waving bills, bonds, mortgages, stocks, contracts, leases, demanding payments, deliveries, foreclosures. And I haven't any way to meet 'em. I haven't got a red cent. It was all a dream. And there I am trying to hold up the whole works by myself, and the whole goddam business toppling around me and trying to crash.
Cash kept sucking on his cigar as he spoke, not aware that it was dead. He sucked harder and harder, stood up, his jaundiced cheeks hollowed with the effort, his eyes bulging. He took the cigar and threw it at the tracks and immediately went down into his pockets for another, as if something might happen to him if he didn't hurry. He got a light from the Perfessor, sucked his cigar to flame, and sank back on the bench. He was breathing hard and still holding his watch.
--Jesus! he said. I don't think I've had one minute of real peace since I left Raintree County. Tell you the truth, John, I envy your quiet life--yes--and your family, and all. Hell, those were happy days before the War when all I had was a feedstore to manage. Since then, it's been one goddam thing after another and nowhere I could let go. Other men can retire when they get old, but not me. I haven't any children to give my wealth to, and most of it's reinvested. O, of course, I suppose, if I had to, I could liquidate my holdings, sell out, and come up with a cold million or so to live on comfortably. But tell you the truth, I never was in it for the money exactly. You probably don't believe that, but it's true. It wasn't the money exactly. It was----
Cash leaned back.
Mr. Shawnessy and the Perfessor waited a long time for Cash to say what it was. Finally, Mr. Shawnessy said,
--It was the times. You just went along with the Republic. You're a poet of finance, Cash, and here in America you found your poet's paradise--a perfect playground for your type of imagination--great resources of land and labor, enormous vitality in yourself and others, the most fluid system of credit and finance the world has ever known. You took these ingredients and began to build your own republic, Cash, and you've built it around you like a cage. But of course you have to remember that there are other republics besides your own and that all of them are trying to mingle and become one Republic, which always seems to want to conform to the old pattern envisioned by its creators. We're beginning to reinterpret the Declaration.
--Ah, John, the Perfessor said, I see now, boy, that you were right to stay here in Raintree County. They ought to build a Chinese Wall around it so that you never see the ugly world outside. In America, boy, our old religion, our old morality, our old idealism are going to smash. Moses, Christ, and Plato are finally going to be buried in Oshkosh six feet under and packed down. Democritus and Darwin are going to come into their own. For here are your Americans, the race of dreamers, the idealists of government, and look at 'em! They're the most materialistic people who ever lived. How do they spend their lives? In accumulations. In blind, dirty grubbing for gold. Americans are the first people in history to get down on their knees and worship brute mass. Their idols no longer have a soul--or any particular form--which is, after all, the same thing. Why, they tell me they've started building a new type of building in Chicago called a skyscraper, and the idea seems to be to see how tall you can build it before it falls over. They say you shoot right up to the top in speedy elevators, and there's no limit to how high they'll go. Wouldn't surprise me if Americans went right on doing that, only worse.
The Perfessor bounced to a forward-leaning position and said,
--You believe in values, John. Well, let me tell you something. In America, we've found a quick way to express all values. Everything here fits into the price system. Everybody goes around wearing a pricetag of one kind or another. The looks of the dame you can afford to keep are a pricetag. The house you can afford to live in is a pricetag. The cigar you can afford to smoke is a pricetag. Your degree from the university is a pricetag. The books in your bookcase are pricetags. The color of your collar is a pricetag. The whole cockeyed civilization is a series of pricetags hanging out for people to read each other by. And life in America consists of trying to accumulate more and more spectacular pricetags. Everything is on the block in America and can be had for a price. Money will buy anything from a to zebra.
--Everything but truth, wisdom, beauty, goodness, Mr. Shawnessy said. And love, he added, feeling a little embarrassed as he said it.
But Cash Carney went on smoking, his eyes staring, his left hand fondling the gold watch.
--John, the Perfessor said, you're clinging to a way of life that's doomed. Go and look at the modern City. How can anyone look at it and believe in love? Or morality? Or the Eternal Ideas? Or the Inalienable Rights? How can anyone believe in the real existence of Raintree County, which you, dear boy and endlessly courageous dreamer, have taken as your image of the enduring values of human life? Yes, go and look at the City, and then look at your little Raintree County, child. Shed a nostalgic tear for it, because the City's going to eat it up. The God of the City is going to kill the ancient God of Raintree County, who has nothing but a couple of stone tablets and a golden rule for weapons.
--Still corrupting the youth, I see, Cash Carney said. Don't believe him, John. He's the same old Perfessor and hasn't changed a bit.
--What is this? Mr. Shawnessy said. A contest for my soul?
The Perfessor laughed.
--I don't know why it is, he said, but everybody was always trying to corrupt you, John.
Mr. Shawnessy slowly lit a cigar and watched the smoke ascend.
Good-by to Raintree County, incorrigible enthusiast of ideas. Good-by to the good small roads of Raintree County, the horse-and-buggy roads. Hard roads and wide will run through Raintree County, and its ancient boundaries will dissolve. People will hunt it on the map, and it won't be there.
For America will become the City. America will hunt for a tree of life whose fruit is gold. And that man shall be the Hero of the County who plucks from the high branches the heaviest dividends. And he shall get the most beautiful woman of the City, and he shall lie all night betwixt her breasts. And she will cheat him too, and cheat you too, because she is the City.
--Yes, the Perfessor was saying, in the modern City we can read the doom of our race. For in the City all the women are whores more or less. Some get cash on the bedhead, and the rest get a form of payment in installments called marriage. The City woman has learned to cheat you and herself and the race. Hell, it's really tough on an old bachelor like me, these days. There's no love left in the sex. They simper, vamp, and lead you on, and wear love's life out in sterile preliminaries. I tell you, the race is doomed. The bugs have it all over us and will win out in the end. The roach doesn't require a dowry before he gets his, and the common housefly doesn't insist on a church ceremony. But in the City of the Love of Brothers and the Shy Reserve of Sisters, everyone counts the Cost, and the Price is rising all the time, everyone counts and counts and counts the Cost, and the Price is rising all the time.
--About time for my train to come along, Cash said. Well, I see you two haven't changed much. Still carrying on your lifelong argument. ....
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