Indiana Reflection of U. S. 1844-92

by Howard Mumford Jones

January 3, 1948 -- Saturday Review

LATEST candidate for that mythical honor, the Great American Novel, "Raintree County" displays unflagging industry, a jerky and sometimes magnificent vitality, a queer amalgam of pattern and formlessness, and an ingenuity of structure that is at once admirable and maddening. The engineering of this huge volume arouses one's admiration, although the problem of organic form is by no means solved.

Let us examine the engineering, or physical, structure of this enormous edifice. The work is an amalgam of at least four major elements: events in a day in the life of the Shawnessy family, living in Waycross, Indiana, and proud of their county; biographical and autobiographical memories and narratives of the past of this family, but principally of John Shawnessy, the father, poet,. and family man; Esther his wife, and their daughter Eva Alice (named from "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Alice in Wonderland"); a subjective and lyrical history of the United States from 1844 to 1892, seen principally from an Indiana angle of vision; and the ironic interpretative comments on all this by one "Perfessor" Jerusalem Webster Stiles, a character whose function is that of Enobarbus in "Antony and Cleopatra" and whose name springs from the nomenclature of frontier humorists. The frame which contains the whole and from which, as drying corn hangs from a crossbeam in a barn, some fifty two "flashbacks" depend is the events of a Fourth of July celebration at Waycross in 1892, in which J. W. Shawnessy plays a leading part. To this celebration there return (among others) two boyhood companions of his youth, a local politico, Garwood B. Jones, now become a pompous U. S. Senator, and a local entrepreneur, one "Cash" Carney, become one of the predatory financiers of the nation. Both in 1892 and during events preceding this day conversations among the four principal male characters illumine action and value--that is, Jones brings to the problem of interpretation the views of a practical politician in America, Carney those of finance, the "Perfessor" the view of an uprooted intellectual (he becomes a newspaper reporter), and Shawnessy the optimism of the shy idealist-teacher, poet, lover, and writer.

More than half a hundred flash backs of varying length tell us of past events in domestic and public life. The author has obligingly furnished a list of these in chronological order for they are not in chronological order in the body of the book, and, in fact, one is sometimes a little puzzled to know why they are arranged as they are and not otherwise. Through these flashbacks we watch the parallel histories of a series of private lives, North and South, and of crucial public events like the anti-slavery agitation, the Civil War, the assassination of Lincoln, the Philadelphia Exposition, the Homestead Riots, and the like. Each of these episodes is attached to the main frame by an ingenious mechanical device resembling what the Japanese in their poetry call a "pillow word"--that is, a sentence uttered or meditated by a character in 1892 contains a characteristic word which becomes the first word (in altered meaning) of the flashback. Further more, the titles of the flashbacks are sometimes a carry-over of these sentences. Jointure of history and fiction is, I think, more smoothly made here than in the case of John Dos Passos. Despite these mechanical neatnesses, the novel (in the old tradition of English fiction) is fundamentally amorphous. There are dramatic episodes; narrative episodes; lyrical meditations reminiscent of Tom Wolfe; dream distortions like the verbal ballets in the third part of "Ulysses"; long passages of interpretative comment; frequent selections from a prose epic supposed to be under construction by the hero; pieces from imaginary country newspapers; a small anthology of popular songs of the American nineteenth century, and much more. Characters must be clearly conceived to keep their outline and depth against this mounting flood of words, and it cannot be said that they always do so. They display only a fitful vitality.

John Shawnessy is the principal character. His boyhood, youth, and young manhood are clearly seen, the village life of Midwest America rises around him in these earlier scenes, and one rejoices in his three dimensional solidity. But he is pushed by his creator into an improbable marriage with a Louisiana girl, Susanna Drake ("Susanna" from the Foster song, and "Drake," I assume, because of overtones from the name of Temple Drake in Faulkner's "Sanctuary"); the girl, fearful that she is herself the product of miscegenation, goes mad and disappears with her baby; and the grief-stricken husband enlists in the Union Army under U. S. Grant, fights at Chickamauga, and marches with Sherman to the sea. But he ceases thereupon to be an individual, becoming merely another citizen soldier. In sum, the symbolism of this dark marriage of North and South swallows up Shawnessy's private character about two-thirds of the way through the book, and Shawnessy never recaptures it.

Shawnessy is haunted by a dream of woman's flesh. We are to understand, both from his erotic experiences and from comments by the "Perfessor" and others, that life in America is an uneasy union of public decorum and private paganism; and the sweet, soft flesh of women (never was there a book in which nakedness was so persistently employed as a symbol of emotional longing) becomes for the poet in Shawnessy a symbol of what American life ought to be. But the flesh is tricky; and in scenes of comic power, sudden melodrama, or psychological upset, Mr. Lockridge reminds us that in the American small town a dream of the flesh is often described by shorter and uglier words.

There is great narrative and comic power in about half of these 1,066 pages. (Such is the historical symbolism throughout, one begins to wonder whether the Battle of Hastings isn't involved with the page numbers!) But in the last third of the volume his characters cease to be individuals and become in too many cases individualized symbols. A single exception is the "Perfessor," whose language, it is evident, Mr. Lockridge had particular pleasure in creating. Stiles is consistently himself throughout; and though the heart of his formula is the newspaper cynic, he is a genuine comic invention. And it must be said even of Susanna Drake that she has the same haunting vitality of melodrama that Miss Haversham has in "Great Expectations." If there was never any such person, there should have been. Whether in 1947 the fragmentation method of Laurence Sterne can profitably be resumed in American fiction will be generally debated as this book is read. For read it will be, read and discussed. The writing is everywhere competent and often distinguished; and for those who are bored by subjective lyricism or who do not care for Platonic dialogues among Shawnessy, Garwood Jones, and their friends, other particular episodes have high imaginative power. The book is full-blooded, it has gusto, ribaldry, vision, beauty, and narrative skill. It is also repetitious, overly "organized," reminiscent of a variety of predecessors, "literary" in the wrong sense, and too dependent upon source material. But the breath of life sweeps through its voluminous pages; and it may be that "Raintree County" marks at last the end of a long slump in American fiction.

Raintree County

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