From, Myth, Memory, and the American Earth: The Durability of Raintree County
© Copyright 1998 by the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature






Much care is taken to recreate the artifacts, tenor, and style of life in nineteenth century Indiana. These "antiquities" are evoked with deep feeling for that fading fabric of life. They delight, and are their own reason for being. And yet, for Lockridge this is hardly enough. He is bent on discovering the principles of American development, the foundation of American character. (Gerald Nemanic, MidAmerica II, 1975)

In 1898, Harold Frederic chastized many of his fellow writers by stating that he had once felt a measure of respect for historical fiction, "in the days before the historical novel was a money-making business, and when an author expended all his learning and skill and strength on an historical work for his own credit rather than that of his banking account.''l In 1900, William Dean Howells, who by both precept and practice gave some indication of the direction historical fiction had to take if it hoped to retain or reclaim any validity as an art form, also objected to the purely commercial nature of the historical romances which were then the craze. Contending that other literary genres had come to be "characterized by the instinct if not the reason of reality," he felt that from historical fiction "nothing of late has been heard but the din of arms, the horrid tumult of the swashbuckler swashing on his buckler." In trying to explain the popular demand for this type of pseudo-historical romance, he conjectured that the American populace at the zenith of the Gilded Age, "having more reason than ever to be ashamed of itself for its lust of gold and blood," was overly "anxious to get away from itself"; therefore it welcomed "the tarradiddles of the historical romancers as a relief from the odious present." Then he added a most poignant and perceptive comment: that his was a country "which likes a good conscience so much that it prefers unconsciousness to a bad one."2

If then, at the turn of the century, most historical fiction was primarily intended and received as escape literature, a significant transformation in the writers' concept of their purpose must have occurred in order to allow Bernard DeVoto to say in 1937 that he and other historical novelists expected their work "to be realistic, to be psychologically valid, and to be socially aware."3 By the 1930's, then, it was apparent that the nation had a new genre of historical fiction, one of confrontation rather than escape, confrontation of both self and society, of both past and present. The pseudo-historical romance, though by no means extinct, was being countered in large numbers by the true historical novel. Significantly, it was Howells who first posited in 1900óand practiced later in his Midwestern historical novel, The Leatherwood God (1916)óseveral of those principles which would give birth to a form of historical fiction that could truly be called the American historical novel.

One should emphatically note here that not all practitioners of historical fiction turned to a confrontation of historical reality. Most assuredly the twentieth century has delivered its share of histrionic histories and hysterical novels posing as historical fiction; the type Howells objected to so vigorously has not died. But Howells would be pleased, I am sure, with the many works of historical fiction which came to possess inherent value as both literature and history.

Howells objected for several reasons to the historical romances that permeated the literary atmosphere around 1900. He contended that they were "untrue to the complexion of the past" and "to personality in any time," caused largely by the preoccupation of the authors with "bloodshed" and "butchery," and their corresponding inability and lack of desire either to portray character or to capture historical climate. Moreover, he criticized their preoccupation with characters, both fictionaI and historical, of "titles and ranks," a concern which bore "false witness . . . against the American life of individual worth."4 Howells' advocacy of the democratization of historical fiction was to become a generally accepted principle among historical novelists several decades later. However, Howells' primary objection to these romances was his belief that "what is despicable, what is lamentable is to have hit the popular fancy and not done anything to change it, but everything to fix it; to flatter it with false dreams of splendor in the past."6 To Howells the public acceptance of such dreams is the way people come to live on easy terms with themselves. As a literary realist and a philosophical pragmatist, he would have the historical novelist shatter such "false dreams."

Those works of historical fiction of which Howells approved, particularly War and Peace, succeed, he says, because "a whole epoch lives again morally, politically, and socially, with such entirety and large inclusion that the reader himself becomes of it." It is by re-creating for us the "motives and feelings" of people in time pastóand, therefore, of time presentóit is not by "taking us out of ourselves, but by taking us into ourselves" that a work of art proves its worth. Acting on the belief of philosophical pragmatism in personal experience as the ultimate source of reality and truth, Howells contends that a novel "convinces us by entering into our experiences and making its events part of that."6

In one of his many flashbacks, the protagonist of Ross Lockridge's Raintree County (considered by some an American War and Peace), John Wickliff Shawnessy, recalls how, while listening to a Centennial Day speech on July 4, 1876, he had "tried to reconstruct the scene of the Founding Fathers founding and fathering the Republic. But it wouldn't come clear and have any meaning. Penetrating into the reality of the Past was an impossible undertaking," he reflects. Then Lockridge proffers the recognition which echoes Howells' prescription for successful historical fiction: "There was . . . only one realityóthe reality of someone's experience. What people dealt with when they spoke of the Past was a world of convenient abstractions" (802) .7 These convenient abstractions are the "conventional acceptations by which men live on easy terms with themselves" and which Howells would have the historical novelist disperse. Lockridge, like Howells, tries to go behind those convenient abstractions and conventional acceptations, those illusions of the past, to see the past in terms of that one meaningful realityóthe reality of someone's experience.

The particular "someone" in this case is the poet-teacher, John Shawnessyóthrough whose eyes and mind the reader experiences more than fifty years of life in "an adolescent republic that tried to dream itself to perfection by ignoring the realities of life's remorseless comedy" (162). Though at times Lockridge enters the mind of other characters, most of this massive narrative occurs as the thoughts of one man ( Shawnessy) on one day (July 4, 1892) in one place (the imaginary town of Waycross, Raintree County, Indiana ). Lockridge chooses for his historical subject matter both the way of life in a small Indiana town in 1892 and the manners and milieu of a larger county and much larger nation from 1839 to 1892. Raintree County has been described as the most singular of all American historical novels. One should qualify this description by noting that in its singularity Raintree County is not simply a historical novel, as I have described that literary phenomenon. A strong case could be made for this work as an example of each one of Northrop Frye's five modesófrom the mythical to the ironic. Frye says, for example, the myth "deals with gods," the romance "deals with heroes," and the novel "deals with men."8 Raintree County deals with all three, though significantly, one rarely loses sight of the "men." I think it can be shown that finally the low mimetic mode of literary realism is the controlling one and though Howells would find it a long trip from Leatherwood Valley to Raintree County, he would find Lockridge's landscape and legends familiar territory. Lockridge's ultimate concern is with all human illusions, and his efforts are directed specifically both to an examination of the illusions of nineteenth-century Americaóthe illusions it had of itself (of its past, present and future) and the illusions the present may have of itóand to a Howellsian revelation of the realities underlying those illusions.

Joseph L. Blotner, writing of Raintree County a decade after its appearance, feels this work to be possibly "one of the five or six most important novels of this era," and points out, as did most of the contemporary reviewers, that in both narrative technique and structure "the influence of James Joyce's Ulysses is unmistakable."9 Like Joyce, Lockridge needed a method by which to control his materials at all levels; and as William York Tindall remarks, "Lockridge learned many tricks from Joyce.''l0 Less esoteric than Joyce, but, considering his intended audience, just as effective, Lockridge's use of the stream-of-consciousness technique dramatically portrays the specious present of a man in the pastóand as that individual is a reflector of the social forces and attitudes endemic to his region and nation, his personal experience offers insights into the confluence of complexities and contradictions of the specious present of that historical period in general.

The reader learns at one point that Shawnessy's daughter, Eva, feels that "she, too, like the town of Waycross was a being filled with a becoming" (754). In like manner, the entire novel is filled with the "becoming" of a man and his milieuóand it is through this sense of becoming that the successful historical novelist renders his subject both historical and novel. That is, as Shawnessy, in fifty-two flashbacks, reveals the realities which have constituted a half-century of personal experienceóas he attempts to reconstruct his life for himselfóthe reader also experiences those realities and becomes involved with the emerging of the man and his moment. Shawnessy, with all his dreams and disillusionments comes to life, and so does the nation with its dreams built on illusions. Underlying all the discussion and dramatization of dreams and illusions, though, one finds a never ending flow of the realistic details necessary for any final understanding of the life of an individual, a region, or a nation.

A contemporary reviewer referred to the effect of Lockridge's technique as being comparable to that of a "time exposure" as opposed to a snapshot" (represented, he feels, by a work such as Main Street). 11 As with a time exposure, Lockridge's technique allows him to capture the transformations, sharp and subtle, which have marked this period in our history. As often happens in a time exposure, there are scenes which become blurred, the reader being unable to discern precisely the physical nature of the setting. One such scene is Johnny's stay in New York. The "city" represents to him obviously the new industrial America, juxtaposed to the rural, pastoral milieu from which he comes. One learns through Johnny's thoughts that "The City was the meeting of the trains in marshalling yards" (817), that the "City was the Great American Newsstory" (818), and that "the City had an insatiable appetite for words and drugged itself with the thin music of a billion clichés" (820). The physical details, though, are missing; the reader gets a sense of the city, and that is allóbut perhaps that was all one such as Shawnessy from heartland rural America would personally experience. At other times Lockridge does present the physical realities which are an integral part of the history in question; in his Civil War scenes, for example, one touches and tastes the everyday realities of those, as Johnny calls them, "anonymous architects of History" ( 601 ), the privates. The Civil War is just one of several national events which Lockridge transmutes from a conventional abstraction to an emerging reality by presenting it in terms of the personal experience of his protagonist.

Lockridge achieves, finally, what Charles Lee calls "a critical biography of America from the period of its agrarian innocence through the Civil War and into the era of . . . industrial expansion.''l2 Shawnessy's biography becomes the region's and the nation's. His is the heart of the heartland. As Lee, Blotner, and Tindall have all pointed out, perhaps Lockridge's most impressive aesthetic achievement is the extensive temporal and structural parallels he establishes between the personal experiences of Shawnessy and public events in the national experience. For example, a long series of important events dealing with the outbreak of the Civil War parallel exactly, in terms of time, the disruptive occurrences in Shawnessy's first marriage. And most significantly, the parallel events on both levels always have the same causal and consequential relationships to preceding and following events. Blotner notes that this constitutes an artistic fusion of private and public levels of meaning accomplished with similar skill by very few historical novelists (or novelists), American or otherwise.l3 The characters and events of Raintree County are invested with multiple meanings, and finally function on many levels: the personal and national, the narrative and symbolic, the mundane and mythical, the particular and universal, and the historical and ahistorical.l4

Always, though, this novel remains the story of an American in Indiana in the nineteenth century; and on just this level, Lockridge renders insights into the American character of that period which later become the theses of scholarly studies. In The American Adam (1955) R. W. B. Lewis, in his chapter on Walt Whitman and "the New Adam," writes, "This new Adam is both maker and namer."l5 In Raintree County Shawnessy had reflected that Americans "were the new Adams . . . poets of the open road . . . who brought the miracle of names" to the land (887). The thesis of Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964)16 is vividly dramatized in Raintree County where one learns that the "sound of this century . . . is the wail of a train whistle at the crossing. In this lone vowel . . . the Nineteenth Century has its perfect poem" (984). Those observations, though obviously the result of hindsight, do not strike the reader as intrusive because the characters personally experience the realities behind the theories. Lockridge has no desire to substitute one "convenient abstraction" for another. Regardless of whatever else Lockridge may have achieved in Raintree County, he definitely projects a sense of nineteenth-century America. As Gerald Nemanic points out in his recent perceptive critique (from which the epigraph for this essay comes) of Raintree County, Lockridge's projection of person and place is based on a careful familiarity with "the artifacts, tenor, and style of life in nineteenth century Indiana." The ultimate intent of these historical specifics is the discovery, as Nemanic puts it, of "the principles of American development, the foundation of American character."l7 In the fictional mode, then, Lockridge has sought answers to the same questions as those which have motivated American Studies scholars such as Lewis, Smith, and Marx. I would agree with Nemanic that one might regard Raintree-County as "The Final Exp eriment with the Great American Novel"óbut I also would suggest that it is indubitably "The Great American Studies Novel."

One might even contend that many of the strengths and weaknesses of the novel result from its typically American natureóit is extensively eclectic and markedly experimental. Lockridge, at one time or another, borrows techniques or themes directly from Hawthorne, Tolstoy, Whitman, Twain, Joyce, Dos Passos, Wolfe, and Faulkner. For example, the germ of the novel, if a single one can be identified, must have been Hawthorne's short story "The Great Stone Face"; and Lockridge impressively integrates this motif, as the society he depicts discloses its priorities and value system by hailing the politician, the businessman, and the military leader as its respective heroesónever, significantly, recognizing the poet and hometown philosopher, John Wickliff Shawnessy. His emulation of the Wolfean sprawl and echoing of several Wolfean themes, on the other hand, contributes very little. It is his adaptation of the Joycean stylistic and structural device of the stream of consciousness, of course, which finally enables him to succeed in his multifaceted endeavor. Also in a typically American fashion, he manages to use this traditionally esoteric literary technique in a manner which does not alienate the general reader. Tindall believes that Lockridge "succeeded in narrowing, if not entirely closing, the space that has separated the general reader from the many leveled novel," doing so "without the loss of value that might be supposed." "Value," says Tindall, "depends not so much upon the amount of reality in a book as the amount of reality under control, and control is a matter of method.''l8 Lockridge manages to gain control over a large amount of the historical reality of his region and the nationóand I feel he succeeds in narrowing, if not entirely closing, the space that often separates the general reader from the multileveled reality of the American past.

John Shawnessy's quest for identity in Raintree County embodies the paradoxes and perversities to be experienced by anyone engaged in an authentic realization of what David Anderson calls the "psychological dimension" of a region.19 To travel to the heart of the heartlandórather with Walter Havighurst or William Gass (to pick two of its more astute contemporary interpreters) as one's guide, makes no differenceóis to know the paradoxical symbiosis of the barren and the bountiful, the gray and the green, the oppressive and the liberating, or (to reinforce the metaphor of heart) the arteriosclerotic and aerobic. Ross Lockridge takes us on such a trip to the ever-emerging past of the heartland. His personal response to the psychological dimension of his place and time, suicide, does not preclude the viability of the vision he shares with us in Raintree County. Only by returning in thought to the realities of his past does Lockridge's Shawnessy come to recognize that his identity will not be found finally in the simple illusions of innocence he has so long maintained. Only by realizing that "America is the image of human change" (769), that his world has been, is, and will continue to be one of continual change, does he come to know that his "victory is not in consummations but in quests (1059). So must it be for us. And our quest can be immeasurably furthered by the efforts of writers capable of giving to the past a new sense of presenceóthat sense by which one confronts and comprehends the changing realities of Leatherwood Valley and Raintree County, the sense by which the American past becomes both shadow and illumination, problematic and present.

University of New Mexico



1. Harold Frederic, "On Historical Novels Past and Present," The Bookman, 8 (December 1898), 333.

2. W. D. Howells, "The New Historical Romances," North American Review, 171 (December 1900), 936.

3. Bernard DeVoto, "Fiction Fights the Civil War," Saturday Review of Literature, 17 (December 18, 1937), 4.

4. Howells, pp. 939-941.

5. Ibid., p. 943.

6. Ibid., p. 946.

7. Ross Lockridge, Jr., Raintree County (Boston, 1948), p. 493. Hereafter the page numbers in parentheses refer to this edition.

8. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Four Essays (Princeton, New Jersey,1957), p. 306.

9. Joseph L. Blotner, "Raintree County Revisited," The Western Humanities Review, 10 (1956), 58. Also, see John Leggett, Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies (New York, 1974), passim.

10. William York Tindall, "Many-Leveled Fiction: Virginia Woolf to Ross Lockridge," College English, 10 (November 1948), 70.

11. James Hilton, "Flashing Vision of America Lost and Found," New York Herald-Tribune Books, 24 (January 4, 1948), 1.

l2. Charles Lee, "Encompassing the American Spirit," New York Times Book Review, January 4, 1948, p. 5.

13. Blotner, pp. 61-65.

14. See Blotner, p. 61, and Tindall p. 70.

15. R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago, 1955), p. 51.

16. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York, l964).

17. Cerald Nemanic, "Ross Lockridge, Raintree County and the Epic of Irony," MidAmerica 11 ( 1975 ), p. 38.

18. Tindall, p. 71.

19. David D. Anderson, "The Dimensions of the Midwest," MidAmerica II (1974), p. 10.

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