Copyright Ross F. Lockridge, Jr., 1947, 1948 / All rights reserved

Selections from Raintree County

Excerpts from a reading given by Larry Lockridge, July 2, 1995

at The Poet Tree in New York.

Leaf Motif

1--Flowing / from distant / to distant summer, the river. . .

2--The man who stood in the little office room of the Pedee Academy. . .

3--How / the rock had lain / there always. . .

4--The Photographer. . . [known to be a self-portrait of the author]

5--Backstage in the Broadway Theatre he wandered. . .

6--DESIRE, said the Perfessor. . .

7--My father had died before I was old enough to remember. . .

8--He would be that dreamer. . .


* 1 *


was a place of archaic lifeforms and primitive sounds, and it was a cold green flowing and a place for beautiful nakedness that summer. That summer Johnny Shawnessy was seventeen years old. . . .

The river was the oldest pathway of the County, a place of frogs, fish, waterbirds, turtles, muskrats, coons, wildcats, groundhogs. The life within and upon its banks had not changed for centuries. And the river's name was the oldest name in Raintree County. . . .

. . .In this disguise of English misspelling and mispronunciation lurked a vagrant Indian word, a name never spelled but only spoken, a relic of pure language, the utterance of a vanished people. For within two or three years after the settlers came to the County, the Indians were forever gone. . . .

It was, he was certain, a water secret in the beginning. What secret lurked in the reedy, fishy, muddy word 'Shawmucky'? Was this name the memory of a strange creature that the first man discovered in the river? For the river had been there before any man had come. The river was there when the great icesheet withdrew and left the land virginal, dripping, devoid of life. The river was there when the first green life surged up from the south. The river was full of shining fleshes when the first man came wandering into the forest country that was now called Raintree County. And with him man brought names, and the river became a name.

--RC, pp. 93, 95


* 2 *

The man who stood in the little office room of the Pedee Academy made Johnny Shawnessy think of a huge, vivid insect that had flown from unknown parts and lit walking in Raintree County. . . He was tall and thin. Black hair, split exactly in the middle, was slicked flat to a long, narrow head. The nose suggested a cutting instrument. Small piercing black eyes, not quite in focus, peered through pince-nez glasses. From that moment on, Johnny always had an uneasy presentiment that Professor Stiles was not there to stay. Sometime in the very middle of a sentence, abruptly remembering whence and why he had come, he would rise to the points of his toes, his black coat-tails would erect themselves into shining wings, and his angular brittle body would shoot off the ground and go whirring down the air to some other temporary lodgment on the American earth. . . .

From the beginning Raintree County called him 'the Perfessor.' . . . For it was the same title that had been applied from time immemorial in the County to all the glib, fraudulent creatures who appeared at carnivals and festive anniversaries to sell hair tonic, quick success, and brand-new sexual potency to the common folk. Each of these egregious fakirs was known to his assistants and to the unschooled yokels as the Perfessor. It was a title of respect for an itinerant wizard who robbed the people by sheer power of language.

--RC, pp. 147-48


* 3 *

...&  I remember

immutable and lonely. Eggshaped, part-sunken in the ground, yet higher than a man, it lay in the South Field just short of the railfence. The land rose gently behind the farmhouse and then fell like a wave of waning strength to the limit of the field where the rock lay. The rock's immensely solid mass was tinged with red, and sometimes on summer evenings the great scarred shape would glow dull scarlet after the land had turned to gray. The moveless mass of it had been there before the settlers came, had been there when Columbus saw the flowering shores of western islands, had been there when the first man, wandering through the forests of the middle continent, discovered a river winding to the lake. Centuries had flowed and faded around the rock as seasons did around the life of Johnny Shawnessy. And yet it had always seemed a stranger in this earth, a stranded voyager from other climes.

He could be sure that in the periphery of all his memories the rock had lain there at the limit of the land.

--RC, p. 297


* 4 *

The Photographer was a pleasant young man with unusual blue eyes, shiny darkbrown hair, and dimples, who did not seem at all disturbed by the confusion in which he worked. People kept coming up and asking him questions about his apparatus, and every now and then, while he was under the hood correcting the focus, a small boy would come up and peer into the lens. Unperturbed, the Photographer waved him away and went on with his work, walking swiftly back and forth from his covered cart to his camera, carrying plates, making adjustments, bobbing in and out of the hood. In this scene, he alone was the artist-contriver as he prepared to trace with a radiant pencil a legend of light and shadow, some faces on the great Road of the Republic.

--RC, p. 555


* 5 *

Backstage in the Broadway Theatre he wandered waiting for his cue, trying to remember his part in the play. Standing on the darkened stage, he saw the pale faces of the audience ranked in receding balconies to the sky misted with stars. Apparently it was a performance of his own play, though he hadn't sufficiently rehearsed it and couldn't even remember his own lines. He was wandering then backstage, hunting for the young woman who had the leading female part. He heard the sound of a train passing in the night. In the far places of the City, across the stony squares and vacant lots steeped by the pale moon, the whistle of the train was loud. The train was rushing from the City, the funnel was a flare of fire, the passengers were homeward-going. He thought of the place where the great trains came to rest, vast sheds of lonely sound, and there among the shapes of steel the strikers moved, a wan horde waiting for the light . . .

Somehow he had come to be in an Egyptian temple where stone idols to lascivious gods stood between brownstone columns. Priestesses naked except for pelts of the brown tobacco leaf scattered gold coins at the base of an idol of pure gold, which, changing slowly, became Mr. Cassius P. Carney, the high priest of the temple, in ceremonial robes stained with tobacco juice.

--RC, p. 861


* 6 *

--DESIRE, said the Perfessor, is blind, as the Greeks well knew. The original love-desire is that of the sperm for the egg. This blind little boat loaded with memories goes and goes till the fuel gives out or it touches port. This terrific tadpole is the real bearer of life. It is Aeneas bearing the Golden Bough and overcoming death. And the only sacred place is the darkwalled valley into which it swims. As for us, we're just seedpods with delusions of grandeur.

The Perfessor took a drink.

--I wish I could believe in sacred places, he said. At heart, I'm really a bacchant hunting for a garland and a pliant nymph. I ask nothing better than to shout hymen and jump up and down before the symbol of the god. But beauty and the gods can't survive the era of Darwin and the Dynamo. All lovely things are old things.

He took a pull at his bottle and sighed.

--RC, p 912


* 7 *

--My father [the Perfessor said] had died before I was old enough to remember him. When I was only ten years old, my mother died. In that death, Jerusalem Webster Stiles knew the secret of life--which is death--and never after added to his wisdom though he added to his words. And with that act, also, he left Raintree County and went East, where he had roots. Now, as you know, he came back to Raintree County when he was a young man, but he never came back home. He learned early, with the bitterness of the homeless child, that the earth cares nothing for our grief, and that even our mother who cared for us in life cares nothing for us in death. We care for her and keep her image alive in our brief world of memory and grief, but she doesn't care for us any longer. She has forgotten us. She doesn't remember our face.

--RC, 986-87


* 8 *

He would be that dreamer, and he would have perhaps again his ancient and eternal dream . . .

Of a quest for the sacred Tree of Life. Of a happy valley and a face of stone--and of the coming of a hero. Of mounds beside the river. Of threaded bones of lovers in the earth. Of shards of battles long ago. Of names upon the land, the fragments of forgotten language. Of beauty risen from the river and seen through rushes at the river's edge. Of the people from whom the hero sprang, the eternal, innocent children of mankind. Of their towns and cities and the weaving millions. Of the earth on which they lived--its blue horizons east and west, exultant springs, soft autumns, brilliant winters. And of all its summers when the days were long.

So dreaming, he held the golden bough still in his hand. So dreaming, he neared the shrine where the tree was and the stones and the letters upon them. And the branch quivered alive in his hands, unrolled its bark, became a map covered with lines and letters, a poem of mute but lovely meanings, a page torn from the first book printed by man, the legend of a life upon the earth and of a river running through the land, a signature of father and preserver, of some young hero and endlessly courageous dreamer

RC, p. 1060

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