From, Myth, Memory, and the American Earth: The Durability of Raintree County
© Copyright 1998 by the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature
ROSS LOCKRIDGE, RAINTREE COUNTY, AND THE EPIC OF IRONY By GERALD C. NEMANIC
William Carlos Williams may be the only important writer of our time who persisted in believing that an American epic might still be written. His own Paterson, an answer to Greek and Latin with the bare hands," was not to be that work. Williams knew it; indeed, he visualized his efforts as a necessary preliminary, "a gathering up" of raw materials into a foundation on which later poets might build epic structures.
The successful dramatization of American experience would result not from sophisticated commentaries on the nature of the American and his institutions. It would follow from the direct knowledge of objects, a simple apprehension of and generous acceptance of the "beautiful thing." "No ideas but in things" and "beautiful thing" are refrains echoing through Paterson. They aid in building a motif central to the meaning of the poem. One reflection of that meaning is the knowledge that any reification of the national experience must begin at the sensuous level, in that world most simple and yet baffling.
Perhaps the implication of Williams' stricture is that the only worthwhile "epic" of American life must of necessity grow from an endearment which might never be associated with "ideas," but only with the destructable world of time and space. If so, how could any one man possibly know enough "things" of this sprawling, chaotic nation to allow for, in his sensibility, the evolution of a metaphorical frame suitable to the demands of an epic vision? Williams thought long on this dilemma and set it before us in his art. He not only believed in the dilemma, he was thoroughly convinced that it could be solved. A quarter century after Book I of Paterson issued its challenge to future poets we have not yet seen the fulfillment, nor perhaps even those first halting steps toward the realization of his prophesy. Our best instruction still lies in pondering the import of "pre-epic" poems like Paterson or Hart Crane's The Bridge, and, in the genre of prose fiction, reflecting on the lessons taught by valiant failures, one of which, Raintree County, is the main subject of this essay.
Ross Lockridge's mammoth "epic" novel was published, to much fanfare, in 1948. It was the author's first novel, a work more than eight years in the making. Within months of its first printing the obscure English instructor who wrote it had become a wealthy celebrity. A number of prestigious critics had reviewed Raintree County with enthusiasm. Howard Mumford Jones went so far as to declare the appearance of this novel as marking the end of a serious slump in American fiction. The motion picture industry, searching everywhere for new filmscripts which might help mine another bonanza like Gone With the Wind, provided the author with increased public exposure and a whopping sum for the rights to film his novel.1 At that moment it seemed quite possible that another youthful and brilliant novelist was coming out of the Midwest, as Dreiser, Lewis, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald had done before him, to reshape the forms of American fiction.
But there were immediate and disturbing side effects resulting from this public display. Lockridge, a highly sensitive and private man, was finding the role of instant celebrity difficult. Despite strong public and critical acclaim for his work, he raged at the minority of nay-sayers who pointed out the shortcomings of his style and formal conceptions.2 A young man of thirty-three, after eight years of exhausting work on what he believed to be his magnum opus, was being churned through the mill of public opinion in a fashion he could hardly have anticipated. With a part of his movie money he purchased a new home in Bloomington, Indiana, his home town. There he brooded and drove his new Kaiser automobile up and down the driveway. Not three months after the first appearance of Raintree County, Ross Lockridge had committed suicide. While many groped for reasons his mother said simply that "the boy put his heart's blood into the book, he had nothing left."
In the more than twenty-five years since Lockridge's death his novel has steadily lost visibility to the point where, by 1974, it had gone out of print entirely. Lockridge's work has not, it seems, interested many literary critics beyond that initial excitement engendered by its publication. There are some good reasons for this neglect: like many young writers, Lockridge may have attempted to write too much, too soon. His ambition not being matched by his experience, the style and formal qualities of the novel are flawed. The author's romantic conception of the American epic experience, a part of that "Great American Novel" syndrome associated with the first half of the twentieth century, has by now lost a good deal of literary caste. And the fact remains that Lockridge wrote only one novel, and this has not been sufficient to establish a literary reputation.
Yet to the student of American cultural life this one novel is arrestingóa literary curiosity which exasperates us with its turgidity while as often luring us forward with its beauty. One is tempted to regard it as The Final Experiment with the Great American Novel and to discern, inextricably interwoven through its images, visions and sentiments, the stamp both of its successful vitalism and of its inevitable failures.
Williams' opinion of Raintree County has not been recorded, but his stricture, "No ideas but in things," penetrates to what is both good and bad in the novel. For an immediate insight into the methods Lockridge will use to dramatize the essential experience of America, we need look no farther than the title page and dedication. There the author introduces us to Raintree County, Indiana, which has "no boundaries in time and space.... You will hunt for it on the map, and it won't be there.... For Raintree County is not the country of the perishable fact. It is the country of the enduring fiction." At the outset we are told not to expect the dull, stubborn facts of the real world of rural Indiana but an imaginative vision wherein "ideas" are father to the materials they create and not, as Williams would have it, vice versa.
In the accompanying dedication we find: "For My Mother/ Elsie Shockley Lockridge/This book of lives, loves, and antiquities." Here is revealed the obverse of Lockridge's attitude toward his materials. A "book of . . . antiquities" seems much different than one which has been ascribed "no boundaries in time and space." And this dichotomy informs the entire novel. 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. Raintree County will also have a metaphorical reality, and the author will lead us through interminable Platonic dialogues and prolix theorizings on the nature of history and art in his determination to fully develop that metaphor.
In Raintree County Lockridge details the life of his epic hero, John Wickliff Shawnessy, from his youth in antebellum Indiana ("that mirror of the ancient republic now lost in time") through the Civil War and into a later life amid the trappings of a "Gilded Age." Mostly we are in Raintree County, the boundaries of which will delimit the existence of Shawnessy, but significant scenes range from the battle of Chickamauga to Ford's Theatre on the night of Lincoln's assassination. Shawnessy's life span has been determined strategically, for into this representative American hero must be woven strands of American experience both old and new. There is the pre-war dream of an Edenic republic; then the chaos of internecine warfare; and finally the increasingly impersonal life of industrial America. "The greatness of Lincoln," says the seasoned Shawnessy of later years, "was the greatness of America in his time."3 And with this comment Shawnessy passes judgment on himself and his times, for it was that first half of the nineteenth century which was "capable of creating a great man," a man of mythic proportions. The remainder of that century molded the complicated and ambiguous American hero, that prototype of the anti-hero which we may all recognize as contemporary.
Through Shawnessy, Lockridge attempts to mirror the essential American experience. As a Midwesterner, the hero exists at the geographical and cultural middle ground of the nation. The Raintree County culture he absorbs is stable and traditional enough to maintain a strong grip on the hero's moral self. Instinctively vital and curious, young Johnny is fully able to mount a critique of the mixture of puritan and bourgeois values which permeates this society, and yet he is not capable, in the last analysis, of washing them from his conscience.
The isolate purity of the County is lovingly examined in all its "antiquity," and yet it is, at the same time, traversed by the Great National Road, that main artery to the West which carries a steady stream of pioneers past the Shawnessy home. In his earliest recollections Johnny is stirred by the promise of freedom and adventure symbolized by the wagonloads of ebullient emigrants. The young hero is torn by conflicting impulses. He yearns to understand a tribal past and to clarify his own position within the framework of his circumscribed culture.
Thus he clings to that place, Raintree County, which promises answers to his insistent questions. Simultaneously, he is excited by the epic sweep of national experience and dreams of contact with the innocence he associates with westering. A crucial dilemma associated with the production of the American epic is reflected in Shawnessy's quandary. Named 'John Wickliff" for that old hero of the race who translated sacred documents into the vernacular, Shawnessy becomes the potential American Homer. The undoing of the pure vision of an American republic, through war and greed, will nullify his efforts to compose the American Odyssey. Not only will it be impossible for Shawnessy to absorb the discordant and protean elements of post-war American life, but the maiming experience of his own guilt will sap his resolve to continue.
Raintree County is a novel conceived in paradox, for it is an epic structure which reveals that the artistic realization of the true epic is no longer possible, at least not in America. Shawnessy's epic poem, this epic within the novel, is the work of a lifetime. It is begun in the first enthusiasms of youth and carried on doggedly, sporadically, and, finally, perfunctorily, into the last years of the century. As art, this epic poem is fated to remain inchoate and fragmented, a mere literary curiosity. Shawnessy finds that he can hope to succeed ultimately not through his literary efforts but in "the legend of my life, with which I refute all sophistries. By a myth of homecoming and a myth of resurrection." (988) This legend is the fabric of Raintree County and it is Lockridge, viewing from the artists's perspective, and not Shawnessy, his creation, who strives to indite the ironical American epic.
Raintree County meanders through more than one thousand pages of flashbacks, dream narratives and philosophical disquisitions, yet the basic outline of the novel is simple, for it is essentially a bildungsroman. Here is played out the story of John Shawnessy's education, symbolized by his search for the mythical Rain Tree, the tree of knowledge. He was born in April, 1839, and the novel's literal action takes place on one day, July 4,1892. From that point in time Shawnessy reflects, through reminiscence and flashbacks, on his life as an American hero.
The hero's first concrete memories are of 1844ópioneers passing his home on their way to Oregon. At that point Johnny first feels a longing for the western star. But youth in rural Indiana is idyllic. In memory, "the clock in the Court House Tower . . . is always fixed at nine o'clock, and it is summer and the days are long." These endless days are spent musing and wandering by the river. John Shawnessy husks corn in the autumn and secretly adores Nell Gaither. He imagines himself a young Adonis and her an airy river nymph. The senior Shawnessys are kindly folk, yet imbued with the implacable moral values of middle America and Scotch Presbyterianism. The father, T. D. Shawnessy, is a doctor, preacher, and mixer of botanical medicines. His wife Ellen is a hardy woman, but softly lyrical as well, the fine fruit of a pioneer heritage. This portrait of the early life of an American hero is one of warmth and security. The occasional vicissitudes are not atypical; indeed the conception is remarkably similar to those of the earlier Indiana masters of sentimental fictionóBooth Tarkington, Maurice Thompson, et al. 4
But troubling undercurrents complicate this idealized picture. Johnny is moved by the restlessness of America in the 1840s and 1850s. Lockridge views these pregnant times as an inevitable climax of two hundred years' history. The westering spirit of a nation catches Shawnessy in its wave; he longs for a free and glorious life which the limits of Raintree County cannot supply. His first fascination with literature stems from a vaguely felt need to rise above the limitations of place. Another shadow is cast over the hero's youth by the building fury of fraternal enmity which will culminate in a civil war. Even before the out break of fighting he is caught up in the fate of the South. Seduced by Susannah Drake, an exotic Southern visitor to Raintree County, Johnny is determined to fulfill his responsibilities to the "fallen" girl. They marry and travel South in the troubled days before the firing on Fort Sumpter. Susannah, at once incredibly sensual and puritanical, is Lockridge's somewhat stereotyped symbol of the South. She is, finally, a schizophrenic driven to madness by a moral and racial ambiguity. Her derangement results in a desperate flight from her husband and an attempted suicide which brings about the death of their young son. Thus for Lockridge the South represents an American tragedy which destroys both its own and the sons of the Republic.
Once Susannah has been safely institutionalized, Johnny is free to fight for the Republic. He is transformed into the typical American foot soldier: after being wounded in action, he spends weeks in a military hospital near Washington where, among his wounded countrymen, he is visited by President Lincoln and Walt Whitman. Back home in Raintree County, Johnny has been erroneously reported killed in action. Heartbroken sweetheart Nell in turn marries Johnny's boyhood rival, Garwood Jones, and then dies in childbirth.
Having had enough of historical melodrama, Lockridge settles his hero into the life of Raintree County. Except for an ill advised foray into politics and a few minor adventures in the iniquitous East, Shawnessy leads a model life in tranquil obscurity, remarries, rears a family, teaches school, and works fitfully on the epic poem he can never finish. Occasionally former friends return, sons of Raintree County who have moved into the larger world of the post-war Republic. There is the famous journalist, Jerusalem Webster Stiles, who serves as an intellectual mirror image for Shawnessy. Garwood Jones, coward and opportunist, has become a U.S. senator and a candidate for President. Cash Carney was once a local hustler but now, in an age favoring manipulative genius, he has become a financial power and molder of political personalities, a character modeled perhaps on another Midwesterner of obscure roots, Mark Hanna. The "Gilded Age" glitters forth boldly and John Shawnessy, heir of the heroes of old, has in it no place of honor.
Within the framework of the bildungsroman the protagonist becomes life's initiate; he experiences marriage, lost love, death, war, and remorse while his personality slowly ripens. There is a thematic questóthe hero's desire to explore the secrets of the exotic Rain Treeówhich is compatible with the growth principle of the novel and helps unify the action.
It would seem that the melodramatic paraphernalia of the plot could be brought forth as evidence of the novel's inherent weakness. And yet Lockridge's melodrama is so self-conscious, so mannered and obviously exaggerated, that we are forced to examine its possible intent. The work, which from one angle seems so romantically earnest, yet from another can be viewed as ironical and satiric. We see that Shawnessy's life story, replete with classic analogues, describes the development of an heroic American prototype. But the novelist often reminds us of another viewpoint: from it we can see that Shawnessy has evolved into a sententious wind bag who rocks sleepily toward death in an obscure corner of the Midwest backwater. He mutters of a 'lost republic" and timorously mollifies the harpies of the local PTA in order to keep his job. In the crucial decisions of his lifeómarrying Susannah instead of Nell, rejecting the impulse to move Westóhe has chosen wrongly. His moral earnestness becomes a maddening prudery; his heroic attempt to forge the American epic seems merely the scribbling of an aging schoolmaster who clings pathetically to youthful dreams of glory.
This other, or anti-epic, which coexists with the first is best illuminated in a comparison of the novel's hero and his antagonist, both of whose initials are "J.W.S." John Wickliff Shawnessy is not the exclusive alter ego of Ross Lockridge. As much a part of the author's sensibility is the cynical, bumptious intellectualóJerusalem Webster Stiles. Shawnessy and Stiles are antagonists, and yet they represent divided segments of that personality which is close to Lockridge's own. Stiles enters the novel when Shawnessy is an adolescent. The "Perfesser" come from the East to open an "Academy" in Raintree County, the place of his birth, and it is in Pedee Academy that Shawnessy is introduced to the learning of the ages: English poetry, the classics, philosophy, the new science of Darwin, and the new skepticism in religion. Stiles, the jaded aesthete, exercises a powerful hold on Shawnessy's pliant imagination. Representing the "stile-ish" East, Europe, and modern intellectual taste, Stiles is the primary formal educative force in Shawnessy's youth. It is as if Lockridge splits his own identity in two. The author had, like Shawnessy, grown up to an innocent and powerful idealism in the quietude of pastoral Indiana. We can imagine that Lockridge's father, a college professor, was much like T. D. Shawnessyóearnest, conscientious, kind, and morally upright. The Lockridge family, ensconced in a rambling old house amid the towering elms of a college town, probably lived in much the same warm, wholesome atmosphere as did the Shawnessys of Raintree County.
But for young Lockridge there was also the inevitable move to the state university, and then on to Harvard. We can also imagine some of the disillusionment, the hardening, that most young men suffer when removed from the idyllic life of a small Midwestern community. He was thrust into a competitive, lonely world and was suddenly responsible for a wife and children. Shawnessy also ripens through experience, but his pastoral nineteenth century world still provides enough ballast to maintain him upright. Shawnessy does not sink under the weight of modern life, whereas Stiles, and Lockridge, too, are not so fortunate.
Stiles represents not only the intellectual avant garde of the East, but a deeper kind of debilitating knowledgeóthe finality of death known to young, when psychological defenses have not yet been developed to combat despair. Late in the novel, in a drunken moment, Stiles tells Shawnessy:
Years ago . . . I was a child in Raintree County. He paused as if the words just said were full of labyrinthine meanings. My father 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 deathóand never added to his wisdom though he added to his words. And with that act, also, he left Raintree County and went East.... 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. (986, 987)
Stiles, who from one angle appears to be merely the hero's foil, is, in another way, the hero's mirror image, and indeed the two characters, both J.W.S., can be seen as a composite figure which may reflect the complex personality of the author. Accepting this, we could explain the perplexing doubleness of the novelóthat tendency to both rhapsodize and satirize, to both believe in the epic heroism of John Shawnessy's life and to judge so severely its limitations.
This curious duality, or the depth of Lockridge's irony, if indeed it is conscious irony, brings us inevitably to speculation about the role of the artist's personality in his creation, and, in this case, to consideration of his suicide. It is surely possible that Lockridge's suicide had nothing to do with his literary career, or that the concerns of art played only a minor part in a highly complex situation. Yet in retrospect we can see signs of forboding in the novel itself. The double vision spoken of previously was not necessarily an "enriching ambiguity." Perhaps the doubleness of Raintree County is not so much the artistic weaving of an ironic vision as it is the sign of a perilous personal dilemma, one which may have eventually led to the tragic denouement of the author's self-destruction.
In Midwestern fiction we have seen the development of a romantic schoolóthe Hoosiersóand a subsequent reaction toward realism. While neither movement was the exclusive property of Midwestern writers, there were, between about 1870 and 1930, a disproportionate number of writers from the region who took on the key roles in the evolution of literary fashions. Complicated spirits like Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson showed elements of both romanticism and realism in their fiction. Winesburg, Ohio is a fine example of how an ostensibly objective piece of writing can be enriched through an infusion of pathos and human sympathy.
Lockridge, like Anderson, exhibited a complicated relation ship to his Midwestern roots. Both writers wished to write the truth about life in the Midwest they had known, and yet the need to confront the facts came into deep conflict with an emotional need to charge that world with significance, whatever these "facts" might show. It is perhaps ironic that Anderson's simpler vision may have benefited him as an artist. He wrote the Winesburg stories much as Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, directly from the heart and with a minimal self-consciousness. The ironies and beauties abiding in those books are inherent in the tangible, dramatic conceptions of their makers.
Lockridge, on the other hand, was an intellectual as well as an artist and his novel is partly conceived in intellectual terms. Although Raintree County is brilliant in parts, it fails in its intellectualismóin the abstracted Platonic dialogues which take up too much of its last half. In these debates Shawnessy, the idealist, combats Stiles, the cynic, on subjects ranging from love, marriage and the family to politics, religion, anthropology and myth. We find here a rough analogue to Anderson's conflicting vision of Winesburg. Objectivity clashes with a sense of personal involvement, despair combats hope, elemental hatred strives in no less elemental love. Anderson can present the reader with a moving dramatization of these conflicts; Lockridge too often can only talk about them.
And so we come to face, finally, a clear illustration of art's value, the force of its humanism. The gift of the artist is to be able to confront us with dilemma in a tangible form and through this presentation to reap, for himself and his reader, a spiritual harvest. The imperfect, though valiant, attempts of Lockridge to reach that consolation result in the frustrating ambiguity which is Raintree County, a novel which reveals our bewilderment as well as our vitality as a culture.
Northeastern Illinois University
1. Raintree County was winner of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Semi-Annual Novel Award for fiction suitable for adaptation to the screen. The award provided a minimum of $125,000, with bonus clauses which could bring the total to $275,000. The studio, of course, gained film rights to the novel.
2. Hamilton Basso, writing in The New Yorker, simply dismissed Lockridge as a "second-hand Wolfe." Newsweek pegged the book as "sprawling, exasperating, tedious."
3. Lockridge, Ross, Jr. Raintree County. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1948, 455. All other references in the novel are indicated parenthetically after the quote.
4. Ross Lockridge, Sr., was a scholar of Indiana history and lore while teaching in the Speech Department at Indiana University. He wrote A. Lincoln (1930) and Old Fauntleroy Home (1939), the latter concerning a well known house in New Harmony, Ind. His son was probably quite familiar with the Hoosier writers.
5. We discover, partly through some heavy handed symbolism and foreshadowing, that Susannah is a mulatto. The scar she bears in a particularly delectable location is the result of a fire which killed her father and his black mistress. Note that the surname "Drake" was a]so used by Faulkner, several years earlier, to designate the neurotic Southern heroine of Sanctuary.
Back to Essays Page Back to Table of Contents
The Novel Essays Other Writings RL Jr. Writer's Award Complete Contents Book Orders The Biography Photos / Postcards RC Source & Facsimiles Suicide & Prevention Movie & Score Site managed by RIII Web Page design by henley/graphics
Page last updated: 25 January 1998