© 1979 Markham Review (Vol. 8, pp. 36-40.) Raintree County and the Power of Place By Fred Erisman
Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s novel, Raintree County (1948) has not lacked critical attention. A Book-of-the-Month Club selection and the winner of a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Novel Award before publication, it enjoyed a brief spurt of popular notice. More recently, it has attracted a degree of scholarly consideration. It has been discussed in the context of the epic tradition, has been read through the spectacles of Freudian analysis, has been held up as a good example of many leveled fiction, and has been variously judged to be a state ment of continuing faith in American mythology and a banal, flatulent piece of self-serving hackwork.1
That Lockridge intended his novel to be an epic, even mythic account of the American experience is self-evident. As he tells the story of a single day, July 4, 1892, in the lives of his characters, his conscious references to the central themes of American intellectual history, his calculated controlling of time and event, and his careful arrangement of characters speak for themselves. Less evident, but no less significant, is the book's reflection of the importance of space and place as elements in American thought. Whatever else it may be, Raintree County is a novel of locales and boundaries. Taking its name and its nature from an imaginary place, it incorporates in its story the spatial perceptions and attitudes of its characters as they encounter the American landscape of the nineteenth century. In so doing, the novel provides a notable examination of the influence of spatial attitudes upon human character and in many ways anticipates by a quarter of a century the expansion of those attitudes by the environmental novelists of the 1960s and 1970s.
The simplest view of the world sees it as a series of contrasts. As Yi-Fu Tuan, a cultural geographer, points out,
A simple two-fold classification might distinguish ... habitats into the categories 'carpentered' and 'noncarpentered.' The carpentered world is replete with straight lines, angles, and rectangular shapes. Cities are rectangular environment par excellence. Nature and the countryside, in contrast, lack rectangularity.
These varying environments, in turn, affect individual perceptions and attitudes. Though the environment is not, Tuan points out, totally determining, it "has an effect on perception. People who live in a 'carpentered' world are susceptible to different kinds of illusion from those who live in an environment lacking in orthogonality."2 One can, therefore, expect to find different, contrasting locales producing different, contrasting characters.
This is the case with Raintree County. The simplest form of spatial contrast, rural versus urban, Lockridge uses many times in the novel. As John Shawnessy, the protagonist, moves through the story, he repeatedly finds himself confronted by the juxtaposition of rural and urban attitudes. Inescapably a child of the country himself, Shawnessy embodies the virtues traditionally associated with rural living; he is, for Lockridge, truly a "child of the sunlight, the corndense earth, the simple beliefs of Raintree County."3 His rural virtues, however, time and again come up against those of the city. As a newlywed he travels to New Orleans, and finds that the city stinks:
It stank of fish, tar, rum, cess, garbage, horse dung, human beings. It stank appallingly, and this stink as they neared the docks in the windless night almost choked Johnny. He looked in embarrassment at his wife.... Was it possible that she wasn't aware of this stink? (430 31).
Eighteen years later, he travels to New York only to find it vast and indifferent: "In the late hours, he left the echoing building and stepped out again into the stale valleys and caverns of the City, and the City roared around him, multitudinous, unsubdued, uncaring" (819).
The conflict of rural and urban values, developed piecemeal through Shawnessy's travels, Lockridge makes explicit at the end of the book. There he speaks of the gap between Shawnessy's rural perceptions of life and those extant in the city:
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 (848).
Lockridge's point is obvious. City and country, each inexorably molded by its characteristic outlook, are by nature antagonistic.
More subtle, and more elaborately developed, is Lockridge's attribution of "carpentered" and "uncarpentered" attitudes to specific characters. John Shawnessy, rural man, is plainly the spokesman for the uncarpentered perspective: he runs for Congress on an unabashedly idealistic platform, and he responds to the urban materialism of a financier friend by eloquently pointing out that "there are other republics besides your own and . . . 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" (778, 847). Shawnessy's view of America, in sum, is that of the humane idealist, ever hopeful of the future of the diverse American spirit.
Balancing Shawnessy is "Perfessor" Jerusalem Webster Stiles. An educator turned journalist, the Perfessor serves as Shawnessy's gadfly and alter ego, always questioning, always attacking, always embracing whatever outrageous belief opposes the rural values of Raintree County. His is the indifferent view of the city-dweller, and his sense of mankind is influenced accordingly:
When you stand on a high roof, and look down at the canyons of one of our great modern cities, how can you resist the impression that you are looking into the welter and stench of the Great Swamp itself! The people look like frantic bugs going in and out of holes.
Whereas Shawnessy defends man's independence, the Perfessor denies it: "There aren't trillions of possibilities, as you imply, but only in every case the one thing that happened. Down to the most distant future, everything has to all intents and purposes already happened in the only way it could--through the operation of causality." And, as the book closes, Lockridge spells out the Perfessor's role as Shawnessy's mirror image: "What was in reverse for him had come right for Mr. Shawnessy" (815, 944, 1057). The contrast of carpentered and uncarpentered, expressed in the contrast of urban and rural, cynic and idealist, is one component of American existence.
A more complex statement of socio-spatial relations appears in Lockridge's use of the map. A map, geographers point out, involves personal as well as spatial knowledge; not only does it reflect an individual's ability "to conceptualize spatial relations," but it also involves that person's orienting of himself in space.4 The individual's perception of himself and his society in relation to the rest of his locale and his world influences how he conceives of his location and the form in which he portrays that location. "Space is historical," says Tuan, "if it has direction or a privileged perspective. Maps are ahistorical, landscape paintings are historical. The map is God's view of the world since its sightlines are parallel and extend to infinity.... The landscape picture, with its objects organized around a focal point of converging sightlines, is much closer to the human way of looking at the world.... Space and time have gained subjectivity by being oriented to man."5 Throughout Raintree County, Lockridge uses maps as a metaphor for his characters' sense of themselves and the world.
John Shawnessy's first contact with a map comes when, as a small boy, he confronts the map of Raintree County that hangs in the Court House: "It was the first time he had seen a map of his home earth, and he had a Columbian moment of discovery. The earth acquired shape, coherence, meaning. The road traveling before his house joined other roads, was part of an integrated system." Here is God's view of the world, and Shawnessy sees the degree to which he, as a human being, is a part of the specific locale of the County: "He had suddenly achieved a world. The dearly bought victory of man over the increate and stubborn earth was his. He had gazed at a map of his own life, the pattern of himself, securely bounded by the four walls of Raintree County" (60 61). It is, for Shawnessy, a moment of epic discovery.
Two ideas are significant in this account of young Shawnessy's insight. The first is that Shawnessy has for the first time recognized the integrated unity of the County, with its roads, its river, and its lake; here, suddenly, is a coherent world. The second, and more significant, is that this world, though viewed from above in Godlike fashion, is limited by and confined to the borders of the County. The map gives no sense of the continent that lies outside the County, and young Shawnessy has no inkling of that outer world. His world is the County, and his view, Godlike in one respect, is in another finite and limited.
A broader, human perspective enters the novel when, as an adult, Shawnessy encounters the Illustrated Historical Atlas of Raintree County, a bulky compendium of the County's architecture, produce, and population. Its vision, combining the map and the landscape painting, is that of a thoroughly humanized, domesticated world extending to infinity, ready for humanity's use:
Into the faintly golden texture of the great soft sheets, an unknown artist had touched the earth of Raintree County with a sensitive pencil. In the sketches of farm homes, the principal building was seen as from a slight elevation so as to include a generous setting of out buildings and the land around. Walks, lanes, roads, forests, gardens, pastures, cornfields appeared in accurate perspective. People played croquet on lawns; children skipped ropes, rolled hoops, pulled wagons; families passed in surreys, spring wagons, buggies....
The earth had the effect of being a massy substance continuous under all traces of humanity. Through page after page, this earth of Raintree County appeared in an unvaried summer morning, radiant and precise to a depth of miles, until sky touched horizon with a frieze of soft clouds (36-37).
Unlike the objective map of Shawnessy's youth, the Atlas provides a view of the world of mankind, a vision of the limitless America of the pre-Turner years.
The Atlas is, to be sure, a map. But it is a map projected from a human rather than Godlike point of view. It is, for example, susceptible to subjective interpretation in a way that the map in the Court House is not. To Shawnessy, the Atlas records "the beautiful and secret earth of Raintree County"; the Perfessor, however, sees only "pictures of cows, manure piles, and Raintree County citizens." The Atlas, moreover, places the County in context--the human context of the known and surveyed world. In addition to the perspective views of the County are maps detailing the County's townships and communities, the entire State of Indiana, and the all-encompassing United States (275, 36). In short, the Atlas portrays the spatial view of the comfortably informed materialist--the person aware of the country and the world outside of his immediate location, but who sees not the earth itself, but only the artifacts of man upon it.
Lockridge's fullest statement of the map motif comes late in the novel, when Shawnessy at last understands that the most profound map is that of the human face. Late in his life, Shawnessy realizes that the individual's self-vision is one with his world-view:
Raintree County was never contained in its map. Nor, I trust, was a human being ever contained in that semblance made of dust and called a face.
--That's what you meant this morning, John [responds the Perfessor], when you said that a face is a map?
--Yes--a symbol of what is always placeless, being its own place, of what is always wandering, exploring, creating--a human soul. A face--like a map--is the earth imbued with human meanings. And the earth is a Great Stone Face, in which we perceive the profile of our own life (1024).
The face ties together the finite and the infinite, the tangible and the intangible. Maps and atlases record things; a face records life.
Lockridge's metaphor of the map is a telling one, helping to set the tone and the theme of the novel. Just as his recurring juxtapositions of the carpentered and uncarpentered views help him develop characters and their intellectual stances, so, too, maps help him make a point. A person's initial vision is limited; equally limited is the map of Raintree County in the Court House. As a person grows in experience, he comes to see himself within the context of his society; the Atlas, with its manure piles and solid citizens, illustrates that society to the satisfaction of all. And as the person grows older still, coming to understand his place not just in society but in history, his face becomes the symbol and the record of his knowledge. Maps trace the course of civilization; atlases record the coming of society; faces reveal the progress of time.
The last--and most complex--use of spatial perception in Raintree County continues the argument established through the metaphor of the map. Lockridge holds that a person's sense of location in space can, perhaps even must, develop into a cosmic sense that situates him not locally, not nationally, but universally. He argues that while individuals are residents of a county and citizens of a nation, they are also members of the human community. As they become aware of their specific locality, they must become aware of their place in the world. By achieving such a dual perception, they gain a new sense of their place and their significance.
This argument, of course, is not new. It builds in general upon the widening of geographical horizons that comes with maturity. The child learns first of his home, then his neighborhood, then his community, and so on. As he becomes older and more mobile, he encounters still more space and experience until, as an adult, he can relate himself and his space through first-hand knowledge.6 More specifically, the argument builds upon the Transcendental--and ecological--perception of the linkages existing among all life. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1837,
To the young mind, every thing is individual, stands by itself. By and by, it finds how to join two things, and see in them one nature; then three, then three thousand; and so, tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct, it goes on tying things together . . . and goes on forever to animate the last fibre of organization, the outskirts of nature, by instinct.7
Intellectual maturity, for geographer or philosopher, brings new knowledge of the cohesiveness of experience.
What is new, however, is the way in which Lockridge applies his belief in cohesiveness to John Shawnessy's life. Shawnessy's initial encounter with the Court House map leads him to see the County as the universe. As he matures, experiencing desire and disappointment, he comes to understand that the County is part of (and one with) the nation: "Raintree County, he felt, lay far beyond the four borders which contained its span of dirt. It was also the Republic, a peerless dream." With this expanded sense of space comes an expanded sense of responsibility; he is responsible to an entity greater than the county of his youth: "He had said good-by to an older, sunnier County. Then the borders of his private little earth had dissolved into something called the Republic, full of duty and the memory of a crime" (489-90, 329-30). Here is as far as most persons come in their self-perception: they acknowledge their responsibility as citizens of a state and a nation. Shawnessy's perceptions, though, continue to expand. As the novel closes, he returns home, full of a greater sense of himself and his world, created by his experiences through the day:
Now, impending in the still night was the world of mystery, the world that hovered forever beyond the borders of the County. What was Raintree County except a Columbian exploration, a few acres of discovery in a jungle of darkness, a few lightyears of investigated space in nebular vastness! That which lay beyond its borders was simply--everything potential....
The wall between himself and the world dissolved. He seemed suddenly lost from himself, plucked out of time and space, being both time and space himself, an inclusive being in which all other beings had their being (1057-58).
He has, at last, fully perceived himself. He is a separate individual; he is a citizen of Raintree County, Indiana, and of the United States of America; and he is a representative of the human race, bound to its past and destined for its future.
In Shawnessy's final understanding is Lockridge's message. Though the individual's perceptions are affected by the total environment in which he finds himself and his society,8 and although those perceptions can sometimes become antithetical, as in the contrast of carpentered and uncarpentered space, the individual must see beyond the appearances. He must realize that the world, though seemingly made up of contradictions and conflicts, is actually a place of complements. Of Shawnessy, Lockridge writes:
He felt that he had always participated in two worlds. One was the guiltless earth of the river of desire, the earth big with seed, the earth of fruit and flower. The other was the world of memory and sadness, guilt and duty, loyalty and ideas. The two worlds were not antithetical. They were flesh and form, thing and thought, river and map, desire and love (259).
The conflicts of the world are components of the greater world. The individual, if he is fully to comprehend his role, must perceive them both and understand their parts in the greater unity of all.
After the brief notoriety associated with the publication of Raintree County and its author's suicide, the novel dropped from popular view. But after thirty years, the time seems right for its resurrection, for the novel involves itself with themes that more and more are becoming central to American life and thought. The book is unquestionably concerned with the power of place. It speaks of the powerful tug of the homeland and the seductive call of the city. It reflects the ways in which the American individual reacts to the locales from which he springs, and it dramatizes how those reactions color the attitudes that he expresses and the life that he leads. As it does these things, it goes beyond them, calling attention to the extra-personal, extra-national concerns that bind individuals of every region to each other and to the world. Like the environmental novels of the last decade, Raintree County calls, ultimately, for a perception of space and place that is neither national nor social, but rather is ecological--the perception that person and place, space and time, are interdependent and one.9 It is an ecological novel written before its time, and its time has finally come.
1See, respectively, Leonard Lutwack, "Raintree County and the Epicising Poet in American Fiction," Ball State University Forum, 13 (Winter, 1972), 14-28, Delia Clarke, "Raintree County: Psychological Symbolism, Archetype, and Myth," Thoth, 11 (Fall, 1970), 31-39; William York Tindall, "Many-Leveled Fiction: Virginia Woolf to Ross Lockridge," College English, 10 (November, 1948), 6S-71; Joseph L. Blotner, "Raintree County Revisited," Western Humanities Review, 10 (Winter, 1955-56), 57-64, and Lawrence Jay Dessner, "Value in Popular Fiction: the Case of 'Raintree County,'"Junction, 1(1973),147-152. The fullest available account [As of 1979] of Lockridge's life appears in John Leggett, Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies (N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 1974), but the book should be used with caution.
2Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1974), pp. 75-76, 246.
3Ross Lockridge, Jr., Raintree County (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), p. 99. Further references to this edition will appear in the text.
4Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University Or Minnesota, 1977), p. 76; Tuan, Topophilia, pp. 3-32.
5Tuan, Space and Place, pp. 122-123.
6Tuan, Space and Place, pp. 30-32, 52-53.
7Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar," in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Robert E. Spiller and Alfred R. Ferguson (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 54. For the ecologist's view of interdependence, see Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle (N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), p. 33.
8Tuan, Topophilia, p. 79.
9Typical of these environmental novels are Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), A.B. Guthrie, Jr., Arfive (1971), and Jack Schaefer, Mavericks (1967). For a fuller discussion of the ecological vision in recent fiction, see my "Jack Schaefer: the Writer as Ecologist," Western American Literature, 13 (May, 1978), 3-13.
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