From SSML Conference Sessions of 1998
MOST OF THE ESSAYS printed in the SSML "newsletter" Midwestern Miscellany XXVI ( Spring 1998) were presented in conference sessions entitled "Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s Raintree County; An American Classic at Fifty". They were presented at the annual Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature (SSML) conferences--one held in East Lansing, Michigan, May 14-15, and one held in San Diego, Calif. May 28-31, 1998. This SSML newsletter was circulated to SSML members (May 1999).
being a collection of essays
observing the fiftieth anniversary
of Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s
by members of
The Society for the Study of
DAVID D. ANDERSON
The Midwestern Press
Michigan State University ~ CONTENTS
Preface by David D. Anderson
1 "The Southern Myth in Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s Raintree County," by Patricia Ward Julius. "In the mid-nineteenth century, as we all know, the nature of the South and the institution of slavery impinged on the consciousness of the United States as no other issue has, before or since. However, most fictional treatments of this traumatic period in our history examine one side or the other and virtually none acknowledge the myths that surround and define that period. In his vast and panoramic novel, Raintree County, however, Ross Lockridge addresses that issue and dissects the myths that, in many ways, perpetuated it."
2 "Raintree County Lines," by Dean Rehrberger
3 "Chronology, Time, Epic, Mythology, and American History in Raintree County," by Douglas Noverr
4 "Raintree County and the Cycle of American Literature" by David D. Anderson
5 "Raintree County 50 Years Later," by Theodore Kennedy
6 Larry Lockridge's Informal Responses
The appearance of Midwestern Miscellany XXVI (Spring 1998) marks an important new milestone in the continued evolution of the Society's publication history. With the publication of SSML Newsletter 27, Number Three (Fall 1997), the Newsletter, as we've known it for more than a quarter-century since its first issue in March 1971 announced the formation of the Society as an organization dedicated to encouraging and promoting the study of the literature of what Sherwood Anderson called his "Mid-America" has ceased publication. In its stead, Midwestern Miscellany will appear twice yearly, in the Spring and Fall; it will contain other features in addition to the customary essays; and it will be supplemented by information conveyed by electronic media as well as by special mailed bulletins as we carry on that founding purpose of the Society.
Fittingly, this new direction in the publications of the Society is inaugurated by this issue, in which six members of the Society discuss Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s Raintree County, a magnificent interpretation of the Midwest and its people, on the novel's fiftieth anniversary.
Suitably, this issue is dedicated to Toni Morrison, Ohioan, Midwesterner, novelist, Nobel Laureate, and recipient of the Society's Mark Twain Award for 1997.
June,1998 DAVID D. ANDERSON
~ Copyright 1998 by The Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature--All rights reserved. THE SOUTHERN MYTH IN ROSS LOCKRIDGE, Jr's
PATRICIA WARD JULIUS From: Midwestern Miscellany XXVI ( Spring 1998)
In the mid-nineteenth century, as we all know, the nature of the South and the institution of slavery impinged on the consciousness of the United States as no other issue has, before or since. However, most fictional treatments of this traumatic period in our history examine one side or the other and virtually none acknowledge the myths that surround and define that period. In his vast and panoramic novel, Raintree County, however, Ross Lockridge addresses that issue and dissects the myths that, in many ways, perpetuated it. Nearly 45% of the novel is concerned directly with the South and the effects of its mythology. Lockridge spends 225 pages on the story of Johnny Shawnessy and Susanna Drake and on the South's dark responsibility for the events which befell them and their son. He devotes 200 pages to Johnny's experiences in the Civil War. And the consequences of that traumatic event indirectly shape the stuff of the rest of the novel as well. The flesh of Lockridge's story is hung on the skeletal form of one day--a celebration of the 4th of July in 1892 in Raintree County, Indiana. But much of that day--the speeches, the conversations, the memories--centers around acknowledging, reliving, and debating the effects of the war. Johnny, with the rest of the County, dates events by "before the war" and "after the war" And certainly these facts constitute "Southernness" with a vengeance. However Raintree County is essentially a story of myths, of which the Southern myth, the subject of this examination, is only a part.
According to historian Nicholas Cords, "a myth becomes reality precisely when people base their beliefs upon it and act as if the myth were true. In fact," he writes, "the making of myths is a two-fold process by which a culture structures its world and by which it perpetuates its grandest dreams" (Myth and the American Experience. New York: Harper Collins, 1991, xi.) Therefore, to understand the nature of the myths upon which societies and individuals build their worlds and define themselves is at least to begin to understand those societies and those individuals.
There are two myths about the South which operate in Raintree County. We are introduced to the first, which might be called the Northern myth about the South, in the early pages of the novel. This myth, which governed the thinking of the North, and most especially of Lockridge's idealistic protagonist Johnny Shawnessy, had its source in Harriet Beecher Stowe's sentimental and popular Uncle Tom's Cabin. After the boy Johnny read this novel, "he was no longer confused: he knew slavery was bad and must be destroyed." And much of Raintree County (and the North) shared his conviction. However, "the legend of Uncle Tom's Cabin was a legend of the South but not the South which was below the Ohio River, a hundred and fifty miles from Johnny's home" (57). Rather, it was an abolitionist's vision of a South in which all slaves and a few, usually powerless, whites, good, poor, humble, and helpless, patiently awaited deliverance, presumably by some hero from the North--or even, from Raintree County. It is no accident that, in the paragraph following Johnny's discovery of Uncle Tom and his unswervingly villainous master, Simon Legree, we are told of his fascination with the Greek myths, no less--and no more--real to him than the sufferings and nobility of Stowe's characters. This oversimplified hence false vision of the slave South was less perfidious than the myth by which the South defined itself, but its effect was to paint the South and the slavery by which it was identified, in terms of absolutes. This was one weakness, in fact, of many Abolitionists' position: they too often argued that slaves deserved freedom because they were good, intelligent, worthy, a race of Frederick Douglasses. The truth, of course, was that freedom should not have to be earned. Negroes were not a separate species but part of the human race, with all that implies. The institution of slavery was evil by its very nature and should be abolished because the ownership of person by person is immoral, a fundamental wrong.
The second myth is that created and embraced desperately by the white South because their need to believe it was so great. It was the myth that slaves were content in their enslavement, that Africans were placed on earth by their Creator to serve the clearly superior whites, and, most dangerous of all, that one race could own another and remain sane, as a society or as an individual. The maintenance of this myth brutalized and dehumanized all its people, slave and free, and made them victims of the madness that was the peculiar institution. It split the nation in a Civil War whose cost is still being counted but whose first casualty was our innocence.
Lockridge spends a large part of his novel uncovering the layers of that myth, exposing its inevitable consequences for all those who strove so passionately to sustain it. Susanna Drake, "beautiful and alien," is the vehicle through which Lockridge explicates for Johnny--and for us--the scope of the corruption inevitable to a culture built "over the sinking marsh of human slavery" (439). Susanna, determined to bury the scandal of her birth in the safety of a marriage to Johnny, claims to be carrying their child. Johnny, of course, caught in his own myth of proper heroic behavior, proposes, though he knows the claim is a lie. Susanna, provocatively unclothed, strangely surrounded by her 116 dolls whom she calls her 'children,' accepts, and they are married. Lockridge's use of the events of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, his capture, trial, and execution as counter point to the betrothal, wedding, and consummation emphasizes the increasingly insistent Southern presence in Raintree County and foreshadows the inevitability of the conflict to come.
As the honeymooners traveled south: "Down the Mississippi, the oldest highway in the Republic, these pilgrims traveled toward a sensual Canterbury. And always this name meant sinful, dangerous, much desired" (430). They arrived in New Orleans to lights and activity and music but, most of all, to a stench which nearly choked Johnny. And this introduction to New Orleans becomes a metaphor for the South: the lights, gaiety, activity and beauty cannot hide the stench of rot which underlays it and corrupts its every stone and soul. One can only, like Johnny, get used to the smell. "Later he had to remind himself that this great human stink was there, always there, and that it would envelop everything he saw and did during the next few months" (431). The stink, of course, is slavery, "the oldest darkest crime in the world" (354) and all the beauty and seductive appeal of the South cannot change it or make it go away. But there was much to admire in the South in that year before the war. The land was beautiful, the horses and houses of the aristocracy magnificent, and the planters gracious and witty and hospitable. Most appealing of all to Johnny, was the leisure which allowed dancing and drinking and whoring and talk--the occupations of Southern Gentlemen.
Shortly after the two had met, Johnny had been shocked by Susanna's attitude toward slaves and slavery. Secure in his male-dominated 19th century world, he had dismissed her irrational claims as inconsequential opinion which would change under his enlightened tutelage. Less easily dismissed however, was the gusto with which Susanna related tales of sexual atrocities committed by slaves against white women. But Susanna is not alone in her fascination with the mythical sensuality and sexual prowess of Negroes. In New Orleans, the slave, always male, was universally described as shiftless, ignorant, dishonest, immoral, and incapable of taking care of himself. In fact, of course, such "atrocities" are more often committed by masters against black women. It is the sexual prowess and appeal of the Negroes which is the subject of the most erotic and brutal detail among the male cousins. Johnny's Southern education includes a visit to a brothel in which the madam was the only white woman. Here, "it seemed to Johnny that the whole paradox of the South had come to detestable flower . . . Here, in a Black Mass of sensuality, the white master acknowledged his forbidden secret--his equality with the slave. But this acknowledgment ... was a baser indignity than the whip and served more than the blood hound to keep a race in subjection" (443-4).
The thin veneer of etiquette barely disguised the stream of eroticism and lust which characterized the aristocracy of New Orleans. Johnny felt the same pervasive sexual tension, a kind of covert sexual license lurking beneath the mask of propriety he had earlier sensed in Susanna. The open sexuality which, in part, had separated Susanna from the young women of Raintree County is taken for granted here. Susanna's favorite cousin Barbara pursues Johnny, makes an assignation with him, and hints at Susanna's unworthiness and her own availability. On a private steamboat excursion, Johnny is greeted in his stateroom by the embrace of a woman who "had always seemed very sedate in his presence" (436). Cousin Dody, his hostess, appears in his bed in a silk night dress. During the day, these women wrapped themselves in the most rigorous propriety. For these people, in this culture, sex is a game played in the dark with rules of its own, rules Johnny does not know. But apparently Susanna does. The hypocrisy which attends slavery marks all of the society that slavery made possible.
To one whose Bible of the South was Uncle Tom's Cabin, there was astonishment in the lack of overt cruelty by master against slave. Only once, Johnny recalls, did he see a slave struck. But that instance is significant. At the Drake Plantation, as Susanna bent to retrieve a dropped bonnet, exposing the scar on her breast, a young groom, "watched in fascination" and Cousin Bobby Drake hit him, then raised a broadax against the unmoving slave. Johnny leapt for the handle but only Susanna's command stopped their struggle. "A man had almost lost his life for looking at a scar on the breast of this girl," Johnny realized. "He stood appalled at himself and the black moment that had sprung upon him from ambush in this genial place, among the hospitable people who had been so good to him" (446). To Bobby, of course, the groom was no man at all. He was a slave, and that made all the difference. With this incident, the moralist in Johnny took over from the poet who had gloried in the seductive loveliness of that gay sick South.
Ironically, the "grandest dream" of the South was, taken in itself, enchanting. It was to build a "Greek Republic in the soil of America," populated by the "most beautiful women and the most distinguished men in the world," a "culture of power, wealth and democratic tradition" (441). But the myth upon which this dream was founded was the belief that such a culture could be "erected on the toil of ten million slaves." So fervent was that belief that no argument was brooked, no compromise possible. Slavery, the South believed, was right and meet and just and theirs. And before they would see their myth threatened, they would invoke their "sacred right to form a government of their own" (441). The words were spoken, the idea of separation made tangible. Johnny remembered the great stink, even though he couldn't smell it any more. It was time to go back to Raintree County. It was time to go home.
But even in Raintree County, the South follows them. Lincoln had proclaimed that "A house divided against itself cannot stand," whether that house is the union or a dwelling in Raintree County. Susanna owns slaves, a practice Johnny finds despicable and unacceptable. Johnny supports Lincoln, a man, to Susanna, kin to the devil himself and, even worse, she insists, a man tainted by Negro blood. The specter of miscegenation which has haunted the South and Susanna is raised again.
As one would expect at this time, Susanna accedes to Johnny's demand and frees her two slaves. But Susanna's violent mood shifts foreshadow a more serious disturbance, rooted in the mystery of her childhood and exacerbated by her pregnancy. Her late night reminiscences, her increasing strangeness signal her weakening grip on sanity. As Susanna's health grows more fragile, so do hopes of preserving the Union. Lincoln's election is followed by Secession. Again a momentous private occasion is echoed by an equally momentous public event. Their son was born as Fort Sumter surrendered. War was inevitable. In the two years after Little Jim's birth, as the war between Union and Confederacy intensified, so did the estrangement between Johnny and Susanna. And so did Susanna's illness. Excessive energy preceded depression; insomnia preceded sleep walking as her hold on reality waned. And through it all, Johnny kept up the pretense of normalcy, loyal to his own myth of propriety, as promulgated by Raintree County.
However, the dark horrors which grew out of the Southern myth could not be denied. The "broad waters" of the Ohio River separated slave land from free (878). But no water was broad enough to protect Susanna and Johnny from the consequences of that myth. As Little Jim's birth coincided with the fall of Fort Sumter, Susanna's penultimate act of madness her flight with the child to Indianapolis--was echoed by the onset of the Battle of Gettysburg. The growing pessimism of the headlines reporting the battle keeps time with Johnny's progressively fruitless search. Lockridge writes, "It began to seem to Johnny that the battle and his own search were enduring things, lasting for centuries, perhaps forever" (530). On July 4th, with the bells ringing in victory at Gettysburg, Johnny returns to Raintree County to find the house burning, his son dead, and Susanna vanished.
With her disappearance into an asylum in New Orleans, the bits and pieces of Susanna's life come together in a terrible and final indictment of the Southern myth. Susanna had struggled all her life to bury and deny the memories of her childhood, her suspicion that she was the daughter of her father's mulatto concubine, Henrietta Courtney. But, during her pregnancy, she talked of seeing the two of them together in Henrietta's cabin. She remembered her father sending Henrietta away and bringing her back to live in the "big house" with them. She remembered loving Henrietta and fearing the woman she called "Mother." She remembered the fire which killed them, the fire which scarred her breast and which only she survived. These memories, and the rumors and gossip that followed her in New Orleans, were the "They" who threatened her and sent her fleeing to Indianapolis. But of course there was no escape. So, in the end, she exorcised her demons and her memories and the continuation of her self in the only way she knew--by fire. And escaped finally into the safe shadows of insanity. Susanna, her father caught in the throes of illicit love for his mulatto mistress, his wife driven mad by her husband's betrayal and the necessity of claiming Susanna as her own, and Henrietta, trapped by race and convention, were as much victim of the Southern myth as the slaves themselves. Susanna's madness had its source in a greater madness--the madness of the belief that a society built on slavery could ever be sane.
In terms of Johnny Shawnessy's "Southern Education," if his sojourn in New Orleans was his baccalaureate, the war was his Ph.D. Interestingly, in the nearly 200 pages spent on Johnny's war years, little mention is made of the South itself. It has become a geography, marked only by the names of battles and memorable only for body counts. The cliché--cliché because it is true--that in war one must make the enemy a thing, a "they" different in kind from the "us," functions here. Apparently wars have no individual identity. All share the same character. Only the weapons and the slogans change. That being said, the Civil War remains the single greatest national trauma in our history, the most profligate in lives, the most inclusive in effect.
Johnny Shawnessy joined the Grand Army of the Republic a week after the destruction of his family. He matriculated at Chickamauga and marched to his graduation through Georgia with Sherman. In between, he feared, hungered, killed, looted, grieved, hated, and, at last, exchanged that hatred for understanding. He was wounded and survived. He watched Lincoln die and survived. He was declare dead and still he survived. But the war changed him as no other experience had. Johnny Shawnessy, "that innocent and happy youth was really dead (though it took his successor a little while to become aware of that fact)" (743). In a very real sense, the South had killed the mythical Johnny Shawnessy as surely as the war had shattered the foundations of the Southern myth.
The 19th century South, no less than Raintree County itself, was a myth, a place "without boundaries in time and space," a creation of its "mythical and lost peoples." Sustained during two and a half centuries of slavery by the myth that one human being could own another [and remain sane,] that myth was perpetuated after the Civil War by the irrational dream that the South would rise again. The irony, of course, is that that South had never really existed in the first place. The "glorious dream" that Johnny had found so alluring was built not only on the bones of ten million slaves but on almost 90% of the white population as well. Most studies of slavery conclude that only about 10% of white citizens owned any slaves at all and no more that 2% owned more than twenty. These statistics do not, of course, in any way diminish the horrors of slavery nor the degree of its brutalization of everyone it touched. They do, however, indicate the scope of its lie. Even today, we watch Gone With the Wind and read Jubilee and believe that is the way things were. How much more easily could white sharecroppers or wanderers identify with Mistah Charley and Miz Anne up in the Big House, and dream that someday. ... The iniquity and prejudice engendered by this apparently immortal myth is with us still. Were it not, there would have been no riots in Los Angeles and Miami, no inequality to haunt us even now, one hundred and thirty years after Emancipation.
Ross Lockridge, Jr. has an interesting mind. And Raintree County is an interesting novel, huge and layered and unexpected. Perhaps the most unexpected thing about it is that Lockridge wrote it in 1947. That was, in many ways, a very bad year. Lynchings were not quaint anachronisms. Not until 1955 would a year pass with no reported lynchings. And even then, the key lay in "reported." The Klan was alive and arrogant and powerful, in the Midwest as well as the South. Segregation was the law in the North as well as the South. But a new myth was alive in the land--in 1947 and in 1892 in Raintree County, and the adherents of that myth--politicians and preachers alike--argued that the Civil War had indeed succeeded, that all was well in the Republic, and the millennium was just around the corner.
Everyone, of course, did not swallow this new myth, either in Raintree County or in Ross Lockridge's world. The failure of the War and the Emancipation Proclamation to truly free Blacks or to inculcate them into the society as equals was the subject of much of the comment on the Fourth of July in 1892, particularly in the conversations between John Shawnessy and his cynical and intellectual mentor, Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles. But some did. And to warn us against accepting myths of other people's making, without examination or question is, I suspect, at the core of Lockridge's novel. Listening to the speeches, John Shawnessy concluded that "Penetrating into the reality of the past was an impossible undertaking ... There was ... only one reality--the reality of someone's experience ... And even the world of the present was sustained by the same omnipotent creative fictions. His own life was a myth to himself and other ... And if he was a myth, others were even more so" (802). Each of us creates ourself according to our values and beliefs. But we must be sure, Lockridge implies, that myth is truly our own, not the generalized creative fictions of a society or a political party or a religious leader or anything that demands that we shape ourselves blindly to standards invented by others. Raintree County is not a topical book, speaking of long past events and long dead ideas. Rather, it offers lessons from which we can benefit today or anytime. John Shawnessy sought wisdom and greatness, we are told. Certainly, in Raintree County, Ross Lockridge demonstrates that he has found both. And certainly that is enough.
Michigan State University
--See also the book of Essays: Myth, Memory, and the American Earth: The Durability of Raintree County. Edited by David Anderson, 1998. To three on-line essays from this publication).
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