A Son Revisits the Tragedy of "Raintree County" Author

A review of "Shade of the Raintree"

by novelist Donald Newlove

Philadelphia Enquirer,  5/1/94


"Shade of the Raintree"
by Larry Lockridge
Viking/Penguin, $27.95h/$14.95p, 500p
Hardcover ISBN 0-670-85440-9
Paperback ISBN: 0140158715


      Ross Lockridge, Jr., the briefly celebrated author of the 1948 best-selling novel Raintree County, is today famed as an American literary suicide.

      With Thomas Heggen--author of the celebrated novel and play Mister Roberts and another suicide--Lockridge shared billing in John Legget's dual biography, Ross and Tom, Published in 1977.

      In Shade of the Raintree, Lockridge's son, Larry, a professor of English at New York University, takes an immense burden upon himself in facing his father's death in 1948 at age 33 and its misrepresentation in the press, and in laying bare the roots of his father's clinical depression.

      He must also bear the reader's prejudice against the soapy, three-hour film nullity shaped out of his father's novelistic riches, featuring the costumed striving of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor.

      And he does it!

      In a writerly achievement of great magnitude, he lights up every dark corner in his father's soul and convinces the reader that an even greater tragedy has taken place than the self-destruction of a writer.

      Raintree County, a work that should rank with thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel as a landmark in American fiction, lies a victim, along with its dead author and his reputation.

      Shade of the Raintree, at 528 pages a massive picture of one writer's depression, of the familial tensions that fed it, and of the societal materialism that finally crushed him, is a book whose stirring power and complexity would daunt any reviewer. These are depths you simply must swim down into rather than be told about.

      It also helps to have read the 1,066-page Raintree County first, though Larry Lockridge takes for granted that you haven't, since the novel has been out of print for many years. (Viking Penguin, however, . . . [has issued] a paperback reprint to accompany this biography.) I read it the summer that Lockridge died and thought it the only American novel ever to combine the lively possibilities of simultaneity in film editing with the fragmented storytelling of James Joyce's Ulysses. I also found its lyric voice endearing, its romantic characters attractive, its darker quirks of personality and philosophic questionings unusual for a novel but not too difficult to take in--and it has a hypnotically erotic, racy cover, devised by the author himself, of the hills and rivers of Raintree County as a naked woman embedded in the landscape. I was 20 and I loved it.

      In Raintree County, the hero, John Wickliff Shawnessy, looks back on his Indiana manhood from the hilltop of July 4, 1892. He has failed to write the great poem of his time. Ross Lockridge, Jr., however, will do his hero one better and write the great American encyclopedic novel, one that absorbs all the modern literary devices of his day and breathes them forth refashioned on a wind from Walt Whitman.

      But just as Shawnessy has been pestered throughout life by a cynical alter ego, Jerusalem Webster Stiles, called the Perfessor, who ensures that Shawnessy will fall short of his ambition, so also will Ross Lockridge Jr. be undermined by a spirit of competitiveness that ensures that his ever-expanding literary ambition must in some degree fall short.

      The tragedy is that we can't know just how short Lockridge fell.

      Lockridge originally had ended his novel with a surreal 300-page dream section that he felt was the natural flowering of his story and its manner of storytelling. His manuscript had won a $150,000 novel prize from MGM studios that included the studio's right to film the novel.

      But MGM, the Book-of-the-Month Club and Lockridge's publisher, Houghton Mifflin, all knew that the 19th-century behemoth he'd handed in at twice the length of Gone With the Wind, would never be a bestseller. Cuts had to be made to assure sales. Zip went the dream section and much else. Again and again, relentlessly, Lockridge cut and finished, cut and finished, cut. Writes Larry Lockridge: "He felt like a prisoner at the typewriter trying to write his way out from under his own enormous book, and bled himself white.... The false finishes made him doubt the integrity of the beloved novel--the more he revised, the more imperfect it seemed.... So now he read his own life as a shameful tale of 'ambition, narcissism, vanity' as he put it...." When Lockridge finally read the first bound copy of Raintree County, he found it a nice pastoral novel but a small win beside the triumph that he's envisioned during six years of research, writing and revision. He couldn't bare to see his wife, Vernice, reading the book, and told her to put it away. He began a second novel, even bigger, more cosmological than what he already feared was his masterwork.

      His spirit also had been eroded by more mundane concerns. Houghton Mifflin wanted a percentage of all the prize money he's won, not only from the MGM novel award but even from the Pulitzer, should he win that (he didn't). MGM reneged on a promise to spread his prize money over a long period and insisted on paying it all at once, incurring for Lockridge a huge, truly hurtful tax bite.

      These concerns fed into clusters of fears triggered by his depression, his sudden helplessness and lack of will. He was admitted to a hospital for what was then called "reactive depression" but which, Larry Lockridge writes, would now be described as a "'major depressive episode with psychotic features,' whose dire symptoms lead to inability to feel pleasure, insomnia, psychomotor retardation, fatigue, recurrent thoughts of death, and inappropriate delusional guilt--not to mention constipation and impotence (and the belief) that great and terrible misfortunes will befall the patient.... The patient's thinking is dominated by the themes of failure, guilt, self-blame and condemnation, hopelessness, and sin....'"

      On top of an avalanche of hate mail that came when the book appeared--it was called blasphemous and sacrilegious because it contained sex scenes and religious satire--came Hamilton Basso's devastating review in the New Yorker, calling Lockridge "Ross Lockwood Jr." while trashing his novel--clearly without having read it. These sad tidings darkened even deeper familial currents, washing away any self-esteem that he may have had. He killed himself with car exhaust fumes.

      Larry Lockridge redresses the picture of Ross Lockridge Jr. in Leggett's Ross and Tom and shows his father not as a compulsively fast-talking egomaniac but as an amazing American hero.

      Competitive to a fault, Ross was known as "A-Plus Lockridge" for his scholarly achievements at Harvard and the Sorbonne, his mastery of many languages, speed at shorthand and typing prowess (Indiana state champion at more than 100 words a minute), his photographic memory and letter-winning athleticism. He married a great beauty, gaining both a helpmate and an intellectual equal. Larry Lockridge's portrait of him seems in no way too wonderful to be true. You really believe that here was a hero who flew too high and found himself shot down by earthbound moneymen in the movies, book clubs and publishing.

      Aside from its other merits, this is as well a major work on clinical depression that gathers you into the illness' grip link by link until death seems the only release.

      If it were up to me, I'd give this book all the awards and literary rosettes that Raintree County should have received but which went to far less inventive works back in the dim old days of 1948.

Originally Published in the Philadelphia Enquirer,  5/1/94

Article Posted by permission of the Author © 1994 Donald Newlove


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