The Return to Raintree County

By David D. Anderson

The Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature SML Newsletter,  Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer, 1994

"Raintree County"
by Ross Lockridge Jr.
Viking/Penguin, $18.95, 1050p
Paper ISBN: 014023666X

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

      The most anticipated and celebrated literary event in the years following World War II was the official publication, on January 5, 1948, of "Raintree County",  a one-thousand and-sixty-six-page first novel by thirty-three-year-old Ross Lockridge, Jr., a native of Bloomington, Indiana, where he had spent much of his life. The novel had already sold 50,000 pre-publication copies, and, although some criticism was directed at its length, its sexual content, daring for its day, and from some its pretentiousness, the overwhelming critical reception ranged from enthusiastic to eulogistic. By March 1948, it led the best-seller lists, it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and it had won the world's most lucrative literary prize, the MGM Award of $150,000 for the screen rights to the novel, even as its young author was hailed as the writer destined to revitalize American fiction in the second half of the twentieth century.

      Yet on March 6, 1948, the young novelist was dead, a suicide by carbon monoxide in the garage behind his home in Bloomington, leaving his widow and four young children. After a season of psychological analysis, informed and otherwise, the novel and its young writer faded into obscurity, punctuated only by the delayed filming in 1957 of a badly expurgated, re-ordered, and re-written "Raintree County"  starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Eva Marie Saint and the simultaneous publication of an abridged paperback version of the novel in 1957.

      Both the film and the abridged novel are failures, the former because the novel was simply too complex for the film medium or the film maker, and the latter because both its scope and its vision are narrower than the original. In the years after 1957, the novel and its author have become legends, occasionally referred to and rarely read except by a handful of admirers, and the novel's worth rarely attested to except by the rare appearances of scholarly and critical essays that continue to explore its merits.

      Now, in 1994, the novel has been reissued, by Viking Press, together with "Shade of the Raintree, the Life and Death of Ross Lockridge Jr."  a biography of its author by Larry Lockridge, the author's second son. The event of the double publication threatened to become a literary event parallel to that forty-six years earlier, and a number of reviewers proclaimed that it was, as indeed it deserved to be. But somehow, perhaps inevitably, in an age that proclaims the universality and worth of "The Bridges of Madison County",  today surpassed only by "I Want to Tell You"  by O.J. Simpson, it fell short.

      Nevertheless the republication of "Raintree County"  and the publication of "Shade of the Raintree"  are indeed the most important literary publications of 1994, the former because we can see, once again, through the eyes of John Wickliff Shawnessy, on that remarkable July 4, 1892, the vision and promise of America and its people, and in the latter, through the eyes and mind of his son, the vision and the torment of Shawnessy's creator. In these two publications, a remarkable, perhaps even a great literary work will continue to live in spite of the vagaries of literary fashion, popular taste, or literary celebrity.

      If "Raintree County"  is not the fabled Great American Novel, it will do until that unlikely work appears. In it, in the space of about twelve hours on July 4, 1892, Ross Lockridge, Jr. recreates 48 of the most tumultuous and changing years of the nineteenth century, those that took America from its romantic and idealistic adolescence through the great crisis and purging of the Civil War into a new materialistic and cynical maturity as the nation approaches into its second century.

      Those years are not only the nation's, but they're those of its people, of those who maintain the dream and propagate the myth of a fulfilling America, most notably, the years of Johnny Shawnessy as he remembers them on that eventful July 4, 1892, the day on which he still maintains its validity. They are the brief years, too, of the dark, married Southern beauty that was Susanna Drake and the bright, pristine beauty that was Nell Gaither; the years of those who had gone from "Raintree County"  to the heights of material glory: Senator Garwood B. Jones, financier Cassius P. Carney, and General Jacob J. Jackson, all of whom have traded faith for fortune; they are the years, too, of Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles, Johnny's alter ego and the cynical interpreter of an American reality. They are the years too, of the rise and fall of the National Road and the Jeffersonian dream of an open society and cheap land that it was designed to implement, and the emergence of the railroad that destroyed it in its directed search for power and profit.

      Evident at once in re-reading the novel is not only the durability of the characters and the myth that Ross Lockridge created, but the elements that make the novel even more timely in 1994 than it was in 1948. Then the pollution of the land and the dream that had been so clearly foreshadowed in the book was not yet evident to most Americans, particularly those flushed by victory in a "good war" they had not yet calculated the cost of. Today the continued pollution of both is unmistakable to all but the most insensitive, and Lockridge celebrates even more eloquently than nearly half a century ago the vision of what might have been and of what may yet be.

      To turn from a major work of fiction to a major biographical study demands in this case less dexterity on the part of the reviewer than is normally the case. Just as the two authors are father and son, the relationship between the works is substantially as close. In a study that is at once compassionate, compelling, and forthright, the biography gives us insights into the talent, drive, and torment of the young writer that we can find in no other way. The study is clear, complete, and courageous as Larry Lockridge, who had, as he has commented, grown up with a novel instead of his father, seeks, for his own understanding as well as ours, the truth of the novel and its creator as well as the man who was his father.

      "Shade of the Raintree"  demonstrates clearly what a literary biography, the biography of a writer, should be and so seldom is: a study of the man and the work at that difficult to define place where life and art converge, often to the exclusion of everything else, where the writer's artistic vision and his psychic reality overlap, even threatening to become one. But Larry Lockridge deftly extricates each from the other, and in his pages Ross Lockridge, Jr., son, lover, father, Indianian, and literary artist, emerges as clearly as the myth that emerges from recreated reality in "Raintree County".  In "Shade of the Raintree"  Larry Lockridge discovers the father he had never known and he discovers too the magic with which his father had endowed his major work. The result is not only a significant literary event, but it is a convergence of two important works, either of which is major in itself.

      Two interesting footnotes remain, one a bibliographic triumph of art over puritanism that has passed entirely unnoticed, and the other a touching tie between father and son that has also passed unnoticed. In the former, a phrase that had appeared in the first printing but was expurgated from subsequent printings is restored in the new Viking edition. In the original on page 152, as Professor Stiles pontificates on nature and nature's law, he states,

        . . .Besides, Nature puts no premium on chastity. My God, where would
        the human race be if it weren't for the bastards?  Wasn't Jesus
        Pass the perfectos, John.
            Completely stunned, Johnny passed the cigars.

      Perhaps in an effort to placate some of the clerical criticism directed at the book, the phrase "Wasn't Jesus God's? was deleted from further printings, leaving the readers to wonder at Johnny's simplistic response to an otherwise inoffensive phrase. Now the phrase is restored, the text is pure, and Johnny's response is in character.

      The other footnote is both personal and touching. Larry Lockridge has been Professor Laurence Lockridge for many years. In the course of his research, however, he learned that his father insisted that his name was not Laurence but Larry. It is Larry Lockridge whose name appears on the title page of "Shade of the Raintree".  I can think of no more suitable tribute by the son to the father as well as the writer and the man defined so compellingly in these pages.

Originally Published in The Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature SML Newsletter,  Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer, 1994

Article Posted by permission of the Author © 1994 David D. Anderson


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