Copyright © Laurence Lockridge, 1994 All rights reserved Contents and Selected Passages from Shade of the Raintree The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr. Author of Raintree County Larry Lockridge (Frontispiece photo) Contents
Photograph sections [in the printed book] follow pages 148 and 340
Passages from P A R T O N E
From Chapter One, Epilogue
Bloomington, Indiana, 1948--1993
"My brother and I.... " (pp. 3--5)
"Then there was the movie...." (pp. 15-19)
"many patterns will become evident...." (38-40)
From Chapter Two, "Avenue of Elms"
Fort Wayne days, 1914--1924
Through the mythic enlargements...." (pp. 64-67)
From Chapter Three, "Legends in a Class-Day Album"
Early Bloomington days, 1924--1933
To stuff a bit more travel.... (pp. 104-5)
Vernice Baker was at a reunion.... (pp. 105-7)
From Chapter Four, "A Richly Laden Festal Board"
France and Italy, 1933--1934
Shortly before his twentieth birthday.... (pp. 130-33)
From Chapter Five, "Dream of the Flesh of Iron"
He had begun recording his and Vernice's dreams.... (pp. 180-83)
Dream of the Flesh of Iron, pp. 183-90.
Passages from P A R T T W O
From Chapter Six, Starting Over
Cambridge, Bloomington, Boston, and Cape Ann, 1940--1943
He planned to work on his novel. (pp. 203-5)
...among the dozens of other novelists . . . Wolfe and Joyce . . .(pp 227-31)
From Chapter Seven, Writing Raintree County
Boston, Cape Ann, and South Byfield, Fall, 1943--Spring, 1946
Back in Pigeon Cove.... (pp. 241-43)
Having dispatched his own novel [to Houghton Mifflin]. (pp. 260-61)
And then a still bigger uprising.... (268-70)
Chapter Eight, complete, Author in the Epic (Essay, pp. 271-309)
From Chapter Nine, Snake Pit in Paradise
Manistee, Michigan, Summer, 1946--Fall, 1947
Then on June 27  a momentous telegram arrived.... (pp. 342-46)
The night of October 20 .... (p. 367)
From Chapter Ten, "Flu or Something"
Hollywood and Bloomington, Fall, Winter, 1947--1948
On November 25, 1947] they finally made contact with MGM.... (pp. 380-82)
Raintree County was destined.... (pp. 403-4)
On Tuesday, January 20 .... (pp. 409-10)
From Chapter Eleven, "Hail and Farewell at the Crossing!"
Bloomington, March 6, 1948--Spring, 1948
Vernice Baker Lockridge stood.... (p. 451)
Back at the Lockridge home.... (p. 453)
In June of 1948, New Harmony.... (pp. 456-58)
Notes and Acknowledgments . . . (pp. 459-86)
Index . . . (pp. 487-99)
Photo Credits . . . p. 500
Ross Lockridge, Jr. with son Larry on the boy's third birthday, summer of 1945, South Byfield, Massachusetts. Selected Passages Epilogue Bloomington, Indiana, 1948--1993,
Passage, pp. 3-5
My brother and I were horsing around on our twin beds, struggling over the small lead replica of the Empire State Building our father had brought back from the East. Ernest aimed it at me as if it were a gun--"Bang! Bang! Pow!"--and on my back I deflected the bullets, kicking up at him fearlessly. Our anarchy was the better for knowing we'd have to put on Sunday School penitentials before long. The door opened and in walked our mother and Grandma Lockridge, which stopped our play. They were sleepy eyed. Ernest, aged nine, knew something was wrong. Our mother placed her hand gently on his shoulder and said, "Honey, your father is dead. He died last night."
Ernest screamed and fell sobbing on the floor and I, aged five, was puzzled and a little embarrassed, for Mom and Grandma didn't make it sound so bad. Our father had been tired, he needed a rest, he was now in a warm and sunny land, but no, he wouldn't be coming home soon.
I tried to see my father in a space above my own, walking care free amid trees and flowers, and hoped he'd soon be rested up.
Later that morning Ernest still lay on the floor. He'd stopped crying but hoped his mother would come in and find him lying there--then she would know how much he had loved his father and how dead with grief he was. But she was busy with funeral preparations, and he was tired of lying on the cold floorboards and got up and dressed.
The death of fathers is a common theme, but the suicide on Saturday evening, March 6, 1948, of Ross Lockridge, Jr., author of the novel Raintree County, was improbable enough to be the subject of many editorials. At his death his novel was first on the New York Herald Tribune's best-seller list, had won the enormous MGM Novel Award, had been excerpted in Life, and had recently been the Main Selection of Book-of-the-Month Club. He left a wife and four children.
"The death, apparently by suicide, of Ross Lockridge, Jr., author of Raintree County, has stirred a wave of shocked speculation among his countrymen," noted the Washington Evening Star. "What more, they wonder, could a man ask of life than had been granted this 33-year-old writer, whose first book, an unabashed attempt at the great American novel, brought him wealth and fame and recognition.... Curiously enough, one of the book's most notable aspects was its staunch repudiation, through its hero, of materialism, its repeated affirmation of faith in the American dream and the American destiny. How did the author lose the hope and optimism expressed by the hero who was presumably his spokesman? . . . We shall never know, since evidently the only testament he left is his questing, vital, sprawling book. He seems to have gained the whole world and then to have wondered what it profited a man. We can only pity the desolation and confusion of his going."
My book is a quest, four decades later, to overcome confusion and lay bare this desolate act--and, more so, the life and work that preceded it. Pablo Neruda wrote that, in death, Ross Lockridge had joined Melville, Whitman, Poe, Dreiser, and Wolfe as American writers who were like "fresh wounds of our own absence." They were all "bound to the depths" and "to the darkness," were "checked in their work by joy and by mourning"--and yet over them "the same dawn of the hemisphere burns." I'll tell the story of my father's life, from dawn to darkness, for the intensities of will and creative intellect we might find there. A full measure of them has not yet been taken. His was an American life of great aspiration, a life of prodigious labors ending in a sense of dead enormous failure even before the applause began. Few driven spirits give way to darkness so irrevocably, but I believe that in some ways Ross Lockridge's life is an allegory of the American writer.
"Then there was the movie...." (pp. 15-19)
Passage, pp 38--40:
Many patterns will become evident in my story--including similar responses, across generations, to mourning, insanity, and sex. One pattern I've been much aware of is that just as Ross Lockridge searched through his grandfather's papers for the makings of a national myth, and just as the fictitious Shawnessy searches amid antiquities for aboriginal meaning, so I've searched for my father in faded envelopes, dusty manuscripts, and memories. Such searches must always fail if one has an absolutist's demand for the whole. We can search for lost fathers and mothers over hard roads and wide, and they won't be there. But I've found enough, for now.
What I've gathered are the many voices of an American archive--voices of my father and mother, their ancestors, their friends, neighbors, teachers, students, preachers, and doctors. I've sifted through farm journals, old newspapers, report cards, classroom notes, high school and college yearbooks, blue books, essays (historical, philosophical, literary, theological), epic poems, lyrical poems, short stories, plays, theses, rough drafts, family Bibles, marginalia, hospital records, city registers, county atlases, commonplace books, memory books, notebooks, diaries, memoirs, notes on reading, reviews, gossip columns, trash journalism, old photograph albums, checkbook stubs, autopsies, and obituaries.
But especially letters--personal letters, professional letters, love letters, and sympathy letters.
In exploring an American archive, I've had in mind the many voices of my father's novel, itself an American archive of love, tragedy, and visionary ambition. While writing one story, he was living another just as astonishing and even more resolute--for, unlike his fictional hero John Wickliff Shawnessy, he finished what he set out to do and gained a larger measure of recognition than he ever allotted his own hero.
Ross Lockridge's life isn't just a morality tale about the perils of success in America, from which those of us who don't try so hard may take some comfort. (I'm sure it contains this moral.) Nor is it an isolated pathology with little implication for those of us who have more successfully resolved our Oedipal conflicts or pre-Oedipal disorders--about which there's much to say. Nor merely a check list of everything that an aspiring writer should not do--though again it contains this. If there's a premise in this biography, it's that my father's experience differs only in degree from that of many dedicated writers--for whom writing is life-blood.
In its relentless course, his life realizes so many of a writer's aspirations and fates. It moves from the decision to be a writer, to an apprenticeship both repressive and enabling, to the sudden vision of a work that might answer to ambition. It continues through delays, false starts, and the resolve to abandon it all and start over. It entails the egoism that this work shall be great, yet the generosity of the work itself offered to a public. Then the perilous mediation of editors and publisher, the temptation to compromise and sell out, the dislocations of sudden fame, wealth, and critical recognition. And then also the disparagement and misreadings, the shame, guilt, and impoverishment of spirit, and the question that dogs the writer, "What next?"
Much of this is the experience of serious writers everywhere. But Ross Lockridge, Jr. is an American writer and his story has much of the American literary experience about it--the midwest writer who, through regional attachments, challenges the authority of the East Coast as well as Europe, the nervy ambition, hope, and a special kind of vital innocence, the wish to answer while young to a young country's need for a great literature of its own, the lure and curse of Hollywood, and a national press that shapes seasonal celebrities according to some very trite scripts. There is risk in all this, and John Updike remarks that there have been "very few American writers who haven't fallen apart from the age of about 35."
Not many writers decide on their careers at the age of seven, not many draft a 400-page epic poem in their early twenties or discard a 2,000-page novel a few years later. Not many attempt a novel as "a complete embodiment of the American Myth." Not many kill themselves at the height of their acclaim. But Ross Lockridge was as extreme as he was thorough. If thank god he doesn't typify the American writer's life, he may in some ways epitomize it.
The circuitous journey of leaving home, giving postwar America what he hoped was a visionary testament of beauty and meaning, and then returning home in a triumph turned nightmare lends his story an implacable tragic structure. But its daily texture is a blend of humor and spirited satire, affection, and a vitality that announces itself as clearly in Ross Lockridge's life as in his prose. If his experience is unusual in the degree of its aspirations and devastations, I think it speaks in kind to many of us--and it's a story that even those who never open the green and golden covers of Raintree County may find compelling.
II "Avenue of Elms"
Passage, pp. 64--67
Through the mythic enlargements of early memory, Fort Wayne became for Ross Lockridge, Jr. the immemorial city, with its avenue of elms in the valley of years. He would in memory return to it in his final days. It was there that his mother and father, strong but dissimilar idealists, stirred in him the ambitions and ideals that in the beginning nourished his sense of power and identity. It was there that he
first experienced death and romantic love. Bruce's death and the loss of Alicia fed an elegiac undercurrent not visible in his cheerful public demeanor.
But the roots of his emotional life probably lay deeper in time than these early recurrent memories, which may only have confirmed a preexistent sense of loss. They may have lain in the period he called "The Unremembered!"--1914 through 1918, his first three to four years, spent in Bloomington, then Indianapolis, and finally Fort Wayne. Elsie probably didn't keep a journal on her youngest son during this period when maternal influence is so crucial. But in his twenties, thinking back on his earliest years, he would remember that he was already "longing" for something with feelings of "tragic love," with "a child's infallible sense of sadness." He couldn't say what he was longing for.
It may have been for his mother's love, seemingly lost before it was given. There's no evidence that Elsie did anything except care for her four children during this period of time--as far as I know, she wasn't much out of the house. There's also no evidence that she didn't love them. But the story she had written in Oklahoma was in effect a confession of her failure to be emotionally available--as well as a resolve to improve on this.
She may have continued to fail on her own terms. Certainly the last thing she wanted was another child. Ross Junior's birth capped the physical estrangement of his parents. His presence confirmed that she was stuck in motherhood, with no career of her own, married to a sort of windbag. And to judge by the fates of her older children, there was already something disconnected in her nurturing--Bruce's dangerous sense of omnipotence, Shockley's deep reserve, and Lillian's shyness and fear of separation. Elsie hoped her sons would somehow fulfill the visionary promise of her father and have the brilliant career she never made good on. To this degree they were extensions of herself. (Neither she nor her husband had high hopes for Lillian.)
I say this with sympathy for my grandmother--she worked hard for her children, tried to instill in them her lofty conceptions of the good and the beautiful, mesmerized them with her wonderful stories, and was surely entitled to lament her lack of a well-defined, in dependent career. Probably herself a victim of parental withholding, she suffered from her own sense of failure, her unworthiness of her father's love.
As a Montessori pedagogue, liberal in principle, Elsie didn't insist that any of her children become one particular thing or another. She didn't program her youngest son to become a writer. She simply hoped that somehow he would be a great man.
He never said a word against her--he idealized her. But as with Elsie's idealization of her father, this may have compensated for something that seemed missing early on in the parent.
One tires of how often mothers take the rap for those first four years, while fathers as parental bench-warmers get exonerated. Ross Senior also tended to see his sons as extensions of himself and he too was a great idealist whose visions compensated for a tragic sense of loss, both personal and national. He hoped his sons would somehow continue his line of work. For them his energies were terrifying and coercive as well as infectious. But it was probably not until the death of Bruce that these qualities began to make themselves deeply felt in his youngest son, then already five.
My father was thrown into a family of considerably older, rather imposing males. He soon saw himself filling in for the dead brother, answering his parents' hopes for the eldest. He would feel some guilt, I think, in supplanting the dead sibling, having earlier been a rival for his busy parents' love and attention. Similarly, his career as a writer began in imitation and emulation of his other brother, Shockley. Unlike Cherry, he didn't slay these older brothers, yet one of them died and the other would step aside.
Both heroic fable and his position in the structure of this family cast him as heroic competitor, who would perform greater deeds than his father and brothers and who would, upon entering the House of Literature, cut off the tongues of competing writers--who remained nonetheless his close friends and benefactors. His competitiveness didn't show up as a loathsome personality trait--he was known as a likable kid and thereafter a "regular guy." Rather, it was a hunger of the soul to excel.
He came to have his father's great antiquarian lust. And he absorbed his mother's stories of his remarkable dead grandfather. In the midst of commonplace midwestern life, the parents conjured up ghostly idealizations that would inspire and torment their son from this time on.
Not until he was well into writing his novel did he tell his surprised parents how early he had committed himself to the writer's life. That this wasn't revisionary personal mythology is confirmed by Robert Masters, who heard him say it as a child. One year after his death, Elsie Lockridge remarked, "Most little boys pass through various stages in their choice of a life career. Little boys invariably want to be policemen, engineers, cowboys, something with a lot of action. We did not know until recent years how early Ross, Jr. had settled on his life work. He said that since he was between seven and eight years of age he had had one settled purpose in life. He was going to write. And he wanted to write a great, good book."
Why did he choose, at the improbable age of seven, to become a writer? In part it may have been to fulfill the special role he now had in the family, after the death of Bruce. In part it may have been an ego ideal that would compensate for some nameless maternal deficit. In part it may have been to emulate his father and older brother.
But I think it was principally grounded in a more positive inheritance from his parents. They were both wonderful story-tellers. They encouraged their son to read. Constitutionally he had a fierce sympathy with products of the imagination, whether stories, poems, plays, or movies. Aristotle long ago noted the intrinsic delight we take in imitation, and this child who loved stories wanted to make up stories of his own.
Keeping this commitment from his busy, ambitious parents was a strong child's instinctive claim to a sphere free for the imagination. It was his secret, kept in a self-defining resistance to the strong web of words and personality his parents spun around him. To tell them would have been to relinquish it--especially to his mother, who on a deep level may already have been identified with loss. The will to become a writer was the nucleus of his sense of identity, silently maintained throughout an apprenticeship where much of his writing would be for hire at the request of his father. The real book he had in mind to write would be the revelation of a fabulous secret.
III "Legends in a Class-Day Album"
Passage, pp. 104-5
To stuff a bit more travel under his belt, he and Malcolm in mid-June set off for the Chicago Century of Progress World's Fair of 1933. Through Malcolm's father, they arranged for a ride on a flatbed chicken truck. Since there was no room in the cab, they were to be on top of seven layers of poultry crates full of chickens. They held onto ropes for dear life and endured the stench for ten sleepless hours overnight all the way to Chicago. The drivers took them in the early morning to a cafe across from the warehouse, where the waiter asked them if they wanted beer for breakfast.
Not wishing to be thought a country jake, Ross coolly said yes. The two were served, and ex-YPB Secretary Ross Lockridge swilled his down with nonchalance, while ex-YPB President Malcolm Correll found the going tough, almost gagging. From there they sacked out drunkenly for a few hours at the World Book Company headquarters, prearranged by Ross Senior.
At the fair their first stop was the Streets of Paris, advertised with a good deal of show-girl semi-nudity. They then went to Ripley's Believe It or Not, hardly in keeping with the "Century of Progress" motif, where they saw pygmies, giants, two-headed calves, a man who held up weights by slits in his nipples, and another who stuck hundreds of pins in his flesh. Malcolm fainted, and awoke to smelling salts administered by a nurse with whom Ross had already become very friendly. They then left the fair for the Rialto burlesque house, where they watched bare-breasted women on hollow pedestals singing Neapolitan love songs.
Four days later, having subsisted on cabbage and milk, "we rode home under a blistering sun on top the same accursed chicken truck, and fried like two herrings on a griddle." Deadpan, he told his parents, "We've seen some buildings that are higher than our barn." They had spent nine dollars each.
Vernice Baker was at a reunion for National Honor Society people when Catherine Feltus asked, "Oh did you see in the paper that Ross is going to the Sorbonne next year?" Her heart sank.
She was moping one evening soon thereafter when her friends Ruth Bradt and Elloise Kunz persuaded her to go to a rally down at the church. "And there was Ross!" Their relationship began again in earnest. In late July they were in Rivervale together, forsaking Bloomfield girls and Bedford boys and wandering hand in hand by the White River. Conveniently, Mary Eloise wasn't there. Sitting together on a rock in the evening they listened through the woods to others singing hymns.
There followed an August of Indiana pleasures--tennis, swimming, swinging on the front porch, miniature golf, singing. They went to the circus and watched the sea lions, ate cotton candy, and bought a watermelon for the Baker family. Her Aunt Lizzie made a faux pas: "She invited us to California on our honeymoon. Ross didn't hear. I wonder how everything is going to turn out."
On August 29, her old friend Georgia Adams married Boyd Coppock. She wore Vernice's Blue Triangle ring for "something blue." August 30, 1933: "Mother reminded me that I am losing two of my best friends--Ross and Georgia--Georgia is going to Logansport and Ross is going to Paris.... Clona was awfully nice to us--she had a chicken dinner for us tonight. Ross is a big eater--he had chicken bones piled up all round his plate, bless his heart. We played noisy card games after that--Demon and Animal--Mrs. Eller's son had died and they brought him right next door. Ross said since there was somebody dead over there we had to have some life at Clona's. I hope the folks didn't mind. We went to Ross's for awhile and listened to his mother's club sing old songs around the campfire--it was beautiful--Ross was feeling mischievous tonight--We would just be sitting there and then before I would know it he would be curled up with his head on my lap. I don't know how I am going to stand it this winter."
August 31, 1933. With their friends Nota Scholl and Dan Sherwood she and Ross "played tennis from 9 to 12 this morning-- Ross played six sets 3 hours without stopping--He is as good at tennis as anything else--I tell you Diary, I don't know what I am going to do--I'm lonesome."
Her relationship with Hornbostel had been put on hold during the summer. At an Alumni Hall dance in early September she and Ross ran into him, and Hornbostel exclaimed, "Oh, I didn't know you two knew each other!"
On parting, expressing a sense of peril himself, Ross gave her a leatherbound edition of Keats, inscribed with a Shakespearean sonnet of his own that ends with the couplet: "And though I move in death's pale equipage, / Think I am near to turn with you the page."
The final entry in Vernice Baker's diary: September 12, 1933: "We had our last date before he leaves, Diary--I wonder if it was the last we will ever have. Isn't that an awful thought? We visited all our trysting places (as we call them) for the last time--our two bridges on the campus--our dear old porch swing--east Third Street pike--you know when we had our first date we went to Nashville--we sang, too, Diary, we laughed, joked, sang--tried to get everything in in four hours. He left me at Clona's--He drove away slowly and we waved to each other and then he was gone. I'm afraid. He leaves for New York tomorrow and then for Paris Friday 15. His mother called me Wednesday and gave me his boat address. We are all going to write him tonight. S. S. Scythia, Cunard Line, Stateroom 109, Deck B, New York, New York."
IV "A Richly Laden Festal Board"
Passage, pp. 130-33
Shortly before his twentieth birthday, Ross Lockridge had to gather his belongings and move. Madame Pernot and her sister-in-law, La Reine or "The Old One," had accepted an invitation from the Marquis to move to the South of France, where he had purchased a villa near Cannes. Jack Crane moved in with Lamorey and another Dartmouth student across the street, while Ross elected to live without a roommate in the residence of Madame Vincent at 4 rue d'Ulm, no more than two minutes' walk. He wanted to be alone, though by this time an understanding had been achieved with Crane, and he wrote his folks that they were now "good friends." He lugged his stuff over on April 23 and spent the next two days helping Madame Pernot close up her home. She had become a second mother to him, and he had told her of his fears concerning Vernice.
Until now the Pernot household had been the butt of satire, especially the Marquis, whose egotism grated on Ross's egoism. When he wasn't boxing or racing streetcars, his aggressions were worked out in satire. "The marquis does now or has done everything, and always with genius. Is it a question of animals?--he has had lions in the house and likes these big fierce beasts because they challenge his mastery. Is it a question of drowning?--he saved three people once, flicking them out of the water before they had time to be scared. He paints, sculpts, and writes. He told us confidentially that in his youth he had a marvellous voice and could very possibly have been a Caruso."
But now Ross finds the Marquis's offer to his new mother-in-law a charitable act that could rescue her from a life he sees as pathetic and futile. He objects to Felix's treatment of his mother--he laughs at her idealism and gullibility. (Crane would recall her as "kind and sympathetic, our dreamer of Egyptian pyramids, Buffalo Bill, the Lost Atlantis.") Ross clearly feels he is the more understanding son.
I hear a new resonance in his letters as he begins to reach beyond both satire and stylized effusion to an authentic pathos. His language becomes less a performance and more an investment in its objects.
He was sorry to leave the Pernot household. "I actually felt as though I were in a family there, for [Madame Pernot] treated us as though we were her own children and insisted always that we consider her as our French mother. Her life is in the past.
"I visited them in the evening of the night before their departure. Madame was packing up the last things. The Old One was completely exhausted, but since there were no chairs to sit on, she was obliged to hold herself erect, and so went drooping about close to the walls and corners, like a resurrected ghost visiting the deserted abode of her childhood. They brewed me some tea and insisted on my staying with them awhile. Madame sat down on the floor in front of her trunk already bristling with odds and ends, and talking as she worked, showed me many old papers, books, and objects, recalling former grandeurs and long-forgotten happinesses. There were fine parchments attesting to the election of such and such a military ancestor to the Legion of Honor, signed by the Emperor Napoleon III; eagle feathers badly eaten by time which used to adorn Madame's more sumptuous headdresses in the blush of maidenhood or of young wifehood; several old books dating back to the time of Molière, Corneille, Racine--brilliant century of Louis XIV. Madame tenderly deposited packets of letters and postcards, ribboned and dusty, in the corners of the trunk, & showed me photographs of her husband, always the biggest and most handsome man in each photo, always wearing the most impressive mustache.
"Several family portraits, ignominiously rolled up in one, went in next, one or two half-destroyed albums, some children's garments, and at length her husband's military coat, with which I pleased Madame by showing that it was much too big for me. Many poignant memories were exhaled from the dust and clutter of the old trunk. She finally closed the lid on it, shutting many a sigh with its contents."
The emotion is anchored in his association of Madame Pernot's antiquarian debris with his own mother's and his grandmother Emma Shockley's. Confronted to an unusual degree throughout his early life with the paradoxes of time--the bewildering traces of the past in memorials, tombstones, old manuscripts, and memory itself that simultaneously promise and defeat acts of repossession--he saw in Madame Pernot's trunk of battered objects the potential "futility," as he put it, of human striving.
His mother's reading of her own life as disappointment was a parallel, with a husband not dead but absent. Her life too was in the past, as she looked to her dead father and sighed for her early ambitions. And his grandmother's box of old papers and photographs, now in his possession, was a coffin for his Grandfather Shockley's failed literary labors, alive only in the single witness of his own familial reading of them.
"I returned the next day [April 25] twice, once in the afternoon to take the last trunks to the station and help Madame secure her tickets, once in the evening to see them off finally. Along the boulevard that flanks the Seine, Madame made her last ride with a full heart and tearful eyes. I don't believe she's left Paris for 16 years. I finally got her through the station control with all her baggage, and hustled her and the Old One into an empty compartment of the train, where Madame nearly fainted away every time the train whistle blew. I felt pretty sad when I said good-bye to them. Madame said 'Embrassez-moi, Frank,' so I kissed her à la française. The Old One got up for hers. The train started off, so I skipped out and stood on the platform waving until they had gone. Then I returned to my new apartment. I was twenty years old that day, and it seemed to me that in many ways I was just as big a baby as I had been twenty years ago."
Aware of his own rite of passage through time, of human departures, and--with Vernice still very much on his mind--of the loss of potential futures, he was put into a sad perplexity that brought on sudden vision. Madame Pernot was not, after all, a tragic figure--she was to be whisked off to the South of France to live in style with a marquis. And his mother, in the midst of her lament, had written of feeling "akin to" her son, in whose brilliant career she might have a vicarious fulfillment.
In 1947, at the request of the publicity people at Houghton Mifflin, my father immodestly described in third person the vision that fell upon him at this time. "One day in the spring of 1934, in a small bedroom-and-study of a third floor apartment on the Rue d'Ulm in Paris, a nineteen-year-old American boy sprang suddenly from his typewriter and began to pace excitedly back and forth. This was the idea-genesis of Raintree County.... It was on that day that Ross Lockridge, Jr. awakened to the fact that certain Nineteenth Century backgrounds in the life of his own family could be transmuted into the content of a novel, which, if it fully realized the possibilities of its content, might really merit the title of 'The Great American Novel.' "
If we accept "nineteen-year-old" as accurate, the only date for this event would be April 24, probably in the evening after he watched Madame Pernot pack her trunk.
To write the novel is a way of transmuting and reanimating those nineteenth-century parchments and objects, of removing them from the trunk of memory, of investing them with vitality and significance. It's a way of supplementing some fragmented and disappointed lives--those of his mother, his grandmother Emma Shockley, and his grandfather John Wesley Shockley. At fifty-four, his mother had become dowdy and looked older than her years. Her son was deeply aware of her mortality.
His novel was thus conceived in a struggle with time. For our life to be only in the past is strictly pathetic, but the past has uses beyond sentimental antiquarianism. He would convert it into the perpetuity of a strong fiction, his grandfather restored and his mother a girl forever.
V "Dream of the Flesh of Iron"
Passage, pp. 180-83
He had begun recording his and Vernice's dreams in shorthand shortly after their return to the High Street house in the fall of 1938. Immersed in Freud, especially The Interpretation of Dreams, he was apparently less interested in self-analysis than in raw material for a dream epic. Only a few recorded dreams survive, all from the summer of 1939, narrated without commentary. To my father, such dreams were symbolic self-revelations. I think they at least announce his preoccupations at this time, and I apologize to his spirit for this supreme invasion of privacy.
So preoccupied with dreams themselves, he is aware of himself as dreamer in them. "I was trying to analyze the dream as I went along and I think also trying to wake myself up." Confronting a yellow flower left for him on his office desk, "I thought it was a phallic symbol in my dream and probably a homosexual invitation." Leaving, he encounters a group of men--the Don Blankertz confraternity--but Vernice intervenes, "and put arms around my neck." Subsequently he sees an old school acquaintance named Julie and wishes to dance with her, "also being afraid Vernice would find out about it." This low guilt threshold deprives him of Julie and he finds himself walking about campus instead, composing a poem in free verse, as if sublimating. He is self-consciously the dreamer-poet.
Following the departure from the Park Avenue cabin and return to his parents' house, with the birth of Ernest, there was a brief hiatus in my parents' physical relationship. Some of his dreams find his eye wandering--and Vernice herself is momentarily in the clutches of a ringmaster enclosed in a large top--but even in this dream world, as recorded in dim shorthand, he doesn't break his marital vows.
His sense of potency is instead grounded in writing. In one dream a Bloomingtonian reduced to lawnwork "would perhaps ask me to help him, or get him a job. That I would have authority after I was famous to go in anywhere and pull strings for people and get them jobs. I thought somewhere along in here . . . how famous my poem would make me." But most of these dreams find him powerless: "Tried to speak but my voice was no good--just a squeak, at which [Dr. Hale] laughed--like a little boy's."
It is often a sinister dream world threatening to the dreamer in its violence and polymorphous sexuality. Sometimes he is the potential aggressor, as when he carries a revolver into a sordid shooting parlor full of women and men with their guns removed. "When I first went in--my gun was showing & I was rather proud of it-- thinking how fast I could draw, etc." This scene yields to Creighton Avenue back in Fort Wayne--a city with a large German population--where he and his mother encounter Hitler's limousine. A bodyguard who at first appears to be a young man transposes into Hitler's wife, a "well-formed woman" on skates. "A little boy, also on skates, cuts loose & comes toward us in the street & I think he will be in the movies"--an uncanny self-projection.
In another he is in a large gymnasium, which is somehow also a theatre, where the principal actor walks around naked except for a shirt, his hairy buttocks showing, and a woman more agreeably transposes into "strawberries in a glass." He "walked through the door, knowing it to be a dream.... Behind me, along the floor came a little red thing, just like the head of a tumescent penis, with a little red string behind it. It was as though the penis were entering a body--. . . It came in behind me along the floor & passed me." He tries to wake himself up.
The vulnerability of women is as much dramatized as his own. That summer he and Vernice had visited Indianapolis to purchase her a new bathing suit. After some near-misses they found one and happily exited to the street at Monument Circle. Vernice wasn't used to the one-way traffic around the circle and, with her husband blocking vision to her right, stepped off the curb at North Meridian directly into the path of a speeding taxicab. Ross yanked her out of the way as the driver screeched to a halt, looking back at the terrified couple. Ross reflected on how the casual comedy can so quickly turn to death.
Thus, in one dream, "I heard an auto crash & a skidding sound. I up and ran as fast as I could in that direction.... I found that the girl had been picked up badly damaged . . . It appeared she was all cut up." He talks his way into the building where she is being worked over. It turns out she has only a slightly injured nose. His own relationship to her is variously father, brother, and lover. In another dream, a girl jumps off Bloomington High School with a parachute intending to land on the hedge but screams as she is carried beyond, with the dreamer looking helplessly on.
And he dreams the death of his father. "Dad died--we got word that during the night he was dead & had been treated in all the necessary undertaking manner.... Then this was disputed by the fact that he was walking right along with us." Rather than an elegy he composes a rhymed pastoral quatrain and is promptly attacked by a large dog. "I hit it once on the nose. Then I swung myself along a great distance--grabbed beech-tree limbs & threw the dog off." One might read this encounter with dog as a self-inflicted punishment for having wished the death of his father--or perhaps it was symbolic of his father himself, who kept dogging him.
These recorded dreams and probably hundreds of others that didn't survive were only one tributary to the large poem he projected. Most twenty-four-year-old poets in the history of letters are still sweating out lyrics and pastorals, not yet stepping up to epic. Keats is an exception who proves the rule--he despaired of finishing his Hrperion. And epic writers themselves are often modest enough not to cross national boundaries.
But Ross Lockridge conceived The Dream of the Flesh of Iron not as an American poem but as a vast international epic--a spiritual history of twentieth-century American and European consciousness from 1914 to the present, from the First to the beginnings of the Second World War, with a prophecy of apocalyptic destruction.
This prophecy may have been a lucky guess. Rather than epic of an era, his poem is better understood as a psychomachia, the history of his own internal struggle with a dark muse.
Dream of the Flesh of Iron, pp. 183-90.
VI Starting Over
Passage, pp. 203-5
He planned to work on his novel. More than a habitat, Indiana was now a literary backdrop. They arranged a swap with Don and Ruth Smalley, who needed to be in Cambridge for the summer. The Smalleys' house, at 1819 Maxwell Lane, was just around the corner from the Lockridge house on High Street. And just a few doors away a new house was being constructed by Russell Noyes.
The Smalleys had shortly before taken in an untamed orange cat who chased dogs. When the Lockridges arrived, they discovered an invasion of sandfleas, who "had multiplied far beyond their ability to get sustenance, and somewhat like Hitler's legions before Munich were hungry for lebensraum." Ross consulted with Jim Pennington, gas station owner and famous Bloomington raconteur, who sent him "to a certain Clyde Reem." With Reem he "set some jars of sulphuric acid in the basement, poured cyanide balls in, and skedaddled after closing up the house hermetically. Resultat: next morning, I went over and swept up some hundreds of very dead and pitiful little brown carcasses and one exceptionally dead cricket."
It was a sociable summer, with reunions of the Lake Gang, now expanded with marriages, and the Bakers. Ross continued his methodical reading of American literature and did some editing but no writing for his father.
He also told his mother for the first time that he had in mind to write a novel based on her side of the family. Elsie was greatly pleased. A pedagogue who had long known the value of visuals, she suggested they make a tour of old family sites up in Henry County. She herself had not visited many of them since she was a young girl. Apart from the initial vision he'd had on rue d'Ulm, my father would consider this visit the launching of his novel.
They took the Pontiac and drove up the old National Road--now Highway 40--to Lewisville, where they visited the graves of John Wesley Shockley, Emma Shockley, and their son Ernest Vivian, and then took narrow country roads to the old Harvey graveyard. Emma's father, Franklin Rhoton, a "stiff cocoon of seventy years of passionate begetting and goddamning," was buried there. They pressed through poison ivy and myrtle to the fenced-in lot only to confirm that no stone had ever been erected to the tyrant. A groundhog hole funneled into the grave and Ross imagined that animal and corpse cohabited. As they left, the groundhog emerged and perched on his hind end, watching them.
The next day they visited the old conservatory house at Bluntsville where Elsie had lived two years as a girl, and then went to Mooreland, where she had dreamt of her father's severed head being chewed by a dog, and "on down the narrow dirt road and across the R. R. tracks again to a jog where Pedee College, at Dan Webster, Indiana, was, . . . passing the so-called old Messick place where Grandfather Shockley was born, and then to the Old Home Place where W. B. Shockley lived and had his office and where Mother and Uncle Ernest were born and, I think, Uncle Frank, which they left when Mother was about six. Then away from there to Messick not far down the road where the old Messick Graveyard is."
It was at the Messick graveyard that Ross was stricken with something like death nausea. "I like to mess around in old graveyards about as much as anything I know," he told his mother, and joked about wishing he'd brought along a spade. He thought of his mother as a little girl riding around this countryside in late August with her older brother, Ernest. Then he thought of the graveyard, now lost, where his great-grandfather W. B. Shockley had spent the Great War and all the intervening days--"all that time was as nothing to the perpetuity of his sleep."
They asked some locals how to find the graveyard. "Yeh, awhile back, Rabb was talkin' about plowin' the place under. I reckon he will too sometime, if he ain't already." They ended up in a cowfield. "Is that a bull?" asked Elsie. "Yes," replied Ross. They weren't dressed for cowfields--Elsie in a trim black dress and silk stockings and elaborate hat, he in his better pants. She tucked her large red pocketbook on the far side, away from the bull. "Here he comes!" cried Ross, who liked to kid his mother, a real sucker at times. She jumped a fence and endured her son's laughter while the bull calmly cropped grass in his corner.
They made their way through thistles, ironweed, horseweed, and marsh grass to the railroad embankment, crossed several fences and finally saw "out of the tangled ground the tips and corners of a few gray stones, fallen." "This is old W. B.'s grave alright," said Ross, and he thought, "Out of your mother's girlhood you have torn this fragment and got it back.... You had no more profound sentiment of the past and the buried days when you stood before the crumbling, moss-covered tomb of Virgil high on a cliff over-looking the Bay of Naples."
They stood the stone upright and cleared out the pillbugs. "You get close to a life at the grave where it ended," he reflected, looking at the matted wild growth of dewberries and ground roses interlaced with myrtle and bluegrass. They looked in vain for the stone of Susannah Duke, John Shockley's mysterious first wife. And then he returned to the grave of his great-grandfather W. B. Shockley in the southeast corner and imagined "wisps of the burial clothing perhaps still adhering for flesh to his limbs. You stand amid these shards, butts, tips, lettered fragments, gray scobs, flinders, slabs, and chips of stone, with the hungry tide of the earth coming up over them . . . with its green foam and spray-fingers of ivy and grass."
And then he looked at his mother and saw that she was tired and that only her "blue wide fearless eyes" were still young. He was seized by the sense of her mortality. He wondered if the "greenwave surge of the grass and the ineluctable bulge and tidal swell of the land wash out all recollection after all, after all, if we wait long enough!"
Suddenly the alien burst of the train, only yards away, magnified his dark astonishment. It wasn't that he'd confronted some new truth about death, but he'd never registered its granite finality quite so intimately, and he left the graveyard feeling all the more "how necessary it is," amid the implacable movement of time and earth, "that something be and endure."
VII Writing Raintree County
Passage, pp. 241-43
Back in Pigeon Cove for the summer of 1944, I logged my first memory, an act of primal disobedience. Sally Fitz was a half-year older and, tiring of our sandpile, suggested we take a stroll to the sea. No problem, let's go. My mother was at her chores in the kitchen, checking every few minutes. She saw we'd disappeared. Panic-stricken, she and my father started running up and down paths, alerting neighbors, who joined in. An hour or so later, Sally's mother found us by ourselves a half-mile away at a solitary beach, sitting fully clothed in the water and playing with pebbles. I remember being warmly received by my parents and wondering what the fuss was about. I wasn't punished.
My father didn't rescue me but did rescue a drowning boy floating face down in the water that summer--an episode played up in the local paper though, modest hero, he didn't leave his name.
Later a hurricane passed through Pigeon Cove. Perhaps thinking of Odysseus, he braved the gale outdoors amid crashing tree limbs. After the storm, the doors were sticking, and Ernest failed to close one completely. My last excursion had been a lark, so I again strutted out barefoot and took a path to a fork. By now I was "a young, obstreperous bullcalf."
I could either turn right and head for a deep swimming quarry, or go straight into a field beyond which was a fifty-foot precipice into a dry quarry. My desperate mother, alone at the time, followed my tiny footprints to the fork, running up one path and then the other. As my father wrote, I was "standing in philosophical meditation on the brink of a quarry, where Vernice finally saw his little golden head shining in the sun. Larry obviously believes in living dangerously." I was playing with flowers.
These episodes got into the book. As a little boy, Johnny Shawnessy walks south away from his farm "hoping to see a Negro." He runs instead into little blond Nell Gaither, who invites him down to the Shawmucky River, where they play a long time "building little mud and stick huts.... When he started down the road that evening, he ran into a lot of people, and they all rushed at him and grabbed him and took him home.... 'Poor Ellen!' people said, 'Johnny, you pretty near killed your poor mother.' "
Years later, it is Shawnessy who is panic-stricken. His wife Susanna Drake, near mental collapse, absconds with Little Jim, and he begins a long and futile search. She too was like a child, and "two helpless children, entrusted to his care, had been lost. As in the old poem, they had wandered away on a bright summer's day. Bitterly, he reproached himself." My father improved on his raw material: this son would soon die in a fire.
And still later, remarried and father now to Eva (Elsie Shockley) and Wesley (Ernest Shockley), John Shawnessy is once again in search of lost children. On a camping trip with their parents, the two children get up early and steal away for a botanical excursion. Eva gets separated and lost for the better part of the day, passing once near a flowering tree and gathering up some yellow blossoms. This time John Shawnessy finds his child: "I've found her! I've got her!" "Her mother took the little dirty dress off and bathed her. Papa picked up the dress and shook it and the little yellow flowers fell out of the pockets.... He stood with a strange look on his face sifting the tiny flowers from one hand to the other." Eva had somewhere stumbled onto the mythical raintree her father had sought so many years and would never knowingly find.
It was a quality of my father's emotional life, as of John Shawnessy's, that his love for persons and things became fully apparent to him in their vanishings.
This motif of the raintree, and the name Raintree County, hadn't occurred to him until midsummer. Well into the composition he was still using Henry County place names. But one day he was sitting at his worktable in Cleaves Barn, "juggling words and trying out proper names by a process of sound-resemblance and free association." Saying the word "Henry" again and again, he stumbled onto "raintree" by the slight phonetic resemblance.
Eureka! The word touched off "a whole chain of slumbering associations." He thought of New Harmony and that damned Pageant. He took some pride that "the State of Indiana was the first in the Nation where these oriental trees were seeded and grown." Since he'd been working with the Edenic myth, "the motif of the Raintree instantly fused with the already existing pattern of the book. Almost as if by magic the whole landscape of Raintree County . . . sprang into being." It felt to him less a creation than a discovery. He seized a pencil and in a few minutes sketched the first map of Raintree County.
Passage, pp. 260-61
Having dispatched his own novel, my father found time to read his cousin's. Mary Jane Ward's The Snake Pit, a largely autobiographical novel based on her nine-month stay as a mental patient at New York's Rockland State Hospital in 1941, was on its way to No. 2 on the nation's best-seller lists. He liked it and wrote home that "apparently Mary Jane lost an awfully long week-end. It really is a frightfully competent little book, given the object." It is "considerably more than a mere clinical record. The realization of character and the emotional atmosphere of the mentally 'sick' is the work of an artist rather than the mere psychological reporter. I think we may be justly proud of our cousin's book--if not of the experience that made it possible."
Responding to yet another request from his father, he said he once again couldn't help out this summer--he'd be "pressing some matters of my own."
Waiting to hear from Houghton Mifflin, he was so anxious he sought out a masseur, an unprecedented indulgence. He had to cancel a couple of classes. It wasn't only whether the outcome would be positive or negative. Having so much of himself being read and judged for the first time felt rather like being walked on. He thought of writing Mary Jane to see if she had some ideas about other publishers. Hating the idea of being thought a "poor relation," he refrained.
Edith Helman, a professor of Spanish and member of the "Rockport Group," was sitting in her office on Monday, May 27, 1946, when her friend Ross Lockridge walked by to make a call at the pay telephone near the main entrance of Simmons College. He was well known for not having a home telephone and being unreachable. She was among the few to whom he'd spoken, with great hopes, of his novel-in-progress. He finished his call, loped into her office, and in great elation exclaimed, "Edith, they're taking it! They say it's terrific and I know it is!"
Passage, pp. 268-70
And then a still bigger uprising. My father had loyal friends. From Haverford, Larry Wylie spoke to his older brother Jeff, who was now New England bureau chief for Time-Life. Jeff had already had an indirect influence on my father, setting off a train of events by his own enthusiasm for Paris, which encouraged his brother to go, which . . . He had known Shockley Lockridge at the Phi Gam fraternity, had briefly dated Vernice's older sister, Beulah, and had taken a psychology course in which Elsie Lockridge was a fellow student. (Earlier, at Bloomington High School, he took Physical Geography and sat at the same table with an older student named Carmichael. One day the teacher asked, "Hoagy, what are the isotherms?" Hoagy improvised an answer in syncopated rhythm: "There's ice in the isotherms / And it's cold up north!")
After serving as president of Epworth League and deciding not to be a minister, Jeff tried his hand at disillusioned poetry, was an art critic for the Louisville Courier Journal, and Kentucky correspondent for Time-Life before coming to Boston.
Hearing of Ross Lockridge's novel, he tried to call him, discovered he had no telephone, and on June 28 sent a telegram from his office. JUST HEARD ABOUT THE BOOK FROM LARRY AND HAVE TALKED TO HOUGHTON MIFFLIN ABOUT MY DOING A POSSIBLE ARTICLE ON YOU FOR LIFE I'LL BE IN BLOOMINGTON THROUGH MOST OF JULY AND UNDERSTAND YOU WILL BE THERE TOO HOPE WE CAN DISCUSS IT FURTHER. JEFF WYLIE, 1318 STATLER BLDG. Within three hours Ross Lockridge appeared at his office.
Jeff didn't know this particular Lockridge but liked him immediately, and they set to "like a couple of kids talking about building a tree house." It was a case of mutual aid--Hoosier helping Hoosier--because Jeff, relatively new at his position, hoped to find good stories. They were quickly on the same beam, wisecracking their way through the possibilities.
Younger generations may not know of the immense influence of Life in those vintage years. Twenty-six million people read it or looked at the pictures every week. Turning America into a global village in its own way, it made people aware of how remarkable their own backyard barbecues were, their own high school dances. It gave the signal for new fads. It had come of age covering the Second World War, influencing my father's discarded epic poem. For any publicist to get a story placed there was a triumph, and Jeff Wylie was besieged with story ideas--including one from a foot fetish artist hoping to have his images of shoes and toes spread throughout America. But the story on Ross Lockridge originated within Jeff's own circle and he undertook it warmly.
The next day my father sent off an epic epistle to Jeff to be used as ammunition with the central office in New York, summarizing the story possibilities they'd discussed and rhapsodizing on Life as cultural history The article could appear in a July Fourth issue with pictures dramatizing great institutions such as the old G.A.R. parades. Or the real-life background in Henry County could be featured, and "perhaps some quaint old family photographs might be exhumed to advantage here." Or, with the influence of Intolerance and Citizen Kane in mind, the "motion-picture possibilities of my book might be foreseen . . . but there I go--already halfway to Hollywood!" Or there could be a story on how he wrote the novel, "with pictures illustrating a fairly elaborate text. It's just possible that the author of the book would be available for this feat."
The air was promise-crammed. Vernice wrote that "we are all eager to see again the Hero of Raintree County" on July Forth, by chance the legendary day of his novel. His conferences on July 1 and 2 seemed to go well. He was sticking to his guns on the Dream Section but would try to pare it down. They hoped he would drop it altogether. Paul Brooks called it "a very pleasant and fruitful get-together." My father wrote his wife that she outclassed Lana Turner, whom he'd recently seen in a movie. "Decidedly, I'll have to write the screen version of my own book. Even pearls poured into the Hollywood hopper can come out corn." He hurriedly packed trunks with the Shockley family archive and his manuscript.
He'd been away from Indiana for four years and in that time had fashioned a visionary narrative he hoped embodied both the spirit of his home state and the spirit of America. He was now launched as a writer and prepared for a great homecoming. It would be a relief to get out of the overheated city apartment and return "to the cool breezes of Indiana. And to the arms of my darling sweet wife. Love, Love, Love, Love, Love, Love, Love! Ross."
(For Chapter Eight, the Essay, Author in the Epic, pp. 271--309)
XI Snake Pit in Paradise
Passage, pp. 342-46
Then on June 27 a momentous telegram arrived from Paul Brooks, asking my father to call Houghton Mifflin immediately. He loped over to the park telephone, called collect, and spoke with Hillyer and Brooks. Hurrah! MGM would award him the $150,000 prize!
There was a hitch--he'd have to make some additional cuts that Houghton Mifflin thought reasonable. My father, with less than a hundred dollars in the bank, replied, "This Award is not won yet. I do not propose to cut the book." He had finished it, and that was that.
Hillyer relayed this news to a surprised Carol Brandt, the New York and European head of the story department at MGM, who was administering the award from her enormous New York office in the Loew Building on Broadway. It was decorated with the set from Berkeley Square. Brandt asked that Hillyer bring Lockridge to New York as soon as possible. Surely he would change his mind.
My father agreed to meet with MGM representatives and was forced to tell Vernice what was up, forgoing his anniversary surprise. The next morning he boarded the train for Boston, where he met with Hillyer and others. He then left for New York and took a taxi from Penn Station to the St. Regis, where MGM had reserved a large . air-conditioned suite for him.
Negotiations began over lunch at the restaurant Voisin, where he was joined by Hillyer. Carol Brandt was flanked by John McCaffery, the principal judge for the prize, who was a magazine editor and well-known radio commentator on "The Author Meets the Critic." When he read the galleys he had said immediately, "This is the book. It's a work of genius, and if we are going to give a prize, this is the book." On first meeting him at the restaurant, McCaffery sized Ross Lockridge up as "tense, mercurial, verging this way and that way, and not at all surprised that he had won the prize.... Ross was in a state of tremendous exhilaration and excitement . . . and he was upset by the fact that I believed his novel had to be cut . . . and he said 'No, I won't take the prize. I will reject it.' "
The main reason for the cuts was not aesthetic. Book-of-the-Month Club was unlikely to take a book this costly to produce, and without a book club sale Raintree County would not have the popularity MGM demanded of its prize-winner. They wanted 100,000 words out, the equivalent of an ordinary novel. The college instructor was holding his liquor well enough to say no, casting a pall over dessert, but arrangements were made for dinner that evening in Carol Brandt's apartment at the St. Regis.
During the afternoon at his office, McCaffery looked over the galleys with him, letting him know that he too was a small-town boy and genuinely admired the novel. But for the sake of getting the book club contract, MGM wanted him to drop the entire City Section. And how about cutting all those Eva chapters? She didn't add very much.
But my father's encyclopedic design required the city as well as the country, and MGM didn't know it was asking him to dump his own mother. Amy Loveman, another contest judge and one with Book-of-the-Month Club ties, said it "cried out for cutting." She had submitted a two-page hit list, including the great footrace--one of the novel's pivotal episodes.
At the catered dinner that evening, convened at six-thirty, it was again three against one as my father stood his ground amid a cloud of cigarette smoke. Brandt was a hard bargainer. Without a minimal cut of 50,000 words, she would not award the prize. She was baffled that a poor unpublished college instructor with a wife and four kids could be this resistant to sudden wealth and fame. In those days, the sum was sufficient to put us all on easy street. He had admitted to McCaffery that he was down to a hundred dollars when the news arrived. And she was surprised that he was refusing the advice of his editor, the greatly respected Dorothy Hillyer. Houghton Mifflin had much to lose in the matter.
The evening wore on past midnight, with all parties taking breaks to lie down in adjacent bedrooms. Carol Brandt said, "We aren't getting anyplace. We're just repeating ourselves." My father replied, "Carol, you sound as if you'd consider it an improvement to cut War and Peace." "Yes, I certainly would!" she replied. She proposed that someone else cut the book for him. He refused. MGM would put him up with an editor in a suburban home in Connecticut and in one week they could weed out 50,000 words. He refused. She said, bluffing, "Well, let's all have a cigarette, and forget the whole thing."
By the time the battle had dragged on to four in the morning, Dorothy Hillyer had lost all sympathy: "I never saw anyone so stubborn." McCaffery admired his nerve. They ended in deadlock. But my father said he would think it over some more and give his final decision at Carol Brandt's office at nine-thirty, later that morning. He then sent a night telegram to his wife, telling her to be at the park telephone booth first thing in the morning. The two spoke, my father telling her what was up and asking how she would feel were he to decline the prize. Unhesitatingly my mother said yes, she would support that decision. "You should not sell your soul," she said.
McCaffery, Brandt, and Hillyer waited nervously while Lockridge kept them waiting. He was thinking it over. In declining, he'd be giving up not only the $ 150,000 of income spreadable over ten or more years, but also several escalator bonuses--$25,000 if the novel was selected by Book-of-the-Month Club, $25,000 if it won the Pulitzer Prize, and up to $75,000 for sales beyond 25,000 copies, for a formidable $275,000, not to mention the $25,000 to the publisher and the enormous boost in sales that would come from the national publicity over the prize and later from the movie itself. And then there was the $50,000 advance from BOMC if it was a Main Selection, more likely if the judges were confronted with a shorter book--all this beyond the ordinary royalties he'd be getting from Houghton Mifflin! This was quite a bit for a family man to sacrifice. And it weighed on him too that he'd be letting down his publisher. If he had a free hand in the revision, maybe he could even improve the novel. And they did tell him he would have minimally an advisory role in the making of the movie.
There was an unspoken motive too, I think, that underlay these and all subsequent dealings with MGM and Houghton Mifflin. My father feared that this novel alone was his masterwork, that he had said it all there, that another financial opportunity like this would not come his way, and that family and career--if indeed he did have any other books in him--would have to rest on the proceeds from this book alone.
When he appeared, forty-five minutes late, Brandt thought he looked cheerful and chipper, while Hillyer thought he looked very pale. My father asked again if the prize money could be spread over a number of years. "Absolutely!" said McCaffery. He said he would require a free hand in cutting it himself. Brandt agreed to this. My father then announced he'd cut the 50,000 words and accept the prize.
Amid the congratulations, Hillyer could see even then that Ross regarded this as a Faustian pact. He would write his brother Shockley, "That high-pressure, ulcer-making, glamor-ridden world into which I was catapulted in New York is best seen via the movie marquees. It's not worth the price of admission."
He asked if he could call his wife from the office--she would be. waiting at the phone booth--and Brandt offered him a phone in relative privacy next to the Steinway. Nonetheless, she and Hillyer eavesdropped and heard him tell Vernice that he had accepted the prize and now she could buy that washing machine. They didn't understand that it was his little joke.
Passage, p. 367
The night of October 20, he once again failed to sleep. The next morning his wife was alarmed at a change in her husband. This was something different from the nerves and anxiety that had been keeping him up all night, or the anger that was channeled into all those letters she never read. That morning, October 21, he had trouble swallowing food, and his skin had a strange pallor, and when he tried to speak he could hardly be heard, and he said that something was wrong with his vision, that the world didn't look right to him some how. His wife was terrified to see all vitality drained from this man, the Hero of Raintree County, her funny, romantic, driven husband who had taken her and the children on a great adventure. Surely that spirit would be restored, surely this young hero and endlessly courageous dreamer would be there again for her at the river's edge.
X "Flu or Something"
Passage, pp. 380-82
On November 25, they finally made contact with MGM and drove to the studios in Culver City. MGM people were surprised to learn the Lockridges were in town, and in North Hollywood of all places. MGM would have put them up more lavishly had they known. Carey Wilson, producer of The Postman Always Rings Twice, whose Green Dolphin Street had been released only four days earlier, welcomed the two warmly and invited them to his office for talk and a photo opportunity. Wearing the flamboyant tie that would crop up in most subsequent photographs, my father stood over Wilson, pointing to a place in some script as if to make a fine point that may have escaped the producer.
Grasping at positive responses, he wrote his folks that Wilson "is a tremendous personality, full of great feeling for the book. He talked with us for an hour about Raintree County, which he said had moved him as no other book ever had. He said that this book was like reliving your own life again--that the hero was Everyman . . ."
Then my dapper parents were photographed smiling at each other next to an MGM limousine. Nothing in these pictures suggests someone in pain.
And for my mother this day was indeed thrilling. They were escorted to some sets, including Easter Parade, where Judy Garland and Fred Astaire were rehearsing. They got a glimpse of Peter Lawford walking by, and they were introduced to Esther Williams. While her husband was taken into meetings with MGM personnel for the afternoon, she was escorted to the commissary, where she saw Angela Lansbury and then Elizabeth Taylor descending the staircase, waving beautifully to someone across the way. It seemed that the years of unintermitted labor were yielding a different kind of life.
Meanwhile, what was going on in those meetings? Louis B. Mayer was out of town that week and would return the next. In addition to Carey, my father met with Kenneth MacKenna ("chief of script--or something like that") and Voldemar Vetluguin, head of the story department, who initiated the MGM Novel Award, soon to be declared one of the company's big short-lived fiascos. Indeed, Ross Lockridge arrived in Hollywood at Loew's darkest hour. With few recent hits and many fat-cat executives and lackluster producers, its income had been plummeting since 1946.
No reaction to Ross Lockridge among the now deceased people who met him has yet surfaced--Ted Turner's lawyers have denied me access to files and a Hollywood researcher turned up nothing. The sum total of what I know comes from Vetluguin's starlet fiancée at that time. The magnate held Ross Lockridge, Jr. in high esteem and wondered, "Where can he go from here?"
My father was sending upbeat news to his parents and only humble, appreciative words to Houghton Mifflin. He was apparently well behaved at the studios. Wilson told him that the Susanna figure had "great cinemadramatic possibilities." "They asked my opinion on how the show should be done," he wrote his parents, "and I gave them--very diffidently--a few ideas. We are invited to come back to MGM any day (the biggest studio in the world) and see any film we want to, especially run for us. We have appointments of a business nature next week--there will be some more picture-taking, and perhaps the newsreel, for which a script has already been written."
The next day was momentous--the first copy of Raintree County arrived special delivery, and my parents held it there in Room 19 of the Pepper Tree Lodge. It was Thanksgiving Day and they took their dinner at the Lodge. Each inscribed the book to the other on the page acknowledging my mother's contribution.
"I give with everlasting love my share of Raintree County to you, my husband. To Ross, whose love is my love, whose life is my life. Vernice."
"For Vernice my beloved wife, her own copy of Raintree County, the book whose life has been a consummation of our wedding--'two with one heart'--Given with the undying love of the author. Ross."
To Paul Brooks he wrote, "We have it! All the years of dreams, hopes, and hard work held at last between two covers in the right hand! After millions of words, you will be happy to hear that the author of Raintree County was simply speechless. Vernice goes around sort of cradling the book from time to time. Our fifth baby! The cover designs, end-papers, etc., are just bewilderingly, wordlessly beautiful. We can never thank you all enough for the faith, effort, tact, and guidance that brought my seven years' dream to such a beautiful consummation."
He sat down to read it through.
Passage, pp. 403-4
Raintree County was destined to be only the world's second -most-influential book published on January 5, 1948, by a Bloomington author living in that particular section of town. Alfred Kinsey lived just up the way on First Street. Wardell Pomeroy, one of two co-authors of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, was an acquaintance of my father's in college and lived less than half a block away from us. Both books were getting enormous attention in the national press. "Apparently Mr. Kinsey and I," remarked my father, "have made Bloomington the sex center of the universe."
In the late Forties, more attention than today was paid novels in the press, with a greater sense of occasion on publication day. Here was a novel that checked in with great prepublication hype right at the beginning of the year. Could this indeed be that mythical beast the Great American Novel? In a dreary period in postwar America, with the Cold War setting in, a vital fiction was something the reading public seemed to crave.
The initial round of reviews--hundreds upon hundreds of them--was largely encomiastic. The Chicago Tribune, Herald Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Indianapolis News, Cleveland News, and others issued their reviews in full-page spreads, many in color with quaint illustrations of the novel and handsome photographs of Ross Lockridge, Jr. Some reviewers said yes, this is the Great American Novel. Others in prominent places like Time and The Saturday Review of Literature said it at least announced the arrival of a major new figure in American letters, the equal of Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, and the end of a slump in American fiction.
Right away Houghton Mifflin started sending the reviews to Bloomington, and my father wasn't cheered. So much of the praise spoke of the novel's great "vitality," yet its patterns and its moral vision were getting little commentary. Some reviewers spoke of it as amorphous" and "sprawling." And virtually nobody noted his method of incorporating a multitude of voices, even corny ones, into an American polyphony.
Instead they spoke only of "influences"--the influence of Wolfe and Joyce and Whitman, especially Wolfe. Many thought him better than Wolfe--at doing what Wolfe did. In the midst of their raves, many reviewers complained of the lack of strict chronology, especially the delayed climaxes. One recommended skipping ahead and reading them out of sequence. Others disliked the omission of quotation marks.
Even the Book-of-the-Month Club blurbs found the judges carefully dissociating themselves from their own unanimous selection. "There may be more classical, more profound, novels published this year, but certainly none more remarkable than Raintree County. We have had no such eruption of the American imagination since Tom Wolfe's day," wrote Henry Seidel Canby. "Mr. Lockridge writes profusely and seems to go off the rails whenever he feels like it.... Here is a vital novel, rich in characters, close to. the soil and American history, puzzling sometimes, too verbose for my taste, but what I would cut some other reader would insist upon keeping." Canby didn't mention that he'd exacted his own cuts already. (My father later thanked Canby, saying that he was "overgenerous to a young man's book in some ways.") BOMC judge Clifton Fadiman opined, "Sure, it's too long, but that fault issues from a noble passion to get everything in." And John Marquand, "Many readers will be tempted, I believe justly, to skip some of its interpolation. Nevertheless . . ."
The Book-of-the-Month Club shied away from my father's racy book-jacket design. Instead of a naked woman embedded in the landscape, we find Adam and Eve in full Victorian dress doing a minuet as Eve prepares to receive an apple from an accommodating snake.
Only Charles Lee of The New York Times Book Review came close to saying what my father wanted to hear. The novel's various "levels are so intimately interrelated that they develop with a kind of breathtaking simultaneity." He noticed its massive structure, contrapuntal design, and layered symbolism and called it "an achievement of art and purpose, a cosmically brooding book full of significance and beauty."
Passage pp. 409-10
On Tuesday, January 20, he and Vernice tried again to keep a date with L. S. Ayres for an autographing party. The press showed up for the gala event. Mr. Riker, who ran the bookstore, was sitting in his off1ce when he was informed that Lockridge had arrived and was standing in men's furnishings. Mr. Riker said, "I'd better go and see." The reporter followed along and thought Lockridge looked like a man interested in a bargain on socks as he stood there with an uncer tain expression. Was he able to get any work done these days? "No," he mumbled. "Sickness . . . and moving . . . and one thing . . ." "Somehow he gave the impression of a small boy standing in the wings, ready to go on stage for his first Children's Day performance at Sunday School. He smiled like one expecting to fall on his face the next moment."
Of his book he said, "It's hard to read. You sort of have to work at it." He sat down to receive the long line, mostly women, and started to fire off signatures rapidly. The Indianapolis News carried on its front page later that day the most memorable photograph of my father's career, and also his last known photograph. With flamboyant tie but tired expression he sits at the center of a crowd of standing Hoosiers, those people whose good opinion in his illness he feared losing. With their fur and hats and scarves and perms, they stand in decorous contrast to the naked, languorous woman on the book jacket. Some of them have the joyless expression of anxious consumers. What is it that they want or think they are getting? For whom was Raintree County written? Did they get past the naked lady on the stone slab in the post office on page 4? Did the novel get to some of them, transporting them for a few hours beyond the dreary torpor that I have come to associate with that period of our national life?
Three figures look directly at the camera--one a young man with a smiling countrified Hoosier face, T-shirt under jacket, another a respectable older lady in the background. And then a vulnerable young girl peeking out from behind my father. Somehow I identify with her, partially obscured as she is by my father's head and a little puzzled by everything. His life had darkened now and the shade it would cast on my own life, and that of my family, would prove unending.
And yet the girl's face is also alive and expectant, almost impish, and my father's is tired but hardly angry or simster. The signatures he gives away are tokens of a larger generosity he shares with all writers who, in their pride, attempt to give us something that might endure. And like my siblings I still sense, through it all, his generosity even as a father. His legacy to us has been more light than shade.
XI "Hail and Farewell at the Crossing!"
Passage, p. 451
Vernice Baker Lockridge stood with an overflow crowd in the church where seventeen years earlier she had first met Ross Lockridge. She and Ross Senior and Elsie maintained a proud composure during the service that followed. Reverend McFall quoted from a letter the son had written his father early in his depression: "During this time . . . I have reminded myself of the grand old truth, 'Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth.' And I have vast comfort and strength from a direct reliance on the Scriptures and the great symbolical truths everywhere expressed in the Old and New Testaments. When our own strength deserts us, there is a greater strength." Lockridge was the young idealist John Wickliff Shawnessy.
My mother would always be grateful for the words of Bloomington's wisest person, William Lowe Bryan, IU's president emeritus, who way back in 1913 had encouraged Ross Senior to embark on a career in public speaking. These words came closer than any ever have to the heart of the tragedy that had taken place before her astonished eyes.
He wasn't reconciled, he said, to the loss of this brilliant young jewel of the University. "The book, I think, consumed him. Like Walt Whitman, he wrote with a vast emotion, a great laughter. He renounced technical art forms. It burst forth from him, this book, like Emerson's 'Volcano's Tongue of Flame.' This thing, so filled with a great emotion, was written with an impassioned mind through a long time. It was written with a passion that burns up a man. I think that was it. It resulted in a deadening of the emotions--I would I could say that better. There's an exhaustion of whatever it is that is the mother of emotion, so that the ordinary impulses of youth, of joy and satisfaction, are dead for a time."
The very mother of emotion was exhausted--Ross had said such words himself, she remembered.
Passage, p. 453
Back at the Lockridge home on High Street that afternoon, the family talked about the tragedy. During the service that he wasn't allowed to attend, Ernest had been cutting rings around young trees with his jackknife. Ross Senior told Uncle Frank Shockley that after having been "driven by an impelling force to write," his son confronted "a complete blank--felt he might live to be 70 and never do anything further with his life."
The tired historian led some reporters down into the old south field, where the stone-ringed fireplace was filled with ashes. He stood at the edge in his crumpled baggy suit and looked down. "We started having bonfires here about 24 years ago," he said. It was on this spot that he and his son rehearsed their speeches, where Scuffie was Patrick Henry. It was on this spot that so much of what went into the novel came into being. He recalled too the bonfires on the Eel River, and the Winchester rifle he'd given Scuffie at age twelve. "We scarred up plenty of trees playing Daniel Boone in those days." He turned away from the stone circle. "I think his work was done. His reward came quickly. His wife and children will be well provided for. I think his work will endure."
It was on this spot that my grandfather tried to evoke the spirit of his dead son, the strong voice subdued now, for there was no life in those ashes, no echo from the cold stones.
Passage, pp. 456-58
In June of 1948, New Harmony once again put on the pageant that my father had tossed off in the spring of 1937 to raise some cash for his upcoming marriage. The festivities began with a street dance in the shower of the Golden Raintree, seven hundred of which blossomed then in the small town. Five thousand people made the pilgrimage, and the pageant was dedicated that year to its own author. A tribute was read. "This pageant was one of the first revelations of his literary skill and artistry. He gave national prominence to our beautiful tree by naming his distinguished novel after it. Our performance is a memorial honoring his genius . . ." The performance ended in the Dance of the Tree of Golden Rain, with hamadryads in green, yellow, red, and brown depicting the seasonal cycle of the famous tree. My sister was a Flower Bearer and danced with a tall dark Rappite man. Ernest stood on a branch of a raintree dedicated to his father, with his mother looking on. They were both smiling.
Amidst its legacy of death, Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s novel remains the record of human festivity, of the strongest impression of life. I imagine my father's spirit approaching his own tombstone, as his hero John Wickliff Shawnessy did in Raintree County. "He took hold of the top of his tombstone and tugged on it. It was firm as if it had taken root. He gritted his teeth and pushed and pulled. The stone wanted to stay there. With a great effort he tore it loose from the earth and pushed it over. It fell flat, curiously solid and inert, the words staring up. In a fury of effort, he picked it up and carried it to the brow of the hill and rolled it down."
We all wish he could have toppled that tombstone at the last minute, that he could have held on until spring and summer, when the raintrees would have been once again in bloom. Other books would have come. And probably other children as well. He couldn't have known it then, but the depression would have lifted. His argument about fate was unanswerable--after the fact.
"Authors survive in their books," said one editorial following his death. In current critical thinking, this is extremely naive. You can't find an author in a book anymore. But I continue to look for my father there, and think that those old metaphors about authors pouring themselves into books or writing their hearts out sometimes hit home. He saw himself as the pleasant photographer "who did not seem at all disturbed by the confusion in which he worked," and who "prepared to trace with a radiant pencil a legend of light and shadow, some faces on the great Road of the Republic." In the end he was disturbed indeed, having lost his grasp on the stuff of life.
But he grasped it hard while he wrote, and like any writer he lives again by virtue of the human sympathies aroused in readers whenever the old book is dusted off. "So he would plant again and yet again the legend of Raintree County, the story of a man's days on the breast of the land. So he would plant great farms where the angular reapers walk all day, whole prairies of grass and wheat rising in waves on the headlands. So he would plant the blond corn in the valleys of Raintree County. Yes, he would plant once more the little towns, Waycrosses and Danwebsters, and the National Roads to far horizons, passing to blue days and westward adventures, and progress, the cry of a whistle, arcs of the highflung bridges, and rails and the thundering trains. Hail and farewell at the crossing!"
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