It may seem odd to be writing a review of a book written more than 60 years ago. In my case, the book is vibrant and meaningful. Raintree County is set in a mythical part of Indiana close to where I grew up, in Bloomington. The author, Ross Lockridge Jr. lived just down the street from my family. He was a young man. He was also a friend of our neighbor, Alfred Kinsey, for whom my mother, Mildred Hawksworth Lowell a Professor of Library Science at Indiana University, was librarian for Dr. Kinsey’
Upon publication in 1947, Raintree County was an instantaneous best-seller leading shortly to a major studio contract for a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. One of the Lockridge children, young Ross, was my classmate in elementary school at Elm Heights Elementary. He would share the details of the movie process and, as I recall now more than 55 years later, being charmed by the famous players in the movie when the family visited the sets. I could only have been 7 or 8 at the time (born in 1946) but the magic of living in the midst of a famous novelist and the wonder of a Hollywood film are vibrant memories.
At the peak of professional success, Mr. Lockridge committed suicide in a garage. I recall being dumbfounded as a child. “Why would he kill himself?” I asked my mother. “He had achieved so much.”
I do not exactly remember my mother’s response. But the question has lingered in my heart ever since. I have assumed the answer to be along the lines of – “Life is complex, son, even in the lap of glorious success one can become lost. Is this all there is for all of my work? Mr. Lockridge was a fine man. He must have had a torment that another cannot imagine.”
From that time to this, I have always dreamed of being a writer. I have done non-fiction professional books for many years, and am only now into the fiction business. For some reason, the image of these questions has always crept into my mind when I have focused on the possibility of success as a fiction writer.
“What would it be like to succeed? What did Ross Lockridge Jr. feel when his first and only novel achieved instantaneous critical and financial success, followed by a major league movie contract? What would drive him to end his life?
In recent years, I have moved from writing fiction manuscripts and putting them on the shelf to seeking a route to commercial publication. As I began this journey, I wanted to go back and see if I could answer these questions of a lifetime. First, I read the biography of Mr. Lockridge written by his son Larry, Shade of the Raintree. Then I picked up Raintree County itself, a tome of some 1,060 pages in the edition that was given to me as a birthday present by my sweetheart.
Raintree County is a masterpiece, obviously written in the hopes of becoming a Great American Novel. It traces the life and times of an absorbed young writer (John Wickcliff Shawnessy, a/k/a Johnny) from a rural county before, during, and after the Civil War. The central characters twist and turn through all of the pages as they age. The chronology of time switches back and forth, challenging the reader to keep all of the pieces in perspective. The characters include an elusive young lady whose nudity by the river and innocent frolic in a haystack reverberate through the story (Nell Gaither), a teacher and confessor (the Perfessor), a Southern belle who frolics with our hero one afternoon after too much cider and claims pregnancy, then becomes his first wife, an athletic arch-enemy who becomes a prosperous national businessman (Cash Carney), a competitor for the femme who becomes a U.S. Senator, and a cast of other characters that create the magic of the story.
Like Gone With the Wind, Ulysses, and other sweeping stories, one gets to the end (when Johnny comes marching home from the War) wondering what the point of the story is. Johnny began with the hope, aspiration, and innocence of youth, seeking answer to the riddle of the naked woman in the post office. In the end, Johnny seems to be seeking to find what he has lost along the way, perhaps the answer to the riddle.
One can never know why this skilled author took his own life. Perhaps the answer is that he poured himself into this fascinating story that is so full of life, complete with its riddles, paradoxes, and mysteries, and lost his way in the process, finding himself unable to deal with the adulation that poured over him (or the frustration of dealing with publishers, agents, studios and the other characters in a story that he had not charted or, maybe, even contemplated). As Lockridge ended the story with Johnny’s determination that “each man had to build his world again [periodically:]!” It is difficult to return to the idealized world of the young, as Cash Carney laments in an epitath to lost youth (on page 848 of this edition).
The thoughtful framework of Raintree County, the life of its author, and the biography of his son seem to cry for a re-telling of the story in another generation.
In short, Raintree County is the great American novel and should be back on reading lists. The essential issues and messages that are explored in these pages are present in the lives of each of us.