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Ross Lockridge, Jr.Ross Lockridge, Jr.

Hoosier Connection: Ross Lockridge lived most of his life in Bloomington, Indiana, where he wrote his one and only novel, Raintree County. The novel explores Henry County's landscape and environment from the fictional town of Freehaven.

Works Discussed: Raintree County

Ross Lockridge, Jr., was born on April 25, 1914, in Bloomington, Indiana, where he remained most of his life. He attended Indiana University, then attended Harvard University for his graduate work, and finally went on to become a professor of English at Simmons College in Boston from 1941-1946.

Receiving family history from his parents, Lockridge first intended to write a novel about his relatives' lives in Indiana, but abandoned the book for lack of inspiration. He then wrote a 400-page epic poem derived, in part, from countless numbers of his own dreams. The poem, titled The Dream of Flesh of Iron, was never published but it proved to be the inspiration for his next literary endeavor.

Drawing inspiration from his poem and the books he had read,such as James Joyce's Ulysses, Lockridge returned to the idea of a novel, this time setting out to write the great American novel. Published in 1948, the 1066-page Raintree County was an immediate best-seller and the winner of a $150,000 novel prize from MGM film studios. Nevertheless, two months later, Lockridge committed suicide for unknown reasons.

The central plot of Raintree County takes place in one day, July 4, 1892, but tells the life story of the novel's main character, a writer named John Wickliff Shawnessy, through non-chronological dreams and flashbacks that begin in 1844. Most of the action is set in Freehaven, Indiana, which is located in Raintree County, Lockridge's fictional name for Henry County, where his ancestral home is located. This setting assumes mythic proportions, full of Edenic allusions.

When the land in Raintree County was first being settled by pioneers, a preacher came through, talking about a vision of Heaven:

He told them that in his youth he had a vision of Heaven in which he beheld a green land full of fruitbearing trees and pleasant waters and had gone seeking for its earthly counterpart through the wilderness of America.... Now he had found, as he believed, the land of his vision. (43-44)

To fulfill this vision, the preacher planted a seed, which grew into a Raintree, and the area became known as Raintree County.

The novel explores Shawnessy's search for the meaning of the mythical Raintree, for he is sure not only that it exists but that it is the Tree of Knowledge. If he can only find it, he believes he will solve the riddle of its existence and his own life. In pursuing both quests, he looks repeatedly to nature for answers to his questions.

Even in his youth, Shawnessy's great passion for life and nature is already evident, as he returns repeatedly to an isolated spot by the Shawmucky River to do his writing. Here he can relax away from the rest of the world. Nature is perfect in its splendor to him; he feels drawn and connected to it as if it holds secrets about himself that he has yet to discover. This connection to nature provides John's inspiration for writing, yet he is also reminded of nature's power, when the Great Swamp nearly swallows him up.

Raintree County is also filled with imagery about the land. Shawnessy reflects on the deforestation that took place before he was born and the former vastness of the forest. The South Field of the family farm had once been "part of the great oak forest which apparently had covered several square miles of the land around the Home Place." This forest was "itself a remnant of that legendary great forest which extended clear across the Mississippi Valley and of which there were still some dim recollections handed down from the earliest settlers and explorers" (53).

To John, the land is a living being, but masked by human creations: “The formal map of Raintree County had been laid down like a mask on something formless, warm, recumbent, convolved with rivers, undulous with flowering hills, blurred with motion, green with life” (7). Primeval nature, writhing with life, is covered by the constructed works of humankind.

One of those constructed works is the railroad. After fighting in the Civil War, Shawnessy returns to Raintree County and is distraught to find that the railroad has entered his hometown. The train, he says, "doesn’t know the earth it passes over" (232), but is instead separated from nature.

Lockridge presents the train as an omen of “big events” to come that will injure land and the people who live on it, both physically and spiritually: "They are coming, full of malice and arrogance, they are coming on hooves of iron, wounding the earth of Raintree Country...." Nature’s spirit, John laments, will drive "the beautiful young gods" from the river’s edge (233), and in their place remains nothing beautiful or spiritual. Later, after the Civil War, John realizes that reality is even worse than he had feared:

He didn’t foresee the materialism of the age, the spirit of getting wealth, of amassing property, of conquering space, of mining and stripping and gutting and draining, and whoring and ravaging and rending the beautiful earth of America. He didn’t foresee the grotesque buildings...that festered on the land, the tenements of stunted souls. (771-72)

Together, industrialism (the "sooty monster") and urbanization (with "hundreds of thousands of Americans" leaving their farms and migrating to the cities) have made his home unrecognizable (770-71). The supreme irony, according to John's mentor, the "Perfessor," is that industry, rather than advancing humankind, as expected, had actually moved it backwards:

[T]he creators of the Machine, believing it the fairest flower of human progress, have really made it a noxious weed that chokes out everything else.... Thus with the Machine, his last brilliant contrivance, the Heir of all the Ages succeeds in hurling himself back into the Swamp and destroys all the beautiful, insubstantial dreams that made him think he had a home forever on this earth" (816).

Ultimately, however, John finds the professor isn't entirely correct, and he takes comfort in the fact that one thing has not changed: the earth itself. There he does have a home.

Raintree County is a long, ambitious novel whose main character carries out a personal journey against a backdrop of both natural and contstructed landscapes. While the primary focus of the novel is Shawnessy's constant struggle to understand his dreams and his life, Lockridge portrays a protagonist whose strong connection to nature pervades his entire life.



Lockridge, Ross, Jr. Raintree County. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947.


Raintree County. 10 Nov, 2002. <http://raintreecounty.com/bookphot.html>.
Copyright © the Estate of Ross F. Lockridge, Jr., 2000.


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