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