Ross Lockridge, Jr. Essay - Critical Essays

Lockridge, Ross


Ross Lockridge 1914-1948

American novelist.

Lockridge published only one novel in his lifetime: the epic, thousand-page Raintree County (1948). With a plot that takes place on a single day in a fictional town in Raintree County, Indiana, the book met with instant popular success and was hailed as the greatest American novel of its generation. But shortly after its publication, Raintree County began to receive increasingly negative reviews. Struggling with immediate fame and the pressure to write a second work of equal stature, Lockridge committed suicide in 1948.

Biographical Information

Lockridge was born in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1914, to highly ambitious parents who were determined that at least one of their children would achieve nationwide admiration. Lockridge graduated summa cum laude from Indiana University in Bloomington in 1935 and did postgraduate study at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1937 he married Vernice Baker, with whom he eventually had four children. As an English instructor at Indiana University, Lockridge began planning to write a novel about an Indiana family that would encompass the twentieth-century Midwestern experience. But he became discouraged and abandoned the project around 1938. Instead, Lockridge spent the next three years writing a massive epic poem on the same subject. In 1941 he submitted it—at more than four hundred pages—to the Houghton Mifflin publishing company, who immediately rejected it. Undaunted, Lockridge turned back to writing his novel. Six years later, he sent the finished book to Houghton Mifflin, who this time accepted his work for publication. Raintree County received phenomenal publicity from its publisher, was chosen immediately as a selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club, and was granted the MGM Award of $150,000, with the understanding that the film studio would have the rights to make the novel into a movie. Lockridge was delighted and immediately purchased a new house for himself and his family in Bloomington, but he soon began to suffer from emotional instability, experiencing extreme highs of grandiosity and extreme lows of insecurity. Diagnosed as paranoid, he endured a series of shock treatments that he hoped would allow him to begin work on another novel. But in March of 1948, two months after the publication of his only novel, Lockridge committed suicide.

Major Works

The main plot of Raintree County takes place on 4 July 1892, a single day in the life of its middle-aged protagonist, John Wickliff Shawnessy. Additionally, there are fifty-two scenes of flashbacks to events in Shawnessy's earlier life as well as to events in the development of the United States. Shawnessy is treated as a poetic American pioneer figure in search of a lifestyle to fit his high ideals, as he explores his various options in other cities and has romantic experiences with several women who represent aspects of his youthful exploration. He finally, however, returns to Raintree County to settle with an Indiana girl in his hometown, where he becomes a much-loved husband and father and a highly respected citizen despite having never finished the novel he set out to write. Shawnessy's experiences are presented against a backdrop of major historical events occurring in the United States during his lifetime: the steady replacement of Native Americans by whites in the Midwest, the bitter debate over slavery, the Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, political and social corruption during the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, and the atmosphere of hope and optimism throughout the country as the new century dawned. Throughout the novel, Shawnessy is contrasted with his contemporaries, most of whom leave Raintree County to seek their fortunes elsewhere and never return, becoming cynical and greedy in the process, while Shawnessy returns home and achieves personal integrity and community admiration, realizing that his quest was of more importance than the fulfillment of his ultimate goals.

Critical Reception

Few twentieth-century American novels received the same level of critical and popular attention that Raintree County did in its first months of publication. As a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and an MGM Award winner, it attained immediate success with the American reading public. And many critics did offer high praise for the epic scope of the novel and its mythic American themes. Adding to its notoriety was condemnation from religious groups of its sexual content. But some critics found Raintree County to be an overly ambitious jumble too derivative of the work of James Joyce and Thomas Wolfe to have any meaningful literary value of its own. By the late 1950s critical discussion of the novel tapered off as many scholars argued that the book's strong popular readership was evidence of its pedestrian worth. Raintree County remains an elusive text, resurrected occasionally in critical analysis, that is still considered by some to be one of the most important post-World War II novels written in the United States.

Principal Works

Raintree County (novel) 1948


Elizabeth Johnson (review date 1948)

SOURCE: A review of Raintree County, in Commonweal, Vol. 47, February 13, 1948, p. 450.

[In the following review, Johnson finds Raintree County verbose, overrated, and “sophomoric.”]

Accolades of hysterical praise have greeted Raintree County since its publication. There have been boomings from some sagacious critics proclaiming it the turning point in American fiction, the renaissance of the American novel. True, the savants have more than once accused Mr. Lockridge of crying “Wolfe!” too often, not to mention the author's being hypnotized by Joyce and Faulkner. But that apparently does not detract from the broad panorama bulging with the humans and historical events that Mr. Lockridge has re-created.

By this time, the American reading public knows that Raintree County is the story of one day in the life of its Indiana hero, John Wickliff Shawnessy; that through a series of flash-backs, we learn of Shawnessy's boyhood, manhood, his physical as well as mental growth; that en route we are tossed a great chunk of American history, the 1839-1892 span. Interlarded amongst all this to-and-fro-ing is a plethora of “epic fragments” from newspapers, diaries and dreams. All this is executed with much patriotism and gusto on Mr. Lockridge's part. He has done handsomely by Johnny Shawnessy; the Raintree County boy holds one's interest and sympathy in a three-dimensional fashion. The author has done well with most of his other characters, too. His mob scenes,...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

Joseph L. Blotner (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: “Raintree County Revisted,” in The Western Humanities Review, Vol. 10, Winter, 1956, pp. 57-64.

[In the following essay, Blotner reevaluates Raintree County and attempts to account for the extreme diversity of critical opinion that the novel provoked.]

The arrival of one recent attempt to write the Great American Novel was almost as unique as the book itself. In July, 1947, six months before publication, Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s 1066-page Raintree County won the $125,000 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Novel Award. When the book was published it was made the January selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, adding $25,000 more. Financial success was...

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Gerald C. Nemanic (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Ross Lockridge, Raintree County, and the Epic of Irony,” in MidAmerica II, Vol. 2, 1975, pp. 35-46.

[In the following essay, Nemanic discusses the shocking initial success and ultimate failure of Raintree County.]

William Carlos Williams may be the only important writer of our time who persisted in believing that an American epic might still be written. His own Paterson, an “answer to Greek and Latin with the bare hands,” was not to be that work. Williams knew it; indeed, he visualized his efforts as a necessary preliminary, “a gathering up” of raw materials into a foundation on which later poets might build epic structures.


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Lawrence Jay Dessner (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “The Case of Raintree County,” in A Question of Quality: Popularity and Value in Modern Creative Writing, edited by Louis Filler, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976, pp. 213-18.

[In the following essay, Dessner revisits Raintree County hoping to find the novel worthy of its initial fanfare, but finds instead very little to praise.]

Raintree County, a novel of over a thousand pages, was published, with considerable fanfare, some twenty-five years ago. Its author, an obscure young English teacher from Indiana, who had been supporting his wife and their four children on $2,500 a year, had received, six months prior to publication...

(The entire section is 2412 words.)

Joel M. Jones (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “The Presence of the Past in the Heartland: Raintree County Revisited,” in MidAmerica IV, Vol. 4, 1977, pp. 112-21.

[In the following essay, Jones examines the significance of Lockridge's re-creation of a historical period in Raintree County.]

Much care is taken to recreate the artifacts, tenor, and style of life in nineteenth century Indiana. These “antiquities” are evoked with deep feeling for that fading fabric of life. They delight, and are their own reason for being. And yet, for Lockridge this is hardly enough. He is bent on discovering the principles of American development, the foundation of American character....

(The entire section is 3284 words.)

Donald J. Greiner (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Ross Lockridge and the Tragedy of Raintree County,” in Critique, Vol. 20, No. 3, 1978, pp. 51-62.

[In the following essay, Greiner argues that Lockridge's instant success and subsequent suicide are reflected in the experiences of his main character in Raintree County.]

Although published thirty-one years ago on January 5, 1948, Ross Lockridge's Raintree County remains a curio of modern American fiction. Neither taught in the universities nor studied by the specialists, the novel illustrates the old cliche of known but not read. The critical silence is puzzling. Consider these facts: some readers, including me, regard Raintree County as...

(The entire section is 5154 words.)

Leonard F. Manheim (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “An Author Wrecked by Success,” in Studies in Literature, Vol. 10, No's. 1, 2, 3, 1978, pp. 103-21.

[In the following essay, Manheim discusses the initial impact of Raintree County in popular and literary reading circles and attempts to account for the novel's disappearance into oblivion in subsequent years.]

The New York Times for 8 March 1948 carried a substantial news article which deals with the suicide which is here being considered:

                                                  by the United Press


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Fred Erisman (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Raintree County and the Power of Place,” in Markham Review, Vol. 8, Winter, 1979, pp. 36-40.

[In the following essay, Erisman analyzes Raintree County's concern with the influence of geographical location on Americans.]

Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s novel, Raintree County (1948) has not lacked critical attention. A Book-of-the-Month Club selection and the winner of a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Novel Award before publication, it enjoyed a brief spurt of popular notice. More recently, it has attracted a degree of scholarly consideration. It has been discussed in the context of the epic tradition, has been read through the spectacles of Freudian...

(The entire section is 3488 words.)

Daniel Aaron (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “On Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s, Raintree County,” in Classics of Civil War Fiction, edited by David Madden and Peggy Bach, University Press of Mississippi, 1991, pp. 204-14.

[In the following essay, Aaron provides an overview of the plot and characters in Raintree County as well as a critical assessment.]

Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s, novel, a mix of history and myth, encloses a single day, July 4, 1892, in legendary Raintree County, Indiana. As the hours tick on from dawn to midnight, flashbacks (some fifty in all) to distant decades gradually fill in the lives of the principal characters who have converged at Waycross Station near the town of Freehaven...

(The entire section is 3975 words.)

Charles Trueheart (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “The Great American Studies Novel,” in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 274, No. 3, September, 1994, pp. 105-11.

[In the following essay, Trueheart discusses Raintree County alongside Lockridge 's son Larry's biography of his father, Shade of the Raintree.]

Fewer and fewer of us can imagine what it was like to be sentient in 1948, and so it behooves us to approach the thousand-piece puzzle of Raintree County, by Ross Lockridge Jr., with a certain humility. Such a novel would probably not be published today, let alone be so lavishly received. It is even hard to imagine that it could be written in a time like ours. Yet for a brief moment Lockridge was...

(The entire section is 2709 words.)

Gerald Weales (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “A Return to Raintree County,” in The Gettysburg Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 168-76.

[In the following essay, Weales recounts the publishing and critical history of Raintree County.]

Ross Lockridge, Jr. wanted to write a great book, perhaps The Great American Novel, that ignis fatuus that used to dance—and perhaps still does—before the eyes of ambitious young novelists. Although he and his publisher avoided the TGAN label when Raintree County was published in 1948, Houghton Mifflin marketed the book as a serious work of fiction, if a good read. Both the publisher and the author understandably wanted the novel to be...

(The entire section is 4229 words.)

David D. Anderson (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Raintree County and the ‘Dark Fields of the Republic,’” in Myth, Memory, and the American Earth: The Durability of Raintree County, edited by David D. Anderson, The Midwestern Press, 1998, pp. 9-15.

[In the following essay, Anderson discusses Raintree County as a great chronicle of emerging patterns in twentieth-century Midwestern America.]

When Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr. was published early in 1948, it was subject to a barrage of critical and popular appraisal almost unparalleled up to that time. Whether its 1060 pages, with accompanying chronologies, lists, and maps, were seen as the embodiment of the American myth...

(The entire section is 2794 words.)

Park Dixon Goist (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Habits of the Heart in Raintree County” in Myth, Memory, and the American Earth: The Durability of Raintree County, edited by David D. Anderson, The Midwestern Press, 1998, pp. 56-67.

[In the following essay, Goist examines the tension between individual and community in Raintree County.]

Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985), a widely discussed work by Robert Bellah and a team of social scientists, has once again reiterated the importance and urgency of understanding the tension between individualism and community in America.1 This provocative work also provides a challenging framework for...

(The entire section is 4788 words.)

Douglas A. Noverr (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Memory, the Divided Self, and Revelatory Resolution in Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s Raintree County,” in Myth, Memory, and the American Earth: The Durability of Raintree County, edited by David D. Anderson, The Midwestern Press, 1998, pp. 77-83.

[In the following essay, Noverr discusses internal tension and the division of self in the protagonist of Raintree County.]

In her 1988 work titled Equivocal Endings in Classic American Novels Joyce A. Rowe finds a fairly consistent and repeated pattern in the endings of classic American novels that enables one to speak of “the American sense of an ending.” In this pattern the protagonist of each of the...

(The entire section is 2949 words.)

Dean Rehberger (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Blurred Boundaries and the Desire for Nationalism in Ross Lockridge's Raintree County,” in Myth, Memory, and the American Earth: The Durability of Raintree County, edited by David D. Anderson, The Midwestern Press, 1998, pp. 68-76.

[In the following essay, Rehberger examines nationalism and the possibility of true national union in Raintree County.]

What is any nation, after all—and what is a human being—but a struggle between conflicting, paradoxical, opposing elements—and they themselves and their most violent contexts, important part of that One Identity, and of its development?


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Further Reading


Leggett, John. Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974, 447 p.

Explores the great successes and sudden tragic deaths of Lockridge and novelist Tom Heggen.

Lockridge, Laurence. Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994, 500 p.

Biography by Lockridge's son explores Lockridge's life, suicide, and the impact of his death on his family.

———. “Least Likely Suicide: The Search for My Father, Ross Lockridge, Jr., Author of Raintree County.Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 25,...

(The entire section is 259 words.)