Ross Lockridge 1914-1948
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.
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.
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.
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.