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Ross (Franklin) Lockridge Jr. (1914-1948)

 

American writer, known for his 1066 pages long historical novel, Raintree County (1948). It was the only book Ross Lockridge Jr. wrote. Two months after its publication by Houghton Mifflin, Lockridge committed suicide. He left no suicide note. The novel turned out to be a bestseller and was later made into a major film in the tradition of Civil war romance. Although Raintree County is seldom read today, it is nevertheless a true classic in the sense that a "classic has never finished saying what it as to say" (Italo Calvino).

"Lockridge had allowed his book to become so all-important that when it passed out of his hands at publication, its disappearance threatened his life. No one warned him that the job of the writer is to ignore the book that's been done and buckle down to the next one." (The World Is My Home: A Memoir by James A Michener, 1992, pp. 395-396)

Ross Franklin Lockridge, Jr. was born in Bloomington, Indiana, the youngest of four children. His father, also called Ross Franklin, was a writer and teacher, who published histories of Indiana, including The Old Fauntleroy Home (1939) and The Labyrinth (1941). Elsie (Shockley) Lockridge, his mother, was a teacher, Christian Scientist, and psychologist, who channeled her unfulfilled ambitions into her children.

During his childhood, the young Ross frequently accompanied his father (known as "Mr. Indiana") on his excursions throughout the state. His eldest brother, Bruce, who had been the hope of the family, drowned in the St. Joseph River. Full of energy, Lockridge also excelled at everything he did. He was an athlete and his academic career was distinguished. In 1931 he entered Indiana University, and after studying a year at the Sorbonne in Paris, he graduated with BA in 1935 from Indiana University. Remaining there, he taught English while completing his master's degree. In 1937 Lockridge married Vernice Baker, his high school sweetheart; they had four children. James A. Michener described  him looking "much like Tyrone Power, with copious jet-black hair, flawless white teeth, straight lean body, dark eyes and a radiant smile." (The World Is My Home: A Memoir by James A Michener, 1992, p. 392)

Lockridge earned his M.A. in 1939. Next year he was awarded a fellowship at Harvard, where he planned to write a dissertation on Walt Whitman. However, he spent more time with his four-hundred-page epic poem of American life, The Dream of the Flesh of Iron. After it was rejected by publishers, he turned his energy to another idea, a historical novel of nineteenth-century Indiana, partly based on his mother's family, the Shockleys. At that time he had adandoned his studies. To support his family, he taught from 1941 to 1946 at Simmons College, in Boston, Massachusetts. During the war, Lockridge did not serve in the army – he was 4-F, physically unqualified, due to irregularity of his heartbeat.

Laboring with "the great American novel," which was Lockridge's ultimate goal, it took seven years to complete the manuscript. Feverishly, Lockridge produced twenty to thirty pages, which he then revised or alternatively threw into the waste-paper basket. His wife helped him in retyping, but Lockridge himself was also Indiana's state champion in speed typing – a skill which he already had learned at high school. The family lived on his meagre teacher's income in cramped quarters. Although the book took much of his time and energy, Lockridge was a loving a caring father. 

While Raintree County was being written, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer announced a literary competition for a novel that could be made into a movie. The prize was $100,000 plus bonuses. Lockridge won the prize prior the publication of his book. Totally convinced of his own genius, Lockridge believed that he was the greatest writer in English since Shakespeare. Having no high opinion of Louis B. Mayer as a filmmaker, he said in a letterto the legendary head of MGM that his pictures were much inferior to those made in Europe, but by making Raintree properly he had a chance to recover his lost reputation.

Herman Wouk, who submitted to the same competition his maiden effort, Aurora Dawn (1947), wrote sixty years later in a remembrance: "The naive, beset young author, utterly out of his depth, was unable to defend his art against the people whose money he had taken." ('Foreword' by Herman Wouk, in Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr., Chicago Review Press, 2007)

After Lockridge's campaign, Life magazine printed an excerpt of the novel and introduced the author in a pictorial essay. Book-of-the-Month-Club chose Raintree County as its main selection for January 1948. In spite of its massive size and unconventional narrative technique, the Civil War epic was a commercial success in 1948, competing on the national bestseller list with Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions, and Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Lockridge's work was also translated into several languages, among others into Swedish and Finnish.

First reactions to the novel were positive; it was called a masterpiece and Lockridge was compared to Thomas Wolfe. The author himself thought it was Whitman he was invoking more than Wolfe. "O despairer, here is my neck, / By God, you shall not go down!" were his favorite lines from Whitman, which he often quoted. Among the negative reviews was James Baldwin's 'Lockridge: The American Myth,' published in New Leader (April 10, 1948). Baldwin spitefully remarked that during "his lifetime Ross Lockridge, Jr., came across a great many words and in Raintree County he has set down every one of them." The essay, which attracted a fair amount of attention, was reprinted in The Price of the Ticket (1985) and Collected Essays (1998).

Suffering from depression, Lockridge was unable to start a new book in the middle of his sudden success. On March 6, 1948, Lockeridge asphyxiated himself in the garage of his new home in Bloomington. It was as if he had lost the only thing that had kept him going. At his death the book was first on the New York Herald Tribune's best-seller list. The New York Times reported Lockridge's death on the front page

"He lived seven years with that story. It sapped his very heart's blood," his mother, Elsie Lockridge said. Ross Lockridge was buried in Rose Hill cemetery. Raintree County did not have the profound impact on the literary scene he had anticipated. However, the theme of restored oneness found similar, emotionally intense and nostalgic interpretation nine years later in Ray Bradbury's famous early novel Dandelion Wine (1957).

Lockridge's magnum opus, which openly idealized the role of literature and writer, was an answer to ultra-modernist claims of the death of the novel and cynical mood of the realistic school. Like the world of Twain's Huck Finn, Lockridge's imaginary county, partly modelled after Henry County, Indiana, is more than it is – an opposite to the commonplace or "phony" world of Holden Caulfield, also in debt to Twain. Following the example of James Joyce in Ulysses, Lockridge described one day in his hero's life – in this case July 4, 1892, the nation's Independence Day. "The clock in the Court House Tower on page five of the Raintree Country Atlas is always fixed at nine o'clock, and it is summer and the days are long," the author explained to the reader.

Lockridge, who acknowleded the influence of number of writers, Joyce and Thomas Mann included, saw that his book was to the common reader much more readable than Ulysses. The plot was inspired by Nathanial Hawthorne's story, 'The Great Stone Face' (1850). The title refers to "a work of Nature in her mood of majestie playfulness, formed on the perpendicular side of a mountain by some immense rocks, which had been thrown together in such a position as, when viewed at a proper distance, precisely to resemble the features of the human countenance." There is a prophecy, "that, at some future day, a child should be born hereabouts, who was destined to become the greatest and noblest personage of his time, and whose countenance, in manhood, should bear an exact resemblance to the Great Stone Face." 

In a way, Raintree County is a dream inside a dream. The Gnostic Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who loved Shakespeare and Walt Whitman more than his contemporary Latin American colleagues, would have recognized Lockeridge's position with sympathy. The protagonist is John Wickliff Shawnessy, an aspiring poet, who only daydreams of writing a great book which would re-create a new American canon – actually meaning the work in hand, created by Lockridge. Lockridge's self-absorbed scope also became a target of Baldwin's criticism. "Americans passionately believe in their avowed ideals, amorphous as they are, and are terrified of waking from a radiant dream," he summarized in his review. "Raintree County is a kind of ultimate defense of the dreaming and the dream." ('Lockridge: The American Myth' by James Baldwin, New Leader, April 10, 1948)

Through series of flashbacks, Lockridge highlights crucial events Shawnessy's life, setting his great expectations and marriage problems against the story of the nation. Shawnessy's mission in life is illuminated by poetic prose, full of vision, beauty, and Midwestern light. At the center of the labyrinth of meanings is the biblical myth of the Garden of Eden and Shawnessy's search for the secret of the mythical raintree.

As the raintree is the symbol of the tree of life, the major characters have their mythical doubles and alter egos. Shawnessy's somewhat Mephistotelian alter ego is Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles, an educator who recognizes Shawnessy's talent and with whom he also shares identical initials. (The character of "the Perfessor" was modelled after Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, Lockridge's neighbour a few blocks away.) Shawnessy's first great love is Nell Gaither, his blonde river nymph, but he marries Susannah Drake, a Southern belle from a slave holder family, scarred physically and emotionally. Susannah's obsession with her racial identity and “purity of blood” eventually drives her insane. From the Civil War Shawnessy returns like Lazarus, seeing his name on a tombstone. Shawnessy's odyssey follows the conventions of Bildungsroman, he has lost his youthful idealism. The beginning of the novel reveals that he has settled down to prosaic bourgeois existence with wife and job, but the last pages confirm that Shawnessy's capacity to dream, his strong restorative source, is not dashed.

For Edward Dmyrtyk's film version of Raintree Country (1957), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, MGM budgeted $5 million, a lot of money at that time. In the studio in Culver City an entire sound stage was reserved for the scene depicting General William T. Sherman's march into Atlanta. Taylor and Clift thought the movie would not be better than A Place in The Sun (1951), in which they had worked together and which received six Oscars. MGM had higher hopes, that it would be a Northern Gone With the Wind.

The script, written by Millard Kaufman, did not satisfy Clift and he wanted to make several changes to it. "I agreed to listen to his suggestions," said Dmytryk later. "He was obviously a great actor - very inventive. But I sometimes felt he worried things to death, little things." (Montgomery Clift: A Biography by Patricia Bosworth, Sixth Limelight Edition, 2007, p. 293) About half of the film was shot when Clift had a near fatal car accident which shattered his face. Because his right profile was not so damaged, the production continued. Also Taylor's health broke down several times and she suffered from a very tight corset. In spite of bad reviews, Raintree County received four Academy Award nominations (best actress, best art direction-set decoration, best score, best costume design), but won no Oscars. In 1999 the film was reissued on video with 15 m. additional footage. The soaring, romantic music was composed by John Green. Nat King Cole sang the title track, which became a hit.

For further reading: 'Lockridge: 'The American Myth'' by James Baldwin, in The New Leader (April 10, 1948); Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies by John Leggett (1974); Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr., by L.S. Lockridge (1994); Myth, Memory, and the American Earth: The Durability of Raintree County, ed. by David D. Anderson (1998); 'Ross (Franklin) Lockridge Jr.' by Harry Lockridge, in Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Volume 1: The Authors, ed. by Philip A. Greasley (2001); "Raintree County": The Foremost American Environmental Novel by Frederick Waage (2011); Shade of the Raintree: the Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr., Author of Raintree County by Larry Lockridge (Centennial edition, 2014) - For further information: Raintree County

Works:

  • Metchnifoff:  Play in Three Acts, 1934-35
  • Byron and Napoleon, 1938 (M.A. dissertation)
  • The Dream of the Flesh of Iron, 1939-1941 (epic poem, unpublished)
  • To Adolf Hitler, by An American Admirer, 1940 (two satirical essays)
  • Raintree County ... which had no boundaries in time and space, where lurked musical and strange names and mythical and lost peoples, and which was itself only a name musical and strange, 1948 (novel)
    - Sadepuun maa (suom. Maija-Liisa Virtanen, 1959)
    - film 1957, dir. by Edward Dmytryk, sc. by Millard Kaufman, ph. by Robert Surtees, music by Johnny Green, starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Eva Marie Saint, Nigel Patrick, Lee Marvin, Rod Taylor, Agnes Moorehead


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