Book info

Raintree County (1994)

Raintree County (1994)
Rating
3.97 of 5 Votes: 1
ISBN
014023666X (ISBN13: 9780140236668)
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English
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penguin books
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Raintree County (1994)
Raintree County (1994)

About book: This is an ambitious work, probably a conscious attempt at achieving the elusive Great American Novel. My copy is old, with small print that doesn't contrast well on somewhat yellowed pages -- and so my first reaction on picking it up was to question whether reading it would be worth the trouble. A few paragraphs in, the intelligent, sculpted prose settled that.Still, I agree with reviewers who say the book is too long. My edition is 985 pages and by the time I got into the last few hundred I was thinking it could easily have been wrapped up by then. In fact, a shorter, more focused version would likely have been better (and more conducive to the rereadings that would improve one's appreciation for what is done here).The story follows the life of John Wickliff Shawnessy, born in 1839 in a fictitious part of Indiana. He grows up fascinated by vaguely sensed mystical implications of a local river and of remnants from a long-forgotten past. He ponders the meaning of the "Republic" in which he lives. (Actually, the word Republic is used heavily throughout, until one gathers that it means something broader than the USA. Late in life, Shawnessy defines it as "the world of shared human meaning.") Anyway, he comes of age loving a woman. Garwood, his rival for her affections, turns into a lifelong friendly rival--one of three men with whom he matches wits throughout life. He marries another woman, and sorrow results. In the Civil War he joins the army and participates in Sherman's March to the Sea. Wounded, he's sent to a hospital near the Capital, and his first act on getting out of bed is to attend a play at Ford's Theatre on that fateful night. Later in life, he is sometimes a self-effacing but much-admired teacher, sometimes an aspiring author or playwrite trying to make his mark in the Big City, and sometimes a small-town philosopher given to implausibly pithy observations while sitting on porch swings with his old friends (e.g., "The Americans are a mythical race. We are making a new myth... It is the story of the hero who regains Paradise.") All this is set forth in segments that segue abruptly from one point in his life to another.Beyond those particulars, I think the story is ultimately about creation, or more specifically the mysterious process by which phenomena (sometimes) emerge out of formless chaos and acquire names, meaning, and significance--and then move past immediate relevance. Edenic metaphors abound. I might even say they are hammered on repeatedly.When geography is the subject, there's the question of how this timeless piece of land, currently known as Raintree County, came to be something presumably understood and rendered on a map, its landmarks named.When language is the subject, there's the question of how living speech ("the exclamations of young republics") acquires "the tranquil beauty of ideas."When war is the subject, there's the question of how the utter chaos of a battle resolves into a general understanding that something has been accomplished.There are predictable meditations on the millions of tadpole-like messengers that must expire so that one can complete the mission and begin a new life.From the perspective of the other end of life, "Perhaps it was better to have no legends at all, no letters composed into rigid words and pressed on sheets of paper. Break up the forms and melt the letters back. Let there be no more legends on the earth. Let life live and death die, and let there be no names for sorrowful recollection."In between larger issues, the same pattern occurs again and again in the experience of daily life. A character with poor eyesight sees an approaching person first as a vague, "black twisting shape" that finally resolves into someone with discernable features. People waiting for a train see it transition from promise to reality. More--or less--recognizable images of people who've sat for portraits take shape on the photographer's glass plates.One thing I particularly like about the writing is the way the author weaves threads together, especially when he does so in real time (so to speak). There's a delightful scene, for example, in which Johnny is reading a newspaper that has the text of Lincoln's address at Gettysburg and is distracted from it every couple sentences by rowdy conversations going on around him.The same device is somewhat less engaging on the larger scale. Because of the segues mentioned above, everything in Johnny's life seems to be happening at the same time. The War is always over, the War is always being being fought. Johnny is always a serene old man; always a young man with inexhaustible vitality and a strong competitive heart. Reading this and trying to rearrange the narrative in chronological order, I was reminded of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, which as I recall proposed that time is an illusion. I also noticed, as the pages went by, that important pieces of the story were missing. For example, what happened in that long-anticipated foot race with Flash Perkins? What exactly happened to Johnny's son before Johnny joined the army? And for goodness sakes what happened to the lovely Nell, with whom he'd corresponded faithfully while away at the war? Toward the end of the book, these loose threads are tied up, and make for some powerful climactic scenes (especially the foot race). Because they involve pain, backing away from them for as long as possible reminds me of what is done in another novel, Catch-22. (I wonder if Vonnegut and Heller were influenced by Lockridge.)This is an impressive, sprawling saga. I think the author intended to make a permanent mark in serious literature. There's a lot here that reminds me of Joyce, and also some that points the way toward East of Eden, although on the strength of this single book you can't put Lockridge alongside either Steinbeck or Joyce. The writing convincingly brought 19th century America to life for me--the nation's clumsy, good-hearted adolescence. A little more of Johnny's internal life would have suited me, and room could have been for it made by cutting some of the speechifying. It's a pity that Lockridge wrote nothing further and that his book has pretty much dropped out of the picture. It's the most interesting discovery I've made in a while.

Raise your hand if you have heard of Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr.? I hadn't until Jared Carter handed me a copy of the book a few months ago. I very much wish I had found this book earlier, though, perhaps, I may not have enjoyed it as much (I did not really appreciate Moby-Dick until well after college). Speaking of Moby-Dick, I have always considered that novel THE American novel. Raintree County does not displace Melville's masterpiece, but it definitely comes in with the silver medal as far as I am concerned. This is an astonishing book. A family tale. A war story. An epic. A story that teases out the myths of youth that we carry forward to adulthood. A story about creation and loss and love. A local story. A universal tale.The novel is so lusciously sprawling that a summary is futile. The story ostensibly takes place during the course of July 4, 1892. But the day is splintered by memories that reach back to the 1840s and reach forward to 1892. John Wickliff Shawnessy is the hero of the novel, but he is flanked by a mesmerizing cast of characters: Garwood Jones, Professor Jersusalem Stiles, Nell Gaither, and Susanna Drake among others. Each character is fully formed, but they are archetypal at the same time. * Jones is the great friend and archrival. A politician so successful that you feel the slipperiness of him because he knows how to read the public and ride on the wave carrying the largest bloc of voters. He becomes a Union Army colonel at the tail end of the war--late enough to avoid real fighting but soon enough to boast of his soldiering credentials. * Stiles's middle name is Webster, and if you think of Webster's dictionary, you've thought correctly. A man who debates fluently with Shawnessy about any number of things, metaphysical to sexual. * Nell is the true love of Shawnessy, a woman for whom he has framed an entire myth around, but also a woman always just out of reach or time to truly be happy with. Something or some one is always a barrier to their final happiness. * Susanna is a troubled Southern girl whose mental anguish, stemming from a Faulkner gothic family, whose tormented mind is metaphorically the result of the conflict of the slavery in pre-Civil War America. The hypocrisy of freedom, the commercial abuse (i.e., an honest wage for honest labor), and moral degradation of the enslavers....all come into a debilitating mental conflict. To the northern Shawnessy, she is a beautiful mystery. Even a scar whose importance only becomes apparent later is mysterious and erotic to the young Shawnessy.I am leaving out a host of minor characters of the kind that fill small towns throughout America. However, another major character in the novel is America itself. Lockridge often riffs off of Whitman in long prose-poem passages: America was a city by a river, a city of gloomily eclectic buildings, confused unhappy domes and spires of buildings that were trying to be the most beautiful buildings that ever were but couldn't be because they hadn't any souls. America was faces in the Avenue of the Republic, eager, excited faces with mobile eyes. America was the place where all the world sent its third-rate art and gaudiest claptrap and where it was all piled up together and then became something hushed, exciting, wonderful because it was in America.Another non-human character is a central myth built into the mind of Shawnessy, of the fabled raintree and the creature of the lake. These myths and America weave in and out of the novel, haunting the edges, inspiring the noblest of human passions, and acting as the unmovable background on which all the characters act.As the day moves along and the 1892 characters become visible in the past, the story of where they are and what they've become emerges as a record of memory, though memory is not revealed as an American specialty. The Civil War necessarily looms large in the consciousness of the memory. Shawnessy joins the war effort a couple of years after the conflict begins, but he enters the war to participate in Sherman's march to the sea. Lockridge captures adequately, I think, the pervasiveness of slavery and the North/South tensions and also all the uncertainty of whether war was inevitable.One of the minor characters, Flash Perkins, the fastest man in Raintree County until defeated by Shawnessy in a drunken race is with Shawnessy's unit. In a looting tangent, they face a small group of Confederates. Perkins wounded, keeps fighting until Here, surely, was the strongest life that ever lived, and it was dying, it was beating itself out in blood and fury. There was nothing good about the way Flash Perkins died in a forest near Columbia, South Carolina. He died choking with his throat full of blood, still trying to beat some unseen competitor who was too much for him.What I find so admirable in this passage is that it captures both the dignity of the man and the horror of war. Those emotions are enmeshed within the structure of the sentences themselves.I could carry on randomly like this for some time because there is so much that is delightful in this novel. I am still absorbing the weight and breadth of the novel, but I am certain it is a triumph. Lockridge, sadly, killed himself shortly after this novel was published in 1948, but he left behind a masterpiece of fiction and I hope that others will discover its richness.
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Reviews
Karl
This is a hard book to review: it will definitely not be everybody's cup of tea. I had started it once years before, then set it aside, and finally read it at a point in my life when I had the time and the patience. It is massive! But I've never read anything at all like it. It's about America and Americans, Time, Fantasy, the 19th Century, and lots more. Ultimately I found it to be a fascinating, provocative, and important work of American literature. At this point in time the 1957 MGM movie adaptation is more famous than the source novel. That's a pity. The movie is interesting in its own way, although its really not very good. And it barely begins to capture the scope of the novel; its plot follows the novel's outline in only the most cursory fashion. The novel RAINTREE COUNTY is a challenge, for its size if nothing else. But, for me, it remains one of those handful of books that crept into my psyche and changed what I thought a book should be.
Cym Lowell
It may seem odd to be writing a review of a book written more than 60 years ago. In my case, the book is vibrant and meaningful. Raintree County is set in a mythical part of Indiana close to where I grew up, in Bloomington. The author, Ross Lockridge Jr. lived just down the street from my family. He was a young man. He was also a friend of our neighbor, Alfred Kinsey, for whom my mother, Mildred Hawksworth Lowell a Professor of Library Science at Indiana University, was librarian for Dr. Kinsey’s famous Human Sexuality Institute.Upon publication in 1947, Raintree County was an instantaneous best-seller leading shortly to a major studio contract for a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. One of the Lockridge children, young Ross, was my classmate in elementary school at Elm Heights Elementary. He would share the details of the movie process and, as I recall now more than 55 years later, being charmed by the famous players in the movie when the family visited the sets. I could only have been 7 or 8 at the time (born in 1946) but the magic of living in the midst of a famous novelist and the wonder of a Hollywood film are vibrant memories.At the peak of professional success, Mr. Lockridge committed suicide in a garage. I recall being dumbfounded as a child. “Why would he kill himself?” I asked my mother. “He had achieved so much.”I do not exactly remember my mother’s response. But the question has lingered in my heart ever since. I have assumed the answer to be along the lines of – “Life is complex, son, even in the lap of glorious success one can become lost. Is this all there is for all of my work? Mr. Lockridge was a fine man. He must have had a torment that another cannot imagine.”From that time to this, I have always dreamed of being a writer. I have done non-fiction professional books for many years, and am only now into the fiction business. For some reason, the image of these questions has always crept into my mind when I have focused on the possibility of success as a fiction writer.“What would it be like to succeed? What did Ross Lockridge Jr. feel when his first and only novel achieved instantaneous critical and financial success, followed by a major league movie contract? What would drive him to end his life?In recent years, I have moved from writing fiction manuscripts and putting them on the shelf to seeking a route to commercial publication. As I began this journey, I wanted to go back and see if I could answer these questions of a lifetime. First, I read the biography of Mr. Lockridge written by his son Larry, Shade of the Raintree. Then I picked up Raintree County itself, a tome of some 1,060 pages in the edition that was given to me as a birthday present by my sweetheart.Raintree County is a masterpiece, obviously written in the hopes of becoming a Great American Novel. It traces the life and times of an absorbed young writer (John Wickcliff Shawnessy, a/k/a Johnny) from a rural county before, during, and after the Civil War. The central characters twist and turn through all of the pages as they age. The chronology of time switches back and forth, challenging the reader to keep all of the pieces in perspective. The characters include an elusive young lady whose nudity by the river and innocent frolic in a haystack reverberate through the story (Nell Gaither), a teacher and confessor (the Perfessor), a Southern belle who frolics with our hero one afternoon after too much cider and claims pregnancy, then becomes his first wife, an athletic arch-enemy who becomes a prosperous national businessman (Cash Carney), a competitor for the femme who becomes a U.S. Senator, and a cast of other characters that create the magic of the story.Like Gone With the Wind, Ulysses, and other sweeping stories, one gets to the end (when Johnny comes marching home from the War) wondering what the point of the story is. Johnny began with the hope, aspiration, and innocence of youth, seeking answer to the riddle of the naked woman in the post office. In the end, Johnny seems to be seeking to find what he has lost along the way, perhaps the answer to the riddle.One can never know why this skilled author took his own life. Perhaps the answer is that he poured himself into this fascinating story that is so full of life, complete with its riddles, paradoxes, and mysteries, and lost his way in the process, finding himself unable to deal with the adulation that poured over him (or the frustration of dealing with publishers, agents, studios and the other characters in a story that he had not charted or, maybe, even contemplated). As Lockridge ended the story with Johnny’s determination that “each man had to build his world again [periodically:]!” It is difficult to return to the idealized world of the young, as Cash Carney laments in an epitath to lost youth (on page 848 of this edition).The thoughtful framework of Raintree County, the life of its author, and the biography of his son seem to cry for a re-telling of the story in another generation.In short, Raintree County is the great American novel and should be back on reading lists. The essential issues and messages that are explored in these pages are present in the lives of each of us.
Gregory Garland
I have ambivalent feelings about this book, one that some consider an overlooked Great American Novel. At 1,100 pages, I found it by turns frustrating, enjoyable and exhausting. I almost put it down and gave up on it more than once. It ultimately was interesting enough to keep me reading to the end, though. I was okay with the structure of switching back and forth in time -- that wasn't a problem -- but the author went off several times on pages of poetical and philosophical flights of fancy that I found annoying and which seemed to me to be self-indulgent. It was sort of like reading a book like Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel interspersed with passages from Leaves of Grass. I stuck with it but can't recommend it.
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