Copyright © Laurence Lockridge, 1994 All rights reserved


. . . among the dozens of other novelists Ross Lockridge, Jr. was reading . . . Wolfe and Joyce were the two . . .

From Shade of the Raintree, by Larry Lockridge, pp 227-31


....among the dozens of other novelists Ross Lockridge was reading in the early 1940s, Wolfe and Joyce were the two with whom he was locking horns. The likes of Hemingway, Saroyan, and Mann he simply admired. Joyce was by far the greater writer, he thought, but Joyce and Wolfe had equal and opposite defects.
      Wolfe's were egoism and formlessness. This "strange, pathological subjectivism and egotism" is "not to be objected to in itself, but for what it does to the author's artistry and his feeling for existence." Incapable of love and obsessed "with himself and the charmed circle of his experience and acquaintanceship," Wolfe is unable to write convincingly of love relationships or even to create character. His characters "are all drawn in fits and starts of rhetoric and contradiction." "It is the moral world that does not really exist for T.W." Evidence of this is his almost complete lack of humor, which Wolfe imagines he has in great supply. His constructions do not go beyond the randomness of mere autobiographical reminiscence. The "dreary richness of the style" and its lack of diversity show an artistry swallowed up in egoism.
      So if he's no good on character or plot, why was my father in '42 and '43 reading all those Wolfe novels? The southern writer expressed one thing very well that resonated deeply with his own sensibility--a tragic sense of time.
      But even this was limited: it is "not so much a sense of time in all its mysteriousness, future, present, and eternity--but rather time that is gone--the ghost residence of the dead events." By means of this single intuition, Wolfe creates "the anchorless soul, wandering, grieved and adrift . . . He returns with real poetic feeling and passion and metaphysical intuition to this theme again and again," and it compensates for the "terrible crippled artistry."
      When in The Web and the Rock Wolfe describes George Webber's childhood home on Locust Street, which seemed "fixed for him into the substance of immemorial antiquity," Lockridge thinks of his own Creighton Avenue in Fort Wayne and makes the marginal shorthand note, "Strange how Wolfe anticipates me in many things."
      My father did not know, when he encased You Can't Go Home Again in disparaging marginalia, that Wolfe's embittered novel would in some measure prove prophetic for him, not just retrospective for Wolfe. Reading his copy, I find the dramatic irony painful.
      If Wolfe had too little form and artistry, Joyce had too much. His defects are outlined in two fragments where my father is most intense in grappling with a predecessor, and most willfully clearing ground for his own novel. The first, written in September, 1942, is entitled "From the Point of View of the Aspiring Writer--The Virtues and the Faults of Ulysses." He thought better and struck "The Virtues and."
      "One does not get creation in its highest forms in Joyce. It is a case of the mind analytical, the mind catalogical, the mind enumerative, the mind curiously weaving and unweaving of word webbing. But forms and wholes are not created. Characters are broken down and presented in bits and fragments and buttends, and tips rather than as a series of impressions or in the shining wholes of action, motion, accomplishment." He has given us a work of "exhaustiveness" and "patience," but at a great sacrifice.
      With the mind analytical in control, Joyce fails in communication. "The emotions are there, but not for the reader, who is too busy deciphering." The "objective details of Stephen's thought or Bloom's" do not result in a "forceful and pathetic equivalent" in the mind of the reader, who lacks the "subtle interconnections" that lend them significance for the characters. Expression is "both expanded and contracted" in Joyce, who "teaches freedom in the inner transformations of the word, but in the larger applications of language . . . it seems to me that he fails." Instead, we get life "staled with wordpiss." For all his Shakespearean comprehensiveness, he doesn't communicate "a sense of humanity." "It is good that Joyce did the job so completely. It need not to be done over. But what a goldmine for afterfollowers."
      I recall the fatigue of some painter friends after they had braved the Picasso and the Matisse exhibitions that spread through the entire Museum of Modern Art in New York. What was there left to paint? My father was contending in his own way with the achievement of Joyce.
      The other commentary on Joyce followed his systematic reading of Finnegans Wake in the spring of 1943 as he was getting into gear to revise American Lives. It's his single most revealing critical pronouncement, written like the earlier one for himself alone and first uncovered by my brother Ross. In part he elaborates his mixed review of Ulysses: critics "get a vicarious pleasure of creativity by repeating in reverse the intellectual processes by which Joyce created Ulysses. Of course, this is a cul-de-sac in itself. The intellect alone never created a great work of art, and without the obvious humanity and emotional and religious renunciations of Ulysses, it would not be great. As it is, it has a maimed and terrible greatness about it."
      Joyce remains "a slave to his mentors, Vico, Aristotle, Aquinas. Having rejected the Jesuitical discipline, he really remains a slave to it." The book is too damned "literary." And in Finnegans Wake Joyce is too much like Jesus in assuming his disciples and publicity staff will mop up after his "enormous intellectual arrogance."
Still, my father would not have either of these novels different. "It simply is now, immutably like all other existential facts."
      So why was he reading Joyce? Well, beneath the obscurities of that Irish philologist's novels are some simple yet powerful myths. He's learned from Joyce "the secret to the greatest writing. It is to pervade all scenes and characters with mythos--with a sense of the symbolical character of human life, with the feeling of reiterated and perpetual mystery that informs all acts of human life.... The thing to do is to discover the mythical character inherent in any given age or nation or people, for myth is domesticated in each country. So far, I think, America has not evolved very clearly her own mythos."
      Then he gets more personal. How uncover the mythic character of his own experience that he will write of in his own fiction? He thinks himself essentially religious, more so than Joyce, "a vague, undefined religion, I fear, based on a sort of blind optimism, the inheritance of my blood and my surroundings, but nevertheless loving and so adoring the miracle of humanity and of being." His God, though, is not the transcendent God of the Old Testament but the divine potential in each human being. His novel-in-progress--a tragedy which has at its core a ritual slaying of the father--implies a repudiation of Old Testament values.
      But he already looks beyond this novel to the next one, where he plans to exploit through indirection the mythic values of the New Testament. These values he thinks are immanent, human-centered, and "self-realizing." Myths are more than "primitive fragments" left over from earlier cultures. The "source of myths" is always with us, we create them anew in "the still continuous world of the human emotion with its ancient fixations."
      Creative genius is simply the ability to bring to the surface and express the mythic structures that lurk in all human beings. The New Testament expresses one set of mythic values that are partly transcultural and are felt in moments of intense psychic awareness.
      How recover and create anew for fiction those values in the ordinariness of his own midwestern life?
      His answer startled me. It would be a novel based on his mother's response to the death of her son Bruce.
      Just as one sees in Mary mother of Jesus and her circle "the terrible anguish of the women and the refusal to acknowledge the death," so he sees in his mother, Elsie, the "resurrection symbolized in [her] intense faith and conviction." It is a conviction that fastens to the mythic divinity she sees in her own dead father, who isn't really dead for her and whose perpetuity extends to her drowned son.
      Beginning with this framing circumstance in his own life, he plans to explore in a new fiction the mythic character of American society, its wars, industry ("The Wayne Knitting Mills"), art, motion pictures, its insights and illusions. The novel-in-progress uses mythic parallels such as the Garden of Eden rather bluntly--the "symbolism here less disguised than it will be in the later book, involving Ft. Wayne and the drowning of my brother Bruce."
      So Bruce was lurking enormously in his consciousness all along. I hadn't expected to find so direct a confirmation of what I had been wishfully projecting onto my father. Like me, he was five years old at the time of a catastrophic death in the family and, like me, he had tucked it away, in a child's hiding place of memory, only to have its significance grow. Now he conceived an entire book on this early death, an American New Testament, beyond the Old Testament as pirations of the work-in-progress. He would see in his mother's anguish and refusal to acknowledge the death of her son not pathology, as Freud would say, but creative mourning. Its roots were deep in American culture, which had, he felt, domesticated the Christian myth on many levels.
      An artist of prophetic memory, my father hoped to redeem that early death through literary apotheosis and, like his mother, not let that boy die. In bearing witness to the fragility yet tenacity of dear human life, the drowned brother Bruce would be cast as a sacrificial figure, reviving in his homey way the myth of Jesus.
      What about the novel at hand? Wolfe and Joyce reinforced my father's passionate evocation of the past and his mythic rendering of everyday life. But their faults, as he read them, were also evident in his own novel, American Lives. Instead of a single unified work, it seemed to him more like a "series of novels" in its two thousand pages. Had he solved the Wolfean problem of form, or was this not a heap of words without radiant focus or center, an inert "glacial mass"? And was there not a pretentious Joycean complexity about it that would make it fail to communicate? And there were other problems.
      Set mostly in the 1890s but extending well back into the nineteenth century and as far forward as summer, 1941, the novel was plotted around a series of days, apparently July first through fourth, 1891. The principal character was based on his uncle Ernest Vivian Shockley, as he had planned while he was sick back in '35 and '36. But there were several other characters--his mother, Elsie; his grandmother Emma Shockley; his grandfather John Wesley Shockley; and purely fictitious characters like the Reverend Hezekiah Grubb, a murderous pharisee, and Mrs. Desmore Brown, a hot-to-trot widow. Each of these characters assumed, by turns, the novel's center of consciousness--each had dreams and interior monologues, each was involved in a string of episodes.

--Facsimiles of Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s Notes on Joyce--Sept. 1942 & also Spring 1943, pages 1 & 2; 3 & 4; 5 & 6.
--Text (& facsimile) of Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s Notes on Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel.


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