Copyright AMS Press; From Vol. II, 1996. Biography and Enigma: The Case of Ross Lockridge, Jr. By Larry Lockridge
The New York Times, in a front-page obituary, described the circumstances of my father's death as I myself understood them for most of my adult life. (1) On Saturday evening, March 6th, 1948, Ross Lockridge, Jr. told his wife that he was going out to mail some letters and would drop by his parents' house to listen to the high school basketball regionals. When he failed to return, she called his parents and was told he hadn't been there that evening. She went out to the garage behind our house where she found him in the front seat, slumped behind the steering wheel with the car door opened and his feet exiting. The engine was running.
The coroner declared this a suicide, but many of his friends refused to believe it. After all, Ross Lockridge, Jr., a thirty three-year old author from Indiana, had much to live for. Raintree County, his first novel, had just reached number one on the best seller lists and was getting hundreds of rave reviews. It had won an enormous movie contract with MGM. It had been Main Selection of Book-of-the-Month Club. It had been excerpted in Life magazine. Ross Lockridge had a devoted wife and four children. (I was five years old at the time.) He was handsome, affable, witty, often smiling, and suddenly rather rich. Some friends and relatives speculated that he had hit his head while exiting, or maybe had been absent-mindedly listening to the basketball game over the car radio with the engine running.
I myself never liked the ambiguity. Even if suicide had been his intent, those legs exiting the driver's door suggested a last minute change of mind.
When I interviewed my mother late in 1988, having decided a few weeks earlier to write a biography of my father, she quietly narrated the circumstances of her husband's death for the first time. She had found him not in the front seat but in the back. All the car doors were shut. There was no car radio. A vacuum cleaner hose had been hooked up to the exhaust and run through the car's rear ventilation window, which had efficiently been sealed with a large cloth. Her husband's parents and sister arrived before the police, and the sister quickly engineered a family coverup. Aunt Lillian stuffed the death paraphenalia into a garbage can behind the garage, which the police and coroner didn't bother to inspect. Largely acting on the impulse to protect her children from the fact of their father's desertion, my mother agreed with her in-laws to tell police that she had found her husband in the front seat. They then hoped for a verdict of accidental death. But the coroner played his hunches.
This was the single most uncanny revelation to me in retracing my father's life. I had to relinquish a four-decade old image of his momentary acquiescence in despair (or conceivably even of absent-mindedness) with one of calculated self-murder. The difference in meaning between the front seat and the back seat position of the body was, for me, monumental. With the publication in 1994 of my biography, Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr., the suicide of Ross Lockridge, Jr. became unambiguous at last. (2)
I offer this moment as illustration of what most biographers hope to find--an increase of clarity with respect to their subjects' lives, even to the point of an unnerving revisionism. And I offer it as partial refutation of some post-modernist thinking about biography. While not going along with all such premises, Ira Nadel writes that we must recognize that "biography relies on language rather than fact to tell its story," and that "the narrativity of biography gives real events the form of a story, imposing meaning and pattern on reality, which does not organize itself into either meaning or truth. . . . Factual reconstruction can never be the raison d'etre of biography because it is impossible to achieve. It must be, rather, narrative desire, the urge to tell the story of the subject which in its telling establishes meaning." (3)
I believe such arguments are anchored in false or at least presumptive dichotomizing--"language" and "narrative desire" versus "fact," "imposing meaning" versus discovering meaning. Nadel assumes the validity of a fact/value dichotomy--which is greatly disputed on logical and philosophical grounds in the field of ethics, as it can and should be elsewhere. (4)
My experience in writing a biography has strongly suggested to me the potential mutuality of circumstance and language, of fact and value, of deciphering meaning and creating it. To give, instead, the ontological blue ribbon to the "discourse of biography" or to "self-contained narrativity" distinct from reference is to lay waste the motive ground of biography as a discovery procedure.
The meaning of my father's body language in death is a function not only of my will to meaning as interpreter but of my father's expressive intentionality as agent and the total circumstances that led up to and surrounded his final act.
My aim here is to tell some of the story of writing Shade of the Raintree and to suggest how skepticism is better deployed in an intense seeking and weighing of evidence than in a sundering of narrative discourse from any necessary connection with reality--or of the narrator's willed "plot" from the subject's unorganized "story." It is, by the same token, an argument against "novelization"--which I've lived with uncomfortably for two decades because of an earlier biography of my father.
Undertaking the Biography
"The answer you seek is in an envelope," read the fortune cookie I opened not long after beginning my research. There had been many reasons to write a biography: Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s letters and other papers had never been methodically gathered; many of his relatives, friends, and acquaintances had never been interviewed; an earlier biography was inadequate; and some critics still felt that Raintree County, not fully admitted into the canon and out of print at the time, was a contender for that mythical epithet, the Great American Novel. (5) (Just in case it was, shouldn't a full-scale biography be written while there was still time to try to pick the author up from his traces?)
But mostly it was the mystery of the thing: why had he done it? Why had this responsible and likeable family man, author of a novel known for its vitality and promise of spiritual renewal, killed himself at the height of personal triumph? It has been called the greatest single mystery in American letters, and there it was in my own family closet.
I had regarded the mystery as part of my permanent inheritance--about which I had vague and rather romantic notions. But it occurred to me one morning, in a moment of self-election, that I should try to unravel it as best I could. Like any sleuth, I silently hoped, during the next three years of impassioned seeking, that I would discover an envelope containing a single determinate answer.
In the early stages of research a biographer may encounter a bewildering mix of destiny and contingency in the subject's life. The life has been led, and it seems extra-ordinary enough to warrant a telling. After the fact, it is hard not to believe that he or she was fated to be elected president or win the gold medal or conquer Gaul or commit suicide. But this elevated and resolute teleology becomes more problematic when one descends to the local level of daily life with its chance encounters, setbacks, and web of personal associations. I discovered, as do most biographers, that in retracing a life, one thing leads to another which leads to another--which may lead to a revelation or to a deadend or merely to somewhere else in the labyrinth that one must write one's way out of. But patterns begin to present themselves as patterns, and the inconsequential falls away.
For me the premium was on my father's words--especially his letters, which I sought relentlessly, and his miscellaneous writings, from apprenticeship work to diaries to notebooks. But a large variety of other texts by other people filled out the archive--which overwhelmed three large filing cabinets and two bookcases by the time I sat down to write and which I dubbed an "American archive" for its wide assortment of American cultural texts.
My father was a private person, so I needed his personal words to get beneath the persona of the affable boy and the smiling, ambitious man who looked a little like Tyrone Power. Many of these words I found just down the hallway back home again in Indiana--in the filing cabinet my mother had kept of my father's writings from early days to late. My three siblings and I had rummaged through these files--and Ross III had undertaken a bibliographical inventory of them some years earlier. But nobody had ever read them through systematically. Here I found clues that helped me link his early days to his late.
He decided to become a writer at the age of seven, a goal he hid from his parents and pursued doggedly for the remainder of his brief life. But this was not an unwavering career of steady progress toward a goal. I found a diary he kept for a few weeks as a high school senior that shows real performance anxiety, a fear of appearing ridiculous in theatricals, and a boredom and social resentment he negotiates through the language of satire. Also feelings of intellectual inadequacy. His mother, who was writing an M.A. dissertation on intelligence testing for the Indiana University psychology department, narrated a charming story at dinner of a youth with an I.Q. of 189 who got his doctorate at the age of nineteen. This provoked a diary entry by my father on whether he, who had skipped only one grade, should even try.
I found a fragment of a three-act undergraduate play in which the main character, a would-be poet not unlike Rimbaud, suddenly finds his identity collapsing under a fear that he is an imposter.
And for the first time I read my father's unpublished epic poem, The Dream of the Flesh of Iron, written in his mid twenties. Raintree County is often (mis)read as a Whitmanian celebration of America. But The Dream is four hundred pages of nightmare--an apocalyptic cultural history of the human race from the First World War to the beginning of the Second. Its protagonist, a Shelleyan figure in pursuit of ideal beauty, finds himself in a world of sinking ships. He confronts a brutal rival with many shifting identities, including Hitler whose face grows grotesquely larger and larger. He attempts to return to origins, to the protective environment of his home and to childhood--but (tellingly for a reading of my father's own psychology) he finds only the debris of childhood objects, no parents and no siblings and no comfort. In effect he chooses then to die, sinking programmatically into a maternal lake.
While he was writing this poem he was keeping a record, in shorthand, of his own dreams--a practice inspired by Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. Most of these records had been destroyed at some point, but I found some in dim pencil. Though he had been the Indiana state champ of Gregg shorthand, his had become idiosyncratic--so I spent a year finding a world-class decoder who could decipher it for me. This felt very much like peering through an aperture into his unconscious--my supreme invasion of his privacy. These dreams, like his poem, express his own vulnerability and that of young women, who are always getting hurt. But, more interestingly, they show that his sense of potency was not in sex--he remains faithful to his wife even in his dreams--but in writing. In one dream, he almost has adulterous sex but decides to saunter off and compose free verse instead. In another, he dreams that his poem will make him famous and that he'll then be able to pull strings for his neighbors.
He also dreams the death of his father, and finds himself thereupon composing summery quatrains until attacked by a large dog. This is the father known as "Mr. Indiana" for his biographies of Indiana heroes and his brand of populist history. He gave statewide "Historic Site Recitals" and was forever trying to enlist his youngest son, his amanuensis, into his own projects. This was the father that my father had to get off his back.
Such texts as these revealed how personal torment was tied in early on with his great ambition as writer.
They complement the epistolary record that I went to such pains to recover. The best of his letters were written to his family when he was nineteen going on twenty, as a student at the Sorbonne in 1933-34, where, with only two years of French, he walked off with top honors among the 1,000 foreign students. These letters are virtuoso performances by a would-be writer who is discovering his own narrative powers.
In one of these he describes having watched his widowed landlady, in her flat on la rue Soufflot, sadly pack up a trunk of personal antiquities, preparing to move from Paris. He sensed her life was over, that she lived entirely in the past. I was able to calculate, through other sources, that he first conceived Raintree County not many hours later. Since Madame Pernot had become a kind of surrogate mother that year, I made an inference, later explicitly corroborated by writings I found on the versos of the original Raintree County manuscript, that his novel--based in good part on his mother's family history--was launched in profound awareness of his mother's own frustrations and mortality.
Letters lie, of course--by omission or commission--but even in their lies or rhetorical ploys they can be revelatory of character. And they remain one of the best means of reconstituting a sequence of events, thus providing narrative bridges and making unnecessary any blatant "novelization." The earlier biography of my father, the first half of John Leggett's Ross and Tom (1974), was under-researched, based principally on interviews with a limited number of people who had known Ross Lockridge, Jr. With the exception of letters my father wrote his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, Leggett did not go after his subject's correspondence with any zeal.
One episode will illustrate pretty dramatically how direct epistolary evidence can preempt "novelization." (By this hideous word I mean not interpretation as such but narrative bridges and interior monologue where no direct substantiation exists--but this goes unannounced--or where there is direct counter evidence.) The psychological thrust of Leggett's biography is Oedipal: Lockridge suffered "patricidal guilt" in having written a better book than his father had ever written, he had "demolished" his father with Raintree County. In laying the ground for this argument, Leggett writes that when the excerpt from Raintree County appeared in Life magazine, with cusswords and other indecencies, Ross, living then in Michigan, was alarmed at not hearing from his parents. "Confirming Ross's worst suspicions there was no response at all from Bloomington [Indiana] and each day the silence grew more howling. . . . He guessed that his father had read the excerpt and reacted with a glacial silence that had enveloped the household, that while the offense he had taken was outwardly a moral one--How could the boy have breached these well-established fences of decorum?--he had been hurt in a far deeper way. First, the five years of mutiny and then he had been licked grandly in the pages of Life magazine. There was no way to be patronizing about that, no way to pass that off. It was a stab at his father's vitals." (6) This is the only evidence, before the suicide itself, that Leggett provides for his theory of patricidal guilt.
But in 1989 I recovered a letter my father sent his cousin Mary Jane Ward, which he wrote while being visited by his parents. The Life excerpt appeared simultaneously with their visit and he tells Mary Jane of his parents' response on the spot! "Dad and Mother happen to be visiting us just now and read the Life excerpt while here, their first acquaintance with Raintree County. I must say they took it very well, especially Mother. Dad, as you may know, never advanced beyond James Fenimore Cooper in his literary appreciations (but don't, for Christ's sake, quote me) and is a perfect prude where literature is concerned (literature should not resemble life), and we think he was profoundly shocked at first because some of the characters said goddam and took drinks. After he read it ten times, he got over this and said that he enjoyed it more each time and was beginning to find it funny."
So much for evidence of patricidal guilt. Leggett simply made up the episode concerning Ross Senior's silence about the Life excerpt--a brave guess but resting on a factual error. He prefaces his biography with the comment, "I am a novelist and I believe that forceful biography employs all the techniques of the novel; those of setting, narrative, characterization and subjectivity. I believe in the biographer's right, within a limit, to portray his subject's reaction to experience, and the limit is truth, insofar as that can be determined from evidence." This may sound okay, and is certainly in keeping with much contemporary thinking about biography. But it denotes a qualitative difference in method from the forms of substantiation I am arguing for here. (Ross and Tom is undocumented, by the way.)
For one thing, it gets us all in trouble. I have counted about eighty factual errors and about sixty unannounced instances of novelization in Leggett's narrative--many of which presume to support his major inferences concerning Ross Lockridge, Jr. and which someone not already intimately acquainted with the life would never be able to spot. I've felt compelled to submit to the Lilly Library of Indiana University a minutely annotated Ross and Tom--which was a best-seller as my own biography was not--so that these errors and stretchers do not necessarily enter the permanent record.
Here I support a healthy skepticism of novelistic invention, though not the use of novelistic forms, a legitimate enhancement. In terms of the Russian formalist distinction between story--the unmediated sequence of events as they are assumed to have occurred--and plot, or narratorial structuring of this raw material--I believe the biographer must first seek out the story. And, as I argue below, the plot may then to a degree present itself through the story without too willful an intervention by the story-teller.
To be fair to Leggett, I did uncover considerable anxiety elsewhere over how my father's mother took the novel--and make a case, announced as interpretive, that it is more in pre-Oedipal configurations than in Oedipal, that we should look for clues to Ross Lockridge's psychological unhinging.
Even an epistolary record with the density of Clarissa's will not be seamless, and it's an illusion to think that if only all the letters could be found the character would come clear. But one does hope to recover letters of explanatory force with respect to the major questions that a particular human life occasions. And one hopes to recover letters with a density of anecdote that implies the larger personality.
For instance, my father carried on, reluctantly, a literary correspondence for many years with somebody named Don who never used his surname or address in the letters my father retained in his filing cabinet. It took me quite a bit of detective work to determine that this was one Donald Blankertz, a professor of marketing, and that in 1989 he was living in Phoenix. When I contacted him by telephone and asked if he had kept my father's half of the correspondence, he replied, "Oh, Larry, your father wrote wonderful letters--they were Joycean--but when I moved out here in 1980 I threw them all away!" A week later he called to say that he had found ten letters from the years 1940-42 (some fifty remain lost)--and these proved a goldmine for me. They verified a hunch that my father was deeply chagrined about not being in the war--and that, in the Civil War sections of his novel, he was in effect fighting World War II from his writing desk.
His correspondence of almost a thousand pages with Houghton Mifflin (1946-48), in the Houghton Library, gives a horrific record of his descent into madness. It narrates his reluctant cutting of the manuscript, first at the request of Houghton Mifflin and then forcibly of MGM as the price of winning their enormous Novel Award, and finally of Book-of-the-Month Club. And it narrates a gruesome contract dispute he had with Houghton Mifflin over how to split up the MGM spoils. He thought his publisher was cheating him out of $22,500 (about $157,000 in today's currency). It was the principle of the thing, he said, and the feeling that he was being exploited sent him into a rage. The day after he "threw in the towel" on this dispute, against the counsel of his lawyer, he went into a profound depression from which he never recovered.
This Houghton Mifflin correspondence is as seamless as any in his brief life, but even here I had to go behind the writing, make inferences from the words themselves, and look to other sources (especially the direct recall of my mother) to grasp their fuller significance--and to see symptoms of the coming breakdown, from exuberance to grandiosity to rage to an affectless quiet.
But what I most remember is the letter I never recovered--a letter written to a friend now deceased just a couple of days before the suicide, vividly descriptive of his state of mind. The Boston Post heard of this letter, and was said to have offered $5,000 for it. Aharon Arsenian replied that he did not sell his friends. Forty-three years later his son and daughter in-law gave me permission to ransack their property for two days looking for this letter.
It is no great concession to deconstructive unravelment to acknowledge that there will always be gaps in the record--often where we least want them. No biographer claims an "authoritative life" anymore, nobody is absolutist in these matters, and to suggest otherwise is to set up a straw man. That we must all settle for approximations to truth does not logically in itself vitiate "truth" as the standard, however we conceive its nature.
I did recover, in the mothballed safe of our family lawyer in Bloomington, the very last letter my father wrote, the day he died. He discussed his tax return and the amount of money he had paid his wife for typing the Raintree County manuscript. In it he alluded to future work--"when I resume writing seriously"-- which suggests that as of earlier that day he still had not finally made up his mind to kill himself.
Why Did He Do It?
I had never known what diagnosis might apply to my father's illness--was it paranoia, schizophrenia, manic-depression, syphilis, ontological anguish, or what? When I began my research, I knew only that he had been briefly hospitalized under an assumed name and undergone electroconvulsive therapy not long before he died. But my mother, in an uncharacteristic forgettery, could remember only that he had, upon signing in, indicated that his wife's name was Veronica (instead of Vernice). She couldn't remember his own assumed name, the name of the admitting physician, the dates of admission or discharge, and had never heard a diagnosis. Not long after her husband's death, she destroyed all papers dealing with his hospitalization. I determined to get the health records from Methodist Hospital, Indianapolis, but for a year confronted a staff that told me it would be impossible without more information. Ross Lockridge wasn't one of their successes, and I felt this may have dampened their energies in my behalf.
I finally got one of my father's friends who had been chief of surgery of another Indianapolis hospital to go on site with me at the hospital. Doors were opened at last and after a full day of detective work we recovered the health records on microfilm.
For the first time I learned the official diagnosis: "reactive depression." This is described in the psychological literature of that day as a non-chronic, non-psychotic response to a current situation, often loss or disappointment. Murray De Armond, the physician, hadn't elicited from my father his more severe symptoms, apparent to my mother, which certainly would have qualified him for the more severe diagnosis then available, "psychotic depressive reaction," or what today we would call major depressive episode with psychotic features," including suicidal ideation. But electroconvulsive therapy was used in those days even for lesser forms of depression, so my father received three treatments that he found painful and degrading before De Armond discharged him on January 4, 1948, the day before publication of Raintree County. He wrote that his patient had "recovered."
These clinical records, useful up to a point but hardly depth analysis, left open the larger question of what caused the depression. The optimism of the Chinese fortune cookie--that I'd find the answer in an envelope--was misplaced, for I discovered, as do so many biographers, that to speak of "cause" or "causes" in human behavior is no simple matter. The chief professional interest in my biography has come not from people in literary studies but from suicidologists. I was recently keynote speaker at a convention of American suicidologists, where I gingerly offered a "convergence" theory of suicide, using what in my father's case seems to be illustrative, not extraordinary.
In a real sense the total narrative of his life is the explanation I offer, in keeping with the root meaning of "narration." But there are three interpretive lenses that have bearing, each explanatory in part. I'll briefly describe them here to make a cautionary point concerning the types of intellectual and ideological partisanship we bring to bear on the matter of our inquiry, too often finding what we are looking for. I do not discuss them systematically in my biography; they are implicit.
First, I uncovered aspects of my father's upbringing that suggest a vulnerability in his personality--one related to his great ambition itself. His mother was an accomplished but professionally frustrated person; she assisted in psychology courses at Indiana University but gave up any hope of a doctorate or career. She communicated a kind of pedagogical distance in her relationship with her four children. In a storage bin in Fort Wayne, I discovered an autobiographical short story she wrote in 1911, three years before my father's birth, where she complains of the hardships of mothering, expresses guilt over not loving her three children unconditionally, asks her husband to turn away in bed, and resolves to enter a writing contest. She was herself a frustrated writer who hoped for a vicarious fulfillment in her brilliant youngest son. Her four children all felt they were admired and loved for their deeds.
Ross Senior, in turn, looked to his youngest son to carry on his own mission of historical evangelicalism.
So there were psychological determinants that are largely discussed today in terms of "narcissistic" theory. It is still difficult for me to believe that my father may have had a "personality disorder" from an early age. Heinz Kohut sees the positive uses of narcissism in its linkage with creativity, whereas Otto Kernberg takes a dimmer view of narcissism, of whatever degree or kind. I don't see my father's decision at the age of seven to become a writer as evidence of a pathology. There was something grand about his ambition. But I can see a process of compensation even so--in his idealization of his mother, for instance, and in converting her family history into ambitious fiction.
In terms of non-biological explanation, the diagnosis "major depression related to narcissistic disorder" has the greatest force. Contrary to popular belief, people suffering from narcissistic disorders love themselves not too much but too little--nothing they do gives sufficient evidence of self-worth.
This diagnosis of my father was rendered independently by Herbert Hendin, M.D., psychiatrist and suicidologist; by Kenneth Lewes, Ph.D., clinical psychologist; and by Roslyn K. Pulitzer, A.C.S.W., all of whom I asked to read a late draft of my biography. Technically, you can't put a book on the couch, but these three corroborative readings were expressed confidently-- and implicated my father's relationship with his mother much more than with his father. Herbert Hendin was asked to read Dianne Middlebrook's biography of Anne Sexton--but only after it had been published. In asking for professional opinions at the draft stage, I was able to clarify some key moments in my father's life--though I discuss this clinical diagnosis only in the Notes at the back of the book.
Following acceptance of the novel, my father entered a period of "grandiosity"--for a few months he felt he had indeed written the Great American Novel and didn't try to conceal the fact from his publisher. But grandiosity is a flip side of depression. The contract dispute with Houghton Mifflin over the MGM monies seemed to collapse his entire sense of identity as a great writer. He appears to have suffered a severe "narcissistic wound" that undercut the grandiosity, and he never recovered from the depression this brought on.
The dispute coincided with the moment of the novel's completion. We all know the let-down that follows upon great exertion, and creative people often wonder whether they are still writers or dancers or composers. At this moment my father was all the more vulnerable to the shame and anger the contract dispute brought on. By publication day he felt he was an imposter, his novel a total failure. He feared he would never write again.
So much for "personality disorder." But there is strong evidence for a second reading of matters--a biological or possibly genetic predisposition to depression. My father's double second cousin, Mary Jane Ward, wrote the novel, The Snake Pit, which had been a best selling novel in 1946, also sold to the movies. (The press pointed out that this was a pretty good showing for a family of Hoosier hicks.) Ward wrote her largely autobiographical novel based on her incarceration in Rockland State Hospital, New York, in 1941.
She was diagnosed at the time as suffering from schizophrenia, but like many she was probably suffering from bipolar illness. She was hospitalized four times during her life--with the onset of manic symptoms that seemed not to coincide with any particular stress, that seemed to come out of nowhere. Even so she managed to publish eight novels, three of which dealt with mental illness. When my father was entering a hospital under an assumed name, she was a national spokesperson for openness about mental health issues. Sadly she was no more able to help my father than was his loving but completely baffled wife. My father was baffled too, and feared there was something wrong with his physical brain, not just his mind. There may have been.
Kay Redfield Jamison has recently documented at length the link between this illness and creativity.(7) The jury is still out over whether there is a manic-depressive gene or genes. Ross Lockridge never exhibited manic symptoms (not even when he was "grandiose"), unless one admits of the category "hypomania," thought by Jamison and some others to characterize states of extreme creativity. But the severity of his unremitting depression--amidst much wonderful circumstance and some misfortune that could otherwise have been weathered--suggests to me a biological predisposition.
My father's case thus gives evidence both of a personality disorder related to his upbringing--a largely psychoanalytic diagnosis based on nurture--and of a biological predisposition, based on nature.
What about a third way of reading my father's life and death--in terms more of cultural or quasi-sociological factors or discursive practices? These concern success in America, writer publisher relations, the fact of Hollywood, of sudden wealth and fame. They also deeply inform the narrative dimension--the sequence of events rich in cultural and personal implication that relentlessly caught up my father. All of these too were astonishingly evident in his life, and in writing my biography I was myself swept along by their momentum through his thirty-three years.
The ironic underside of the series of successes that attended his initial completion of his novel was that each was an emotional and creative blood-letting. I'll briefly summarize these.
The novel was initially submitted with a closing 356 page dream section--it was one-third of the novel's conceptual apparatus, and he was deeply attached to it. But his publisher politely insisted that he drop it. And he did so with great pain. That his novel was so amenable to cutting and slashing made him begin to doubt its worth.
Then the MGM Novel Award came along. At first he turned it down, despite the fact that our family had less than $100 at the time. It was conditional on his cutting 100,000 words. This he refused to do, supported by his wife, who warned him not to sell his soul. But after an all-night session with moguls at the St. Regis in New York, he gave in, agreeing to cut 50,000 words--and felt he had sold out in a Faustian pact.
Then there was the contract dispute that I've already mentioned. He wrote a series of tortured letters to Houghton Mifflin, arguing his position and that of his lawyer (who should have been writing these letters himself to earn his keep). He regarded his novel as a spiritual testament and was ashamed to have been arguing over money.
The pressures didn't cease. Book-of-the-Month Club asked him to cut a sex scene, which he did though the novel was already in page proofs. In a state of exhaustion--"bled white," as he put it--he was still revising it down to the wire.
Upon publication, after his ordeal in the hospital, he believed only the negative reviews. On the day that he killed himself, his hometown evening newspaper in Bloomington reprinted a large portion of Hamilton Basso's pan that had appeared two months earlier in The New Yorker, a magazine that virtually nobody in Bloomington read. (Basso had erred both in the title of the novel and its author's name--this was Ross Lockwood's Raintree Country--and the famous checkers didn't catch it until halfway through the run.)
I had grown up with newspaper accounts of the suicide but had never seen the hometown edition of the day of the suicide until I looked through microfilm at the Bloomington library. Coming across this reprint of the Basso pan left me shaking. Nobody had ever mentioned it. I believe I had discovered the trivial event that triggered the suicide of a volatile and already depressed person. It was shame before the hometown folks--a major critic blasting the Midwestern novelist in a leading Eastern magazine.
Though the press said there was no note, my father left a philosophical statement next to his typewriter the night he died. Speaking of himself in the abstract as among those who have lost "their grasp on the stuff of life," he sees himself as the victim of long circumstance and his own compulsions. "As for the miracle of being--it is of course a miracle, but it is not necessarily a good miracle. . . . No one blames the child of less than ten for the errors of his personality, but link by link he is bound to the grown man." It is by implication a request that he be forgiven for his novel, his cowardice, his life, and his suicide.
So I didn't find an envelope with a single answer to the mystery. Rather it seems to have been a convergence of factors-- of personality disorder or at least vulnerability, of a probable biological predisposition, and of cultural and circumstantial entrapment--that led to major depression. He was not depressed because his vision had failed him; rather, his vision failed him because he was depressed. He wasn't depressed because he couldn't write a second novel; rather, he couldn't write a second novel because he was depressed. But once the depression had set in, cause and effect became interrelated in a downward spiral from which there was no recovery.
My sample group is only one. But I've suggested to suicidologists--who seem to concur--that there are aspects of my father's suicide that are representative, even quintessential, Certainly the pressures that underlie the pivotal acts of our lives may often resist single interpretations, of which we might be properly skeptical. Just as suicidologists have factions where personality disorder specialists argue their briefs, bipolar illness specialists theirs, and sociologically-oriented theirs, so among biographers and critics of biography, as amid the theory wars generally, we see a divisiveness that may rob us of broader, enhanced perspectives. Perhaps a critical merging of methodologies would better serve us.
The Story and the Plot
When at last I sat down to write Shade of the Raintree, I felt I had an unusual opportunity to combine memoir and biography. Only five when my father died, I was hardly qualified to write a memoir per se, but I would become, after 1942, a minor character in my own biography. Whenever asked about objectivity, I lay no claim to it in the sense of disengaged observation. Whatever perspective one brings to bear on a biographical subject can just as easily be termed a delimiting prejudice. And mine happened to be that I was the son of the subject. I decided simply to build that emotional and interested perspective openly into the structures and texture of my narrative, letting it inform my narratorial voice, thus hoping to convert a liability into an asset.
I was much aware that my father's novel was itself based on an American archive--the yellowed manuscripts of his grandfather and great-grandfather, the yearbooks and farm journals and county atlases and commonplace books that provide Raintree County with a polyphony of American voices. So in some respects, and with some direct echoing, I imitate his novelistic method in the biography.
I exploited my own multi-voiced archive to bring to light as many perspectives as possible on my father. I had perhaps two hundred hours of taped and transcribed interviews, about which I'll say little here, except that they were, with some major exceptions, less useful than written texts. I was especially fortunate to recover letters of correspondents who spoke of him in the third person contemporaneously with the observations they made. For instance, a Bloomington woman living in Boston wrote home to her mother at length in 1940 concerning a visit she made to Ross and Vernice's student apartment in Cambridge. She recorded impressions of their relationship as well as conversations in detail concerning the epic poem he was finishing and his wish never to return to teaching in Indiana. "They seem very devoted to each other although Ross said he would like to go to Europe and be a war correspondent but he couldn't because of Vernice and the baby. This he said nicely, but it seemed as if the old gay cocky Ross was completely gone. He was quite modest about his work . . ."
And two days before he died, he stopped by a young professor's house in Bloomington where he had begun writing the novel back in 1941. That evening, March 4, 1948, Donald Smalley wrote of the disturbing encounter in detail to his wife, who was in Washington D.C. at the time. "He is looking in ill health and years older. . . I told him he was somewhat like Browning's Lazarus--having seen heaven and now having to get adjusted to earth once more (the grind of producing another work). Then I said the analogy was not altogether fair or accurate. He said it fit pretty well." Smalley also wrote his wife several letters in shock in the days directly following the suicide, describing the town's reaction and the gossip.
Such glimpses into the past are privileged, since they are unmediated by longterm, revisionistic memory and were in no way tailored for the author's son or for the author himself. Of course these documents too are hardly "objective" in any absolute way. It makes more sense to speak of multiple perspectives on the subject of a biography than of a single-lensed objectivity, a phantasm at best.
But if one sets aside objectivity as a bogus goal, does it follow that the "narrativity of biography gives real events the form of a story, imposing meaning and pattern on reality, which does not organize itself into either meaning or truth"? I'd agree with this statement up to a point--the story-teller organizes the raw material. But that does not mean this material is bereft of form or pattern already. There can be an infinite number of ways of (re)construing the pattern within the material, but the pattern abides and insists on itself. (One could find analogies in the biological sciences.)
Above all else the raw material--the story--has sequence or chronology, if not yet the meaningful causality that the storyteller must discover in it. I say "discover," not "create," because I make a philosophical assumption (that could be argued at length in another format) that, however imperfectly, people can script their own lives, live out their own myths, express their selves over the period of a lifetime. This is especially the case with those people who tend to end up as subjects of biographies, the people we call "driven." The biographer does not confront a heap of inert, chaotic "matter"; rather, a speaking, sentient subject expressive even in death by means of words and images and other constructs left behind, and by means of the memory cells of others.
After gathering the archive, I sat down to structure a narrative in outline. But the structure seemed to present itself with little willed mediation. It took only thirty minutes or so to jot down the sequence of chapters and their chronological breaks--a structuring that I never had to alter in the year it took me to draft the biography. This was partly an illusion on my part, for I wouldn't deny my own shaping intelligence or that the book could have been structured differently. But let's just say that patterns presented themselves simultaneously with my discovering them.
For one thing my father's life expressed an astonishing symmetry--from his Midwestern roots in Indiana to his journey East, where he fashioned a visionary narrative based in part on the Indiana culture he had left behind, to a homecoming of death. I won't recount, chapter by chapter, the structure of this particular biography. But I wrote it as if it were a novel, seizing motifs as structuring devices where my father himself so conceived them or lived them out in full consciousness.
For instance, his family suffered a tragedy also when he was five--the drowning of his eldest brother Bruce, who was initially the great hope of his parents. This was his generation's own founding catastrophe--he had been the last of the family to see Bruce alive as he set forth on a boy scout outing. In my father's last writings, left on his desk the night he died, he was drafting an autobiographical narrative that began with the death of Bruce. Here, he was expressing an identification with the dead brother whom his parents had seemed not to mourn. This was an identification he had felt off and on his entire life. The new novel, beginning with the drowning of Bruce, would narrate the response of his survivors to that death. But rather than write this novel, he decided to join his brother in death.
I merely followed his own lead in beginning my own narrative of his life not with his birth but with the drowning of his brother. And I returned to this tragedy in recounting his final days. This is a novelistic symmetry, but I found it, I did not create it. My father himself had recognized it and left a record of it.
Within these poles of founding catastrophe and suicide, other patterns presented themselves. For instance, the first chapter of the second half of the book is entitled "Starting Over." When I looked at my raw material for the years 1940-43, I recognized three pivotal moments that seemed to insist on this simple, familiar title. First was his move away from Indiana-- the move East as he became a graduate student in the Department of English at Harvard. He was escaping his father. He was also gaining distance on cultural material--for as a writer he would never leave Indiana, as Joyce never left Ireland. He was also "starting over" with a new Department of English, after a period of disenchantment with IU.
He spent most of the first months in Cambridge working on his epic poem, and in early 1941 sent it to Houghton Mifflin. He had spent two-and-one-half exhaustive years on it, eventually compressing the several thousand draft pages into what he hoped was a presentable 400-page epic. Within a few weeks the manuscript was returned without comment. Instead of setting about revising it or getting depressed, he put it aside, and quietly announced to his wife that he would "start over"--and write something a publisher would wish to publish.
So he began a novel in the summer of 1941--while pretending to be writing a doctoral dissertation on Walt Whitman--and for the next two years worked on a narrative set in the twentieth century entitled American Lives, in which his grandfather John Wesley Shockley played a secondary role. Two thousand pages later, dissatisfied with what he had written, he appeared at the kitchen door in Pigeon Cove, Massachusetts, one evening in late summer of 1943, and announced to his wife that he was discarding the 2,000 page manuscript, and "starting over." He would write a new novel set in the l9th century, in which John Wesley Shockley (eventually John Wickliff Shawnessy) would be the principal character. He didn't exactly discard the earlier novel; frugal with paper, he turned it over and started a new novel, Raintree County, on the other side.
So these years, 1940-43, were narratologically tied together by a series of abrupt terminations and renewals, as Ross Lockridge finished his apprenticeship and found, at last, the novel he had felt destined to write.
The aftermath of my father's suicide--the experience of his survivors, the fate of the novel in the canon of American literature, and the abysmal MGM adaptation of his novel scripted by the creator of Mr. Magoo, all seemed significant parts of the story too. Indeed it seemed fitting for me to begin the book where it all began for my siblings and me--the aftermath of the suicide up to 1994. My first chapter, entitled "Epilogue," recounts the period from March 7th, 1948, the day after the suicide, up to the writing of the biography itself--and how the "shade" of the father was felt and interpreted, through relics and anecdotes and his novel itself, around the household on Stull Avenue.
Indeed every chapter of my biography had its own discrete motivic structure that in no way felt like an "imposition" of authorial will on unorganized material. There was instead what seemed a reciprocity of expressive material and interpretive sympathy--whatever the quality of the biography that resulted. I would guess that, to greater and lesser degrees, this would be the testimony of most biographers.
1. The New York Times, March 8, 1948, pp. 1, 12.
2. Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr. (Viking Penguin). 499 pages, 41 photographs.
3. Ira B. Nadel, "Biography and Theory, or, Beckett in the Bath," Biography and Autobiography, ed. James Noonan (Ottawa: Carleton Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 11, 14.
4. For discussions of this debate as it relates to "naturalistic ethics," with bibliographical references, see my Coleridge the Moralist (Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 226-27, 242-44; and The Ethics of Romanticism (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 55, 57, 123-24, 150, 151n, 206, 452n.
5. A new edition of Raintree County, with corrected text, was published by Penguin Books on April 25, 1994, simultaneously with Shade of the Raintree on what would have been my father's eightieth birthday. I've been pleased, even surprised, by its critical reception this time around. Several critics have stuck out their necks, dubbing it the Great American Novel (Larry Swindell, syndicated critic; Bruce Cook, Chicago Tribune; Robin Mather, Detroit News; Leonard Duckett, Fort Worth Star-Telegram; David D. Anderson, SML Newsletter), while others have stopped just short of that (Donald Newlove, Philadelphia Inquirer; Tim Page, Newsday; Roger Miller, Milwaukee Journal; Richard Bausch, Los Angeles Times; John Blades, Chicago Tribune; William Lutholtz, Indianapolis News; Marcia Abramson, Detroit Free Press; Erika Duncan, The New York Times; Scott Donaldson, Washington Post); Ann Lloyd Merriman, Richmond Times-Dispatch; Richard Dyer (Boston Globe); James Bailey, Columbus Dispatch; Darshan Maini, The Tribune. Only Charles Trueheart (Atlantic Monthly) has thus far frowned on my father's assault on Mt. Parnassus. It continues to be mostly ignored in academe. David D. Anderson of Michigan State University and editor of MidAmerica, is editing a collection of essays on Raintree County.
6. John Leggett, Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies (Simon & Schuster, 1974), p. 151. This is a dual biography. The second half is of Thomas Heggen, author of Mister Roberts, who died in 1949, a probable suicide. He and my father never met.
7. Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. New York: The Free Press, 1993.
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