Flashing Vision of America Lost and Found

In the Framework of Legendary "Raintree County," Indiana

by James Hilton

January 4, 1948--New York Herald Tribune

After World War I came "Main Street"; after World War II has come "Raintree County," by Ross Lockridge jr. It is possible that literary historians will some day record that both novels won wide acclaim and established enduring reputations for the reason that (apart from intrinsic merits) they offered a picture of itself to an America that towered in victory and prosperity over a shattered world.

There, however, the comparison ends and the contrasts begin. Mr. Lewis's picture was contemporary straightforward, and hot off the griddle. Mr. Lockridge's story spans the years between 1844 and 1892, is anything but straightforward and took him (as one can well believe) six years to write and rewrite. Yet it is not (and the publishers wisely point this out) another of those long historical novels. Indeed, in a deeper sense it is as contemporary today as was "Main Street" in 1919, for the American of 1948 is all the more concerned with the past as he becomes confused about the future. So that whereas "Main Street" was a snapshot, brilliantly clear, "Raintree County" is a time exposure, blurred in places, sometimes obscure, occasionally sluggish, but all adding up to a vision of America, almost a mystique, that flashes perhaps for a few instants while the author seems to be saying "Hold it." And if this should seem inadequate justification for a book consisting of 1066 pages, let it be remembered how few are the novels, long or short, that offer any flash of vision at all.

For the framework of his story, Mr. Lockridge has chosen the events of a single day (July 4, 1892) in the life of John Wickliff Shawnessy, aged 53, of the town of Waycross in the county of Raintree in the state of Indiana. Shawnessy takes part in the town's patriotic exercises, he meets his old boyhood companions, one of whom has become a Senator and another a financier, while a third, perhaps his closest friend, is a somewhat wayward professor whose opinions on all possible subjects are fortunately pungent as well as lengthy.

But this is only a surface framework. Built into it more deeply are some fifty-odd flashbacks containing in fragments the entire life story of Shawnessy and his family--his adolescent dreams, his entrapment into marriage to a Southern girl whom he did not really love (there is a wonderful bravura piece about a honeymoon in the New Orleans of 1859), his Civil War adventures (he was in Sherman's army), his return to Raintree County after having been reported dead, his incursion into politics, his work as a school teacher, a spell in New York City, where his tried to write and dallied with an actress (this is the weakest part of the story) and his second and happier marriage. One should also add that during the time he was thought to be dead the girl he really loved all along married the Senator and died in childbirth--which is melodramatic if you think about it, but perhaps the author did, and was undismayed.

Nor are these flashbacks in any chronological order. A certain linkage, however, is effected by the device of running an unfinished last sentence of one section into the opening sentence of the next. Like the discoverer of a new tax loophole, Mr. Lockridge can barely get by with this, and any future practitioner will probably be told that it is a lazy, tricky, illogical and generally reprehensible piece of cuteness.

Mr. Lockridge, indeed, gets by with a good many things because his novel, as a whole, has a sort of mountainous integrity which must have sustained the writer during his years of labor no less than it impresses the reader. It has moments of naivete but never of cheapness; it is as moody as the weather and as capricious as life; it teems and sprawls; it is glowing and somber, earthy and poetic by turns. The author is often infatuated with words ("palimpsest," "protean" and "talismanic" occur so often that one begins to count them); he has also that delight in catalogued abundance which, from Walt Whitman to Montgomery Ward, is part of the living legend of America. The entire novel is a hold-all of myth, musing, songs, poems, dreams, political argument, history, archeology, and variegated lore, all of which could have been cut by some hundreds of pages; and yet why?--since profusions and copiousness are part of the means to an end.

What emerges--besides the vision flash which may or may not be vouchsafed to every reader? Mr. Lockridge has, first of all, a deep awareness of America as part of space and time, so that the youth of his hero in "Raintree County" becomes a sort of tanglewood tale, sun drenched and garlanded, but with roots far more pagan than Hawthorne cared to portray. And the life-size Indiana of the last century, with its lonely farms, its revivalist preachers, its foot races and markets and river picnics, becomes more than life size in this golden mythological focus. No one has done anything quite like this before. As for a political philosophy, the grown Mr. Shawnessy seems to be Jeffersonian with somewhat mystical trimmings; he exults in "the affirmative American (whatever precisely that my be), and in one of his arguments with his professor friend he confesses that "my economics is improvised--like the republic's. Capitalism and Communism in their pure form are both contrary to the spirit of American democracy." Spoken in 1877, but written, one may remember, some seventy years later.

Mr. Lockridge's closest literary affinities are with Thomas Wolfe and Walt Whitman whose respective cries of "Lost" and "Found" are among the most rapturous in American writing; Mr. Lockridge's cry is not quite either or else perhaps a bit of both; but, whatever it is or exactly means, at times he makes it sing a lovely note.

"America Is a memory of my pre-Columbian years. America is a cabin in the clearing and a road that scarcely ruts the earth. It is the face of my mother in the sentimental doorway of our home in Indiana. America is an innocent myth that makes us glad and hopeful each time we read it in the book of our own life. It is the same myth each time with multiple meanings. It has the same home place in the county, the doorway, the cabin make of logs, the spring and running branch, the fields around the house, and it has the same rock lying at the utmost limit of the land at evening."

"A poet's definition," Shawnessy calls this, waggishly, "which will appear just in time to strengthen my bid for the Presidency of 1948."

Mr Lockridge's bid for the literary accolade of 1948 will probably need no strengthening, though his work will be hard to get into a category. Despite its wealth of practical allusion and realist detail, it must be diagnosed predominantly as romantic, if that adjective can still have any but a derogatory meaning, and one hopes it can. Which indicates that Mr. Lockridge has written just what he wanted, and the way he wanted it, without regard for labels, fashions and styles. Perhaps this is not a bad way to write at the end of a world war if you have youth, ardor and a vision to convey. "Raintree County" has so much of all these that it grips the heart and stirs the mind. By any standard it is a novel of rare stature for these days.

Raintree County

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