Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr., Author of Raintree County.
by Larry Lockridge.
Indiana University Press, 1994, 2014.
Paperback, 544 pages, $25.
I started with the obituary. It ran on the front page. Of the New York Times. Yes, the front page. The death of this man was a big deal in 1948. After sailing through college at Indiana University with an A+ average and entering Harvard for graduate school, young Ross Lockridge, Jr. of Indiana had produced the Great American Novel, Raintree County, set in fictionalized Henry County, Indiana. The book rose to number one on the bestseller list and Lockridge won a $150,000 prize (about $1.5 million today) from MGM and a promise to make his new book into a movie. In the midst of all this success, Lockridge gassed himself in the family garage in Bloomington, Indiana, leaving behind four little kids and a wife. Oneof his children, Larry, set out to discover why. His quest is recounted in this book, reissued by Indiana University Press on the centennial of Lockridge’s birth in 1914 (the book was first published in 1994).
When plowing through Shade of the Raintree, one cannot help thinking that there’s something special, or above average as Garrison Keillor says, about Indiana. It’s not just Lockridge. In the decades before, Edward Eggleston wrote The Hoosier Schoolmaster. Sarah T. Bolton left us with the very American poem “Paddle Your Own Canoe.” After he returned home from the Civil War, Lew Wallace wrote Ben-Hur in Crawfordsville. “The Golden Age of Indiana Literature” exhibit is now a yearly feature of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum and it offers reminders that Meredith Nicholson, George Ade, Booth Tarkington, and Gene Stratton-Porter were all Hoosiers. And James Whitcomb Riley, of course, became the voice of Middle America from Indiana. His death in 1916 was a major national event, much bigger than even a front-page New York Times obituary would indicate.
One also cannot miss the historical consciousness coursing through the Lockridge family, which has deep Indiana roots. Raintree County is itself a highly developed historical novel about Indiana during the Civil War era. And the author’s father, Ross Lockridge, Sr., was an accomplished historian, or at least a tireless purveyor of his state’s history. He wrote ten books, including biographies of Lincoln (born in Indiana), LaSalle, and George Rogers Clark. His last book was The Story of Indiana. The senior Lockridge constantly toured the state giving lectures and organizing pageants about Indiana history and directed the Hoosier Historical Institutes. He became known as “Mr. Indiana.” Ross Lockridge, Jr. routinely helped his father with these efforts and also wrote a history of the family of Indianan Benjamin Harrison and a pageant about the famous settlement at New Harmony, Indiana.
Lockridge’s life in Indiana and his family’s mastery of and commitment to the state’s history contributed to some later criticism of the author of Raintree County. In 1974, John Leggett published a dual biography of Lockridge and Thomas Heggen, Ross and Tom, in which Leggett criticized the former for his provincialism and, in a full Freudian maneuver, for trying to please Momma. In his book Larry Lockridge rightly dismisses Leggett as “an Easterner who draws on the Midwest Bumpkin paradigm.” Wallace Stegner, by the way, thought Leggett’s treatment of Heggen, his cousin, was idiotic and that Leggett’s writing was “imprisoned in a thesis” from which it could not escape. Despite Leggett’s dated theories, it must be noted that Lockridge had not just tumbled down from the turnip truck. He lived in intellectual Bloomington, after all, down the street from Alfred Kinsey, and he won a Ph.D. fellowship from Harvard.
For all his intellectual commitments, Lockridge did not lose touch with the Midwest. His understanding of Indiana, its history, and its role as an American crossroads is all conveyed in Raintree County. His understanding of Indiana culture and traditions is also deep, as expressed in his depictions of the Fourth of July in Indiana, of foot races, revival meetings, politics, county fairs, temperance campaigns, and the battles of rival newspapers. The protagonist of Raintree County, Johnny Shawnessy, returns to his home after the Civil War and ventures in New York and remains, as Park Dixon Goist has emphasized, “rooted in a place.”
So what happened to this promising young writer from Indiana who produced a best-seller and won a prize that made him rich? Larry Lockridge, who himself earned his Ph.D. in English from Harvard and spent most of his professorial career at New York University, posits a “convergence theory,” suggesting that his father was done in by a grand convergence of several forces that were collectively deadly. His father was shaky already, but then the stress of producing a prominent literary tome (including the extreme duress of making cuts to the manuscript, a fine reminder to the world’s editors), subsequent negotiations with Hollywood, his family history of mental illness (his cousin, Mary Jane Ward, chronicled the pain of institutionalization in her autobiographical novel The Snake Pit), and the delicate sensitivities of a writer all came down on him at once. He ended up for a while in an Indiana mental hospital, but it did not seem to help. Then came a review, a snide review in the New Yorker that was largely re-printed in Lockridge’s local newspaper (the review mocked the novel’s treatment of “life in the corn-and-wheat belt, or whatnot”). Lockridge killed himself the day the New Yorker snub appeared in his local newspaper. In his book, Larry Lockridge argues that the review “served as a trigger” for the suicide. He quotes Byron writing to Shelley upon receiving word that the death of Keats had been caused by a bad review in the Quarterly Review: “’T is strange the mind, that very fiery particle / Should let itself be snuffed out by an article.”
There is an element of regionalist tragedy to all of this. A young writer in Indiana makes it in the world and then settles back in to Bloomington to, presumably, carry on his writing and take care to recognize, or at least live in, the state of Indiana that his father loved, but is then done in by a missile from a demeaning New Yorker review. Lockridge frames it this way, seeing his father as “the Midwest writer who, through regional attachments, challenges the authority of the East Coast as well as Europe” and he recognizes “the nervy ambition, hope, and a special kind of vital innocence, the wish to answer while young to a young country’s need for a great literature of its own, the lure and curse of Hollywood, and a national press that shapes seasonal celebrities according to some very trite scripts.”
Larry Lockridge’s brother Ernest, a Yale Ph.D. in English who taught at Yale and The Ohio State University, is not buying it. He says that his father was molested by Ross Lockridge, Sr. and this is why he committed suicide. Ernest wrote a short, self-published book about this and an Internet battle between brothers over the real family legacy broke out. Larry Lockridge’s response and rejection of these claims is thorough and seems to have merit, but there is no conclusive proof either way. The whole saga seems like another bit of family tragedy for the Lockridges. But Raintree County lives on and thereby keeps alive another element of an early twentieth-century tradition of regionalist writing from the Midwest that once was a moving force in American culture.
Jon Lauck is the President of the Midwestern History Association and the Associate Editor of Middle West Review. His most recent book is The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History(University of Iowa Press, 2013).