Sunday, December 11, 2016

Ross Lockridge, Jr.



Today, December 11, 2016, is the two-hundredth birthday of the State of Indiana. I had hoped to be within the bounds of my home state for the occasion. Instead I will observe it from a distance.

There was once a Golden Age of Literature in Indiana. The bulk of that age came closer to the beginning of the Hoosier State than to our own time. Its luminaries--Booth Tarkington, Maurice Thompson, George Barr McCutcheon, Edward Eggleston, Meredith Nicholson, James Whitcomb Riley, Gene Stratton Porter--are now largely forgotten to readers outside the state. Indiana's prominent writers since the Golden Age can hardly be called a group. Rather, they are scattershot and include men and women as disparate as Jessamyn West (1902-1984) and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-2007) or Philip José Farmer (1918-2009) and James Alexander Thom (b. 1933).

No one can say what the Great Indiana Novel might be, if there has ever been one. One candidate--in fact, one candidate for the larger honorific of Great American Novel--is Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr., published in 1948 by Houghton Mifflin. Born on April 25, 1914, in Bloomington, Indiana, Lockridge was prodigious in his powers as a student, scholar, and writer. Before Raintree County, he pounded out a 400-page poem called The Dream of the Flesh of Iron and a 2,000-page fragment of a novel with the working title American Lives, neither of which has since been published. In starting over with a new novel--what would become Raintree County--he simply turned over the pages of American Lives and began typing on the reverse side.

In the making for half a decade and originally extending to 600,000 words, Raintree County was generally well received in its time. The New York Times liked it. The New Yorker, on the other hand, did not. There is reason to believe that the unfavorable opinion of that magazine precipitated Lockridge's suicide on the same day that it appeared in his hometown Bloomington newspaper, on March 6, 1948. Lockridge's novel had been in print only two months when he asphyxiated himself with the exhaust from his car. He left behind a wife and four children, among other family members. He also left behind his lone novel, running, in the Book-of-the-Month Club edition shown here, to 1,066 pages. In that he joined Harper Lee and others whose fame rests almost entirely on one book.

Raintree County was adapted to the silver screen in 1957. Of the principal actors, which included Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Eva Marie Saint, Nigel Patrick, Lee Marvin, Rod Taylor, and Agnes Moorehead, only Russell Collins (1897-1965) hailed from Indiana. Despite being set in the Hoosier State, the movie was filmed in the South, in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Like many of the works of Mississippi's own William Faulkner, Raintree County is set in a fictional locale. Both Faulkner and Lockridge provided maps of their respective fictional counties in their respective novels. In his prodigious output, Lockridge bore some resemblance, too, to Thomas Wolfe, another Southern author. I might add that I have been to the homes of both Faulkner and Wolfe. (Both were closed for repairs or renovations when I was there.) As for Ross Lockridge, Jr., I can't say that I have been to his home. However, I very often drive through Straughn, situated on beautiful flat ground along U.S. Highway 40, the National Road, in Henry County, Indiana, and the basis for Lockridge's fictional town of Waycross. I can't say, either, that I have seen the mythical golden raintree supposed to have been planted near there by Johnny Appleseed, who has his own final connection to Indiana by having been buried in Fort Wayne. Lastly, I would like to mention Lockridge's cousin, the author Mary Jane Ward (1905-1981) of Fairmount, Indiana, who wrote The Snake Pit (1946) and other novels. That book, too, was adapted to film, in 1948, and it, too, featured a Hoosier, actress Beulah Bondi (1889-1981) of Valparaiso.

So, Happy Birthday, Indiana, the Land of Indians, the Hoosier State, my home state, and a place of which Hoosiers are and can be justly proud.

Original text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley