Seldom has a book been published to more frenzied anticipation than Raintree County, a story of a man remembering his life, one touched by a troubled marriage, insanity, and the Civil War. Told through flashbacks, utilizing a kind of personal mythology, philosophy, poetry, and incandescent prose, it has been an unofficial contender for the Great American Novel ever since. (It is also remembered for the movie version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.) When it hit the stands in January 1948, it had already outsold its first printing, garnered stellar reviews, and won a prize from MGM for $150,000 (over a million in today’s money). Eight weeks later it was declared a number one bestseller. The day after, its author, thirty-three year old Ross Lockridge, Jr., killed himself.
Born in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1914, Lockridge grew up with a strong belief in his own destiny. In high school he was good looking, charismatic, and driven. He studied the classics in France for two years before graduating from the University of Indiana with the highest grade point average the school had ever seen.
He was about to join the university’s English department when his life changed after a badly misjudged show of bravado. Days of moving into his office had left him tired. Lockridge self-prescribed a course of grueling workouts to get him back on track. Unfortunately, what he had assumed was the flu was actually scarlet fever and the strenuous activity that was meant to show his body who was boss caused permanent heart damage and left him bedridden for eight months. When he recovered he married his high school sweetheart, Vernice. In 1938 they had their first child.
When Lockridge was accepted at Harvard as a doctoral student they moved to Massachusetts. There he started a novel. He was hundreds of pages into it when he realized it wasn’t working, that he was writing the wrong book. Undiscouraged, he started again, turning the manuscript over and typing on its back. Now he was sure, so sure that he withdrew from his studies, teaching at a nearby college and writing single-mindedly. By now he had two children, but a description of their life at the time sounds like the very cliché of a poor and happy family: living in three rooms, eating beans and franks then singing together while they did the dishes before he went back to his typewriter.
Vernice did the final typing, a job that took 18 months. (Unlike many writers, Lockridge would give her full credit for having helped him build his opus.) She was only supposed to see the portion she was working on, and if Ross, working in the next room, heard the typewriter stop he would call out, “No fair, honey. Stop reading the manuscript.” One night Ross heard the typewriter stop and he realized that something had happened. He found her sitting in a flood of proud tears over the final page of the manuscript that she had just finished.
Raintree County was 2,000 pages, 600,000 words, and five full-size volumes. Lockridge had no doubt of its brilliance. Houghton Mifflin agreed. In 1945, they offered him an advance of $3,500, almost twice what he made a year from teaching.
It is rare for a book identified as literature to smell like money, but all agreed that this was one. There was considerable concern, however, about the length. In particular, he was advised to lose a 350-page, non-narrative dream sequence Lockridge had written it in an attempt to best James Joyce. When Houghton Mifflin asked for him to remove it, he responded that the passage was of great importance to the future of American letters. “It will be talked about, written about, and read, read, read!”
He reluctantly agreed to cut the segment, but his reaction was an early indication that Lockridge was going from charmingly self-confident to manically grandiose. To anyone who would listen he asserted that his masterpiece was bound for the pantheon of American literature. That he had encountered a similar dramatic problem to one of Shakespeare’s, but that he had handled it better. “It’s hard to define because it’s everything. The only thing I can compare it to is Plato’s Republic.”
If Houghton Mifflin could make demands then so could he. He did not want conversation to be set off with quotation marks; instead he wanted them to be prefaced by a long dash, in the style of French fiction. “I would hate to see it changed simply because the other system has been conventionally used in America. Raintree County is not a conventional book, and it oughtn’t to be thought about conventionally.” Lockridge urged the publisher to leak the news that they were sitting on something hot, a book Americans need to read. “It should be thought of and sold as a book without precedent, a monumental achievement.”
The movie studio MGM was sponsoring a high-profile contest in order to secure the best new literary works for their stable. To win was to be guaranteed a bigger-than-life launch, a prize of $150,000, and a promise of a film version created by one of the world’s most powerful dream factories. While their judges were bowled over by the book, Lockridge had mixed feelings about them. To his mind previous winners were just not in the same league with Raintree County. (Here he was probably right.) Also, the studio thought the book had too many words. One-hundred thousand too many. Although Houghton Mifflin negotiated this down to a deletion of 50,000 words, Lockridge was shattered. His masterpiece was not so malleable that 50,000 words could just disappear.
The prize money was the equivalent today of one million dollars but Vernice did not hesitate to advise him to reconsider this deal with the devil. Lockridge was only human. With the money he could give his family everything they dreamed of. He could buy time to write his next book. And his fiercely competitive streak meant that he could not bear the idea that some other book might take the award. He accepted and got to work making made the changes at a breakneck speed that debilitated his health. His editor Dorothy Hillyer wrote that, “Ross was quite capable of fussing eighteen hours a day over that manuscript. He was in love with it, almost sexually.”
When the MGM prize was announced, Lockridge became an overnight celebrity but it also meant his creation was slipping away from his control. He had understood that in exchange for selling the soul of his book he would be intimately involved with the development of the film, but when the studio announced a tentative cast he only heard about it in the papers like everyone else. His furious response was a four page letter addressed to studio head Louis B. Mayer reminding him that it was to Mayer’s advantage to consult him before making decisions. This tirade directed at one of the most powerful men in Hollywood did not endear him to the studio.
There was further ructions when the publisher suggested that one of the cover blurbs read that this was the novel that Walt Whitman would have written. For all of his admiration of the poet, Lockridge shot back that “Old Walt, America’s greatest poet, was, as every student of his life and work knows, a not particularly virile person. There are well-known ‘tendencies’ in Whitman’s poetry and life which have no counterpart in Raintree County. He was extremely protean in sexual matters…It is one thing to be called Whitmanesque, and another to have it said that Whitman ‘might have written your novel.’”
In the 1940s, being selected for the Book of the Month Club meant enormous publicity and tens of thousands of extra sales. The competition was fierce, but Lockridge meant to have it, writing to his publisher, “They have on their hand a literary phenomenon, which, whatever may ultimately be said of the book, surely will not come their way in a lifetime or a lifetime of lifetimes.” The Book of the Month Club agreed to select Raintree County, but only if several thousand morewords were cut, including those containing erotic scenes and blasphemy. Having worked himself into a breakdown to make revisions for Houghton Mifflin and extensive cuts for MGM, he now simply caved to this demand – one that in better days would have sparked a battle of wills. He may have even seen it as a back-handed reprieve, an excuse to go back to the only place he felt safe, Raintree County.
Contractually, Houghton Mifflin had a legal right to quite a bit of the MGM money. Lockridge was furious that they meant to take it. It was not about the money itself – he was not greedy and he was about to become very wealthy – but he deeply believed that they were showing disrespect for him and his gift. It was something that he deserved that they were trying to take away from him. He demanded that they forfeit some of these bonuses. “Honestly – what’s the matter with you folks – don’t you want my next commercially important book?” he threatened. One letter had a hand-drawn black border around a copy of his contract. At the end of another, he closed with, “Do not misread your man – do not misread your man.”
The publisher was confused and offered to renegotiate his contract giving him more favorable terms. When Lockridge wrote to accept, he tried to explain: “You have no idea how I bled on this thing. I have never had such a terrifying mental – not to say physical – experience.” He asked, “Is there such a thing as a writer being ‘shell-shocked’ from the battle of creating his own book?”
This is a shrewd and a telling question. Could it be that living with his opus for almost ten years had left him traumatized? There were other destabilizing factors, such as a borderline Narcissistic personality, and bipolar disorder can’t be ruled out, but at the end of the day, it seems he was not only shell-shocked by the demanding effort of creating a work of such enormity and complexity, he was undone by the knowledge that he had colluded in destroying what had been given to him as a great trust, and now he believed he was cursed.
As Raintree County’s publication date grew near, his paranoia increased. Lockridge believed that people were watching him and were planning to sabotage the book. He now had trouble swallowing food, and his sight and speech were affected. He seldom spoke and then only in monosyllables. A new work might have saved him, if he could have worked, but he only turned out page after page of unfocused notes from the point of view of a Cosmic Narrator about Good and Bad, Virtue and Evil, the nature of time and whether it exists. Not surprisingly, this took him further adrift mentally.
Lockridge’s cousin, Mary Jane Ward, was the author of The Snake Pit, an influential fictionalized memoir of her own recovery from mental illness. (Like Raintree County it was a Book of the Month Club winner and the basis of a blockbuster movie.) Ward wanted him to get professional help, but she was frustrated by his family. His Christian Science mother insisted that there was “No pill like the Gospel.” His father believed that mental illness was shameful and that all his boy needed was to memorize and recite inspirational works. Their family doctor refused to take Lockridge’s terror and misery seriously; he prescribed a juicy steak.
Vernice was initially reluctant but with far more sensible reason. The treatment of mental illness at this time (as Ward’s novel illustrated all too disturbingly) could resemble a form of torture and she fiercely meant to protect him if he could not protect himself. As his condition worsened, she was forced to change her mind, and with Ward’s help got her husband into a hospital under an assumed name. Her worst fears were realized as he was subject to humiliating and excruciatingly painful electro-shock therapy combined with a daily, insulin-induced coma. The result was that Lockridge, determined to escape, pretended to recover. It worked and he was released in time for Raintree County’s publication on January 5, 1948.
Once eager to shout his greatness from the rooftops, he now declined all requests, including those from Houghton Mifflin, to promote the book. Around town, friends worried. The once self-confident force that was Ross Lockridge, Jr., was now a gaunt and slouching figure who rarely spoke, and then only with reluctance and confusion. He bought a new house and his first ever new car, but when a reporter asked him what he was going to do next, he said he wished he knew.
The reviews were mostly full of praise and often awe, but there were others, including one that said, “It spreads everywhere, like beer slopped on a table.” Worse still, The New Yorker wrote, “There is still time for him to learn that bulk is not accomplishment, that fanciness is not literature, and that Thomas Wolfe, while an excellent man in his way, had defects that look absolutely terrible second-hand.”
A few weeks later, the Catholic church officially condemned the book,denouncing it as blasphemous and the “proximate occasion of sin,” saying “The devil had a lot to do with the writing of this book.” After that the Lockridge mailbox filled up with hate-mail that Vernice tried to hide.
“I feel no human emotion,” he told her. “I only know that I love you and the children.” She found him going through the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards. When she asked him what he was doing, he solemnly told her that he was looking for a way out.
On March 6, Raintree County became the number one bestseller in America. The next day, Lockridge sat at the kitchen table writing checks. He listened to a basketball game on the radio. He opened the local newspaper and saw there a reprint of the dismissive New Yorker review.
Soon after that he told Vernice he was going out to mail some letters and visit his parents. When he not returned late that night she called them but he was not there and had never arrived. Hanging up the phone, she walked toward the garage. She put her ear against the door and heard an engine running. Inside she found Ross sitting upright in the back seat. A hose ran from the exhaust pipe into the window of the new car he had just bought.
She pulled his body from the car to the grass outside. She called his parents who arrived and attempted the simplest of cover-ups, hiding the hose and telling the police that his feet had been hanging out of an open door, suggesting that he hit had his head and died accidentally. While the coroner still ruled for suicide, their efforts helped protect his children from the stigma that suicide carried with it then. In his book Shade of the Raintree, Larry Lockridge wrote that it took over 40 years for his mother to tell him the truth about his father’s death. More happily, he also reported that today his family still receives fan mail from readers who write of Raintree County with, “language usually reserved for religious conversions.”
No real suicide note was found, but there was something of an epitaph left on top of his outline for a new book, notes about “unselfing oneself as far as it is possible to do so.” He had also written, “As for the miracle of being – it is of course a miracle, but it is not necessarily a good miracle.” After he died, Vernice took the notes and kept them in a file labeled “Writings when Ross was ill.”
For a very good website on all things Ross Lockridge, Jr., and Raintree County, visit: http://www.raintreecounty.com/
To see his grave, try: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=9482831