Raintree County: A Great American Novel

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The “great American novel” is something that is often spoken of but rarely seen. Critics use that sobriquet far too often for books that don’t merit more than a passing glance. But occasionally, a novel appears that is a good candidate for that phrase. And it has just been republished in a new edition!

Raintree County, “which had no boundaries in time and space, where lurked musical and strange names and mythical and lost peoples, and which was itself only a name musical and strange,” by Ross Lockridge Jr., was published in 1948 to critical and popular acclaim. This 1,066-page novel attempted to translate the American experience to paper through the eyes and experiences of a seemingly banal character, John Wickliff Shawnessy, “pagan and Pilgrim, poet and poem, idealist and idea” (Charles Lee, writing in the New York Times in January, 1948). Over a period of 24 hours, as Waycross, Indiana, celebrates the Fourth of July, 1892, Shawnessy looks back on his life since 1844, through a series of flashbacks, interspersed with narrative of the celebratory day. He sees his youth, his first experience of pure feminine beauty, his first loves, then the great American tragedy: the Civil War. As the book goes on, we follow this Leopold Bloom of the Midwest through his peregrinations, until the past rejoins the present and the day ends.

It’s hard to sum up such a book. It’s the story of a quest; a quest for the sacred tree of life, the raintree. A quest for origins; for the origins of life and of one man’s life. It’s a story of a man accepting the fate of death, “But if we could only resign ourselves to death, complete death, how much happier we’d be!” It’s a story of a man and his family, his loves, his losses, the war (the Civil War) and how it forms his character.

Anyone reading this book will find that their life has a new milestone: a before- and after-Raintree Country. More than just the characters and narrative, what remains in the reader’s memory is the juxtaposition of the simple, idyllic life in Waycross, Indiana, the proverbial “Anytown, USA” and the chaos of the Civil War or the pandemonium of New York City. Lockridge was seeking simplicity, and showed how it did exist, somewhere in the world, in a place not on any map. It’s both a modernist and traditional novel – modernist in the way the book is structured, with flashbacks melding into present-day narrative, which, in turn, melds back into the past. But traditional in the way it is deeply human, the way its main subject is the life of a man. It has much of the Victorian novel, and is also a very Joycean novel. It belays influences as broad as Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner and Charles Dickens. Yet it is uniquely itself.

Unfortunately, it’s the only novel that Lockridge published; he committed suicide shortly after its publication, perhaps because of the unexpected fame that the book’s success brought him.

See the Raintree County Home Page to learn more about this essential American novel.

Update: Raintree County is finally available in ebook format, from Amazon and the iBookstore, so you don’t have to lug around the 1,100 page tome. I have two copies of it; one in hardcover, from 1948 (not a first edition, but close enough), and the paperback that was finally reissued in 2008. I’ve just bought the Kindle edition for a trip I’m taking, because this is a great book for a road trip, and one that I re-read every few years.