F E B R U A R Y 1 9 4 8
Raintree County, by Ross LockridgeA review by Charles Rolo
The author's aim, he says, was (in the words of James Joyce) to forge the uncreated conscience of his race. Raintree County is the middle-brow Ulysses, the Hoosier War and Peace, the Middle Western Remembrance of Things Past, the freshman's Faust. It's the Great American Novel every newspaperman dreams of writing.
It isn't just the American myth that Mr. Lockridge sets out to re-create; it's the myth that governs Life itself. Raintree County isn't simply the secret source of American life; it is also the Garden of Eden, and the raintree is the Tree of Knowledge whose golden boughs shed fertilizing blossoms on the land. Raintree County is nothing short of a primer of human Kultur: it refurbishes the Bible legends and the ancient myths, popularizes Freud's Totem and Taboo and Frazer's Golden Bough, delves into literature, history, ethics, psychiatry, religion. Every character, every event, is loaded with a portentous symbolism.
John Wickliff Shawnessy, the "unsung poet-hero" of Raintree County, is the legendary American, symbolically a bastard once removed ("the badge sinister is the bar of vitality"), at once the architect and the conscience of the nation. He is also Adam in search of "the secret of his origin" and "the hero who regains Paradise."
Then there's Garwood (later Senator) Jones, the cynical, unscrupulous materialist, who sells democracy short but has a heart of gold; Cassius Carney, the "poet of finance," who dies of ulcers and success; and the "Perfesser," the homespun Voltaire who knows something about everything and respects nothing, the perenially sardonic spectator. And there are girls, such girls as dreams are made on, with an engaging weakness for swimming in the nude.
The narrative is told in a series of flashbacks from a pivotal day, an old-time American Fourth. Its high points are the Great Footrace (which appeared in Life) and the exciting Civil War sequences. There's no shortage of love, sacred and profane, plenty of lusty talk, and a solid vein of humor. Raintree County has just about everything in it, including a vast amount of hokum. The book is definitely a tour de force.
Copyright © 1948 by Charles Rolo. The Atlantic Monthly, February 1948