The short, unhappy life of Ross Lockridge Jr.
Ross Lockridge Jr. (April 25, 1914 - March 6, 1948) was an American novelist of the mid-20th century. He is remembered for Raintree County, a widely praised novel that many readers and a few critics regard as the "Great American Novel" ... and also for his death by suicide just as his book was reaching the top of the best-seller lists.
At left: the thirty-three-year-old author in a 1947 publicity photo. Sure, he looks happy enough, but in fact he has already suffered a "nervous breakdown" from the stress of writing, rewriting, and (above all!) cutting his masterpiece to satisfy his publisher, then Hollywood, and finally the Book of the Month Club. He's holding a copy of Nothing to Fear: The Selected Addresses of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, recently published by Houghton Mifflin.
Youth and apprenticeship
Ross was born and raised in Bloomington, Indiana, the youngest of four children of Elsie Shockley Lockridge and the populist historian and lecturer Ross Franklin Lockridge. Ross Senior made an uncertain living as an itinerant lecturer and sponsor of historical events, in the old Chataqua tradition. He wrote popular histories, including for the Indiana school market, though many of them went unpublished; he was also a double cousin of the future novelist Mary Jane Ward, of Snake Pit fame.
Ross Junior was by all accounts a handsome, amiable, and talented young man, called "A-plus Lockridge" for his easy mastery of school assignments. "He was of medium size," wrote the novelist John Leggett, who so far has been Lockridge's only biographer outside his immediate family, "with curly, dark brown hair and a striking handsomeness, but the unusual thing about him was his energy. It glowed and crackled." Elsewhere, Leggett described him as a "slight, dark-haired boy with blue-gray eyes that shone in joy."
At the same time, like many high-performing youngsters, the young man was sensitive to criticism and troubled by the occasional setback, including when he lost at chess. (He was generally an excellent player, as he was in most anything he undertook.) In 1935, he graduated from Indiana University at Bloomington with the highest average in the school's history, despite having earned an unaccustomed "B" for two semesters studying French language and literature at the Sorbonne in Paris.
His year abroad made a great impression on the young Hoosier, not least in setting his expectations for future success. "Write the greatest single piece of literature ever composed," he instructed himself in his journal. And again: "the first object of my return [to Indiana] shall be the complete mastery of the English language to the end that my use of the language be the most brilliant ever known." [Both quotes are from a strange, self-published book by Ernest Lockridge, the author's eldest son. The first is confirmed by a reproduction of a page from the journal; the second must be taken on faith.]
Following his graduation in June 1935, Ross was sidelined for nearly a year by "scarlet fever ... and possibly rheumatic fever," in the words of his middle son, Larry Lockridge. After his convalescence, he returned to the university as an English instructor and M.A. candidate, writing his thesis on "Byron and Napoleon." He later referred to this period of his life as "the lost years," though they included his marriage to his longtime sweetheart, Vernice Baker, the birth of their first child, and a considerable body of apprentice writing, including what seems to have been an early stab at the themes that would eventually come to life in Raintree County. (The baby boy was named Ernest. Given his father's penchant for literary references, I can't help thinking that this was a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne's fable, "The Great Stone Face," which Ross would later incorporate into Raintree County.)
In September 1940 the young family moved to Cambridge, Mass., where Ross took up a fellowship at Harvard University, working toward his Ph.D in English literature. Meanwhile, he wrote what Larry Lockridge termed an "unreadable 400-page poem" entitled The Dream of the Flesh of Iron. Not surprisingly, it was rejected by the Boston publisher Houghton Mifflin the following year. By this time, Ross was teaching at Simmons College, a girls' school in Boston. Ostensibly he was working on a Ph.D dissertation--the subject was to have been the poetry of Walt Whitman--but in fact he bought 20,000 sheets of typing paper and filled 2,000 of them with a novel entitled American Lives. It was set in Indiana and based on his mother's family, the Shockleys.
Meanwhile, the Lockridges lived on Mountfort Street near Simmons, in an apartment that John Leggett described as "pathetically bleak, [with] books and clothing stored in makeshift boxes, piles of papers everywhere."
Genesis of Raintree County
In the summer of 1943, Lockridge turned his 2,000-page novel over and began to type on the other side. The new book was similarly based, though moved back one generation. It would be focused on a single day (July 4, 1892), in what seems to have been an emulation of "Bloomsday" in James Joyce's Ulysses. Joyce, Whitman, Herman Melville, and John Dos Passos were among the most obvious of the influences on his writing. (At Simmons, Lockridge taught a course on Dos Passos's monumental trilogy USA. When some faculty and students objected to some of its passages, he cheekily instructed his class not to read certain designated pages, which of course immediately became the most-read parts of the trilogy.) Curiously, despite his mastery of French language and literature, gained during his year at the Sorbonne, Lockridge seems not to have considered Marcel Proust as a worthy model.
Just as the book would now be built around a single day, it would also a have a single hero, John Wickliff Shawnessy, who bore the same initials as Ross's maternal grandfather. He would tell the rest of his sprawling story in flashbacks and in a long, concluding dream sequence. As before, the story was set in Indiana, in what any good Hoosier understood to be America's heartland. (Kansas is the geographical center of the "Lower Forty-Eight," but Lockridge preferred to think of it as Indiana. Thus he named his town Waycross, situated on the National Road.) The Civil War would be the novel's defining event, as it had been for the United States ... and for the poet that was to have been the subject of Lockridge's abandoned Ph.D dissertation.
Though he seldom used the term himself, he had clearly set out to write the Great American Novel that had obsessed writers and English professors for nearly a century. He would, he said, "express the American myth--give shape to the lasting 'heroic' qualities of the American people." Indeed, he would do nothing less than "write the American republic," thus adding Plato to his list of influences. [John Leggett 79]
Lockridge was now the father of three, two boys and a girl. The second son was Larry, who in time would follow his father to Indiana University and Harvard, though he would actually complete the Ph.D and become a professor of English, teaching at Harvard, Rutgers, Northwestern, and NYU. Curiously, his professional name is Laurence S. Lockridge, though reverting to the short form when writing what is by all means the best study of his father's life.
The growing family had so far exempted Ross from military service in the Second World War. For the U.S. Army, however, 1944 was a year of high manpower needs and a much-depleted draft pool, so he was called for a pre-induction physical that February. The doctors classified him as physically unfit. John Leggett has ascribed this finding to an irregular heartbeat, which if true probably resulted from that 1935 bout with scarlet fever; Ernest Lockridge has attributed it to a ruptured eardrum. Whatever the cause, Ross was classified 4-F.
Meanwhile, as it happened, he was writing his novel's long flashback about the American Civil War, in which John Wycliff Shawnessy fought for the Union cause. As he later said with mingled regret and chagrin: "For my part, while the Republic was bleeding, I hid behind a thousand skirts and let J.W.S. bleed for me all over the thousands of MS. pages of Raintree County."