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HOME > ROSS LOCKRIDGE JR. (3)

Madness, publication and death (cont'd)

In the end, the Book of the Month Club's squeamishness caused there to be two versions of Raintree County. Ross had created an alter ego for his hero in the person of the outrageous "Perfessor," Jerusalem Webster Styles. On page 152 of the Houghton Mifflin first edition, the Perfessor delivers a blasphemous riff in praise of bastards, including three words--"Wasn't Jesus God's?"--that now caused a panic at BMOC. The sentencew was accordingly removed, but not before 5,000 copies were printed. Houghton Mifflin was not about to pulp them, so they were allowed to go on sale, the equivalent of an upside-down postage stamp. Alas, as an indication of how far off the literary radar Ross Lockridge Jr. has fallen, I found one of those errant full texts for sale this morning at $38.95, in "very good" condition though without its dust jacket.

Raintree County coverThat first press run was an extraordinary 50,000 copies, bound in green cloth imprinted with a golden raintree. There were faux nineteenth-century wood engravings on the end papers, and a frontispiece locating the town of Waycross and the Shawmucky River, its meandering course spelling out the initials JWS. All of this (except for the three missing words on page 152) was according to the author's specifications, just as he had sketched the recumbent nude that could be seen on the dust jacket. It was a beautiful book. The BMOC version had the green and yellow cloth cover but a more prudish dust jacket, showing a Midwestern Adam and Eve in Civil War-era garments, taking the apple from a friendly snake, curled in the branches of what presumably was a raintree. (In later printings, Houghton Mifflin economized by substituting a tan cover for the Lockridge-specified green.)

The book was released on Sunday, January 4, 1948, just as its author was released from Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and the entire 50,000 copies were sold out within twenty-four hours. The official publication day was actually January 5, but apparently there was a tacit agreement that newspapers could review the book in their Sunday editions. Those reviews were as extravagant as the novel itself. In the New York Times, Charles Lee praised Raintree County in terms that might have been drafted by Ross himself, calling it "a huge and extraordinary first novel ... an achievement of art and purpose, a cosmically brooding book full of significance and beauty."

The New Yorker, by contrast, was scathing. The reviewer was the popular novelist and journalist Hamilton Basso, who declared Raintree County to be "the climax of all the swollen, pretentious human chronicles that also include a panorama of the Civil War, life in the corn-and-wheat belt, or whatnot ... just the sort of plump turkey that they bake to a turn in Hollywood...." Compounding Ross's pain and the magazine's presumable embarrassment, Mr. Basso identified the author throughout as "Lockwood."

Writing in the weekly literary journal, Saturday Review, the distinguished critic Howard Mumford Jones struck a middle ground, but he used the term that must have pleased Ross the most: "Latest candidate for that mythical honor, the Great American Novel, 'Raintree County' displays unflagging industry, a jerky and sometimes magnificent vitality, a queer amalgam of pattern and formlessness, and an ingenuity of structure that is at once admirable and maddening.... "

autograph partyThe Great American Novel! The honor was qualified, however, and it was too little and too late to rescue Ross Lockridge Jr. from his depression. He did manage to attend a scheduled autograph party at the L.S. Ayres department store in Indianapolis. In John Leggett's reconstruction, he was "freshly barbered, sporting a flamboyantly scenic necktie, [and] obligingly ready with pen and smile. But his eyes were heavy-lidded and Vernice saw them and knew how weary he was, what an effort he was making, and knew that he would not be repeating it soon." [JL 191]

He did manage to give talks at the Bloomington Rotary Club and the Indiana University faculty club, but these were his last public appearances. The Bloomington of 1948 might strike us today as an uptight town, but in addition to the blasphemer Ross Lockridge Jr., it also housed Alfred Kinsey's Institute for Sex Research, one of whose employees was a neighbor of Ross, who walked past the house while the author was cleaning up the lawn: "I remember seeing him after he came home, rich and famous, raking autumn leaves apathetically in his front yard, a strangely bent and broken man just before his tragic death." [LL 422]

Ross was hit, about this time, by a string of savage reviews, seemingly the more vicious because the reviewers had missed the novel's debut. "It spreads everywhere, like beer slopped on a table," Newsweek reported, adding that if the author had only had the help of an editor like the fabled Maxwell Perkins, he might have achieved something as fine as Thomas Wolfe had done. [JL 193] The United Press distributed a review to hundreds of newspapers that concluded: "The author's reward for his hard work was well over $200,000. Our reward as readers for our hard work is boredom: I kept falling asleep." The Associated Press likewise carried to its member newspaper an assault by a Jesuit priest and Fordham professor who called the book "1066 pages of bombast, rank obscenity, materialistic philosophy, and blasphemous impudicity." [LL 404, 409]

Anticipating such a reaction, Ross had provided Houghton Mifflin with a canned response it could send out, explaining that Raintree County was truly an ethical work. But anticipation and the actual thing can be quite different. "The attack triggered an avalanche of hate mail," his son recalled, "which my mother intercepted as tossed as best she could." Ross was badly shaken. "How did I ever think I could get away with writing such a book?" he asked his wife. [LL 420, 421] He made a stab at a new novel, one that would surpass Raintree County in every respect, but his notes amounted to little.

In those slow-motion days, there were no instant best-sellers; a book climbed slowly to best-sellerdom, gradually pushing earlier contenders off the list. On February 27, Ross received a telegram from Houghton Mifflin with the news he had once desperately wanted to heard: on the following Sunday, March 7, Raintree County would top the fiction list of the New York Herald-Tribune, confirming its status as the most popular novel in America. The news did indeed seem to cheer the author, and Ross even spoke of taking the family to France while he worked on his next novel. But on the Saturday, the day before the Herald-Trib was scheduled to appear, Ross apparently decided to kill himself.

The triggering event seems to have been, cruelly enough, a defense of Raintree County published in the local newspaper. The urbane New Yorker magazine was then not much read outside of Manhattan, and certainly not much read in Indiana. Alas, the editor of the Bloomington World-Telephone decided to publih a length excerpt from Hamilton Basso's devastating review, with the intention of defending a native son. What the newspaper succeeded in doing, of course, was to reopen the wound, and to ensure that everyone in Bloomington knew that the book had been savaged in a prestigious East Coast magazine.

Ross had a chat with his father that afternoon, suggesting that he might soon be able to go on a lecture tour. Back home, he worked on his 1947 taxes before an early supper with Vernice and the children. Afterward, he worked some more on the tax return. Then he read the newspaper.

He told Vernice that he was going to town, to mail some letters and perhaps visit his father again. He didn't return. At 10:30, she went outside and found that the garage doors were closed and locked. The family car was inside with its engine running. Ross had run a vacuum cleaner hose from the exhaust pipe through a rear window of the car. The family, firemen, and police were unable to revive him, and the county coroner pronounced him dead some time after midnight, fixing the time of death at about 9:30 p.m. On Monday, March 8, the coroner ruled the death a suicide, and the young novelist--thirty-three years old--was buried the following day.

I was among the thousands--perhaps millions--of Americans who were bewildered by the sudden coincidence, tragedy on the heels of triumph. It would be some years before I actually sat down to read Raintree County, but it became a part of my life that day, March 8, 1948, when I first understood that achievement and happiness were two very different affairs, and that one might destroy the other.

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