The Greater America

Genesis of Raintree County (cont'd)

"Lockridge was a Vesuvius," in John Leggett's words. " When he was at work, twenty or thirty pages spewed from his typewriter each day, some on their way to the wastebasket, others to be revised, endlessly before they were satisfactory, but always expanding." Indeed, Ross claimed that he could type 100 words per minute, an astonishing feat on a manual typewriter. Toward the end, he worked in one room while his wife Vernice typed the clean version in another room, with young Ernest carrying papers from one to the other. "[M]y father was Gatling-gunning Raintree County through the old Royal [typewriter]," Ernest later wrote.

Ross completed the 600,000-word typescript in April 1946. He put its five sections into as many binders, put the binders in a suitcase, and splurged on a taxi to carry himself and the 20-pound package to the Houghton Mifflin offices at 2 Park Street in downtown Boston. The initial reader advised rejecting the novel, as Houghton Mifflin had earlier done to The Dream of the Flesh of Iron. Fortunately for Houghton Mifflin, Raintree County got a second reading, and now the decision was favorable. The news came to a pay phone near his Simmons office, since the Lockridges did not have a telephone in their apartment: Houghton Mifflin would publish his book with an an advance against royalities of $3,500, or considerably more than he was earning in a year at Simmons. Ross promptly asked for and received a leave of absence from his teaching duties.

Back in Bloomington that summer, he became "more and more nervous" about the process of turning his huge book into a commercial product. The publisher wanted him to trim 100,000 words, the length of a typical novel, including the entire concluding dream sequence, which Ross regarded as central to the story. (Among the material to be jettisoned was a fantasy auction of the hero, John Wickliff Shawnessy. In an echo of Ross's reaction to his own brush with the U.S. Army, Johnny was advertised as "back from the wars without any hurts, after hiding behind a thousand skirts.") Trying to defend his creation from surgery, he compared it to James Joyce's, and not to the Irishman's credit: " There are more ideas in fifty pages of Raintree County than in the whole of Ulysses, but Raintree County is much more readable." The dream sequence, he thought, "might be cut by half — not divided by an axe, but compressed." [JL 97]

Ross and Vernice spent the rest of 1946 as they had done in Boston, "ceaselessly typing from morning to night," in the words of Larry Lockridge. The task took until January 1947, meaning that Houghton Mifflin wouldn't be able to publish the novel in April that year as it had planned.

Ross returned to Boston for what he believed would be a final push. Houghton Mifflin gave him an office at 2 Park Street, from which he proceeded to advise the staff on illustrations, typography, the color and design of the cover, and even the design of the dust jacket, showing the county's green hills in the shape of his recumbent heroine. Did a modern publisher ever give a first-time author so much say in how his book would be presented? Ross even presumed to give marketing advice: "It should be thought of and sold as a book without precedent, a monumental achievement." [JL 122] At the time, no doubt, this was regarded as author's vanity; in retrospect, it seems closer to megalomania.

Because Houghton Mifflin had scheduled another potential best-seller for autumn publication — another Civil War saga, as it happened, by the prolific and highly popular Ben Ames Williams — it decided to push Raintree County into 1948, so the two blockbusters would not compete with one another. Adding to the author's excitement and stress, the Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios awarded him a $150,000 literary prize, an astounding sum that with escalators had the potential of rising to $350,000, the equivalent of perhaps $4 million of our much-devalued greenbacks.

But there was a hitch: MGM wanted him to cut another 100,000 words from the book. Ross took the train to New York City to argue the point, and in negotiations that went through the night, he and MGM compromised on a cut of 50,000 words. His capitulation "virtually killed me at the time and took all of the sweet out of the prize." Back in Indiana, he told Houghton Mifflin that "six and a half years of effort have played me out and I'm not quite up to it physically." [Larry Lockridge 348, 353] Nevertheless he went to work, jettisoning one of his characters and replacing her with another.

The 450,000-word revision was finished in August 1947. (Savage though the cuts had been, this still meant a novel of near-Proustian proportion, 1,066 pages.) Then the Book of the Month Club offered to make Raintree County a main selection — if further cuts were made! The BMOC was a major player in American bookselling, with a heft equivalent to that of Amazon today. It would have to be mollified, for a BMOC major selection would mean thousands of extra copies sold. Then the hugely influential Life magazine offered $2,500 for an excerpt, the first time it had ever published fiction in its pages. (It would next do so in 1952 for Ernest Hemingway's novella, The Old Man and the Sea.)

This geyser of money would of course be shared with his publisher, and Ross and Houghton Mifflin got into a bitter dispute about how the MGM award would be divided. At the same time, he was engaged in complicated negotiations to spread his earnings over several years, to lessen the impact of the near-confiscatory income taxe rates that had been put into place to finance the Second World War. Even with good legal advice, Ross would have a tax bill of $43,321.51 (nearly $500,000 today) on his 1947 income of $122,500 (say $1.5 million today).

Madness, publication and death

Life published its excerpt on September 18, 1947. It was a ribald account of a footrace between John Shawnessy and his friend and nemesis Flash Perkins; the two young men consume much alcohol in the runup to their competition, and most of the Lockridge family members — indeed, much of Bloomington — were teetotalers. Like most novice authors, Ross had never considered the effect his writing might have on other people. He was especially worried about his father (who would indeed be upset by "The Great Footrace").

Ross's dismay went far deeper than the usual pre-publication jitters. "I walk past people," he confided to Vernice, and I wonder what they think." And, more ominously: "Whatever made me think I could get away with it?" [John Leggett 151] He sought out his cousin, Mary Jane Ward, who had four times been hospitalized with mental illness, and who had just published her best-selling novel The Snake Pit, which was likewise to be filmed.

Ross told his cousin: "Honey, I've already had more grief and suffering out of success than I ever had in all my years of obscurity and hard work. In fact, all during that time I was happy and free from any pressures except the compulsion to write."

A friend who saw him at about this time described Ross as "frail, withdrawn, depressed." [LL 373, 390] He slept poorly; his dreams were nightmares; he was moody and depressed throughout the day. He told Vernice that people were watching him. Despite all that, he delivered the BMOC cuts of several thousand words at the end of October. To those outside the family, he passed off his disquiet as "a severe bout with flu." [JL 176] His mother read and approved the manuscript (what else could a mother have done?) and suggested that Christian Science might help cure his distress.

Ross and Vernice decided to visit California in what they hoped would be a relaxing vacation, an opportunity to see Hollywood, and perhaps to locate in Los Angeles for the filming of Raintree County. Instead, he had a panic attack, and they were back in Bloomington within three weeks of their departure. He turned to his cousin Mary Jane Ward for help. She advised him to get psychiatric help, and Ross checked himself into Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis under the name of "Charles Duncan." As before, those outside the family were told that he was recovering from flu in an upstairs bedroom at home.

"In September 1947," wrote his doctor, "the patient had a 'let down' feeling in which he was aware of a change in his feeling. He says it seemed as if he had lost contact with the world although this does not appear to be a process of depersonalization. There has been a tendency to avoid soial contacts and he fears and dreads to face the ordinary daily problems. He has lost some weight, appetite has been below par, sleep poor and disturbed by harassing [sic] dreams.... Impression: Reactive depression." [EL 1334]

He was put through electric shock treatments that were both painful and frightening. His son Ernest, in Skeleton Key to the Suicide of My Father, says there were three sessions leading to gran mal seizures, along with insulin and barbituates to help the patient sleep, but apparently no psychotherapy. Ross was discharged on January 4, 1948, after two weeks in the hospital. This was, as it happened, the very day on which copies of Raintree County were released to the public.

continued in part 3

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