In 1974, John Leggett, then director of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workwork, published a dual biography called “Ross and Tom,” about the premature and self-inflicted deaths of two writers--Ross Lockridge Jr. and Thomas Heggen--both of whom had enjoyed outlandish success with first novels, and who, at the time they died within a year of each other in the late ‘40s, were unable to write.
Leggett’s book provides a kind of cautionary examination of the pathology that lurks inside the American success system where writers are concerned, and of the two tragedies, Ross Lockridge Jr.'s was to me the most disturbing, for he had been a family man--he left a wife and four young children--and unlike Thomas Heggen, had not lived a dissolute or self-destructive life.
When, in March of 1948, he went out to the garage of his house in Bloomington, Ind., turned on the engine of his new car and died of carbon monoxide poisoning, his capacious novel, “Raintree County” was high on all the country’s bestseller lists, and a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club; it had won the $150,000 novel prize from MGM, and been excerpted in Life magazine. At 33 years old, he had reached heights most writers only dream about.
This, at least, is what the story seemed on its surface.
Now Ross Lockridge Jr.'s son Larry has written a wonderful biography, which aims among other things to correct John Leggett’s portrait of Ross--Leggett, he says, depended too much on Freud--and in any case he means to “overcome confusion and lay bare this desolate act--and, more so, the life and work that proceeded it.”
This, Larry Lockridge proceeds to do with an unsparing, yet loving hand, a steady grace and humor that are nothing less than remarkable.
Ross Lockridge Jr. was the youngest son of a popular historian of Indiana, Ross Sr., and a woman, Elsie Shockley, who had once aspired to make a name for herself as a writer of fiction. His parents brought him up on an ideal of accomplishment, and apparently Elsie, like a lot of parents of very bright children, tended to value him more for his achievements than for himself: If ever there was a dutiful son, Ross Lockridge Jr. was it. By age 15, he was traveling with his father, helping him put on popular history shows. He wrote copy, memorized speeches and took dictation; and as he grew into maturity, his father depended on him in ways that might have swamped a less-gifted or energetic man.
And the thing that becomes most clear about Ross junior is that he was possessed of an astonishing amount of energy. Letters, essays for school, verses, lines for is father’s history pageants, all came storming out of him, usually at much greater length and in much greater detail than anyone expected--indeed some readers might wonder how he could’ve done anything else but write. And he excelled at almost everything he tried (while at the University of Indiana, for instance, he achieved the highest grade point average in the school’s history). He went on to study for a summer in France, and then to Harvard on a graduate fellowship. For a time he taught English at Simmons College, amazing his students with his powers of retention and, again, with his boundless energy.
His marriage to Lillian Vernice Baker was a happy one, and in fact he and his wife worked together, typing and retyping the voluminous pages of his writing. In the beginning, they worked on a prodigious epic poem entitled “Dream of the Flesh Iron,” and then, when that failed, and after Ross had turned to the first incarnation of the big novel using his mother’s side of the family, which he’d first envisioned when he was in France in 1934, they worked as a team producing the manuscript of “Raintree Country.” It took eight years. The earlier version, “American Lives,” Ross worked on almost in a kind of secret--it had reached 2,000 pages, and “nobody, including Vernice, had read a page of it"--all while maintaining a full teaching load, and going through the arrival of new babies. When Ross decided the 2,000 pages of “American Lives” weren’t right, and discovered for himself the true way to proceed, he simply turned the pages of the manuscript over and began typing the newer, more concentrated version. Before long, Vernice was helping with typing again: “After the kids were tucked in . . . she would type in the living room, about 10 pages and evening. . . . If he heard her typewriter stop for an . . . interval, he’d call in, ‘No fair. Stop reading the manuscript, honey.’ ” “Raintree County” also came in at 2,000 pages, and had to be delivered to Houghton Mifflin in a suitcase.
Larry Lockridge portrays these young people, his mother and father, with an admirable balance of compassion and humor; and when he comes to talk about the novel itself, “Shade of the Raintree” becomes in all respects an intelligent and thorough work of critical biography: The son provides strong insight into the making of the novel and into its artistry, for “Raintree County” is a book filled with large pleasures and with life, and merits a strong, intelligent critic’s treatment. Larry Lockridge is a literary scholar by profession, and his criticism is concise and judicious. Given the circumstances, this alone is an accomplishment worthy of the highest praise.
Moreover, the story of “Raintree County’s” publication is handled with impressive restraint and skill. Ross Lockridge Jr.'s conflicts with his publisher seem in a way indicative of something in his makeup, and perhaps show an element of what may have contributed to the destruction which followed; but they provide an even stronger picture of what damages can be done by well-meaning people with a measure of control over an artist’s life. Just after the book was accepted, the editors at Houghton-Mifflin were heaping praise on the young author while saying different things to each other about his book and what needed to be done to it. The author made the understandable but dangerous mistake of believing the praise, and when the editors began to address the problems they believed they saw, they did so in ways that ended up doing more harm than good to the poor writer.
Larry Lockridge delivers the storms of publicity and confusion surrounding “Raintree County’s” progress toward print, and in the process, his father is made all the more vivid, struggling to keep his vision in the face of what is in several important instances an appalling ignorance of what he had done, and of what he was about doing as a writer.
But beyond all of this, “Shade of the Raintree” is an act of love, and of forgiveness. If the mystery of another life can never be fully understood, the enigma of a suicide is beyond any understanding at all, and the more one tries to find the clues to it, the deeper the puzzle becomes. Too often, our confusion makes us glib, and the easiest, or the most obvious explanation becomes the story we cling to. Larry Lockridge takes great care to refrain from these pitfalls. In telling the difficult story of Ross Lockridge’s death, he provides a deeply moving portrayal of a good and gifted young man in the grip of something terrible, that is perhaps most terrible not a little because in that man’s whole bright short life, it happens also to be completely unprecedented.
“His was an American life of great aspiration whose prodigious labors ended in a sense of dead enormous failure even before the applause began. Few driven spirits give way to darkness so irrevocably, but I believe that in some ways Ross Lockridge’s life is an allegory of the American Writer.”
Maybe so, but I would read the last line of “Raintree County” as a kind of mirror of this son’s brave and unflinching attempt to understand his father’s pain, while restoring his father’s dream. In a very real sense, “Shade of the Raintree” delineates “the legend of a life upon the earth . . . a signature of father and preserver, of some young hero and endlessly courageous dreamer.”
Ross Lockridge Jr.'s novel, “Raintree County” has been reissued in a corrected text edition by Penguin Books ($17.95, paperback).