It is hard for me to remember exactly when it was. I must have been somewhere around thirteen years old. My father was either in the process of dying from cancer or we had already buried him. As an adolescent trying to cope with the worst thing imaginable, time was just sort of a blur.
I am not sure why I bought the book. I think it was because somewhere I had heard it was sort of naughty, and reading it made me feel like an adult. Little did I know the impact it would have on me. Quite simply, it would influence my thinking and, hence, change my life forever.
I never save books, especially novels. But this one I put on my shelf where it sits to this day. The pages are brown, and several of them are falling out. I remember that after I read it, I wanted more of what it had to offer. I went to the library to find if its author, Ross Lockridge, Jr., had written anything else. There was no other reference to him whatsoever.
I never read novels twice, but I had seriously considered trying this one again. I even started it once, but I stopped after a few pages. I think I was afraid it might not be as good as I remembered it. As the years went by, I put it out of my mind until a couple of years ago when I noticed an article in my local newspaper. It said that Larry Lockridge had written a biography of his father, Ross, and he would be speaking and autographing copies at the library. Not only that, but his father’s novel, Raintree County, was being reprinted.
I had never before attended a book signing in my life. I bought both books and headed for the library. I learned from the article in the paper why I never found another book by Ross Lockridge, Jr. Within days of the release of his critically acclaimed and best-selling life’s work, he committed suicide, leaving a wife and four children.
At the book signing, I learned that his son, Larry, and I had several things in common. Both of our childhoods had been deeply affected by the deaths of our fathers. Both of our mothers died recently. We are of similar ages and both spent a significant part of our lives in Fort Wayne and Bloomington, Indiana. Most importantly, both of our lives had been changed by his father’s book.
So what is Raintree County? It is an epic tale set in a fictional county in Indiana on July 4, 1892. It portrays, through a clever series of flashbacks that occur throughout that single day, the life of its main character, John Wickliff Shawnessy. It is rich with characters, philosophy, religion, symbolism, and beautiful words. To me, it is simply without question the great American novel.
I began to reread the book with considerable trepidation. Much to my relief, within a chapter or two, all of the feelings I experienced when perusing it as an adolescent returned. I felt young again. Maybe the story seemed so real because I read it in early July when it is hot and sultry in Indiana, and the novel actually takes place on the Fourth of July. All I know is that before I was half way through, I found that I needed to be completely alone with my thoughts whenever I picked it up. Surprisingly, try as I might, I could not remember how the book had ended. It made the rereading that much more enjoyable.
Having now read Raintree County twice, I wish I could summarize its essence for you. The problem is that my words can in no way compare to those penned by the author. Suffice it to say that if you have a modicum of passion in in your soul, if you have optimism about the American dream, if you believe in the ultimate triumph of good, it will tug at your heartstrings. For me, Raintree County has awakened a passion that I thought had left me long ago. Curiously, the book seems to have grown old along with me. When I originally read it, I identified with the hero in his younger years. Now I am more comfortable with his more mature, adult version.
I love this novel. Perhaps, then, you can understand why I hesitated to read Larry Lockridge’s biography of his father, Shade of the Raintree. I suppose I was afraid that if I knew too much about how Raintree County came about, it would somehow ruin it for me. I was wrong.
I discovered many interesting bits. Most of the characters in Raintree County were inspired by the author’s ancestors. The heroine was based on his wife. If you look carefully at the illustration on the cover, you will discover a beautiful and naked woman. The original draft of the book was typed on the back of a manuscript for a previously completed novel that was never submitted for publication. The fictional Raintree County was modeled on Henry County, Indiana. Ironically, The Snake Pit, a novel addressing mental illness, was written by Ross Lockridge, Jr.’s cousin, Mary Jane Ward.
I must confess that I did have trouble wading through the parts of the biography where Larry Lockridge tried to analyze the novel. For me, it was important that Raintree County be felt rather than dissected. Perhaps that is why it took me nearly two years to finish Shade of the Raintree.
Yet as a physician, I found Larry Lockridge’s analysis of the factors leading to his father’s suicide to be factual, cogent, and medically accurate. To make a long story short, it is obvious that his father suffered from clinical depression. He was briefly hospitalized because of it and was treated with electroshock therapy. No drug therapy was available in that day and age. The author of Raintree County avoided further therapy because of the decided unpleasantness of electroconvulsive therapy.
Through the younger Lockridge’s accurate portrayal of his father, I learned how one writes a beautiful novel. Through his description of how he painstakingly managed to piece together his father’s life through interviews, old letters, notes, and various drafts of manuscripts, I learned how one writes an accurate biography. It made me wonder if, in a few years, anyone will be able to duplicate such efforts. Let me explain.
The essay you are reading was written on my computer. There are no rough drafts left. They are all in an electronic graveyard. I have not left a clue as to the thought processes that took place between my original idea and what you are now reading.
Similarly, there are few real letters written anymore. An electronic piece of correspondence is flashed to an electronic mailbox where it briefly appears on a screen. It is then relegated to an electronic wastebasket. Or one simply picks up the telephone. What a terrible loss for future biographers.
Having finished both the novel and the biography, I was left wondering about the mental illness of Ross Lockridge, Jr. I suppose you could make a case for true genius driving a person to the edge of madness. Or is it the other way around? Do you need to be a little mad to be brave enough to dream of curing cancer, of leading a nation to a higher ideal, of writing the great American novel?
Certainly, I am no artist, and it is hard for me to understand how those who are so gifted manage to go beyond the norm to make us think in ways we have never thought before. I wonder what might have been if Prozac had been invented before Ross Lockridge took his own life. Would he still be alive? If so, would he have written another book? Would it have been as good, or would the medication have taken enough madness from him to rob him of his genius? I only wish that we had the opportunity to find out.
As AAPS members, I sometimes think we are all a little crazy. We frequently go against the grain of conventional thinking. We seem driven by our deeply held beliefs and unhesitatingly enter into uncharted, sometimes controversial territory. Such conviction often takes its toll, and we find ourselves mired in endless battles where it appears likely that evil will triumph over good.
At times like these, when the specter of managed care threatens the very basis of Hippocratic medicine, we must not despair or lose focus. We can derive some inspiration from our leaders, our colleagues, and those we love, but that is not enough. We must reach for that deep-seated passion that exists in all of us, that feeling I received from reading Raintree County. Only then will we be prepared to fight until our last breaths the battle to preserve the sanctity of our beloved profession.
Lockridge LS. Shade of the Raintree: the life and death of Ross Lockridge, Jr., author of Raintree County. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994.
Lockridge RF Jr. Raintree County. New York: Penguin, 1994.
Dr. Nahrwold is a Professor of Anesthesiology at Indiana University School of Medicine, and a member of the Editorial Board of the Medical Sentinel. His address is 1120 South Drive, Fesler Hall 204, Indianapolis, IN 46202-5115.
Originally published in the Medical Sentinel 1996;1(2):22-23. Copyright © 1996 Michael L. Nahrwold. All rights reserved.