The question of the Americaness of our literature arose early in the 19th century when we were full of the ginger of nationalism. It was felt that as a new nation, and one cast in a new mold, we should create a literature significantly different and superior to the literature of the Old World (especially Great Britain). The popularity of James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving was partly due to the knowledge that their subjects were distinctively American. But still, were they American enough? It was thought that the treatment of their subjects - the writing style, the attitude to their material - was lacking in some way, was still not American enough.
By the end of the century, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser were pushing our literature in new and distinctly native ways, but it was after World War I when an outburst of new, often experimental writing made observers speak of an American Renaissance. It was then that the idea of the Great American Novel arose, a concept still being talked about in the 1940s. A new novel by Faulkner or Hemingway was looked forward to with anticipation, and young men in garrets were reputedly typing away like mad on the latest entry in the sweepstakes. It was vaguely thought that the Great One had to be an epic, a saga, words which conveyed sweeping narrative historical (Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln would make cameo appearances), geographical (he would range over the country and would Go West), and political (he would fight corruption in high and low places), and sexual (his mate would be a deep-breasted daughter of the soil). There were actually some novels like that published after the war.
So, to a superficial glance, the quest for the Great American Novel: But at bottom, it is a serious business, because consummate art can be the expression of our essence, of what we are as individuals and as a nation. Distracted by mundane details, and in the case of too many conservatives, by politics, we forget that the details and the politics all grow out of our culture, our broad identity as thinking and feeling beings bearing within us the ideas and hopes and fears of a rich American past. We do not consciously know it, but we yearn for explications of ourselves, and it is the supreme task of art to give it to us.
Well, the Renaissance turned out to be a flop, and besides, the Great American Novel had already been written not once but thrice: Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady will stand as long as the Republic is remembered as our greatest contribution to world literature in the novel line and, like the Republic itself, they are all about the confrontation of American innocence with the sinful world.
Now, in the face of all my mockery, I am going to tell you about a huge novel published in 1948, a bestseller and obviously a contender for the title, which is yet a fine novel which I can recommend for your reading pleasure: Raintree County by Ross Lockridge.
The first thing to understand is the book's technique, its organization. It chronicles a day, July 4th, 1892, in a village in Indiana, the birthplace and home of the protagonist John Wicklif Shawnessy, whose life, going back to his birth in 1842, is told in a series of flashbacks, so we move back and forth from the July day in 1892 to vivid scenes from the past, the most memorable being from the 1850s and 60s. A list of the flashbacks, in chronological order, is given in the beginning of the book for the reader's convenience, but it is best, I think, to read the book as it is written. Transitions from the present to the past are managed adroitly by merging the last sentence of an episode with the first sentence of the next, thus:
So in the still night he dreamed a fair young dream of going . . .
. . . Westward, the National Road pursued its ways.
The band is playing Yankee Doodle for . . .
. . . A big crowd of people had poured into the Court House Square.
It seems to me that the frequent shifts of time and scene give the story an excitement, a tension that make the long narrative much more interesting than if it were told in a straightforward way. Key events, like what happens to Johnny's first wife, are kept back until late in the book, and the most significant event, Johnny's return from the Civil War and what he found on his return, is not revealed until near the end. That placement gives these events more impact. They have been held back because they are so traumatic to Johnny, and now we realize their full force because we have long known the turns his life has taken because of those shocking events.
Johnny is a classic American hero: clean-cut, ingenuous, naive, shy, intelligent, handsome, humble. At the same time that he fulfills that well-known role, he has a rich inner life, displayed throughout the book. He is writing an epic poem about Raintree County, centering around the legend that Johnny Appleseed planted an exotic tree, the raintree with its yellow flowers, somewhere in the county. There have been two sightings of the tree, once by Johnny when he, drunk with liquor and sexual triumph, is making love to Susannah Drake near Paradise Lake after the famous footrace on July 4th, 1859. Under the circumstances he doesn't realize it until afterwards. The other sighting is by his very young daughter, Eva, who, lost in the swamp around Paradise Lake, falls asleep under the tree, beside two rocks marked with Johnny Appleseed's initials. She wakes, wanders off, and is found by her father, who discovers the yellow flowers in her pinafore pocket.
The myth and its meaning is discussed at length, especially at the end of the day (and the book) with "Professor" Jerusalem Webster Stiles (his initials are the same as Johnny's, indicating that he represents a side of the hero that is sardonically cynical), after Johnny the most interesting character in the book. He first appears when he establishes an "academy" in the town attended by Johnny and Nell Gaither, the predestined, but frustrated lovers. When Stiles tries to run away with the minister's wife, Johnny rescues him from a mob and spirits him away on a train. He later turns up in Johnny's life and is always amusing.
There are a number of walk-on parts but few major characters: Johnny's father, a country doctor, preacher, and herbalist; his mother, the three women in his life - Nell Gaither, Susannah Drake, Esther Root - Garwood Jones, Cassius Carney, Flash Perkins. The last named, a hard-drinking innocent rustic, Johnny's rival in foot racing, serves with him in Sherman's army. Carney, a young man with his eye on the financial main chance, finally becomes a big financier. Garwood, Johnny's rival in love, is a budding politician who becomes by the end of the book, a U.S. Senator.
In the 1850s, Garwood and Johnny are rival columnists for two weekly papers in the county: The Whig/GOP Free Enquirer for which Johnny (anonymously) writes a column signed Will Westward, featuring interviews with a salty rustic Seth Twigs, and the Democratic Freehaven Clarion where the "rising young orator" Garwood writes a column by "Dan Populus." These columns, and other excerpts from imaginary newspapers appear frequently in the book, reminding us of those raucous papers of the day, supply much local color, but also add imaginative and ironic commentary on the events. The first page of the book is an excerpt from the Free Enquirer heralding the day.
Lockridge believes the received truth that post-Civil War America was despoiled by robber barons, so Garwood Jones and Cassius Carney become symbolic figures of political cynicism and financial ruthlessness, but we need not let that spoil the book for us; the stereotypes, after all, are amusing, and although Johnny is condescended to by these illustrious sons of the county, we do not see him that way at all. Although the conventional view of the Gilded Age is grotesquely oversimplified, it is true that the pastoral America of antebellum days was replaced by an industrializing society. The village where Johnny was born in 1842, Danwebster, symbolically named, is now abandoned.
War had discovered in him a simple human being who clung yearningly and without criticism to the most ancient beliefs of the Republic. They made it possible for him to endure. They justified his agony. This agony was so great and terrible that only by infusing it with an ideal quality crudely religious in its fervors could it be endured. Only an intensely sentimental soldier in an intensely sentimental Republic could have fought and endured the Civil War.
Not only do I think those words are true about the Civil War, I think they are an accurate description of antebellum America; they certainly describe the picture Lockridge paints of the era, and that time echoes throughout the book. The courthouse clock in the engraving in the Atlas is indeed stopped, and Johnny still lives, to a degree, in that time which ended when he came back from the war and came upon a tombstone in the
Throughout the book there are arguments and discussions, mostly about weighty matters, among Johnny, Stiles, and Garwood (sometimes) that are thoughtful, intelligent, crass, stupid, reflective of the time and the personalities of the speakers. They are the counterpart to the events of the day and of the past, and the way Lockridge weaves them all together so that everything - happenings as well as discussions and ruminations - works together is one of the book's greatest feats.
Raintree County, of course, has a Meaning about the self and the Republic, and love, but I'll let you discover it for yourself. It is obvious from the start that such a grand (not to say grandiose) project must be an attempt to define America, and so it is. Although the definitive idea is voiced in the final conversation of Johnny and Stiles at the end of the book, it is implicit from the beginning, as on the reverse of the title page.
Raintree County is not the country of the perishable fact. It is the country of the enduring fiction. The clock in the courthouse tower on p. 5 of Raintree County Atlas is always fixed at 9 o'clock, and it is summer and the days are long.
What Ross Lockridge gives us is a moving portrait of a romantic conception of antebellum mid-western American. *