Ross Lockridge Jr.’s Raintree County, his first and only novel, was published on this day in 1948. Among those books belonging to the one-hit wonder category, the story of Lockridge and his 1,000-page epic may be the most wondrous — and tragic. Raintree County was excerpted in Life magazine, made a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection, and, for “encompassing the American spirit” and being “a brawny poem of man, history and God (The New York Times), greeted by the first reviewers as the next Great American Novel, its author anointed the next Thomas Wolfe. And then, after having received $100,000 from MGM (the movie eventually made in 1957) and just a day before the novel made #1 on the bestseller list, Lockridge committed suicide, aged thirty-three.
Through the lens of a single day — July 4, 1892 — Raintree County tells the story of a small Indiana town and its schoolmaster, elaborated into a national epic and more:
…Of a quest for the sacred Tree of Life. Of a happy valley and a face of stone — and of the coming of a hero. Of mounds beside the river. Of threaded bones of lovers in the earth. Of shards of battles long ago. Of names upon the land, the fragments of forgotten language. Of beauty risen from the river and seen through rushes at the river’s edge. Of the people from whom the hero sprang, the eternal, innocent children of mankind. Of their towns and cities and the weaving millions. Of the earth on which they lived — its blue horizons east and west, exultant springs, soft autumns, brilliant winters. And of all its summers when the days were long….
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.