In my previous post I wrote about my youthful reactions to reading Ross Lockridge Jr.’s novel, “Raintree County” in which July 4th held significance. Eventually learning years later of the author’s suicide despite his novel becoming a best seller and destined to be a movie, I’ve wondered why he took his life?
In recent years I became aware of and read “Shade of theRaintree”, published in 1994, written by his son, Larry Lockridge, to provide a more definitive biography of his father’s life than one written by John Leggett, twenty years earlier.
I subsequently decided to read John Leggett’s 1974 book, “ross & tom” “(2 american tragedies)”. He examines the lives of two writers who died young and describes his conclusions as to why they did so – Ross Lockridge, Jr. and Thomas Heggen, the successful author of “Mr. Roberts”, popular novel, play and movie.
I found Leggett’s account of Ross Lockridge Jr.’s life of interest, agreed with his view “…success was not in itself a spoiling force for him…”. I have thought Leggett’s opinion that family relationship forces resulted in Ross being vulnerable to taking his own life to be a convoluted overly complicated questionable psychological analysis. Speculation by others continued to ensue after Leggett’s book with no definitive answer.
I did read just before publishing my previous post eldest son, Ernest Lockridge’s 2014 book, “Skeleton Key to the Suicide of My Father”. His conclusion involved some rather questionable unverifiable assumptions which I chose not to delve into. All the family linkages he suggested stemmed from one event he personally reported experiencing. With all due respect, I accept his perception of his personal experience. However, I do not think his extrapolated stretch of tenuous, at best, conclusions that he projects on to other family members and his father have much basis in reality.
Both Lockridge sons, Ernest and Larry, are accomplished writers, authors, academics, in their own right, well beyond these published books I reference here. I hadn’t thought I would be encountering all these theoretical speculative complications about their father’s suicide when I began writing what I expected to be a simple reflection on my feelings, and reactions reading “Raintree County” so many years ago. Having become aware of these several writers varying points of view, I felt compelled to explore it all further to reach some sort of resolution in my own mind.
Perhaps my conclusions are as reasonable as anyone else’s. I can well imagine “Raintree County” author, Ross Lockridge, Jr., felt let down as many artists have discussed feeling when their creation is released in any form and no longer under their control. His book had been published to popular acclaim, though not critically embraced to be designated the great American novel as he aspired his words and story to be after having devoted so many years and so much effort into this creative work.
Perhaps the multiple pages he was initially required to amputate from the body of his work to even achieve publication gave him reason for self-doubt on his later reflection as to what he had allowed to occur. Might he have been experiencing a beginning sense of concern of possibly having unintentionally betrayed his creative ideal given his self-imposed high expectations -- a weakening of his creative life force, if you will?
Ever after, having to eliminate more pages and descriptive events, coupled with changes to that world he creatively described, could the author have just reached his emotional limits -- with physical health residuals on which to fall back exhausted, too? Could he have become over-whelmed, unable to anticipate relief in the future from what seemed to be unrealized idealized hopes he had envisioned for his book and life -- further edits beyond possibility?
Also, I wonder if the movie’s production development seemed slow which may have been another exacerbating disappointment. The film’s progress, or lack thereof, may have prompted the author’s further concerns that his story’s visionary ideals were at risk of being compromised. That’s worthy of another discussion if Ross had any inkling or foreboding of what might occur with the adaptation of his book. Would a less than stellar movie impact how his book would be regarded?
The studio was having difficulty creating a movie script, but he was not actively involved. What could matter is, if he felt some sense of having abandoned his story to those who gave him reason to be anxious about what they would produce. I think that would have been one more demoralizing factor for the “Raintree County” idealistic author. Son Larry described his father’s life during those times in his book.
There were other life issues, probably of lesser significance, but factors none the less. A financial element and conceivably a familial genetic predisposition may have come to bear on author Ross. Reference was made to a cousin whose significant novel addressing mental illness brought about social awareness and change had years earlier been made into a powerful movie. Larry wrote:
“His cousin Mary Jane Ward, author of the 1946 novel “TheSnake Pit”, would later say she became reconciled to his death only when she saw the movie—at least he had been spared this!”
(Her reference was to the movie made of “Raintree County” which was less than stellar.)
I think the action Ross took was the sum total of all the factors – magnified in his mind -- given his personal values, beliefs and expectations of himself. Perhaps, impulsively, for a period of time he became unable to visualize hope beyond the darkness encompassing him, unable to recognize his emotional/physical state was not permanent. Perhaps unable to realize his life enthusiasms and creative juices could be replenished. I can well imagine his thinking processes ultimately had become unable to function logically affecting his judgment with what we know can be neurological chemical imbalances.
“Raintree County” remains a nostalgic memory as I journeyed through character John Shawnessy’s life, set in a time and place not too long ago. I was fascinated by how one chapter literally lead into another in a manner “…often surreal…with dream sequences, flashbacks…” within the framework of John’s life. The author’s metaphorical commentary on ever-increasing materialistic influences has resonated for me through my life’s decades.
I would like to have been able to read his book as he imagined it with all the pages he originally wrote, no matter how lengthy, including the many sections the publisher required be eliminated. That may well be the long anticipated great American novel of the time Ross Lockridge, Jr. wrote that we never got to read. Some might think his published book a classic that has yet to be fully appreciated and recognized.