Places: Raintree County

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1948

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedRaintree County

Raintree Raintree CountyCounty. Imaginary Indiana county in which the novel focuses on the small town of Waycross. Located on the National Road and near the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Waycross is the scene of a Fourth of July celebration in 1892. The novel chronicles the events of that date, from dawn until midnight, while weaving in fifty-two flashbacks–not in chronological order–of past events, ranging from national Election Day in 1844 to a day in 1892. Other important sites in the county are Freehaven, the county seat, and Danwebster, a tiny community near protagonist John Wickliff Shawnessy’s home, and a graveyard that plays a significant role in the narrative.

The novel is highly metaphorical, and its fictional places are often clearly symbolic. For example, not only is the aptly named Waycross situated on a major road running from east to west, but it is also the place where Johnny Shawnessy’s path crosses and recrosses those of three lifelong friends: Jerusalem Webster Stiles, a cynical professor-newspaperman; Garwood B. Jones, a clever, unscrupulous, and successful politician; and a local merchant, who eventually becomes a railroad baron. These three recognizable American types are foils for Johnny, the dreamer and poet, throughout the novel.

Shawmucky River

Shawmucky River. Meandering stream that transects Raintree County from northeast to southwest. The bends of the Upper Shawmucky, as shown in one of the maps accompanying the text, are shaped like the letters “JWS”–the initials of the protagonist, who believes he is destined to become the hero of the county.

Lake Paradise

Lake Paradise. Body of water formed by the Upper Shawmucky River, northwest of Freehaven. Adjacent to the lake is the Great Swamp, beyond which is an idyllic island. In a flashback scene, Johnny, slightly drunk from Fourth of July celebrations, swims to the lake’s island with Susanna Drake, a visitor from New Orleans, Louisiana, with whom he makes love. The island in Lake Paradise becomes an Indiana Garden of Eden in which Johnny tastes the forbidden fruit and pays a price: He marries Susanna who, believing she is a child of miscegenation, later goes mad and burns down their house.

“Raintree.”

“Raintree.” Semimagical tree that gives Raintree County its name. It is located somewhere beyond the swamp, on a remote grassy mound. The tree’s yellow flowers shed a dust on young lovers and children, the only types of humans who during the course of the novel are led to the tree. As a symbol of the Tree of Life, it places Raintree County not only at the center of the Republic but also at the center of the universe.

*Indianapolis

*Indianapolis. Capital and largest city of Indiana, to which Susanna Shawnessy flees shortly before setting a fire that claims the life of her young son. As a result of this tragedy, Johnny returns to Indianapolis in 1863 to join the Union Army. There, as in other real places in the novel, Johnny seems not to leave Raintree County far behind. As he enlists, Johnny encounters Flash Perkins, a boyhood friend with whom he serves in the Civil War until the latter is killed. Also in Indianapolis are Garwood Jones and Johnny’s first love, Nell Gaither.

Other cities

Other cities. The pattern of chance encounters between Johnny and other people from Raintree County is repeated throughout the novel. For example, while he is encamped in Chattanooga, Tennessee, during the Civil War, he is reunited with Jerusalem Webster Stiles, who has given up teaching to become a war correspondent. Later, he meets Stiles again in Washington, D.C., and they are in the audience at Ford’s Theatre on the night that Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. He is again with Stiles in Philadelphia on July 4, 1876–the national Centennial Day. While spending a year in New York City, John has an intellectual romance with Laura Golden.

These and other real cities, depicted in realistic detail, ground a poetic novel which is also often experimental in structure. However, just as John Shawnessy abandons life in the big city, returning home to the life of a simple, though intellectual, schoolmaster, the narrative always returns to Raintree County, the romantic heart of the story.

*Chickamauga Creek

*Chickamauga Creek. Georgia stream near Chattanooga, Tennessee, that is the site of a major Civil War battle in which Johnny Shawnessy experiences his baptism by fire as a Union soldier. Later, he participates in the occupation of Chattanooga, the nearby Battle of Missionary Ridge, the fall of Atlanta, and General William T. Sherman’s march through Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah on the Atlantic coast. He is wounded near Columbia, South Carolina, in the same skirmish in which Flash Perkins is killed. Johnny is then sent to Washington to convalesce. This is a very ambitious novel, probably a worthy attempt to write the Great American Novel. The account of Johnny’s two-year campaign, beginning in camp in Kentucky and ending in the nation’s capital, gives the novel an epic sweep. However, despite Johnny’s long wartime march and his journeys to Indianapolis and east to Philadelphia and New York, the themes of the novel are mostly developed back in Raintree County. The author tackles the role of the poet, the meaning of the American Republic, and ultimately the meaning of life. His most overtly philosophical passages appear and are developed in the portion of the narrative set on the soil of Raintree County on July 4, 1892. The middle-aged John Shawnessy has come to realize that to be the poet of Raintree County, Indiana, is to be America’s poet.

BibliographyBlotner, Joseph L. “Raintree County Revisited.” Western Humanities Review 10 (Winter, 1956): 57-64. Reassesses the novel favorably and places it in both Western and American literary traditions.Erisman, Fred. “Raintree County and the Power of Place.” Markham Review 8 (Winter, 1979): 36-40. Argues that much of the power of Raintree County derives from the tension between its contrasting urban and rural settings.Greiner, Donald J. “Ross Lockridge and the Tragedy of Raintree County.” Critique 20, no. 3 (April, 1979): 51-63. Identifies the author of the novel with the hero of the book and notes that both were on a quest. Shawnessy survived his failure to write a great epic, and Lockridge, who killed himself shortly after the book was published, could not accept that his epic was over.Lockridge, Larry. Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr., Author of “Raintree County.” New York: Viking Press, 1994. The definitive biography of the book’s author, written by his son.White, Ray Lewis. “Raintree County and the Critics of ’48.” MidAmerica 11 (1984): 149-170. Assesses the first critical reception of the novel.
Categories: Places