Monday, October 04, 2004

Ross and Tom: 1, Ross

Ross and Tom is the title of a book by John Leggett; its subtitle is ‘two American tragedies’, and for once the use of the word tragedy may be legitimate.

The Ross and Tom of the title were Ross Lockridge and Thomas Heggen. Leggett’s account of their lives, and deaths, first appeared in 1974, but was reissued in 2000. I have known of the book for years, but have only recently read it.

In brief, Ross and Tom were two young novelists. In the few years which followed the second world war, both young men enjoyed enormous success with their first books: they became rich and famous. But neither man could cope with the fame and the fortune; worse, they were under constant pressure to write another book, and they didn’t know how to do it. In the end, Ross and Tom cracked under the strain, and they both committed suicide, though in each case their families, naturally, tried to convince themselves that the death was accidental.

Today we will consider briefly the life of Ross Lockridge, and tomorrow that of Thomas Heggen.

Ross grew up in Bloomington Indiana, and, although it was the seat of Indiana University, Bloomington seems to have bred a small-town mentality in its young people. Above all, it appears to me that Ross Lockridge’s educators failed him. He was a brilliant student at school, but his brilliance seems to have resided mainly in an ability to absorb facts and to regurgitate them in the form required by his teachers. No one, apparently, thought it important that he should learn to think for himself, or that he should question the received wisdom about anything. Despite all his ‘brilliance’, Ross seems to have been incapable of original thought.

In 1933, Ross was one of many University of Delaware students who went on a junior-year-abroad program. His group went to Paris. And what did Ross do in a year in Paris? He got drunk – once. He got laid – once, when an American girl dragged him off to bed. He did not visit any of the nude shows for which Paris was famous; he did not haunt the jazz clubs; and, curiously for a man who had already declared some intention of becoming a famous writer and producing the Great American Novel (God help us all), he made no attempt whatever to mix with any of the literary personalities who were then to be found hanging around Parisian cafes.

What Ross Lockridge mainly did in Paris was stay in his room and read his college books. And at the end of the year he came out top. He was the leading scholar among all the étudiants étrangers.

What did he do then? Did he set out to explore Europe, as any reasonably enterprising person would? No, he just got right back on the first available boat and went home to Mom.

It is no exaggeration to say that, by page 55 of Leggett’s 200-page account of Ross’s life, I could already see how this kid was doomed. He had absorbed every half-baked piece of nonsense about ‘great literature’ that the American liberal-arts education could provide. And he had decided that he too wanted to make a giant contribution to ‘literature’. This foolish and ill-judged ambition would eventually kill him.

Ross Lockridge went on earn his living as a college lecturer, and in his spare time he worked on his intended masterpiece, Raintree County.

The book was based very largely on his own family history; it was heavy with symbolism; and it was long. Boy, was it ever long. Even the published version runs to 1066 pages. The manuscript contained 600,000 words, which is approximately ten times the length of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel (which would be published just five years later).

Perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to Ross Lockridge was that this bizarre monster should find a publisher. But it did: Houghton Mifflin, a well respected Boston firm. The publisher wanted changes to the text – not surprisingly – and Ross was greatly anguished over ‘compromising his integrity’; but he did it.

Then, even before the book was published, he won a major and highly prestigious prize, offered by MGM, which involved sale of the film rights for a huge sum of money. But MGM also wanted changes – not surprisingly – and once again the young author had to face the enormous labour of reducing this vast manuscript to a more manageable shape.

And then thirdly the Book of the Month Club wanted his novel, but only if he would make further changes. And so on. And on, and on.

In short, over a period of many years, Ross Lockridge invested a massive amount of time and emotional energy in producing a huge book. This effort was rewarded, in a sense, when the novel was finally published. He became famous – at any rate insofar as any writer can be said to be truly famous. And he had bucketfuls of money emptied over his head.

But there was just one problem. Everyone wanted him to do another book. His publisher expected it. The readers expected it. The critics expected it. And Ross Lockridge knew that a writer ought to go on writing. But he simply didn’t know what to do next.

Ross’s life at this time is exhausting just to read about. It must have been impossible for anyone to try to live that life. By the time Raintree County was published, Ross Lockridge was completely burnt out, mentally and physically, and he was damn near certifiably insane.

When published, on 5 January 1948, the book was a critical and commercial success. It became, inevitably in view of all the publicity, a ‘bestseller’; it was eventually filmed with Elizabeth Taylor in a starring role. But on 6 March of that year Ross Lockridge killed himself with the fumes from his car exhaust.

This is not a very cheerful story, is it? And tomorrow there is more, if you can bear it: we will consider the parallel life of Tom Heggen. And after that we will see if any useful lessons can be learnt from these dreadful events.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just wondering if you've ever actually read Raintree County. I just finished it. Can't believe I never did until now, as Lockridge was a native son. I live just blocks from his last home.

I thought this novel wonderful--all 1,066 pages of it. Not written by anyone remotely like the dolt you portray its author to be. It's a bit much sometimes, but it's so beautifully written and the characters so vividly personal(while still expressing archetypes) that I can forgive the occasional excesses.

Given Lockridge's death just weeks after its publication, I think it presumptuous to claim that he committed suicide for the reason you give. Tempting, but still wrongheaded. While Raintree County would have been in production for some months after he last revised it, he had, as you note, plenty to keep him busy. I just don't see that he had the time to be worrying over whether he could produce another book.

Now, about what wildly changing life circumstances did to him? Yes, I could see those having an enormous effect on him. He was probably clinically depressed by those circumstances, and severe depression is the only thing I can imagine that would cause him to leave a dearly loved family.

Anonymous said...

ROSS AND TOM is so transparently an envy-driven hatchet-job with kid gloves, that GOB must have been gifted at birth with a literary ear of the purest tin.

Anonymous said...

Raintree County is the best book I've ever read.

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