Every summer, the town of Danville, Kentucky sets aside two weeks to commemorate the anniversary of the filming of the last epic film made during MGM’s “Golden Age of Cinematography.” The Raintree County Festival casts a nostalgic glance back to 1957, when Liz Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Eva Marie Saint descended on the Kentucky town to shoot a picture based on a thoroughly Hoosier saga.
Raintree County has been called a “Yankee Gone With The Wind,” a Civil War-era story set in a mythical Indiana milieu, largely modeled on Henry County. Beyond its setting in the Hoosier State, the novel takes as its back story the legend of Johnny Appleseed, the fabled explorer and entrepreneur who eventually settled in Allen County. In the novel (and the film), residents of the fictional Indiana county seek out the elusive Golden Raintree, an Oriental species with the potential to convey perfect happiness to the one who finds it.
Raintree County was the magnum opus of Bloomington native and Indiana University graduate Ross Lockridge, Jr. Born in 1913, the novelist was the son—and sometime scribe—of a man known as “Mr. Indiana” for his populist histories and dramatic portrayals of celebrated Hoosiers. The younger Lockridge had an illustrious undergraduate career at IU—reportedly attaining the highest grade point average ever—and spent a successful year abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris. Upon graduation, Lockridge taught in IU’s English Department while crafting a 400-page, never published epic poem titled The Dream of the Flesh of Iron .
In 1940, Lockridge accepted a scholarship for graduate school at Harvard University. Ostensibly embarking on a doctoral dissertation on Walt Whitman and teaching at Simmons College, Lockridge spent his years in Boston producing the over 1,000-page manuscript that would become Raintree County . Lugging the twenty-pound bundle into the offices of Houghton-Mifflin in 1946, Lockridge saw his novel quickly accepted for publication and, in short order, excerpted in Life magazine, made into a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, and awarded a movie contract with MGM.
By 1947, Ross Lockridge, his wife Vernice, and their four children moved back to Bloomington to take up residence on South Stull Avenue. The author became embroiled in disputes with his publishers regarding the length of the manuscript and his share of the film revenues. Lockridge checked into Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis under an assumed name and underwent electroconvulsive therapy for depression. The novel emerged to mixed reviews in January 1948. A pan in the New Yorker magazine was reprinted in Bloomington’s evening gazette March 6, 1948, the night Ross Lockridge, Jr. was found dead of carbon monoxide inhalation inside his car idling in the garage. The following day, Raintree County made it to the top of the national best-seller list. Although not universally recognized as the Great American Novel, Raintree County has been described as the American Ulysses and is widely considered a compendium of Hoosier history, customs and dialect.