I was fourteen when, in search of something to read in my grandmother’s house in Florence, South Carolina, I ran across a paperback copy of the 1948 novel Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr. It was an abridged version, published by Dell in 1957 in connection with the mgm screen adaptation that was released that year. I had never seen the movie, but, lying on the guest-room bed in that summer of 1971, I quickly became lost in the book.

Raintree County tells the story, from boyhood to late middle age, of John Wickliff Shawnessy, a mid-nineteenth-century Hoosier who is his county’s “one true aesthete.” In his earnest, idealistic youth, he devours the great literature of the ages and dreams of becoming an immortal poet; he develops a rivalrous...


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