The novel is essentislly in two parts; before the Civil War and after. It spans the 19th century history of the United States from the pre-Civil War westward expansion, to the debate over slavery, to the Civil War, to the Industrial Revolution and the Labor Movement which followed. The book is often surreal, with dream sequences, flashbacks and departures from the linear narrative. It has been described as an effort to mythicalize the History of America, which to a great degree it succeeds in doing through the eyes and the commentary of John Shawnessy.
The novel was made into a 1957 film starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Eva Marie Saint, Nigel Patrick, Lee Marvin, Rod Taylor and Agnes Moorehead. It was adapted by Millard Kaufman and directed by Edward Dmytryk.
During filming of this movie, Montgomery Clift had an automobile accident which almost killed him. After several weeks of recovery, he returned to finish the film, but the left side of his face was left partially paralyzed.
In the credits for the film, the author's name is misspelled (Ross Rockridge Jr).
The fictional town of Waycross was based on Straughn, Indiana.