22 August 2010

Reynolds Price's A Great Circle trilogy: The Center of Earth (1975), The Source of Light (1981), and The Promise of Rest (1995)

Reynolds Price's trilogy, A Great Circle, occupies a very important place in Price's work. Otherwise known as 'The Mayfield Trilogy' (James A. Schiff, Understanding Reynolds Price (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996)), these three novels chart 90 years in the history of the Mayfield family, and the first volume, The Surface of Earth, is a large novel of almost 500 pages that represents about half of the work as a whole.

In this trilogy the family exerts an extremely powerful influence - more powerful than other relationships, even marital ties. And yet, 'off-center' relationships - homosexual ones, mixed generational sexual ones, platonic ones, ostensibly casual ones, can be overwhelmingly powerful too.

In Price's trilogy, loves kills, and its repercussions are devastating.

The importance of The Surface of Earth was, Schiff points out, generally lost at a time when it stood out of sync with postmodernist works, between John Barth's Chimera (1973) and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1974), and William Gaddis's JR (1976). In the New York Times Book Review, in an article entitled 'A Mastodon of a Novel, by Reynolds Price' (29 June 1975), Richard Gilman savagely attacked the book as, among a number of other things, 'a great lumbering archaic beast'.

The Surface of Earth is Price's family saga, and stretches from May 1903 to June 1944, encompassing three generations of Mayfields as it does so. The story begins when 16-year-old Eva Kendal learns that her grandmother Katherine Watson died while giving birth to her mother Charlotte, whereupon her grandfather Theo committed suicide. Eva has already decided that that same evening she will elope with her 32-year-old school teacher, Forrest Mayfield. Following this, Eva's mother Charlotte commits suicide, Eva almost dies in childbirth, and leaves her husband to return to her father with her son Rob.

Forrest Mayfield is one of the main characters in the first book of the novel (May 1903-February 1905), and his priapic son Rob is the main character in the second book, (May 1921-July 1929) which leads up to Rob's marriage to Rachel Hutchins, who dies while giving birth to their son Hutch.

'[Mayfields] don't come separate', Min much later (in The Source of Light) tells Hutch's girlfriend Ann Gatlin, which is a very perceptive comment. All her life, Min has been in love with Rob, through his marriage and after, but in Book Three (which is set in twelve days in June 1944, when Hutch is 14), Rob's attention - when not distracted by the alcoholic tendency he has inherited - is focused on his son.


The Source of Light covers a much shorter period of time - the ten months between May 1955 and March 1956 - and is mainly centered on the development of Hutch, particularly his days in Oxford, England, where his gay propensities are clearly shown, as well as his devotion to his father Rob, whose death in the South he flies home for at the expense of much of his planned Christmas tryst with Ann in Rome.

Price was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, where he wrote his B. Litt. thesis on Milton, and it is evident that there is some degree of autobiographical detail in his descriptions of his journeys in England.

This is Joyce Carol Oates's review of The Source of Light, 'Portrait of the Artist as Son, Lover, Elegist', in The New York Times of Wednesday, August 18, 2010.
The Promise of Rest occupies an even shorter time period - the five months between April 1993 and August 1993, and is Price's AIDS novel. Here once again, it is the relationship between parent and child which is crucial, and we see Hutch bringing his son Wade, who is almost blind and dying of AIDS, back from his Upper West Side appartment to North Carolina, where he can look after him. Hutch has recently separated from his wife Ann, and there will be no suggestion of resolution of their marital problems until Wade is dead. His death is not long in chronological terms, but Price makes no bones about describing the horror of Wade's physical situation. And just as A Great Circle began with people 'killing' others through love, so Price makes the point that AIDS kills through a different kind of sexual love.

Hutch, like Price, teaches at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, and is quick to point out that love killing is nothing new: syphilis, for instance, was responsible for the deaths of a number of 19th century writers.*

It appears that the Mayfield line ends here with Wade's death, although things are not as clearcut as that. Throughout the trilogy, blacks are present (often as angels, but that's another story), but long gone is the 19th century 'niggering', or using female blacks for sexual release. Instead, there is an strong attempt on the part of the Mayfields and their friends and relations to bring black and white together as complete equals. In a sense, Wade Mayfield's enduring love for the black Wyatt Bondurant, who killed himself on learning that he had given Wade AIDS, is a symbol that union. But Wyatt was only too well aware of the difficulty of this, of the still-burning psychological legacy of slavery. When Wade dies, Wyatt's sister Ivory, who looked after the Wade in Manhattan before Hutch brought him to the South, shows Hutch a letter Wade had written him some time before. In this letter, Wade reveals his sexual relationship with Ivory, and that there is 50% chance that the eight-year-old Raven Bondurant is his grandson.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have also commented on two of Reynolds Price's Mustian novels, A Long and Happy Life and Good Hearts.

*It is perhaps surprising, though, that there is a reference to the 'famous diary' of 'Mary Chestnut' instead of 'Mary Chesnut', and a reference to Keats dying at 26, when he died at 25.

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