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September 30, 1962 - Image 10

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The Michigan Daily, 1962-09-30
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Ie4iew 'and4 (el4

A Long and Happy Life: A Prose Poem

East Berlin, Budapest and Pragu
Where Living Conditi


NEAR THE conclusion of A Long and
Happy Life by Reynolds Price (Athen-
eum, 1962, $3.95), a lovely white heron
lands on a wooded pond and arcs its neck
with a fluid motion, a curve "lovely as an
axe handle," while it searches in the
water for food. The sight is "rare as light-
ning in late December": at once, too, a
focal point of action and an imagistic
representation of the book.
For the heron is simple yet symbolic,
lovely and lingering - while it represents
natural response (the crux of heroine
Rosacoke Mustian's problem), it also
shows a giving in to appetite (Rosacoke's
fatal action); at the same time, too, the
heron accepts what pond there is (Rosa-
coke's resolution as well). But if the heron
is all these things by extension, it is first
and foremost the heron drinking water
and pecking for food: a simple and beau-
tiful bird which holds its complexity
within its simplicity. The heron is Rey-
nolds Price's first novel.
The heron is focal because it is an ex-
ample of fusion. And all of A Long and
Happy Life is, essentially, the fused ele-
ments of life, told with tenderness. For
the novel is not a narrative of events, but
a union of them: primarily, it makes no
statement; it evokes a mood.
It is as a poem, in fact, that the novel
can be best understood. For poetry is the
art of synthesizing experience, while prose
is the art of analyzing it. The difference
between prose and poetry is events con-
veyed as opposed to experience realized.
Poetry telescopes idea and image, concept
and construct; prose shatters any attempt
at fusion (that is the reader's job) and
deals with single parts of an experience,
often at length.
With poetry, the reader must pull apart
the lines and images to grasp the mean-
ing; with prose, the reader puts the parts
together to get the "overall significance."
In the regular novel, the writer intro-
duces his reader first to one person and
then another, separated as they must be
by sentences; chapter by chapter, con-
versation by conversation, the reader fol-
lows the characters through to their des-
tinations. A novelist or essayist presents
an idea or a situation in all its component
parts; he examines them and distributes
them and at last re-'collects them into
some statement, some meaning.
A poet does none of this. In a flash he
gives the situation; in an image or an
impression, in a feeling or an idea, all
that will be given is given. It is synthe-
sized and communicated in an instant.
There is no exhaustive examination, no
prolonged presentation. Where the poet
starts (at the beginning, in the middle of
things, even at the end) makes little dif-
ference; it is the totality caught and not
the line or image which conveys. For the
poet, essentially, is one interested in
wholes, not parts. He has neither space
nor inclination to peruse something or
a review by
Arthur Kinney.......page two
by Beatrice Teodoro. .page three
by Martha MacNeal. .page four
by Robert Ross...... .page five
photographs by
James Keson . . . . page six
by Gloria Bowles.... page eight
by James Seder...... page ten
EDITORS:Cynthia Neu1
Harry Perlstdt1
four, pages six and seven by
James Keson; page nine by
the Associated Press; remainder
from Dily files.1


pursue anything. He works, as T. S. Eliot
has said, by seeking out those synthetic
images or phrases which present not one
idea or emotion, but a whole series of
them in a single moment.
REYNOLDS Price's novel is written in
prose. But it is not a single series of
events, a progression of causal incidents.
At any moment, it is simultaneously fus-
ing image and idea. The central problem
is simple enough: Rosacoke Mustian has
sought Wesley Beaver's love for eight
years-from the moment he stood spread-
eagled in a tree, a stranger above her, and
answered her cry to shake down pecans.
She has devoted all her adolescent's de-
votion to him, all her agonizing roots of
young love, and he has shown her only
a casual interest.
Then he has left: for the Navy, and
now his own motorcycle shop in Norfolk.
She is certain he is meeting other girls,
giving himself to them, and she wants
to know, she has to know, if he loves her.
Poignantly, frankly, she asks him in a let-
ter, "Wesley, I want to know are we in
love?" She cannot force the issue, for the
answer will be destroyed in the process of
the asking. Nor can she wait. Painfully,
she gropes for a way to reach him, surely
and selflessly
She sees her own situation all too clear-
"All this time I have lived on the
hope he would change some day be-
fore it was too late and come home
and calm down and learn how to talk
to me and maybe even listen, and we
would have a long life together-him
and me-and be happy sometimes
and get us children that would look
like him and have his name and an-
swer when we called. I just hoped
So Rosacoke gives herself to Wesley;
a month later, she admits to herself with
horror that she is carrying his child. Her
fears mount: her nephew has just been
born dead; her best girl friend-the Negro
Mildred - has a few months earlier died
in the childbirth ofher Illegitimate,
nameless son. She tells Wesley, but he
will not admit any love; indeed, he may
have none.
"He would take me to Dillon to-
night and take me to Norfolk after
Christmas to spend my life shut up
in a rented room while he sells mo-
torcycles to fools-me waiting out my
baby sick as a dog, eating Post
Toasties and strong pork liver which
would be all he could afford and
pressing his shirts and staring out a
window in my spare time at concrete
roads and folks that look like they
hate each other. He offered me that.
But that isn't changing-not the way
I hoped-so what I have done, I will
sit home and pay for. I am not glad,
you understand, but I ain't asking
him to share what trouble I brought
on myself'."
The situation may seem a tired one,
but the expression of it in this novel is
magic gossamer; still it strikes at the
roots of life. The beauty is in the telling,
and the telling has a richness of its own,
a richness which comes from substrata
that fuse like the rainbow.
FOR EXAMPLE, the novel is divided
into three parts. Focal to each is a
church service - a sacrament at once
social and supra-social. In I, the service
is a funeral; Rosacoke is the only white
in the Negro's Mount Moriah Church,
where Mildred has been laid out "in a
pink nightgown that tied at the throat
and had belonged to the lady she cooked
for". The service is heavily laden with
ritual. Rosacoke herself gives a tes-
timonial and is the first to look at Mil-
dred. The service is simple, but not pa-
gan; it is punctuated by the sighs and
prayers of the Negroes, filled with the
love of their faith as much as their love
for Mildred. -
In II, the scene shifts sharply to the
white's own Delight Baptist Church,

where Rosacoke sits trembling near the
front pew, knowing that Wesley is home
for a weekend from Norfolk, knowing he

Rosacoke Mustian was born, an
adolescent girl, in "A Chain of Love,"
one of Reynolds Price's first short
stories, written in 1955 when he was
a senior at Duke University. The other
characters.in that story came from his
home in Warren County, North Caro-
lina, where he was born, went to
grammar school, later spent summers.
"But not aiming to found New Yok-
napatawpha (Warren County is 800
miles from there) I resisted till I read
the letters to Santa Claus in the War-
ren Record in 1957 and suddenly knew
the pressure was too great. I worried
though about starting "because Price
was studying in Oxford, England,
"which is quite a way from North Car-
olina, so that year I only made notes
for what I guessed was a 100-page
"Then I went back home in 1958" to
Duke to teach and write" and began
the story. Two years later it was done
and was a novel." Four years in the
making; "but for all the wait, I still
think it says most of what I meant and
a good part of what I believe."
hasn't called her, knowing he may come
to church, may, in fact, be sitting behind
her. This service has another ritual, no
less strong: the semi-paralyzed Mr. Isaac
comes in with his servant Sammy, who
arranges him in a portable wheelchair
and feeds him horehound candy; Rosa-
coke's mind keeps slipping off the sermon;
she must greet the townspeople in turn at
the close of service. Tradition and form
are still basic.
Then, in III, the service that was death
in I and life in II becomes birth, for
Rosacoke is, through default, the Virgin
Mary in the annual Christmas pageant
at Delight, and Wesley is a wise man
who offers the Child myrrh in an old
butter dish. The juxtaposition on the
stageforces Rosacoke to resolve her prob-
lem: to accept Wesley's answer of elope-
ment or to reject him and to ead a long
and lonely life with her fatherless child.
The joyous hymns, full of promise and
rebirth, are ironic, suggestive, distracting,
but in antiphony to them, in counterpoint
to the foreign Gupton child who plays
Jesus in her lap, Rosacoke reaches her
own decision.
Each service emphasizes tradition and
ritual; each counterpoints the others.
Mildred's funeral is counterpointed by
that of Horatio Mustian III, who is born
dead. Each service parallels Rosacoke's
own feelings; her dead love for Wesley
(I) is given new life with their night in
the broomstraw field (II), and a chance
for rebirth at Christmas (III).
YET IN MAJOR counterpoint to the
church scenes are the scenes in the
field, so central (though implicit) to
Rosacoke's own state of mind. The field
has brought her Wesley; it has also given
her her greatest moment of joy with
Mildred, for in a little pond in the woods
by the field, the two girls saw a beautiful
young deer. It is the same pond which
will soon be seen surrounded by dead
leaves on the day of Mildred's funeral,
which will lead to brambles the night
Rosacoke gives herself to Wesley, and
will be the lifeblood for the heron as the
novel pauses ever so lightly in balance
before the closing movement begins.
And the broomstraw field: at first,
empty of meaning (Rosacoke would leave
it and urges Mildred away), the scene of
the consummation, and, finally, the field
she must flee in terror the week before
Christmas as she rushes to Mr. Isaac's
home with a bag of horehound candy as
an excuse to do something to force Wesley
out of her mind.
Not like a novel, rather like a musical
composition, these two settings are held
in careful, delicate balance throughout.
Each grows, plays against the other. For
Rosacoke and Wesley are caught between

the two: the one representing society,
tradition, restriction, the other represent-
ing individual nature, self-fulfillment,
freedom. One is complex and tedious, the

other simple and filled with the heartbeat
of life.
For Rosacoke, the social confining
church services represent failure - there
is Mildred's untimely death, the sickness
and half-life of Mr. Isaac and the pointed
absence of Wesley at her side, the false-
hood and pretension of the pageant
(imagine the butter dish holding myrrh,
imagine the Virgin Mary pregnant and
unmarried). She has seen herself reflect-
ed equally well in nature: in the joy of
the single deer near the deserted pond,
in the invitation of the wild guineas or
the buck and his does who lead Wesley
and Rosacoke into the woods the night
they consummate their love; the hawk
Rosacoke sees before she recognizes her
It is all there: simpleand beautiful and
self-contained. It does not shout its pres-
ence; it just is. It is not conspicuous be-
cause it frames so very much more. For
this counterpoint is the key to the novel:
just as Rosacoke can pick up Mildred's
bastard son, so she is able to hold the
Gupton baby, which leads her to her final
acceptance of responsibility. Just as
Rosacoke's mother lives with a picture-
faded and outdated-of her husband,
killed while drunk, so Rosacoke can live
with the picture of Wesley strong and
virile and shaking down pecans.
Counterpoint is the major technique:
Aunt Mannie Mayfield and her remark-
able memory is Rosacoke's opportunity
to visit Mount Moriah Church; yet it is
the same Aunt Mannie whose failing of
memory allows for the first touch of
poignancy at Mildred's death. Mildred's
own fall foreshadows Rosacoke's; Sissie's
dead child counterpoints Rosa's live (but
illegitimate) one.
S ROSACOKE hangs over her novel,
an individual, moving being in a work
which sings its vision of life. And so Wes-
ley stands, too; not as great a creation,
for he is not central, yet also poised: with
Rosacoke and Wesley the novel achieves
its final balance. For the theme is not
only that of man's loneliness, of his need
for love, of his yearning "for a long and
happy life"; it is also the lesson of re-
sponsibility. For Wesley, responsibility is
what is dictated by society; a man who
is father to the child must rear it. For
Rosacoke, though, responsibility dictated
by a code is worthless; for her, life and
living are measured in love. Wesley and
Rosacoke both face responsibility, and
both accept it. Their reasons are different,
and so this book has no "happy ending."
But it is a fitting ending, and the two
have come together - in the shared
knowledge of duty and in the creation of
a child - as much as they ever can. And
in bringing them together as he has,
Reynolds Price has given us love and
hate, fear and loneliness, giving and get-
ting, fulfillment and frustration, hope
and sadness and birth and death; he
has given his readers life in a poetic syn-
thesis. The novel has simple, classic econ-
omy, firm in its development and spread
with a counterpane of tender praise of
For to discuss parts as much as this is
to see the trees and to forget the forest; it-
is the forest which interests Price. The
book may be ruminative (if one insists
that it be), but it is primarily lyric. For
an examination of parts like this is for-
eign and fatal; the totality is the all.
The book is, in the end, not counterpoint
or repetition, not paralleled incident or
ironic thrust, but a fusion of great ten-
derness: it is not primarily meaning; it is
essentially mood.
Rosacoke Mustian is a real person, a
remarkable creation, and in A Long and
Happy Life, Reynolds Price has, at 29,
produced the finest new young talent to
tell of the whole of Southern life in a first
novel since Carson McCullers wrote The
Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, It is no small
Arthur F. Kinney, who teaches
in the English department, has had

his own works published in Genes-
ation and the Michigan Quarterly

They shrug their shoulders at the world
beyond the curtain and turn their atten-
tion to people or sports or the weather.
This applies to both domestic politics and
the Cold War.
Living standards do not compare with
those in the West. Living quarters are
cramped and in short supply. There are
periodic shortages of one food or another.
Right now there is a severe meat short-
age. There are virtually no private cars.
But on a simple scale, the Czechs are
living fairly comfortably.
In the last free election, held in 1948,
the Communists captured 38 per cent
of the vote. Although there are ┬░indica-
tions that the Communists are not so
popular today, no general dissatisfaction
strong enough to pose any threat to
the regime is evident.
Although most Czechs seem to realize
that they are being economically exploit-
ed by Russia, the Soviet Union neverthe-
less is still well thought of. The reasons
center around the Soviet German Policy
and Russia's spectacular economic growth
which they admire.
They also approve of the Russian at-
titude toward the . Bonn government.
About the only subject which the Czechs
seem to get vehement about is their in-
tense dislike of the Germans. In the first
place they do not want to see Germany
ever re-united; they frankly are scared
of Germany. This attitude is intensified
because they are convinced that the Bonn
government is largely staffed with un-
reconstructed Nazis.
In fact, their only complaint about
America, and they are not bitter, merely
puzzled, is our policy toward West Ger-
many. They wonder how a nation, even
one as generous as the United States,
could be so "lavish" in our aid to rebuild
Germany. But they are particularly mys-
tified as they see it of our toleration of
the resumption of power by the Nazis.
Other than this, they seem almost to-
tally unmoved by the issues of the Cold
War. They seem to regard both the
United States and Russia as well-mean-
ing, but immature giants engaged in a
foolish and very dangerous wrestling
match. Although they are quite concerned
over the possibilities of a Third World
War,,they feel that they cannot influence
the course of world events and thus do
not take a very strong interest in the
specific issues of the Cold War.
In a country such as this, there is no

need for elaborate physical controls to
implement the Iron Curtain - although,
of course, the border is tightly guarded.
The controls are the standard ones of
a dictatorship which faces no serious
challenges. There are one-party elections,
labor unions are run by party-function-
aries, students and professionals are
tightly supervised by their associations,
mail from the West is opened, and simi-
lar techniques.
But in general the system is rather
casually administered. Contact with
Westerners is not rigidly controlled-it's
just that one doesn't feel comfortable

Wenceslaus Square in Prague.
about it, because someone might get sus-
picious and that could lead to trouble.
Although the practice of religion is not
prohibited, one just doesn't participate.
PERHAPS the most vivid example of
this rather informal, but very real
barrier that is placed around the people
can be seen in the following two inci-
A friend with whom I was traveling
and I became quite friendly with a young
married couple who were quite interested
in jazz which is not encouraged by the
government. We asked them what artists

they liked,
them some
sion, they c
But, somew
be forgiven
A young
fairly well,
writing, toc
to mention
might write
Iron Curts
just as sure
ellite count

This view of Prague includes the spires of many of the city's magnificent church


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