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Before my first novel was published in the spring of 1962, I began to make notes for what seemed a long story, perhaps a second novel. Those notes were glimpses of what would become -- thirty-three years later -- A Great Circle, a three-part fictional account of the Mayfield and Kendal families, their surrounding world (which includes black kin), and the more than 170 years of American history through which they live -- the oldest character is born in 1815, though an older woman is recalled in another character's memory; and the final scene occurs in 1993.
When those first hints began to arrive, I set them down in my notebook with no sense that they'd result in something as substantial as what came -- a trilogy of novels that would occupy me intermittently for more than three decades, that would consume the better part of what I thought I'd seen in my life and what I could do till that point, and that appears now for the first time in a single volume. Any workman might be glad to have lasted to see such an object.
It's even tempting to take the occasion as a chance to expand on the growth of the novels, but I'm cautioned by the famous late-life prefaces which Henry James fabricated for his novels. Instructive as those confidences may once have seemed -- and in my college years, the 1950s, they were commended to us as holy writ -- they now read like further works of fiction, outlays of self-regard that claim an impossible awareness of old motive and spent fuel. And though they make often impressive old-master comments on a younger master's work, they tell us very little that's reliable about the growth of books which had left James's hands decadesearlier.
While I enjoy, as much as anyone, the creation of fictional memory or the elaboration of firm recall, what I hope for in this preface is at least some encouragement for anyone valiant enough (in these days of the threatened book) to take up such a large handful of words. The track of a vital story is as inexplicable as the path of a dream. At bottom, stories are what narrative writers can make, though they can no more prescribe that process to others than a mother can prescribe the making of a child. The reader may be interested, however, to know that I am certain of two concerns which were central in the years of work -- they're down in my notes.
First, the conscious aim was to make an arresting, decidedly fictional metaphor of the deeply shadowed yet benign relation I shared with my father from the time of my birth till he died when I was twenty-one. But I was wrong to think I could launch a long story in the midst of an intricate kinship between two invented characters, a relation haunted by the father's prior life. Because a gold wedding band plays an important role in the trilogy, joking friends have sometimes called it "Price's Ring." And my attempt to begin the story with a father and son who were well along in their mutual dependency soon had me frozen in the kind of Wagnerian-Ring moment when characters are compelled to halt, gaze backward, and explain long swatches of the past to another character and of course the audience.
In the winter of 1972, I slogged up that looping course for several weeks before I stopped and forced myself to the daunting realization that my story didn't start in the mid-1940s after all -- when the father was in his thirties and the son in his mid-teens -- but decades earlier. I saw then that I must scrap my first start and roll the story as far back as 1903, to the elopement of the father's oddly matched parents. And even then I'd be making an arbitrary plunge into the inextricably tangled nexus which eventually leads to the primal coupling that launched the species Homo sapiens, presumably somewhere in Africa. Practically speaking, however, my reader would need a straightforward account of at least one prior generation of craving and love and failure, in two families, before he or she could begin to respond to my intended present.
Yet in 1963, nine years before I discovered that feasible beginning, I'd sensed my destination and written in my notebook --
The idea of this rather brief, shapely story...has been suspect to me for sometime now: made so a little by the finishing of "The Names and Faces of Heroes" [a story about my father and me]...which rather knocked the props out of the need for such a story -- , by a letter from Wally late last summer urging me to do a really sizable "Family novel," and by my own growing desire to do something a little -- I don't know -- maybe grander, in scale, scope. Then too I've seen the marvellous film of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night twice in the past five days, and that has made me think hard again about the idea of a novel which would examine intensely, unflinchingly and forgivingly the interlocked members of a family.
That early intention remained a guide through the decades of work, as it's guided Western narrative from the visible start.
My own suspicion of why humankind invented storytelling and continues to pursue it so relentlessly, waking and sleeping, is grounded in a sense of our ancient and unavoidable obsession with family. We narrate in the constant hope of escaping self-entrapment, a constraint that's closed around us in the dense net woven from our genetic legacies and the crying hungers, fears, and strengths which are given or denied us in our first years at home. And we narrate to others. If not, we're soon addressing ourselves to buildings and bus stops and are hauled away or left to spend the remainder of our lives huddled on subway gratings and under bridges.
Think only of the earliest stories in our culture. Though they're more than three millennia old, they're readily available in the oldest Hebrew scriptures and are still the most frequently consulted words in the world. Except for occasional lunges into rapt prophesy, those texts drive themselves onward as a narrative family journey. The marital tragedy of Adam and Eve becomes the fraternal tragedy of their sons Cain and Abel which becomes the nomadic fate of the father-son patriarchs which becomes the brotherly rivalries of Moses and Aaron which become the palace blood-intrigues of David and his sons and descendants which cross a short bridge into the Christian stories of the Jewish family of Jesus which raises an eldest son who rejects his kin, goes to the city to find his true Father, is gruesomely killed for his pains and (childless himself) breeds the gains and losses of at least two more millennia of family tales which show no sign of stopping.
Even Proust's In Search of Lost Time, the supreme Jewish novel of the twentieth century -- though written by a man whose sexual nature precluded fatherhood -- is propelled by family through its thousands of pages as remorselessly as the book of Genesis. And most attempts at devising an alternate engine for fictional narrative, by writers from whatever origins, have resulted in a stupefying vapidity or the airless fiction of prank and puzzle by which a few writers of our recent fin de siècle attempted to galvanize their own numb faculties.
Toward the end of The Surface of Earth, when the bruised Rob Mayfield visits his case-hardened uncle Kennerly Kendal, Kennerly remarks on a failure that's implicit in Rob's expectations of escape and reward --
"Let me tell you this story that you don't understand. You'd have known it all your life if you'd ever woke up. We are very plain people. We're the history of the world; nothing one bit unusual in any of our lives. You are just one of us; you have not been singled out for special mistreatment."
Though the novel never says so, it's plain that Kennerly has read a great deal, pondered the meaning of the written record of human life, and watched the world itself intently.
The second concern of which I was certain in writing these novels is that, before I was more than a few pages into my new start, I saw how it might also deduce a compelling and perhaps useful story from what I'd witnessed of the central and ongoing catastrophe of American life -- the enslavement, emancipation, and renewed subjection of men and women of African origin who were brought to America in violence. What I most hoped for in this respect was a demonstration of the fact that, despite the cage in which they labored, those same black men and women and their heirs became our chief messengers of spiritual and worldly freedom, both sources of actual joy.
In short, I soon realized that I was writing as a veteran of the last generation of white Americans who'd known former slaves and who'd lived steadily in the terrible and often miraculous symbiosis of two races. I was born only sixty-eight years after the Civil War ended (and am writing this preface at the age of sixty-eight); so the ground of my youth was thick with still-standing human reminders and with all the enigmas which the war had failed to solve, not to mention the new ones launched by emancipation.
But my sense of how that evil was maintained, and continues to be, by so many otherwise decent men and women is very different from the feelings of my kin and other imposing predecessors -- writers with the keen faculties of Faulkner, Welty, and O'Connor who were sometimes silent on both the brutality implicit in the lives of their white subjects and on the inexplicably benign relations which often grew between black and white people caught in the monstrous cage of the system. The intensity with which my sense of the dilemma is conveyed in the novels arises from my conviction that, without a renewed effort at comprehension and remedy, the failure of racial justice in America -- in the Northeast, the Plains, the Middle West, the West as well as the old Confederacy -- is the failure most likely to doom our national enterprise still (plainly the failing is far from exclusive to us as a nation).
When I'd completed the third volume in 1994, I thought of taking Kennerly Kendal's bitter phrase as the title of the whole endeavor -- The History of the World. A dread of the grandiose stopped me, but these years later I'll admit that I wonder what emotional fact this story omits. Certainly its choice to employ large families connected by blood as a lens to focus the story's gaze implies a central fact of the American South and of most of the rest of the country (the South alone, far from being the quaint backwater so often imagined, is a country larger than western Europe, one that plunged the nation into a war which killed some 640,000 men, and a country that's been uniquely emblematic -- in its combination of magnanimity and maddog self-righteousness -- of the entire republic). That central fact is the characteristic loneliness at the heart of American society and has been its motor force through the past four centuries.
Americans hardly invented loneliness -- Russian fiction, not to mention French or Spanish or German or Japanese, groans with the weight of solitary souls -- but American solitude has proved its own creature. What fueled the families best known to me -- and all the enduring characters of American fiction -- was a loneliness of such fierce proportions that it drove men, women, and children to fill what they felt as gaping holes in their own lives with other human beings when they might have learned from sustained witness of the world that human beings are never satisfactory stops against the howling winds of bafflement and melancholy. The epigraphs to the first and second novels speak to that constant, and constantly doomed, human effort.
This further variety of universal blindness -- a necessity, to be sure, for propagating the race -- gives A Great Circle its steady tone of comedy, a comedy that threads through sadness and disaster as it does in virtually all human lives. Yet it's a comedy that's proved oddly elusive for some readers, especially those unaccustomed to the sly irony native to the old South and far from dead yet -- a culture of Native American, English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, French, Spanish, and African peoples with mainly slim or desperately scarce resources who made their way through the dangerous world of men and nature by their mother wit alone.
Any reader, though, who listens closely to the voices of the numerous characters -- in their conversations, their thoughts and solitary acts, and in their letters -- is likely to hear why this trilogy is at least as nearly a Comedy as a tragic Ring. The failure of so many of the characters to imagine other than human consolations for their solitude is only one such comic strand in the story, a strand braided with far darker strands. All honest comedies of course comprise dark tragedy and long outlast it -- tragedy being mainly a luxury in which only the fortunate can afford to dwell.
Since I'm no longer the man who wrote this slowly grown story, I'm reluctant to alter it in any respect. To do so now would be to employ whatever skills I presently have, whatever ideas and aims I hold all these years later to overwrite a younger man's work and to risk betraying its voice and spirit, even if I managed to curb his shortcomings. I've likewise made no attempt to homogenize diction and punctuation among the parts; the story stands as it was first published in separate volumes. In the interest of sustained chronology, however, I've taken this chance to make a scant nineteen one-word changes in the previous texts of the three novels. I've corrected obvious typographical errors and a few errors of usage. But at a time when large fictional undertakings may be less welcome to readers than they've sometimes been, I've made no cuts. I could find no entirely dispensable scene. In any case, since childhood the novels to which I've returned most gladly are those that ask to detain us for weeks, even months -- the novels of Lady Murasaki, Samuel Richardson, Stendhal, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, and Thomas Mann.
Their first claim on us is the vitality of a particular saga and the language in which it conveys apparent life as it spins into hundreds of forms called men, women, children, animals, trees. That protean spectacle, with the right guidance, is never less than compelling. But many of us also feel that a sizable part of the pleasure of reading the hundreds of pages in a mammoth narrative is a parallel to the pleasure of mountain climbing or the granule-by-granule excavation of an ancient city to find its intact treasury or its sealed royal tomb -- the sheer elation of a long effort that ends in conquest.
The candid writer of a book with any such ambitions may well acknowledge the slow pleasure of learning how, for even the sanest readers, words on a page can become actual other lives. Long years of hearing the reactions of strangers, and of monitoring my own, indicate that people read fiction primarily in the hopes of alternate life. If the dozens of lives in The Surface of Earth hadn't found their initial way toward numerous hospitable and responsive strangers, it hardly seems likely that two other volumes -- the same lives and more -- would have volunteered themselves.
Now that these thousand pages have been gathered, I can hope that new readers will find in A Great Circle the same kind of persuasion that brought me, in early childhood, to accept a seductive writer's lead till an alternate world began to grow round me and beckon my captive imagination through an earnest piece of real clock-time -- an experience like a low-grade fever that nonetheless gives us needed rest or a seasonal love affair that leaves us cured of a few more illusions.
My generous publisher has made it possible to include two additions I've long hoped to provide -- a chart of the three entwined families and a list of primary characters with brief notes on their lives. The family tree and the list were prepared by a hawk-eyed friend and scholar, Frances Kunstling. I've trimmed her list and concurred in her instinct that, for narrative pleasure, one small omission should be made from the family tree and the notes. Any reader who persists to the end can easily supply the omission and will, I hope, agree that the withholding is justified.
Finally, it may be useful to know that the Encyclopedia Britannica defines a great circle as, among other things, "the shortest course between two points on the surface of a sphere." It's the course desired by most human beings in our ideal relations but the one we find hardest to take.
2001 Preface and additional text copyright © 2001 by Reynolds Price