Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Mount Moriah Church
Mount Moriah Church. African American church in a rural North Carolina community at which the novel opens with the funeral of Mildred Sutton, a childhood friend of the novel’s white protagonist, Rosacoke Mustian.
Alston’s woods. Wooded area owned by the community’s oldest member, Mr. Isaac Alston, once a relatively powerful resident of the area, now nearly helpless after a stroke, that is the scene of Rosacoke and Wesley’s first encounter. The woods contain a pecan grove. The autumn leaves are gone from its trees, but nuts are still hanging on the branches. Sitting high in a tree, the handsome self-contained young Wesley shakes down handfuls of nuts to Rosacoke and also imprints her forever. Within the woods in a broomstraw field, beyond Alton’s hidden spring, Rosacoke gives herself to Wesley. He is gentle, but does not seem to value the magnitude of her gift nor understand the depth of her sorrow at feeling so lonely afterward.
Mason’s Lake. Private pleasure lake, with a bathhouse, a tin slide, and a diving platform, but only a few trees, most of them having been bulldozed when the owner created the swimming facility. At the Delight Baptist Church picnic Rosacoke watches her brother Milo and Wesley at play in the leech-infested water as she sits with her widowed mother, her younger sister, and her brother’s pregnant wife,...
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The Segregated South
Contemporary readers might be surprised to find the casual friendships between blacks and whites portrayed in this novel. Throughout much of American history, races were segregated in the southern states, including North Carolina, where this novel takes place. Most histories of that region in the 1960s tend to focus on the growing violence between blacks and whites as the Civil Rights movement heated up.
Segregation followed from the end of slavery in 1865 and was made into law when the Supreme Court, in 1896, declared that it would not be unconstitutional to treat blacks and whites differently as long as both sides were offered “separate but equal” accommodations. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, many southern states adhered to that policy in theory, although the railroad cars, hotels, housing, etc. that were assigned to blacks were clearly worse than those allowed whites. This situation could not be changed democratically because laws were passed to keep blacks from voting, blocking their way with requirements about land ownership and I.Q. tests that were usually given selectively, excluding uneducated blacks but not uneducated whites.
After World War II, the Civil Rights movement took hold in this country. Black Americans who had been treated as equals in Europe were not content to be treated as second-class citizens in the country they had fought to defend. The 1950s brought a fierce...
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Point of View
A Long and Happy Life is told from a thirdperson limited point of view. It is third person because the narration refers to all characters as “he” or “she,” as opposed to “I” or “you.” It is limited because almost all the action described is seen from Rosacoke Mustian’s perspective. Events are relayed as Rosacoke remembers or experiences them. Once in a while, the narrative breaks this pattern and gives readers the thoughts of other characters, such as when, after Wesley has sex with Rosacoke in a field, his thoughts are given: “Not knowing whether she would wait or walk on home, Wesley took his time.” Instances of points of view other than that of Rosacoke are extremely rare in this book.
Setting is usually important to novels, but it is especially crucial to this one. The rural North Carolina that Price presents to his readers in this and in other books is a quiet place where people lack the distractions of the modern electronic age and are, therefore, more focused on the lives of the people around them. Births and deaths are the high points of their lives; jobs and education have little to do with them. An airplane coming to town is big news, and people stand out on their porches to see its arrival or departure. When Wesley leaves North Carolina for Virginia, the distance is so considerably far that Rosacoke can only send off letters and hope that he might respond; when he...
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Compare and Contrast
1962: The space race is going ahead with full force. The first American orbits around the earth this year.
Today: Space travel is taken for granted and is hardly noted in the news. The international space station has humans in orbit around the earth at all times.
1962: Infant mortality—the number of children who die before they reach one year of age— averages 26 out of 1000 in America. This number is even higher in rural areas and for children born outside of hospitals.
Today: Modern medical procedures have the infant mortality rate below 8 in 1000.
1962: A wealthy aviation enthusiast, like the novel’s Heywood Betts, might have a small, propeller-driven biplane, with passengers’ heads exposed in the open breeze.
Today: A wealthy aviation enthusiast would own a Cessna or Piper private jet.
1962: Popular music is dominated by white artists. In the coming years, black musicians will begin to directly influence the American music scene through white artists like Elvis, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones—who take old blues musicians as their inspiration—and by the Motown sound.
Today: Black musicians are at least as celebrated as white musicians, although there are still separate stations for predominantly black music, referred to as “urban” or “R&B.”
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Topics for Further Study
The people in this novel live in a rural area with electric lights and telephones, but they possess not much more in the way of modern conveniences. Write an essay explaining how the story would have been different if they had the technology available today.
Explain the leech that attaches to Wesley’s leg when he is swimming in Mason’s Lake. What kind of leeches are found in North Carolina? What are their habits? What other species are found around the country?
At the Christmas pageant, Rosacoke smells paregoric on the baby’s breath. Research various potions and elixirs that people have given babies throughout history, including at least one currently popular method for quieting them.
Research some of the songs of mourning that you think may have been sung at Mildred Sutton’s funeral and play them for your class.
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A Long and Happy Life is one of five novels that Price reads from on Reynolds Price Reads, an audio collection published from the American Audio Prose Library and available online at www.audible.com.
Price discussed the use of his North Carolina as a bonding force in his fiction in “Reynolds Price,” a 1989 entry in the Public Broadcasting System’s Writer’s Workshop series, released on video by PBS.
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What Do I Read Next?
The history of the Mustian family begins several years earlier than the setting of A Long and Happy Life. Milo is fifteen in A Generous Man. This is available in the collection Rosacoke and Her Kin, which includes A Generous Man, A Chain of Love, A Long and Happy Life and Good Hearts. It is published by Scribner Paperback Fiction.
The story of Price’s 1984 bout with crippling spinal cancer, his interaction with the medical profession, and his recovery are examined by the author in A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing, published by Plume in 1995.
Many critics have pointed out the resemblance between Price’s characters and the characters of fellow Southerner Carson McCullers in her 1940 classic The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a story about the residents of a Georgia mill town who labor under a sense of isolation.
Eudora Welty was considered one of America’s finest fiction writers, certainly one of the finest writers about Southern values and customs. She was also a friend of and collaborator with Reynolds Price. Her novels are all meticulously crafted, but readers can find echoes of A Long and Happy Life most clearly in her story “First Love,” found in Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, published in 1982 by Harvest Books.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Drake, Robert, “Coming of Age in North Carolina,” in the Southern Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter 1967, pp. 248–50.
Hicks, Granville, “Country Girl Burdened with Love,” in Critical Essays on Reynolds Price, edited by James A. Schiff, G. K. Hall, 1998, pp. 53–55.
—, “A Generous Man,” in Saturday Review, March 26, 1966.
Levinger, Larry, “The Prophet Faulkner,” in the Atlantic Monthly, June 2000, pp. 76–86.
Price, Reynolds, “An Awful Gift and a Blindness,” in the Southern Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring 2000, pp. 385–94.
Rooke, Constance, “Chapter One: Christian Solitary,” in Reynolds Price, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 1–14.
—, “Chapter Two: A Long and Happy Life,” in Reynolds Price, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 15–39.
Schiff, James A., Understanding Reynolds Price, University of South Carolina Press, 1996, pp. 11–38.
Solotaroff, Theodore, “The Reynolds Price Who Outgrew the Southern Pastoral,” in Saturday Review, September 26, 1970, pp. 27–29.
Kaufman, Wallace, “Notice I’m Still Standing: Reynolds Price,” in Conversations with Reynolds Price, edited by Jefferson Humphries, University of Mississippi Press, 1991, pp. 5–29. Kaufman, a personal friend and collaborator with Price,...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Hoffman, Frederick J. The Art of Southern Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967. Hoffman was the first noteworthy critic to announce that Reynolds Price’s work was an important event in Southern fiction. Hoffman defends Price’s work against charges that the author is imitating William Faulkner.
Holman, David Marion. “Reynolds Price.” Fifty Southern Writers After 1900. Edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. Holman provides the best overall discussion of A Long and Happy Life within the context of the novelist’s career and of Southern fiction. With a select bibliography and survey of major criticism.
Rooke, Constance. Reynolds Price. Boston: Twayne, 1983. One chapter of this text is given to Price’s first novel, A Long and Happy Life. Rooke does a thorough investigation and criticism of the novel. The novel’s connections to Price’s later works are delineated.
Shepherd, Allen. “Love (and Marriage) in A Long and Happy Life.” Twentieth Century Literature 17 (January, 1971): 20-35. Addresses the clichés of the situation (for example, of a “barefoot and pregnant” Southern belle) in order to point out its possible humor.
Vauthier, Simone. “The ‘Circle in the...
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