the twit

    10.22.2009

    book review: “The Education of Mr. Mayfield”

    recently wrote a book review for the jackson free press. a surprisingly rewarding experience--the act of reading, analyzing, processing. hope to do it again soon.

    At first glance, David Magee's “The Education of Mr. Mayfield” (John F. Blair, 2009, $19.95) gives the impression of a Good Will Hunting knock-off set in the rural South. Race replaces class, Ole Miss replaces Harvard, "Dixie" replaces Elliot Smith, and somewhere down the line we've got an O Brother, Where Art Thou? for Grove-tented book clubs. However, Magee's M.B. Mayfield comes across with little of the psychological complexity or mere depth of character of his South Boston analogue, Will Hunting, though it’s unclear as to whether this is a reflection of Mr. Mayfield, the person (which I doubt), or a consequence of Magee's treatment of what seems to be an otherwise compelling story. Though Mayfield often finds himself at the schizophrenic intersection of black working class and white high society, in the text he is only barely self-aware of the conflicted and ambivalent reward of significant talent amidst the inertia of caste. Rather, Magee keeps him on the na├»ve side of aloof for most of the book—an “unassuming” and “almost apologetic” figure on a strange journey of history, race, and class.

    To best approach “The Education of Mr. Mayfield”, a reader must jettison the notion that M. B. Mayfield---a reclusive, mostly self-taught artist from Ecru, Miss.---is the protagonist of this book bearing his name, or even that Stuart Purser--then chairman of the Ole Miss Art Department and Mayfield's unlikely teacher and patron---shares the spotlight. Rather, over the course of the book a reader must watch Magee abandon the story of these two men in the interest of exploring the book's real main characters: an idyllic Oxford and (always by extension) its symbiotic foil, the University of Mississippi.

    Though in the Ole Miss of his childhood "anything colored in red and blue glistened on even the darkest days," Magee abandoned Oxford in his adult years, "frustrated by the university's obvious historical flaws." Recently discovering Mayfield and Purser's barrier-crossing, history bending story, it seems that Magee has found in researching and writing this book his pathway to reconciling with his "small, picturesque hometown."

    As a heavy-handed parable of the Jim Crow South, the narrative arc in “The Education of Mr. Mayfield” begins reasonably enough. Purser and Mayfield grow up in not-dissimilar settings; Purser on the white side of a Klan-dominated Louisiana mill town and Mayfield on the black side of a poverty-stricken hamlet in Mississippi Hill Country. In adulthood, both men gravitate toward art as a means of escaping their situation---for Purser, out towards college, the Art Institute of Chicago, FDR’s Work Projects Administration, and finally a plateau of fledgling Art Departments in the South waiting to be created or chaired; for Mayfield, in and away from a troubling admixture of social anxiety, physical toil and lingering poverty.

    Mayfield and Purser finally cross paths while Purser is on a search for inspiration in the "less traveled roads of rural North Mississippi," and runs across a house adorned with a prominent bottle tree and large busts of Joe Louis and George Washington Carver. The house, of course, is Mayfield’s—who is living there with his mother and had been creating art as a way to “[channel] his loneliness.” Upon realizing Mayfield's talent, Purser devises a situation in which he can informally instruct M.B.: by hiring him as a janitor, and allowing Mayfield to listen in to lectures (sometimes literally from the broom closet). Two months later, M.B. Mayfield's status at the periphery of both the Ole Miss classroom and Oxford art circles becomes a gentle challenge to the perils of segregation.

    Unfortunately, after Mayfield moves to Oxford, attempts at a meaningful relationship with Purser are quickly eclipsed by diversions into a larger-than-life Oxonian menagerie. Loyal Blind Jim Ivy, visionary Johnny Vaught, inscrutable William Faulkner, inflammatory Albin Krebs, and even maverick James Meredith are all there in full caricature, and serve mostly as distraction for the rest of the book. While some inclusions are reasonable---Faulkner befriends Purser and helps purchase art supplies for Mayfield---it's never clear why Magee indulges the reader in the virtues of Vaught's "Split-T offensive formation," or the growing pangs of his "mandated platoon rules" for the university's football team.

    Rather, these indulgences in Ole Miss nostalgia serve mainly to gloss over (or reinforce) unexplored assumptions about gender, sexuality, grammar (perhaps my favorite dangling modifier of all time: "[Mayfield] wiped bits of food from the meals he made from the corners of his mother's mouth"). Above all, race gets superficial treatment. In the same vein as a tense trip to the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery in Memphis (a resolvable faux paus regarding segregated operating hours), the author rarely presents racial difference as much more than a jarring anachronism or a nuisance of otherwise-redeemable heritage.

    Over time, Purser grows professionally restless and dissatisfied with Ole Miss’ unremitting segregation, eventually leaving to start yet another Art Department, and Mayfield remains relatively undiscovered but otherwise unruffled, eventually resettling in Ecru to dangle on the precipice of obscurity in between occasional re-discovery. What's left is a book "detailed in outline but scant in depth" (to borrow Mr. Magee's phrase about Mr. Mayfield's work), and glaringly uninterested in its own assumptions, outside the occasional right-thing-to-say about the evils of the Klan, the n-word, the logic of segregation, the assassination of Dr. King.

    What is more, while it's self-described as "An Unusual Story of Social Change at Ole Miss, The Education of Mr. Mayfield” remains well within the bounds of the usual and the never-really-changing. It indulges so much in the noble premise of Stuart Purser's "discovery" of M.B. Mayfield's "primitive" art that it neither questions these terms nor explores their gaping corollaries, while Mayfield is limited to the promotion from janitor to security guard as his sole significant opportunity for job advancement, Purser seems to have the luxury to pack up and go create an Art Department somewhere else whenever he feels restless. This is, of course, not to suggest that Purser shouldn't have been allowed the accolades resulting from his work, nor that those talented artists previously unknown should not benefit from public recognition, only that so much of the distribution of power (and the power of naming) in this and many other situations in the book is racially and/or socioeconomically obvious. Instead of coming across as problematic, it's coming across as quaint.

    Ultimately, it is the comfort of the quaint and the pastoral that drowns out the best interest of David Magee's work, and through which a potentially humanizing and redeeming story barely survives as a kind of historical near-fiction, bloated with allegory and glistening in red and blue.