Above is from the back of the book jacket for the 25th Anniversary edition of A Long and Happy Life. I present it as a good picture of Reynolds before he was confined to a wheelchair as the result of cancer treatment when steroids and a lack of exercise puffed him up well beyond what he would have preferred. Unfortunately his obits, including an excellent one in the NY Times by William Grimes, are going with post-cancer shots.
As many of you may know, I studied with Reynolds Price when I was at Duke, first in his narrative poetry class my sophomore year, then in his long fiction class as a senior. A year after graduating I got the opportunity to become his live-in assistant for a year, which was basically the finest graduate school a writer could find: daily one-on-one instruction of how to be a writer and why to be a writer in exchange for room, board, and easing his post-cancer wheelchair bound life. I wrote about this previously on the RectorSite, and he wrote about it extensively in his wonderful book describing his transition from pre-cancer to post-cancer in A Whole New Life. I would recommend that anyone pick up and read that book, regardless of whether or not you’ve experienced cancer or known someone who has (more than likely). It is lucid, engaging, and life affirming without being simple sweet and/or baked in bromides.
Having read a few of his obituaries today, I feel compelled to offer, even if it’s only to this small audience, a bit more/different information than is being broadcast to the world.
His full name was Edward Reynolds Price. I’m not sure his family ever used his first name… His roots are in the Tidewater region of North Carolina, which was quite distinct from the Piedmont (where he went to high school, college, and then settled) region, and the Appalachian region. In fact, RP (that’s what I often called him: “ar pee”) may have been the first person to tell me that The Old South (the colonial American states south of Maryland) is culturally distinct in regions that run north – south: Mountains and the Coastal areas separated by the agriculturally (and often economically) dominant farmlands of the Piedmont.
Macon, NC is a tiny hamlet ten miles from the VA border between Henderson and Rocky Mount (inspiration for TV’s Mayberry on the Andy Griffith Show). Reynolds often spoke of his native area of North Carolina encompassing Norfolk, Newport News, and much of the rest of the southern Virginia shore as much as Raleigh, 70 miles to the south. All of his stories of Macon could have taken place in rural Ohio or Texas. Just as his contemporary John Updike often chronicled life on the edge of the post-industrial backwaters of America (based on Redding, PA), RP largely wrote about people living on the land and wrestling with human nature among a small tight-knit community. What is most “Southern” in RP’s writing, in my opinion, is the dialog, which gentle, direct, and filled with colorful imagery and metaphors. Although this, too, could be an outgrowth of how people who live close to nature will speak. But it certainly contrasts with the taciturnity of the Northeast, and the clipped utility of the Midwest. However there are few wild characters and violent episodes that one might expect what might be considered full-bore capital “S” and “W” Southern Writing of Faulkner and O’Connor. RP himself loved Kathrine Anne Porter’s and Eudora Welty’s (a native Ohioan!) gift for discovering the nobility in “common” lives. It’s no fluke that Ann Tyler is RP’s most famous writing student.
The Duke Chronicle labeled him a “literary giant,” and in the context of his relationship with Duke he was a giant among those that represent the school, so I understand their impulse. But I would reserve the phrase “literary giant” to those writers to create a giant personality/image among their literary fraternity: Hemingway, Wolfe, Parker, Mailer, Sontag, Capote. That title often has more to do with self-promotion than pure writing chops. I would rather label RP (if we must) a “literary light,” someone who lived a literary life and who gave us stories that illuminated our own lives.
As much as RP was known as a writer, he was equally devoted to his academic craft. From what I could tell he drew as much satisfaction from teaching as he did from publishing. Although early in his career, thanks to a hit first time novel, he negotiated a sweet deal with Duke that allowed him to teach only one semester a year as a tenured professor drawing a full-time salary, he did NOT treat his academic duties as a part-time obligation. He lived for those semesters on campus, and relished each new batch of students that he got to spend time with and spin off into their future lives. In addition, he almost always taught undergraduates — graduate students were welcome to enroll in his creative writing seminars, or his Milton classes, but not at the expense of an undergraduate. And he always led his lectures personally, and graded each paper personally, without an attending or assisting graduate student dogsbody. For this, and for the respect he offered to every student he taught, he was loved as a professor, perhaps more even than he was loved by his readers. I believe he probably preferred to be viewed as an inspiring professor than as a famous writer.
Much like Updike (one year RP’s senior who also studied at Oxford), he was not only inspired by the written word, but just as much by the image. His art collection is a legend among those who knew him, including a Picasso print he purchased in London by starving himself for one of his Oxford terms in order to save up for the down payment. He collected so much art that his house was chock-a-block with paintings, prints, sculptures, and scattered ancient coins and pot shards that he loved to purchase the same way many people buy commemorative plates or collect Hummel figurines. His new wing, built the summer before I arrived for my year with him, allowed him to spread things out a bit…until he had filled it up as well, from floor to ceiling. In the 1990s he built yet another addition onto the new wing JUST to make room for all of his art. I will be curious to see what becomes of his impressive collection, though I imagine that most, if not all, will go to Duke’s art museum.
Oh, and about that Rhodes Scholarship he won…RP was about as un-athletic as a fit human could be, even before he was confined to a wheel chair. He often laughed about how he managed to persuade the Rhodes committee that he was a dedicated walker(!), which should qualify as his “success in sports” which is one of the important standards applied to students. Apparently his other talents were overwhelming enough to accept a dedicated walker into that small fraternity.