Reynolds Price: Novelist, Poet, Essayist--Great Southern Writer
I first saw Reynolds Price in the early 1980's at a writers conference. He was tall and handsome and lithe. I thought he was one of those beautiful, talented people--doubly blessed.
When I saw him next, just a few years later, he was in a wheel chair and did not look much like the young man I had previously seen. During the intervening years he had suffered a catastrophic illness that had dramatically altered his life. The story of his illness and his talent as a writer drew me to his works over the years, and, like many others, I was saddened by his death in January 2011 at the age of seventy-seven.
That he had lived to the age of seventy-seven was in itself remarkable. He had survived a near fatal bout with a malignant spinal tumor which left him a paraplegic for the last twenty-five years of his life. He writes of this illness and his life after the illness in his memoir A Whole New Life. It's a remarkable story. "The fact that my legs were subsequently paralyzed by 25 X-ray treatments ... was a mere complexity in the ongoing narrative which God intended me to make of my life," he said.
This illness did not seem to slow his literary career, however. He went on to publish another twenty-six books before his death, a little better than one a year. Before this illness he had been productive, publishing a book every couple of years. But after the illness his productivity increased despite the illness and its accompanying pain. In doing research for this article, I am reminded of the number of Price's books I still have to read, giving more meaning to the adage, “So many books, so little time.” In Price's case, there really are “so many books”.
Price first came on the literary scene in 1962 with the publication of his first novel, A Long and Happy Life. It won him immediate acclaim, including the William Faulkner Award for a best first novel. It also brought him the inevitable comparison to William Faulkner, a comparison he disliked but eventually accepted. Eudora Welty, who was one of his champions early on, said of this novel, "Reynolds Price is the most impressive new writer I've come across in a long time. His is a first-rate talent and we are lucky that he has started so young to write so well. Here is a fine novel."
In addition to being a prolific novelist, Price also published several books of poems, essays, translations of the Bible, and three volumes of memoirs. His book, Feasting The Heart (2000), is a collection of controversial and personal essays, originally broadcast on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. He even wrote the lyrics to two James Taylor songs, Copperline and New Hymn.
Except for the three years he spent at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Price was a lifelong resident of North Carolina. He was educated at Duke University and after his stay in London returned to Duke to teach for 52 years until his death in 2011, becoming a legendary professor. A few of his students, like Josephine Humphreys and Anne Tyler would go on to become well-known, talented writers also.
His Christian faith was an important part of Price's' life, as evidenced in many of his writings, including his memoir A Whole New Life, his translations of the Gospels, and Letter to a Godchild: Concerning Faith. He called himself an “outlaw” Christian. In his obituary, the New York Times called him an unorthodox, nonchurchgoing Christian”.
His final book, Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back, was published in 2009. The book discusses his leaving home to study at Oxford and return to North Carolina to begin his teaching career at Duke University. In this book he discusses for the first time his homosexuality, though he always preferred to call himself “queer'” and not gay or homosexual. “A 'queer' friend once said,” he writes, “Please don't call me gay. If you need an adjective, call me morose." He discusses this book, his homosexuality and prior reluctance to discuss this matter in a wonderful interview with his friend Charlie Rose in 2009. See the interview at http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/10326
You can read an excerpt from ardent spirits at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/13/books/chapter-ardent-spirits.html?pagewanted=all
When an event was held after his death in a chapel at Duke University to celebrate his life, the event was called “A Long and Happy Life”. At another event at Duke three years earlier to celebrate his 50 years of teaching there, Price was overheard to say, "What a good time I've had. You've never met someone who has enjoyed life as much as I have."
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