✔ Remembering Reynolds Price ‘55
The Fact Checker organization includes five people, soon six. One is an alumnus who studied under Reynolds Price more than half a century ago.
✔ In the fall of 1959, as Reynolds Price began his second year as an assistant professor of English at Duke, warned there would be no renewal of his three year contract, he was already a campus phenomenon. A freshman who by luck was assigned to Reynolds' class gained immediate recognition if not awe from his dorm mates.
The mandatory first year English program consisted, each week, of one mass lecture rotated among members of the department, one classroom hour with 12 other students, and a private half-hour appointment with the professor to discuss your weekly essay.
The mass lecture normally involved someone reading his script aloud, (yes it was HIS script, no female professors back then) hardly stirring the windowless auditorium. But Professor William Blackburn made us perk up. And Reynolds Price, when he lectured on Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” without reference to any notes, drew a standing ovation, an appreciation not repeated again in most people’s undergraduate years.
The classroom hour was eclectic. While other profs labored through discussions of “The Great Gatsby” and the like, pitting Ph.D. dissertations against each other, Reynolds enlivened his class with probative and provocative discussions of faith and focus, family and meaning, history and current events. Sitting atop his desk, his legs folded under him, he led complex, magnetic discourse unlike any other English class you are likely to run into.
When listening, and he was just a good a listener as story teller and speaker in class, Reynolds had a way of moving his tongue to the corner of his mouth; and when he understood your point and was about to pounce, to move his tongue up to his upper lip.
When no one was up to speed on the coming British elections, he flared with his strong deep voice and castigated the vitality of the class in no uncertain terms.
"For many Duke students," he would say later, "the word 'intellectual' has an almost pejorative tone to it. I think of an intellectual as being one of the millions of human beings who pays very close attention to the world and tries to draw intelligent conclusions for his or her own life and the lives of others. It's not a choice someone makes in the 6th grade to be some book wormy, nerdy person who derives no joy from life."
The weekly essays were also eclectic. While others pondered Fitzgerald, Hemingway and other first year authors, Reynolds assigned his students to write on their life experiences. While other freshmen went to their one-on-one critiques and saw their professors reading one line ahead of the discussion, Reynolds had labored in his crowded East Duke Building office over the student's effort, scribbling abundantly in the margin, circling words and phrases in swooping red ink, and taking far more time than the allotted 30 minutes each week to critique.
Oh yes, no one got an A.
During his three year contract, Reynolds wrote his first novel -- and was asked to stay on. He quickly moved beyond mandatory freshman English and later taught courses on creative writing and the 17th-century English poet John Milton, as well as a course on the gospels in which students wrote their own version of a gospel story.
And then there was Halloween, Reynolds Price's annual reading of ghost stories and poems, which became a tradition.
For Dukie's who only know Reynolds from the decades he used a wheelchair, it’s difficult to imagine him as a student in the 50's or an aspiring professor in the 60's. Robust and athletic, a soccer player, someone who gracefully bounded up stairs two if not three at a time, who walked briskly and erect, loafers no socks. He particularly enjoyed the autumn and spring rains, and more than once was found just standing on the Main Quad under his large black umbrella watching the passing crowd.
Notice I said “used a wheelchair,” for Reynolds disdained the words “confined to a wheelchair.” For him, this device enabled his continued participation in the life of a university he so loved, and was not a restriction.
✔ FOUNDERS DAY 1992
It's hard to imagine too how dreary Founders Day was over the decades. I mean, what's to be said for inviting the president of the Tobacco Institute, the lobbying arm of the industry, to give the main address.
And then December, 1992, an invitation went to Reynolds with the blessing of President H. Keith H. Brodie, who knew that people who loved Duke eternally and were loyal to the core could make significant contribution with constructive criticism, a view lost on today's administrators.
Starting by noting Duke's increasing recognition -- "the university faculty has grown in responsible intellectual daring and professional stature to a point at which we may begin at least to think of ourselves as a first-rate academy, presumably the youngest in the world" -- Reynolds soon got to his theme:
When he was a student in the 50's, said Reynolds, undergraduates "gloried in a proportionally greater number of absolutely first-rate student minds, and fruitful personal exchanges between teachers and students were far more common in those days."
And in his early days, he encountered "extraordinary students to keep me teaching."
But as Reynolds said on Founders Day, times changed:
"I likewise encounter -- and all my classes are elective -- the stunned or blank faces of students who exhibit a minimum of preparation, or willingness for what I think of as the high delight and life-long pleasure of serious conversation in the classroom and elsewhere."
(In an interview, he later said, "It just is a tradition at Duke that students don't come to see their teachers. I sit in my office hours two days a week, and I also list 'and by appointment' and, generally speaking, nobody comes by. Here I am, and I mark the time reading a book or getting through my own homework and just nobody comes.")
Pointing fingers, he said alcohol was having devastating effect on students because it decreases their hunger for knowledge. When he was a student, Duke was certainly "no garden of Eden of intellectual serenity... but there really (has been) a gigantic change. It was a sober place."
With the stage thus set, Reynolds attacked with even more specificity.
Finding Greek life to be "play and violence and the occasional charitable project," fostering a "prevailing cloud of indifference, of frequent hostility, to a thoughtful life," he exhorted, "Join me in an earth-moving act which this university has delayed many decades and for lack of which it has punished all its members."
"... take firm steps to move briskly every fraternity and sorority among us; they would not return."
"I was once a member of a fraternity that survives on this campus. (Phi Delta Theta) This was before alcohol became our grim solvent."
With Greeks gone, "freed of that burden, we'd move with deliberate speed to organize life throughout the university on a residential college model...
"We'd redesign or rearrange individual quads and buildings, each with the shortest corridors possible, with private bedrooms for every student and with a dining room in each quad where students could meet like sane adult members or a group dedicated to legitimate principles of thoughtful social life, punctuated by normal bouts of revel."
In subsequent interviews, Reynolds wondered aloud why fraternities have exclusive rights over prime pieces of campus real estate.
The ideas spawned much soul searching. At one public follow up forum, Dukies heard from a young professor in the sciences named Steve Nowicki.
Though FC does not remember, an obituary in The New Yorker by his student Ian Crouch, notes he took "a special pride, it seemed, in horrifying his students by sharing his distaste for Duke’s men’s basketball."
✔ EARLY LIFE
Macon, North Carolina. A town north of Durham along the Virginia border which in the 2000 census harbored 115 people.
It apparently has lost people over the generations, for Edward Reynolds Price once described it as “227 cotton and tobacco farmers nailed to the flat red land at the pit of the Great Depression."
Reynolds' father was a traveling salesman, and while Reynolds was born in Macon, his family moved from town to town as it eked out a living in north-eastern North Carolina.
The New York Times obituary this morning notes Reynold's affinity to and affection for rural North Carolina, ordinary Tar Heels, finding, struggling in the world. The people he would write about as he became one of the most important voices in Southern fiction. His first novel featured the young woman Rosacoke Mustian, desperate to pin down her relationship with a feral boyfriend, Wesley Beavers. "A Long and Happy Life" thus began:
“Just with his body and from inside like a snake, leaning that black motorcycle side to side, cutting in and out of the slow line of cars to get there first, staring due-north through goggles towards Mount Moriah and switching coon tails in everybody’s face was Wesley Beavers.”
The literary world spun to pay attention. And Harper's Magazine, then the most highly regarded magazine, published the novel in its entirety as a supplement.
And the Times quoted the critic Theodore Solotaroff in Saturday Review: “Some beginning — of a book, of a career.... Its sheer virtuosity is like that of a quarterback who on the first play of his first professional game throws a 60-yard pass on the run, hitting the receiver exactly at the instant he breaks into the clear; a tremendous assertion of agility, power, timing and accuracy.”
On the next possession, to keep the metaphor alive, a year later, Reynolds scored another TD with his story collection "The Names and Faces of Heroes."
Early on in his life, Reynolds had begun to grasp the South that he would write about, much of his knowledge coming as relatives spun stories that fascinated him.
Fascinated him so much that his mother frequently urged her son to get out of the house and go play with children his age. But soon he would be back inside. He wrote "Clear Pictures: First Loves, First Guides" in 1989 about these years, explaining “I’m the world’s authority on this place. It’s the place about which I have perfect pitch.”
"Without having any consciousness of it at all and without having anybody in the family making a decision to train up somebody to be a writer or teacher, I was probably born with some genetic bent for using the English language in an interesting narrative fashion."
Reynolds first saw Duke on a spring day in 1943, a day trip from his home which was now in Raleigh, and the lush of the place -- in sharp contrast to the grim of the nation during World War II -- lingered in his mind.
Neither of his parents were college people. But his mother had a nephew and his wife who had been at the old Trinity College, entranced by their experience.
He enrolled in 1951, an Angier B. Duke Scholar.
His roommate of two years, Fred Chappell, recalls his wall posters were not like others, who favored pin-up girls. Reynolds had a Matisse.
Pledging a fraternity was quite different then: "When I was an undergraduate from '51 to '55, if you were caught with a bottle of alcohol in your room, you were just out of here. There was no mercy about it; they put you on the next bus out of town. It's amazing what a difference sobriety makes because we did come along in a generation where students who came to college at age 18 had not been accustomed to alcohol's having been a very large part of their high school and middle school life. In that sense, it was a different world, and it has been extraordinary the difference that alcohol has made on campus."
Not long after pledging, Reynolds quit Phi Delta Theta.
Tapped into an honorary society called the Red Friars, he refused to accept admission, explaining later the absurdity of an organization that contended it was secret holding a ceremony on the Chapel steps, its members appearing several times a year wearing red carnations in their lapels and denying the flowers were there. Seriously. It was the beginning of the quick end for the society.
He also felt that the group -- designed to bring together seven select seniors as good friends in service of Duke -- just was not functional, friendships having been forged long before the tapping and other organizations part of the members' lives for their first three years at Duke taking up much of their free time.
He got his first break as a writer at the end of his senior year at Duke, when the writer Eudora Welty visited campus and he showed her a short story he had written. She asked if she could show it to her agent, who took on a new client, and "Michael Egerton" appeared in a national magazine.
And then there was the Rhodes Scholarship, the boy from Macon, North Carolina, became the young intellectual who sailed for England to write a thesis on Milton, to have personal encounters with Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden and Lord David Cecil. He said his greatest regret was that his father died before his graduation summa cum laude from Duke and the Rhodes award.
As the NY Times notes, Spender was an important contact. He published the story “A Chain of Love” in the journal Encounter, a coup that led to an offer to teach at Duke when Reynolds returned from Oxford. (Later he wrote "Ardent Spirits" about this time)
Reynolds enjoyed a greater rank, assistant professor, than the proliferation of instructors in the freshman writing program. And let's be honest. Reynolds' easy southern drawl gave way slowly, with increasing hints of his four terms in England appearing year by year.
1984. Walking on West Campus, a friend noticed a slight hesitation, a slight limp. And then another discovered that when Reynolds took a step, one of his feet plopped to the ground.
Doctors found an eight to ten inch cancer called an astrocytoma wrapped around his spinal cord, suffocating it.
He underwent aggressive radiation to kill the tumor which he called, as the Times obit recalls, "the gray eel," and was left paralyzed from the waist down.
Three years later, he underwent delicate neurosurgery with Duke's great Dr. Allan Friedman, but still had no use of his legs.
"Once the immediate shock has passed, I wish someone had said to me, 'You are no longer Reynolds Price. Who do you want to be?' Your only real choice is to invent a whole new life."
And that was the title of his autobiographic account of his ordeal. "A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing."
Interestingly, inexplicably, Price played no significant role as Duke was slow to meet requirements of the new federal disability act. He did lament on occasion the slate sidewalks and how the wheelchair bumped every four feet through them. His office, moved now to Allen Building, was reachable by only one back elevator. At home he had the services of a full-time aide, frequently a student studying under him.
✔ BEING GAY. OR QUEER AS HE PREFERRED.
It was interesting too how he played no role in the difficult journey of gays to have full acceptance on campus.
In fact he was lucky to survive as a student, for the atmosphere in those years is best summed up by one contemporary dean who said, "There are two things we cannot have around here. Thieves and homosexuals."
Students disappeared overnight, and so did a prominent member of the faculty in the Divinity School.
Returning from Oxford, where his sexuality exploded and he had a relationship with an older mentor he would never name, his draft status no longer protected by deferment, he unabashedly stated for the first time that he was "homosexual" and thus excluded from the military.
For decades, while most people knew anyway and could care less, Reynolds did not come out on campus, an issue raised when Charlie Rose '64 interviewed him upon publication of the book in which he did.
Reynolds said he felt it was not anyone's business. And then in a warmer response, he said he did not think a homosexual story would sell.
And he described himself as "queer," not gay. "Potent genes may well have been at work,” with five “queer” relatives in two generations in his family."
His view was that the word “gay” made homosexuals seem “giddy irresponsible, negligible creatures.”
Looking back to his return to Duke from Oxford in 1958 and the years that followed immediately, “Without quite knowing it, I was slowly being inducted into the writer’s life with its unavoidable isolation and its demand for internal resources that can so easily be replaced by drink, other drugs, and the supreme narcotic of other human bodies.”
He took the supreme narcotic, later calling himself a “sexual wolverine,” noting wryly “an enduring partnership was not among my immediate projects.”
Published a year ago, Reynolds looked back in "Ardent Spirits," where he outed himself: “What I didn’t quite know, in the last year of high school, was how fiercely most Americans were then opposed to the whole reality of male homosexuality, if they knew of it at all. It was a life then called queer. .. Nonetheless, I kept my strong suspicion undercover—and rather enjoyably so. I was after all at the I-love- a-mystery stage.”
✔ ON FAITH
Reynolds was as iconoclastic in his faith as in the rest of life. He identified himself as an “outlaw” Christian, a reference which FC believes incorporates his belief in Christ, perhaps not His divinity, and certainly not any established religion. A reference that may include his homosexuality, condemned in limited sections of the Bible, but as Reynolds would note, not by Jesus.
Corrections of this view, nuances, would be appreciated.
Most notably in 1978, he published the first of two Biblical translations, "A Palpable God." In 1996, he followed up with "The Three Gospels.” And religion played a deep role in his 2007 tribute to his godson “Letter to a Godchild."
“My teaching, however, slowly became my primary means of attempting to practice the life of a good man, a responsible child of God.”
"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."
Reynolds reveled in teaching freshmen Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, and asking mysteries of faith and doubt, “who or what made us, for what purpose. . . raising Leibniz’s troubling question — ‘Why is there something and not nothing?’”
Later works, “Roxanna Slade” (1998) and “The Good Priest’s Son” (2005), saw fallible characters fighting moral choices, a deepening moral tinge as one reviewer put it.
In 1962, "A Long and Happy Life" received the William Faulkner Award for a notable first novel. His novel "Kate Vaiden" received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986.
In his early days as a published writer, Price took offense at reviewers labeling him as the heir to Faulkner.
"The search for influences in a novelist's work is doomed to trivial results," he wrote in the New York Times. "A serious novelist's work is his effort to make from the chaos of all life, his life, strong though all-but-futile weapons, as beautiful, entire, true but finally helpless as the shield of Achilles itself."
This morning, The New York Times noted his passing with a headline and small paragraph on page one -- a highly unusual tribute -- and an extensive obituary on an inner page.
He received the highest honors: as an alum and as a faculty member for his service to Duke, and will have a professorship living on in his honor.
He left us, by count on the FC bookshelf, 38 full length volumes, and untold memories.
Thank you for reading FC.