Today, we leave you with a lovely essay by Georgann Eubanks, author of Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains and Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont. Here, she writes about the life and work of Reynolds Price–what he meant and continues to mean to her, to all of us readers, to North Carolina, and the world of letters. Enjoy. –beth
“We were father and son, bound in blood duty. He’d guarded my life for two decades. I guarded his death and, in it, he taught me the final lesson of life — how, hard as it is, death is no whit harder than the long trek toward it. And both things, the trek of life and death’s wide mouth, can be endured with dignity anyhow.”
—Clear Pictures by Reynolds Price, (New York: Athenaeum, 1988) p. 288-9.
I can’t be sure if Reynolds Price ultimately found his own words about death to be true, but I do know that he lived the last 27 years of his life with a dignity and determination to wring out all the juice of life he could muster as a man, mid-life, suddenly confined to a wheelchair.
Price cut a striking figure on the Duke University campus when I first arrived in the early 1970s. His shock of dark hair and his sonorous voice, even from a distance, were instantly recognizable and formidable.
I was not an English major, though I did worry over a fledgling short story that I submitted as a sophomore in hopes of getting into his small seminar in creative writing. My roommate did the same. She was admitted. I was not. I never dared to ask him why, as if he would remember my little family tale in the midst of so many eager submissions over the fifty years of his teaching.
In an interview after Reynolds’s passing, Duke President Richard Brodhead said of Price that, to students, he was “a figure of fear and trembling.” Indeed. And as my friends who did enter his writing class soon learned, a positive comment from him about an assigned piece of prose was pure gold; but the criticism was absolutely withering. I believe it all turned out for the best for me. Instead of being his student, I became a casual friend.
Price’s literary contacts were legion, and Duke was the better for it. He helped bring to campus the likes of Robert Penn Warren (the night I tasted my first Wild Turkey at a reception with the author/connoisseur), Tom Wolfe (who would eventually send his daughter to Duke), and Margaret Atwood (whom we students squired over to the crunchy Somethyme Restaurant, “the home of fine natural food in Durham,” for a quick supper before meeting up with Price and others at the home of the widow of Professor William Blackburn (Price’s mentor) for a dizzying party.
Admittedly, I am dropping names, but I do so in memory of the master. In his storied travels, Reynolds met celebrities of every sort and continued correspondence with them for decades. Name a famous person of his era, and Price had an anecdote. He studied poetry with W.H. Auden at Oxford. Somehow he knew and kept up with Liz Taylor. A gifted artist, the young Reynolds also painted likenesses of both Marian Anderson and Ethel Waters, presenting them backstage on separate occasions as gifts that both singers prized.
Once, a classmate of mine went to a holiday party at Price’s house in Duke Forest and was sitting alone on a sofa, nervously throwing back handfuls of nuts, coming close to emptying the small bowl on a side table when Reynolds came by and brightly declared, “Those are Eudora’s Christmas pecans!”
My friend nearly choked. There was always vicarious adventure and surprise in Price’s company.
When Anne Tyler and Eudora Welty came to Duke for a literary festival in the early 1980s, I was lucky enough to be among the small group who interviewed them one afternoon in the parlor of East Duke Building, a fussy, formal room with heavy drapes, creaking floors, and floral furnishings. Reynolds and I ended up shoulder to shoulder on the same little velvet settee. A miserable Anne Tyler, holding her small purse tightly in her lap, sat like a stone beside the animated Welty, both of them in wingback chairs. (To this day Tyler never grants interviews but subjected herself to this occasion out of respect for Price, her former professor.)
About halfway through the session, Miss Welty was waxing on about metaphor—a four-syllable word from her Mississippi mouth. Price suddenly elbowed me and whispered, “Ask Anne a question.” When Miss Welty finished, I spoke up, and we all moved to the edge of our seats as Anne Tyler responded. She held us enthralled, defending the quirkiness of her characters in a hushed voice. Price seemed pleased.
When Reynolds adapted his first (and some would say his best) novel, A Long and Happy Life, into a stage play for Duke Summer Theater, I landed a bit part, and it was only then that I came to appreciate his wicked humor. In explaining to the cast the proper way to pronounce the name of the Tidewater town that figures in the story, Price said, “Think of it as a football cheer: We don’t drink, we don’t smoke: Norf*ck! Norf*ck!” Over a beer after rehearsal, he explained with gravity to all of us—students and recent graduates in search of careers—that there were at least three good reasons to become a teacher: June, July and August. When the play ended, Price threw a brunch for the cast. I can still see the spread of his lovely quiches, marbled with ham and laid out on silver platters surrounded by exotic fruits. (Quiche was a novelty in Durham back then.)
Of course, these events all took place before the wheelchair, when the vigorous, handsome Reynolds seemed to be covering great swaths of the planet every summer—traveling to the Holy Land with his beloved friend Daniel Voll—now a Hollywood TV producer, and collaborating with James Taylor—who scored the 1982 PBS production of Price’s play, Private Contentment.
Then, the paralysis struck in 1984. It was frightening, though ultimately the limits seemed to unleash a torrent of creativity. By my count, Price wrote 13 books from 1962 to 1984. After the tumor and the brutal radiation treatments to banish it, Price produced his most triumphant novel, Kate Vaiden, featuring a character as memorable and sassy as Rosacoke Mustian from his first book. More than twenty volumes would follow at a brisk pace.
Price finally told his own story in a series of autobiographical works, including A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing, which prompted a blizzard of fan mail and a whole new audience. When he left us, twelve days shy of his 78th birthday on February first, he had also given us his translations of the Gospels, a series of radio essays broadcast on NPR, his writing notebooks from 1955 to 1997, a children’s book, and a final memoir about his experiences as a Rhodes Scholar in England and his early years as a teacher at Duke.
The last time I sat with Reynolds in his house, he was reflecting on the late 1960s and early 70s, a period he characterized as “the most exciting and wonderful time to teach. It was the first time members of the student body showed interest in knowing their teachers, when the grip of fraternities and sororities weakened for a time.” He recalled his devastation the day Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in 1968 and how he and a friend walked solemnly out of his house into the dark and laid on the bare ground to study the stars. “Those were the years when many Duke graduates were deciding to stay in the area and change things for the better,” he said wistfully.
Of course, Price himself was one of those Duke students who decided to stay here, too, and we are so much the richer for his close stories of North Carolina—real and imagined—that we can turn to again and again, even as we miss his deep voice and his wide smile.
Georgann Eubanks is a writer, teacher, and consultant to nonprofit groups across the country. She is director of the Table Rock Writers Workshop, was a founder of the North Carolina Writers’ Network, and is past chair of the North Carolina Humanities Council. Her most recent book is Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont.