Reynolds Price remembered

Monday, January 24, 2011

Many writers, readers, colleagues, and students were saddened by the news of Reynolds Price’s death on January 20, 2011, at age 77, from complications of a heart attack. His early accolades include becoming a Rhodes Scholar in 1956, and receiving the William Faulkner Award for a notable first novel for A Long and Happy Life, published in 1962. Among his subsequent works, his novel Kate Vaiden sparked renewed critical interest and won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986. Price considered himself a disciple of Eudora Welty, whom he met during his senior year of college, and who helped him get his first story published. He wrote in 2001 in The New York Times about his first meeting with her:

I was 22; she was almost 46. I'd had other well-wishers, but having the unexpected encouragement of a writer whose best work I knew to be the equal of Chekhov's was a permanently enabling gift. Yet the central strand of our mutual desire to continue communication was Eudora's vast endowment for friendship. And that immediate friendship, which would continue to deepen till her death, was founded on a good many footings. Prime among them was a sharing of the work we did -- I the callow beginner, she the master who calmly refused to play master.

I speculate that these early mentoring experiences helped Price become the demanding but interested and respectful teacher that his former students describe. He is well remembered by those who studied with him at Duke University, where he accepted an initial 3-year teaching appointment only to remain on faculty over fifty years. Ian Crouch, one such student, writes his recollections in The New Yorker:

He was a commanding presence in an era when fewer and fewer professors are able or willing to strike fear in the hearts of their students. He required attendance, participation, and most of all, preparation. I would fall behind in my reading for other courses just to keep up in the thick, red collected Milton that soon became a constant companion….Much of his presence owed to his deep and distinctive voice....I was neither abashed nor alone, I suspect, in closing my eyes as he performed.

In a 2008 tribute to Price, James Schiff describes taking a fiction writing class with Price in 1980. Upon hearing the professor’s impressive voice, Schiff feared immediately that Price would expose him as an unworthy imposter. He discovered instead that Price took students seriously, and recalls the following remarks:

In the minutes and days that followed, we heard things I had not heard before in a classroom: "A need to hear and tell stories is essential to human beings, second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter." "Family is unquestionably the most destructive force there is, except for tornadoes." "Ninety-nine percent of accomplishing almost any task is to simply sit glued to your chair." "If you can stop writing, you probably should. Try cabinet-making or forestry." As a student, I wanted to absorb as much of him and what he said as I could....For me, that was the beginning of becoming an adult. I doubt I would have become a teacher or writer had it not been for Reynolds, whose example showed me that there were few professions more desirable or engaging.

In reflecting upon our discussion last week on the emphasis on short-form writing in the classroom, I wondered what Price, known for his great novels as well as his teaching, might have advised. I found some clues in his introduction to his volume of short stories, The Collected Stories (Scribner, 2004).

Price believed that the short story springs more closely from personal experience than the novel, and yet is more taxing to write. Novels, he thought, serve to release the writer from self in favor of “long flights through the Other.” He explained further:

It’s often remarked that, while the story’s technical and emotional demands are more strenuous in some ways than the novel’s, its short distance is paradoxically the event first entered by more young narrative writers….The knowledge and reflection over which [the young writer] has sufficient depth of command are recent, often unconfirmed by repetition and are mostly deprived of the long submergence which fiction wants in the shaping dark of the unconscious mind….If for me the broad subject of novels has been the action of time—its devastation and curious repair—the story has charted briefer stretches of concentrated feeling, and it always speaks an intimate language. Because of its single-minded intent and the narrow ground from which it looks, the story is more likely than the novel to issue straight from a writer’s home—the crow’s nest from which, at the rates of his body, he gauges the riptides between him and land.

So apt. So graceful. Price wrote more about his teaching methods and experiences in his memoir Ardent Spirits. I’m grateful that his writing preserves so much for those of us who can know him only on the page, with the seasoning of his recorded voice on NPR programs. I hope those who had the privilege of knowing Price will keep telling us about him.