When Randall Kenan contributed his list of essential North Carolina books for our Books of the States project a couple of years back, rather than choose a single example of Reynolds Price's books, he just said "Reynolds Price," and Price himself seemed a natural choice as the N.C. writer to honor on the spurious state quarters we were concocting back then. He was raised and educated in North Carolina, and after a Rhodes scholarship took him to Oxford, he returned to Duke, his alma mater, where he remained, teaching writing and Milton, for the rest of his life. For over a quarter century, following a battle with spinal cancer in 1984 that he wrote about in the acclaimed memoir, A Whole New Life, and that, he says, opened the most productive period of his writing life, his legs were paralyzed--confining him to, as he put it in his Paris Review interview, an "existence as a seated man"--and today he died at the age of 77 in Durham, following a heart attack this past weekend.
Price was a legend and an institution, but not the sort of writer associated immediately with a single book. Instead he was known for the consistent and prolific quality of his vision and his loyal attention to the rural North Carolina where he was raised, "the place," he once said in a quote everyone mentions, "about which I have perfect pitch." His first novel, A Long and Happy Life--and its knockout, snakey first sentence--was greeted in 1962 with the sort of hype and excitement that some writers never quite outlive, but Price was in for the long haul, and found some of his greatest successes in his later years, with novels like Kate Vaiden and Blue Calhoun and his series of memoirs, including Clear Pictures and the recent story of his time at Oxford, Ardent Spirits, and over time he wrote more directly about both his Christianity and his homosexuality.
Here's a list of his works:
- A Long and Happy Life (1962)
- A Generous Man (1966)
- Love and Work (1968)
- The Surface of Earth (1975; 1st in the Great Circle trilogy)
- The Source of Light (1981; 2nd in the trilogy)
- Kate Vaiden (1986)
- Good Hearts (1988)
- The Tongues of Angels (1990)
- Blue Calhoun (1992)
- The Promise of Rest (1995; 3rd in the trilogy)
- Roxanna Slade (1998)
- Noble Norfleet (2002)
- The Good Priest's Son (2005)
- The Names and Faces of Heroes (1963)
- Permanent Errors (1970)
- The Foreseeable Future (1991)
- The Collected Stories (1993)
Faith and the Bible:
- A Palpable God (1978)
- Three Gospels (1996)
- Letter to a Man in the Fire (1999)
- A Serious Way of Wondering (2003)
- Letter to a Godchild: Concerning Faith (2006)
- Things Themselves (1972)
- A Common Room (1987)
- Feasting the Heart (2000)
- Learning a Trade: A Craftsman's Notebooks (2000)
You can read the New York Times obituary by William Grimes, in which Allan Gurganus calls Price "the best young writer this country has ever produced," and a lengthy one in the Charlotte Observer, as well as his Paris Review interview from 1990, an exceptionally congenial exchange with the novelist Frederick Busch, who confessionally reminds Price of the fan letter he'd sent him 20 years before. His discussion of his parents I think is worth quoting at some length:
They were almost too lovable, which is something I’ve heard very few people say about their parents. I think both my brother and I, who were their only children to survive infancy, have all our lives been handicapped by the fact that we seldom meet human beings as loyal, affectionate, or continuously amusing as our parents were. They were both grand talkers, and my father also had a thoroughly first-class verbal and gestural wit. He was a great comedian—and I’m thinking of Charlie Chaplin when I say that—though he never had a moment’s training nor a moment’s professional opportunity to exhibit it. Among all his friends, he was absolutely everybody’s favorite person to see. By the time I was born in 1933, he was a very serious alcoholic—I don’t guess there are any unserious alcoholics—but he made a deal with God when I was born. My mother and I were both in danger during her labor—I was one of the last American bourgeois children born at home—and my father vowed to God that if mother and I survived he would stop drinking. We survived, and he did. It took him a couple of years, but he did.
I learned about the vow very early; from that time forward I took on this unsleeping responsibility for my parents, especially my father. I thought they were children who were much younger than I and who needed all the care I could give. I don’t think that kind of backwards adoption is rare at all. I used to think that I landed myself in a fairly unique situation, but I continuously find people who tell me that their relations to their parents were almost identical to mine, above all if they were only children as I was for the first eight years of my life. So I just put in enormous years of love and sorrow, desperation and joy—enormous years of practice in managing the lives of these two rewarding but endlessly mysterious people and in trying to convince them that I was a valid third within their pairing; amazingly, I think they admitted me.
Then we admitted my brother when he came along, and as families go, I think ours was about as functional as they get. My parents also did something which . . . it’s rather awful to say, but which was another gift to me as a writer: they died when I was a young man. My father died when I was twenty-one years and twenty-one days old, which is like something out of William Butler Yeats. My mother died when I was thirty-two.