50 Years: Priceless

April 1, 2008

 

Duke treasure: Price with Rose

Duke treasure: Price with Rose. Les Todd

You might think that Reynolds Price would be accustomed by now to the critical acclaim and widespread recognition of his achievements. After all, he's been a Rhodes Scholar, National Book Critics Circle winner, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters inductee. He's written dozens of books, taught and mentored countless Duke students, and established a place in literary and academic history.

But as he surveyed the standing-room-only crowd gathered in Duke Chapel to hear him in conversation with author Toni Morrison, Price '55 declared that the three-day midwinter celebration of his career "has been one of the greatest weekends of my life."

Scholars Wells and Fish

Price inscribes novel

Scholars Wells and Fish, top; Price inscribes novel, bottom Photos by Les Todd

That celebration, A Jubilee for Reynolds Price: 50 Years a Teacher at Duke, underscored the far-reaching influence the native North Carolinian has had on his alma mater, where he has taught for fifty years, and on the wider world. More than a mere lovefest—well, it was that, too—the series of discussions, film screenings, and staged readings paid tribute to Price's distinct yet overlapping identities as a scholar, writer, teacher, and friend.

The jubilee began on Thursday, January 31, with the screening of two documentary films about Price: Passing It On and Clear Pictures, which earned filmmaker Charles Guggenheim an Academy Award nomination. That evening, Emmy Award-winning television host Charlie Rose '64, J.D. '68 and Price engaged in a spirited conversation that included recollections of meeting each other in the fall of 1961, how their respective world views were shaped by growing up in North Carolina, the lasting impact of good teachers, the central place of family dynamics in Price's works, and the ways in which Price's four-year battle with spinal cancer tested his faith.

Friday—Price's seventy-fifth birthday—included several panel discussions. A particularly provocative session featured Dean of the Chapel Sam Wells and former Duke English department chair Stanley Fish, who explored religious and philosophical themes raised in select Price writings, including Three Gospels, Letter to a Man in the Fire: Does God Exist and Does He Care?, A Serious Way of Wondering: The Ethics of Jesus Imagined, and Price's essays and interpretations of John Milton's Paradise Lost. Wells speculated on what the "Church of Reynolds Price" might look like (a church that involves an enduring connection between the individual and his creator, he said), while Fish explored the concept of free will and other themes as they play themselves out in Paradise Lost, which both he and Price teach.

At the Toni Morrison event, Price launched the session by reading a poem he had penned as a tribute to their friendship. The jubilee closed later that afternoon with a staged reading of Price's Private Contentment by actor Annabeth Gish '93 and a cast of current students.

During the weekend, Provost Peter Lange announced the creation of the Reynolds Price Professorship, jointly funded through The Duke Endowment and The Homeland Foundation, whose president, E. Lisk Wyckoff Jr. '55, is a classmate and friend of Price.

More than 1,200 students, alumni, and Price fans from all over the country converged on campus for the event, which was organized by Rachel Davies '72, A.M. '89, director of alumni education and travel, and Ian Baucom, chair of the English department, in conjunction with seven other campus departments and organizations.