The Legend and the Legacy-September/October 1986

April 1, 2011
Reynolds Price in Profile

Reynolds Price Papers, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

He used to wear a long black cape with a scarlet lining. Or at least I always thought he did. Everybody thought so. Whenever we compared our freshman English instructors, someone was sure to say, “Reynolds Price? Isn't he the one with the cape?”

Turns out it wasn't a cape at all. It wasn't even black. It was a navy-blue coat that he wore tossed around his shoulders. That's what he tells me now, at any rate, and I suppose he knows best. But I prefer to have it my way: He wore a long black cape with a scarlet lining, and he dashed across the campus with his black curls swirling out behind him. Ask any of the people who went to Duke in the fall of 1958; I bet they'll say I'm right.

He was twenty-five years old back then, he tells me now, but in 1958 he seemed older than God. (I was sixteen and a half.) Which made it all the more remarkable when he perched on his desk tailor-fashion to read us his newest story; or when he said, to a student analyzing a poem, “You're good at this, aren't you!” (He seemed genuinely pleased, and admitted straight out that he hadn't seen what she had seen. For me, that girl's face will always symbolize the moment I first understood that we students, too, had something to offer—that we weren't the blank slates we thought we were in high school.)

“Wouldn't it be something,” he says now, “If we could locate a photograph taken of us together as children?” I'm puzzled. Together? As children? But then I realize that in fact he wasn't quite grown up himself when he started teaching—and that maybe, in the best sense, he never will be. And I remember a thought I had when I was a sophomore, listening to one of his funny, incisive discussions. He must have been a very loved child, I thought. I believe that occurred to me because he seemed, sitting in our midst, a naturally happy man. Not to mention the fact that there was something childlike about his face, which was—and still is—round and serene and gravely trusting.

And the other thought that occurred to me—not then but years later, when I revisited Duke and found him gray-haired but otherwise unchanged, affectionately guiding a whole new generation of students—was that Reynolds had the great good fortune to know his place, geographically speaking. More than any other writer I'm acquainted with, except for perhaps Eudora Welty, he has a feeling for the exact spot on earth that will properly contain him, and he has never let himself be lured away from it any longer than necessary.

As luck would have it, that spot is his family stomping grounds—semirural North Carolina, a country of scrubby woods and scrappy little towns. He was born in Macon, North Carolina, in 1933, the son of a door-to-door salesman and woman who hadn't been educated past the eleven years of public schooling then available. The family moved from place to place within a narrow radius, incidentally exposing him to a nearly unbroken stream of those dedicated, selfless teachers who used to be so prevalent back when teaching was still recognized as a noble profession. (“They were mostly single women that seemed old and wise,” says the heroine of Kate Vaiden, his latest novel, “…and the fact that I've made it thus far upright is partly a tribute to their hard example that you get up each morning and Take what comes .”)

It was his eighth-grade teacher in Warrenton who first encouraged his interest in writing and art—especially art. The two of them used to paint everything available; if they had nothing better to do, they'd decorate wine bottles and china dishes. Then in eleventh grade, at Broughton High School in Raleigh, Reynolds began to concentrate on writing under the direction of Phyllis Peacock, an English teacher whose name is legend to anyone who grew up in Raleigh during the Fifties or Sixties.

Note from Anne Tyler to Reynolds Price

Humble beginnings: Future Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler-a student in the first class Price taught in 1958-asks for help.
Reynolds Price Papers, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

From Broughton, he went to Duke University, and there, during his senior year, he wrote his first two short stories, “Michael Egerton” and “Chain of Love,” for William Blackburn's creative-writing class. (Do you notice how his history—as told by Reynolds himself—is a progression from teacher to teacher? It may explain why he's so whole-heartedly poured his gifts back into his students.)

While he was at Duke, he met Eudora Welty, who came to give a lecture during his senior year and arranged for him to send his writing to her agent, Diarmuid Russell. Reynolds had heard she'd be arriving alone on a three a.m. train, so he showed up to escort her to her hotel. He wore a gray suit which Eudora, decades later, remembers as snow white. I don't know why everyone is so confused about Reynold Price's wardrobe.

After graduating in 1955, he spent three years on a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford where he was encouraged by such people as Lord David Cecil, Stephen Spender, and W.H. Auden. But he felt he should settle near home—his father had died by then, leaving a widow and a younger son—so he returned to Duke to teach and to finish his first novel, A Long and Happy Life . And at Duke he has remained, except for one further year at Oxford and brief trips abroad. He is now James B. Duke professor of English; he teaches one semester a year and writes during the other semester. Some of his students are the children of students he taught when he first arrived.

What this stability has meant for his writing is that his fiction has roots—deep, tenacious roots to a part of the country that remains absolutely distinct from other parts. You may find shopping malls in North Carolina; you may come across those ubiquitous chocolate-chip-cookie boutiques and Olde English potpourri marts; but the people still have very much their own style of speaking, and Reynolds Price knows that style by heart. Any North Carolinian, reading one of his novels, must stop at least once per page to nod at the rightness of something a character says. It's not just the tone that's right; it's the startling, almost incongruous eloquence, for some of the state's least educated citizens can sling a metaphor pretty handily and know how to pack a punch into the homeliest remark. A bosomy girl in A Long and Happy Life has “God's own water wings inside her brassiere,” according to one of the characters, while in A Generous Man, a boy describes tobacco farming so vividly that the reader sags in sympathy: “…lose half my plants to frost and blue mold, then transplant the rest in early May and nurse it all summer like a millionaire's baby—losing half again to wet weather, dry weather, worms, blight.”

It may be too that staying on home ground has helped Reynolds Price keep his fiction centered on the family he grew up in. He has remained intensely curious about his parents, alert to every story they passed on to him. Kate Vaiden began to take form after he wrote a poem, “A Heaven for Elizabeth Rodwell, My Mother” (Poetry, June 1984), in which he took the three hardest events his mother had to endure and gave them happy endings. The he began remembering her tales of orphaned childhood, and her stoicism when she faced death from an inoperable aneurysm. (She died in 1965.) Kate Vaiden is not literally Reynolds' mother, but she does have his mother's independence and strength of character. She's a bit more self-possessed, is all, Reynolds says; she was offered a bit more scope than Elizabeth Rodwell Price ever was.

In the summer of 1983, he started the novel, and he finished Part One at the end of May 1984. The in June he learned that he had cancer of the spinal cord. He underwent immediate surgery, followed by an exhausting course of radiation and steroid therapy. The tumor was arrested, but he was no longer able to walk, and he entered a rehabilitation clinic to learn the practical strategies for life in a wheelchair. A mere three months after the original diagnosis (though it must have seemed like an eternity), he was back at work—first not writing but drawing, as if retracing his career from childhood on; then two month later inching into the written word with a play, August Snow, commissioned by Hendrix College; and sailing off on an astonishing creative burst that produced two more plays, a volume of poetry, and a collection of essays. At that point, he felt ready to continue with Kate Vaiden. He worried that the break might have altered his narrative voice, but he worried needlessly. Following his usual routine, working in longhand on legal pads, he picked up Part Two and continued to the end of the book.

Kate Vaiden, too, develop cancer, and Reynolds says that that part of her story emerged from his recent experiences. But otherwise the novel remains untouched by his illness, and lacks any trace of bitterness. You could say the same for Reynolds himself. Whatever those first months of must have cost him, he is now as high-spirited as ever. All that's new about him is a bigger set of biceps (he's changed shirt sizes since he started wheeling himself around) and a stock of funny stories about nurse's aides and wheelchair salesmen.

He lives where he has lived for the past twenty-eight years, next to a pond in the pines outside Durham; and when I visited him, a younger writer, Daniel Voll, was sharing the house to help him navigate the stairs. (A single floor addition that's now being built will soon allow him to be self-sufficient.) The rooms are stuffed with a mesmerizing collection of unrelated objects: fossils, cow skulls, death masks, and a personal letter from General Eisenhower dated 1943. Even the bathrooms are hung with photographs, and the kitchen windowsills are so densely lined with antique coins and pottery shards that for a moment I took an ordinary black metal window lock to be some kind of prehistoric artifact.

Around this labyrinth Reynolds wheels competently. He has returned to teaching after an eight-month sabbatical; even if he were a billionaire, he says, he would want to go on teaching. Teaching is his “serious hobby”; it keeps him in touch with the next generation. And he knows he has at least one thing of value to offer his students: practical, concrete advice for getting on with the work of writing (I can bear witness to that, certainly; and so can at least a half-dozen other published writers he's taught, in addition to who knows how many others who will sooner or later hit print.) Really what he offers is strategy, he says. In fact, he's a sort of rehab clinic. This notion makes him smile.

Dan Voll, who audited Reynolds' course during his undergraduate days, tells how he spent his first session lurking apprehensively outside the classroom doorway. Oh, Reynolds is thought to be pretty intimidating, if you ask the average Duke student. But that's only the start, Reynolds argues. At the start, he tells his class how he loves to root through Dempster Dumpsters in hopes of finding other people's mail to read, and then everybody relaxes. How can you be intimidated by someone who's confessed to that?

He smiles again. He does a little turn in his sporty tour-model wheelchair. The scarlet lining of his long black cape swirls out behind him.

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