N.C. literary voice Reynolds Price dies

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 21, 2011 

  • Born in Macon in Warren County, northeast of Raleigh.

    Taught English at Duke University for more than 50 years.

    Survived spinal cancer, though the treatment that saved his life in the mid-'80s left him a paraplegic.

    "A Long and Happy Life" received the William Faulkner Award for a notable first novel in 1962.

    Published nearly 40 volumes, including poetry, short stories, novels, essays and plays. Novels include "A Long and Happy Life," "Kate Vaiden" and "Roxanna Slade." The third volume of his memoirs, "Ardent Spirits," was published in 2009.

    "I love to laugh, love my friends, family," Price said in 2009. "There are times when I try to get a little more depressed than I am, but I can't quite manage it."

    Former President Bill Clinton invited him to dinner at the White House during his first term. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Price sent Clinton a supportive card. It began: "Dear Mr. President, I've done worse."

Author Reynolds Price, one of the South's most renowned literary voices, will be remembered as a man who inspired generations of students and delighted readers with his stories about ordinary people in North Carolina.

After cancer treatment left him paralyzed, he endured chronic pain, yet became more prolific. His death in Durham on Thursday followed a major heart attack on Sunday.

"I don't think there's any question, he was the most important writer in North Carolina," said Anthony Abbott, a retired Davidson College English professor and writer who's teaching a series on Price and spirituality at Charlotte's Myers Park Baptist Church.

The 77-year-old Price taught English at Duke University, his alma mater, for more than 50 years. He published more than three dozen books, won awards and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

He survived spinal cancer, though the treatment that saved his life in the mid 1980s left him in a wheelchair, a paraplegic, dependent on a live-in assistant.

Born in Warren County, Price lived part of his childhood in Raleigh, attending Broughton High School. He found literary fame in 1962 with his novel "A Long and Happy Life" - the story of Rosacoke Mustian, a young North Carolina woman with a difficult boyfriend, Wesley Beavers. It won the William Faulkner Award for a notable first novel.

Over the years, Price published poetry, novels, memoirs, essays, theology. In 1986, his novel "Kate Vaiden" received the National Book Critics Circle Award.

In 1994, he published "A Whole New Life," his memoir of cancer and recovery. In a 2009 interview with the Charlotte Observer, he said he still heard from readers inspired and encouraged by that book.

Price lived in his native North Carolina almost his entire life.

"He remained at Duke and in the South for so long, and I think being so close to home was important," said James Schiff, a University of Cincinnati English professor and author of "Understanding Reynolds Price."

"He was a little like Thoreau, Dickinson, Faulkner or Welty. He stayed close to home and created a territory all his own. That's really unique about his writing. You'd read a Reynolds Price story and it doesn't sound like anybody else."

Price was also a singular presence as a professor on the Duke campus, teaching from the 1950s - novelist Anne Tyler had his freshman composition class - until the spring of 2010, when he taught a literary class on the Gospels of the New Testament.

Price treated students as adults and let them know when they weren't meeting his expectations. He made headlines in 1992 when he warned in a Founder's Day address that students were growing indifferent to intellectual life - and more devoted to parties that stretched from midday Thursday to Monday morning.

"That speech was a reflection of the deep caring he had for Duke, and it had a big impact," Duke Provost Peter Lange said.

Said Duke President Richard Brodhead: "Reynolds was a part of the soul of Duke; he loved this university and always wanted to make it better. We can scarcely imagine Duke without Reynolds Price."

Price's students over the years also included novelist Josephine Humphreys of Charleston.

Humphreys, author of "Dreams of Sleep" and "Rich in Love," credits Price with encouraging her to become a writer and helping her publish her first novel.

Thursday night, she recalled being totally charmed by the handsome professor with the deep, lovely voice who taught her freshman English class. "I can't think of anyone I'd ever met who had the same combination of presence and power and brilliance."

Price's final book, "Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back," was published in spring 2009. The book, which won warm reviews, explores six crucial years, from leaving home in 1955 to attend Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar to his return to North Carolina and the start of his career as a university teacher.

In that book, Price finally wrote about being a gay man, though he preferred the term "queer."

He held off writing about his sexuality until then, he said in 2009, because "I wanted to be very careful about not invading anyone else's privacy or making anyone more unhappy than seemed necessary."

Price loved to write and teach. In "A Whole New Life," he wrote that what he still asks for daily is - "life as long as I have work to do, and work for as long as I have life."

Price was two-thirds done with another memoir and was scheduled to teach his Gospels class starting this month. The university canceled the class last week because of his poor health.

According to Price's wishes, there will be no public funeral. He is survived by his brother, historian William S. Price Jr., retired director of the state Archives and History Division. William Price said in an interview that his brother's body would be cremated and his ashes scattered near his home in rural Durham County in a private ceremony.

"He's had chronic pain for the past 26 years," Price said. "And the last six months has been the most unrelenting pain I've seen him endure. And now he's where he won't have any more pain."

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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