South­ern nov­el­ist drew deeply from child­hood mem­o­ries

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY MATT SCHUDEL schudelm@wash­post.com

Reynolds Price, a gifted writer who ex­plored the world of the ru­ral South in his fic­tion and who later wrote mov­ingly of his or­deal with can­cer and paral­y­sis, died Jan. 20 at Duke Uni­ver­sity Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Durham, N.C., af­ter a heart at­tack. He was 77.

Mr. Price spent al­most his en­tire life in North Carolina, whose peo­ple and land­scapes were the wellspring of his imag­i­na­tion and care­fully wrought prose. When his first novel, “A Long and Happy Life,” was pub­lished in 1962, he be­came a lit­er­ary sen­sa­tion and was con­sid­ered an heir to the South­ern tra­di­tion of Wil­liam Faulkner, Eu­dora Welty and Flan­nery O’Con­nor.

He wrote 38 books in all, in­clud­ing 14 nov­els, dozens of short sto­ries, plays, po­ems and es­says, as well as three vol­umes of mem­oirs. For­mer pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton once called Mr. Price his fa­vorite author.

Af­ter en­ter­ing Duke Uni­ver­sity as a fresh­man in 1951, Mr. Price went on to spend more than 50 years on the Duke fac­ulty. His brother said in an in­ter­view that Mr. Price had been sched­uled to be­gin teach­ing a sem­i­nar on the Gospels of the New Tes­ta­ment on Jan. 19, three days af­ter he was stricken with a heart at­tack.

In his fic­tion, Mr. Price drew deeply from child­hood mem­o­ries of grow­ing up in small towns in North Carolina. His fam­ily moved 11 times by the time he was 13, and he of­ten said he was in­spired by the sto­ries he heard be­ing told on front porches.

As a stu­dent at Duke, Mr. Price at­tended a lec­ture by Welty, who im­pressed on him the im­por­tance of writ­ing about the place he knew best.

“One of the things she showed me as a writer,” he told The Washington Post in 1986, “was that the kinds of peo­ple I had grown up with were the kinds of peo­ple one could write mar­velous fic­tion about.”

Mr. Price was pub­lish­ing short sto­ries while still in col­lege and was taken on by Welty’s well-con­nected agent, Diar­muid Rus­sell. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing summa cum laude from Duke in 1955, Mr. Price won a Rhodes schol­ar­ship and spent three years study­ing lit­er­a­ture at Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity in Eng­land.

He be­came an author­ity on the 17th-cen­tury poet John Mil­ton, the author of “Par­adise Lost,” and taught a course on Mil­ton at Duke for decades, as well as cour­ses in writ­ing nar­ra­tive prose. His stu­dents in­cluded nov­el­ists Anne Tyler and Josephine Humphreys.

In his own fic­tion, Mr. Price showed an un­canny ear for the ver­nac­u­lar speech of the South and a par­tic­u­lar affin­ity for writ­ing about fe­male char­ac­ters.

“A Long and Happy Life” told the story of a head­strong young woman, Rosacoke Mus­tian, who was se­duced by a back­woods charmer. Two later nov­els, “Kate Vaiden” (1986) and “Rox­anna Slade” (1998), were told in the first-per­son voices of sturdy women of the Carolina coun­try­side.

By the mid-1970s, crit­ics were not­ing that Mr. Price had tilled the same patch of soil too many times and, with his some­times or­nate de­scrip­tive pas­sages, was more than a lit­tle in love with the sound of his own voice.

When a Time mag­a­zine critic called Mr. Price a “South­ern-writer-in-res­i­dence” of limited scope, Mr. Price re­torted that the com­ment was like “com­plain­ing that all the great Vic­to­rian nov­els were about Eng­land.”

Praise for Mr. Price’s work, how­ever, far out­weighed the crit­i­cism.

“He’s a ge­nius with the lan­guage,” Humphreys, his one­time stu­dent, told the At­lanta Jour­nalCon­sti­tu­tion in 1998. “He can put words to­gether in ways that no other liv­ing per­son can. . . . He makes real po­etry out of it, and we all wanted to learn the se­cret.”

Ed­ward Reynolds Price was born Feb. 1, 1933, in Ma­con, N.C., and lived in sev­eral towns be­fore at­tend­ing high school in the state cap­i­tal of Raleigh, where teach­ers en­cour­aged his in­ter­est in writ­ing and books.

“Like most kids,” he told The Post, “I just kept go­ing in the di­rec­tion the praise pushed me.”

When Mr. Price ap­plied to Duke Uni­ver­sity, he told Raleigh’s News & Ob­server in 1986, he scored 14 points out of a pos­si­ble 100 on a math­e­mat­ics en­trance exam — “an hon­est in­dex of my knowl­edge of math­e­mat­ics.” He said a dean waived the math re­quire­ment for his en­tire col­lege ca­reer.

In 1984, while walk­ing on the Duke cam­pus, Mr. Price no­ticed some awk­ward­ness in his feet and legs. Doc­tors found an 11-inch can­cer­ous tu­mor wrapped around his spinal col­umn. Af­ter surgery and re­peated ra­di­a­tion treat­ments, he be­came par­a­lyzed from the waist down and spent the rest of his life us­ing a wheel­chair.

Mr. Price was a third of the way through “Kate Vaiden” when his can­cer struck. When he re­turned to his writ­ing desk, he found an un­ex­pected burst of en­ergy. In a few months, he fin­ished the novel, a fi­nal­ist for a Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle award, as well as sev­eral es­says, po­ems and a play.

“I don’t write with a con­scious sense of the hang­man atmy door, of my own mor­tal­ity,” he told The Post in 1986. “But I am a tremen­dously driven per­son, and I have got­ten more so since sit­ting down. Words just come out of me the way my beard comes out. Who could stop it?”

Af­ter un­der­go­ing hyp­no­sis to re­lieve near-con­stant pain, Mr. Price be­gan to un­cover vivid mem­o­ries of child­hood, which he drew on for a 1989 mem­oir, “Clear Pic­tures,” that crit­ics con­sid­ered one of his finest books. He re­counted his strug­gle with can­cer in an­other mem­oir, “A Whole New Life,” in 1994.

Mr. Price, who had a res­o­nant bari­tone voice and a com­pelling speak­ing style, was a class­room fa­vorite at Duke and de­liv­ered oc­ca­sional es­says on Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio in the 1990s. He of­ten spoke of his can­cer and paral­y­sis, but he did not pub­licly ad­dress an­other side of his life un­til his 2009 mem­oir, “Ar­dent Spir­its.”

In that book, he con­firmed an open se­cret among literati that he was gay — or “queer,” as he pre­ferred to put it. Pre­vi­ously, as he said in 1987, “I . . . al­ways felt that my pri­vate life was pri­vate. . . . All that I wish to say about my life is said inmy work.”

Mr. Price had com­pleted most of a fourth mem­oir at the time of his death, said his brother and lone im­me­di­ate sur­vivor, Wil­liam S. Price Jr.

When Mr. Price pub­lished “Kate Vaiden” in 1986 — his first novel since his can­cer treat­ment — it was seen as a ma­jor per­sonal break­through, as well as a tri­umphant re­turn to his early lit­er­ary prom­ise.

At one point in the novel, in words that could have ap­plied to Mr. Price him­self, his ti­tle char­ac­ter said: “Strength just comes in one brand — you stand up at sun­rise and meet what they send you and keep your hair combed.”

1986 PHOTO BY THOMAS VIC­TOR

Reynolds Price wrote 38 books in all, in­clud­ing 14 nov­els, dozens of short sto­ries and three vol­umes of mem­oirs.

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