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An "Ardent Spirit" Departs: Reynolds Price 1933-2011

Posted: Jan 22, 2011

Award winning author and longtime Duke professor Reynolds Price died Thursday, January 20, from complications following a heart attack just over a week before his 78th birthday. Price had been a paraplegic since 1984 when surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his spine ("the grey eel") and the subsequent radiation treatments left his legs paralyzed. In 1994 he wrote about his experience with cancer in the memoir A Whole New Life: An Illness and A Healing.

When I think of Reynolds Price, whom I met twice as I recall, I remember his voice. I can close my eyes and hear it now-- elegantly southern but strongly Oxfordian. Price spent three years, from 1955 to 1958, as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. I could even hear echoes of what I imagined to be a Boston Brahmin accent even though Price was born in North Carolina  and spent all but a few of his 77 years there.

I met Reynolds Price once at an English conference prior to his being diagnosed with cancer and was unprepared in the late 1980's to see him in a wheelchair. Price's disability in no way affected his productivity, and he continued to write and teach until the end of his life. By all accounts he was a excellent teacher and his students, such as novelist Anne Tyler, spoke of him fondly. Tyler wrote in an email "He seemed genuinely joyous when we did something right." (photo by Grant Halverson 1998)

In a May 2009 article, Susan Salter Reynolds wrote the following about Price:

"The author is clearly well loved on campus, by fellow professors and also the men and women who work there, many of whom are black. When Price sees one man, who takes care of the chapel (clearly the two have known each other for decades), his accent gets richer and more musical. He is familiar with questions about lingering racism in the South.  'That man and I were born trapped in a culture that can't be escaped,' Price says. 'He and I have learned to weather a system in which we were born. I've lived in this world all my life, and I sink unplanned into that accent with 10 seconds' notice. The great sickness of this country is racism. It is not gone, and it is not going to be gone in my lifetime or yours.' "

Having gained national recognition as a Southern writer, Price insisted he was an "American writer, for God's sake." He did, however, see himself as a legatee of Eudora Welty, if not of William Faulkner. Still, his first novel A Long and Happy Life, which was published in 1962 to considerable critical acclaim, won the William Faulkner Award. His novel Kate Vaiden, published in 1986, two years after his bout with cancer, won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Reynolds Price was the author of some 37 works, including novels, memoirs, plays, poems, short stories, and essays. His final work, Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back, was about the six years after he was graduated from summa cum laude from Duke and left North Carolina to spent three years in England then returned to begin teaching teach at Duke. Ardent Spirits is the last of Price's memoirs and the first in which he writes publicly about his sexual orientation.

Reynolds Price spent almost sixty years of his life in Durham, North Carolina, but he was always somewhat of an outsider, by his own definition. He called himself an "outlaw" Christian, although he wrote several books with theological subjects and a translation of portions of the Bible including the Gospel of Mark, and he was fascinated by the story of Job. Price said of his paralysis that it was a "mere complexity in the ongoing narrative which God intended me to make of my life" He told The Georgia Review in 1993 that "the whole point of learning about the human race presumably is to give it mercy."

Fond of calling a spade a spade, Price insisted on using the word "cripple" or "gimp" about his disability, and he referred to himself as "queer" rather than gay. He admired and appreciated the honesty of language and did not shrink from it. I always felt there was a kind of edge to him personally and that he probably would not like me if he knew me. However, Susan Salter Reynolds points out that he felt the world wanted to "embrace" him and he was "stuck in a wheelchair" and could not get away. Price struck me as a person who lived a very private life and who put into his books the energy and passion he might have put into relationships. We are all the richer because of what he wrote.

Regarding his death, Duke President Richard H. Broadhead said," Reynolds was a part of the soul of Duke....We can scarcely imagine Duke without Reynolds Price."

----Penne J. Laubenthal
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