Friday, January 21, 2011

Esteemed Southern disabled writer Reynolds Price dies

From The NY Times:

Reynolds Price (pictured), whose novels and stories about ordinary people in rural North Carolina struggling to find their place in the world established him as one of the most important voices in modern Southern fiction, died on Jan. 20 in Durham, N.C. He was 77.

The cause was complications of a heart attack, his brother, Will, said. For many years Mr. Price had lived as a paraplegic after receiving radiation treatment for a spinal tumor, about which he wrote in “A Whole New Life” (1994).

Few writers have made as dramatic an entrance on the American literary stage as Mr. Price, who published his first novel, “A Long and Happy Life,” in 1962 to near-universal acclaim for its pungent Southern dialogue, highly wrought prose style and vivid evocation of rural Southern life.

The novel — the tale of Rosacoke Mustian, a young woman desperate to clarify her relationship with an untamable boyfriend, Wesley Beavers — inspired critics to welcome Mr. Price as the brightest literary talent to emerge since the Southern Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s. In an extraordinary vote of confidence, Harper’s Magazine published the novel in its entirety as a supplement.

“He is the best young writer this country has ever produced,” the novelist Allan Gurganus said in an interview for this obituary. “He started out with a voice, a lyric gift and a sense of humor, and an insight about how people lived and what they’ll do to get along.”

Mr. Price staked his claim as a writer to watch with the novel’s bravura opening sentence, a paragraph-long curlicue that began, “Just with his body and from inside like a snake, leaning that black motorcycle side to side, cutting in and out of the slow line of cars to get there first, staring due-north through goggles towards Mount Moriah and switching coon tails in everybody’s face was Wesley Beavers.”

“Some beginning — of a book, of a career,” the critic Theodore Solotaroff wrote in Saturday Review in 1970. “Its sheer virtuosity is like that of a quarterback who on the first play of his first professional game throws a 60-yard pass on the run, hitting the receiver exactly at the instant he breaks into the clear; a tremendous assertion of agility, power, timing and accuracy.”

His story collection “The Names and Faces of Heroes,” published a year later, made it clear that “A Long and Happy Life” was no fluke.

Except for three years he spent in Britain as a graduate student at Merton College, Oxford, Mr. Price lived all his life in northeastern North Carolina, and he would work his home ground in 13 novels and dozens of short stories. Inevitably he drew comparisons to William Faulkner, much to his annoyance, since he regarded himself as a literary heir to Eudora Welty.

He also published poetry, plays, essays, translations from the Bible and three volumes of memoirs. With “A Whole New Life,” he attracted a new audience of admirers.

At Duke University, where he taught writing and the poetry of Milton for more than half a century, he encouraged students like Anne Tyler and Josephine Humphreys. Simply by staying in the South and writing about it, he inspired a generation of younger Southern novelists.

“He made this small corner of North Carolina the sovereign territory of his own imagination and showed those of us who went away that the water back home was fine,” Mr. Gurganus said. “We could come back; there was plenty of room for all of us.”

Edward Reynolds Price was born on Feb. 1, 1933, in Macon, N.C., a town about 65 miles northeast of Raleigh that he once described as “227 cotton and tobacco farmers nailed to the flat red land at the pit of the Great Depression.”

The family, struggling financially, moved from one house to another in nearby towns, but Reynolds, their first child, benefited from the doting attention of cousins, aunts and uncles — all of them, it seemed, gifted storytellers. His early life provided the material for the memoir “Clear Pictures: First Loves, First Guides” (1989). Mr. Price later said of his native county: “I’m the world’s authority on this place. It’s the place about which I have perfect pitch.”

His brother, of Raleigh, is his only immediate survivor.

Mr. Price enrolled at Duke University, where Eudora Welty read one of his stories, “Michael Egerton,” and volunteered to show it to her agent, Diarmuid Russell, who took the young writer on as a client.

After graduating summa cum laude from Duke in 1955, he won a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford, where he wrote a thesis on Milton, and developed career-enhancing friendships with the poets Stephen Spender and W. H. Auden and the critic and biographer Lord David Cecil. He wrote about his years in Britain in the third installment of his memoirs, “Ardent Spirits” (2009).

Spender published the story “A Chain of Love” in the journal Encounter, a coup for Mr. Price, who was also offered a teaching position at Duke when he returned. He was turned down for military service after he stated, without hesitation, that he was homosexual.

His first class included a promising 16-year-old named Anne Tyler. “I can still picture him sitting tailor-fashion on top of his desk, reading to the class from his own work or from one of his students’ papers,” Ms. Tyler wrote in an e-mail. “He seemed genuinely joyous when we did the slightest thing right.”

With his second novel, “A Generous Man” (1966), Mr. Price continued the story of the Mustian clan, to which he would return much later in the 1988 novel “Good Hearts.” He later confounded critics with “The Surface of Earth” (1975), an ambitious multigenerational chronicle of the Mayfield family, related by a well-educated, complex narrator much like the author himself.

Self-consciously grand, “The Surface of Earth” was the first part of a trilogy called “A Great Circle.” A sequel, “The Source of Light,” followed in 1981. Mr. Price completed the series with “The Promise of Rest” in 1995.

Critics divided sharply on the more intricate middle novels, whose prose struck many as mannered. “His interest in Milton is not accidental or incidental,” Ms. Humphreys said in an interview. “He has the same fascination with the art of language that that great Baroque poet had. His fiction is word-intense, complex and fancy. But he can take that and combine it with Southern plain talk.”

In 1984 Mr. Price discovered that a thin eight-inch malignant tumor called an astrocytoma had wrapped itself around his spinal column just below the neck. Several operations and aggressive radiation therapy to neutralize what he called “the gray eel” left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Despite years of physical torment, Mr. Price entered into a remarkably fecund phase as a writer. “Previously I’d averaged a book every two years at least, so I was hardly a great tree sloth, but I’d always said truthfully that writing was hard for me, very hard, and now it’s not,” he told The Paris Review in 1991.

Hypnosis therapy, intended to relieve his pain, released a flood of childhood memories that Mr. Price funneled into “Clear Pictures” and “The Tongues of Angels” (1990), which was based on his time as a camp counselor in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Most important, Mr. Price completed “Kate Vaiden” (1986). Narrated by a 57-year-old North Carolina woman whose lifelong search for love and security has been a series of bitter setbacks, the novel won back many of the critics who were beginning to cool on Mr. Price. It won the National Book Critics Circle prize as the year’s best work of fiction.

“Blue Calhoun” (1992), cast as a long letter from the title character to his granddaughter, was also warmly received. The morally shifty but likable narrator, like the lively, irrepressible Kate Vaiden, won readers over.

The undercurrent of Christian charity evident in Mr. Price’s previous work became even more pronounced in these and later novels, like “Roxanna Slade” (1998) and “The Good Priest’s Son” (2005), in which fallible characters face momentous moral choices. The deepening moral tinge, which some critics found too schematic, was rooted in Mr. Price’s Christian faith: he was an unorthodox, nonchurchgoing believer.

“The whole point of learning about the human race presumably is to give it mercy,” he told The Georgia Review in 1993.

If Mr. Price shook off the burden of Faulkner, his work remained elusive despite its strong regional flavor and commitment to “the weight and worth of the ordinary,” as the novelist Janet Burroway once put it. Mr. Price himself ventured a succinct appraisal for The Southern Review in 1978: “It seems to me they are books about human freedom — the limits thereof, the possibilities thereof, the impossibilities thereof.”