A Resonant Voice Remembered

Reynolds Price


A commanding presence in the life of the university, Reynolds Price ’55 died on January 20. Beginning with his first novel, the widely acclaimed A Long and Happy Life, in 1962, he published nearly forty volumes, including poetry, short stories, novels, essays, plays, and memoirs. After studying at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, he returned to Duke’s English department in 1958; he was awarded a teaching position for three years with no opportunity for extension. He did continue on, of course, in a teaching career that spanned more than fifty years. A New York Times obituary said Price’s writings 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.” In the essays that follow, he’s remembered by former students and writing colleagues.

James Schiff '81 is the author of several books on contemporary American fiction, including Understanding Reynolds Price. He teaches at the University of Cincinnati and took two undergraduate writing classes with Price.

While Reynolds cut a memorable image in our minds, something about him often led us to exaggerate. Eudora Welty recalled Reynolds’ greeting her in a snow-white suit when they first met at the Durham train station, yet Reynolds claimed never to have owned such a suit. Anne Tyler ’61, a sixteen year-old freshman in the first class Reynolds ever taught, described her twenty-five-year-old teacher with great affection: “He wore a long black cape with a scarlet lining, and he dashed across the campus with his black curls bouncing on his forehead and his cape swirling out behind him.”

Reynolds, however, claimed never to have owned a cape; it was instead a blue blazer tossed over his shoulders. While these mythical outfits have contributed to the legend, the reality is that Reynolds had such physical presence that even shrewdly observant writers did not always see him clearly.

I first encountered Reynolds in a writing class in the spring of 1980, a horrible era in American fashion. I’m almost certain I once saw Reynolds in a powder-blue leisure suit, but I’m probably mistaken. To be honest, Reynolds, with his dark, penetrating eyes and shock of black hair, looked impressive no matter what he was wearing. To our undergraduate eyes, he was a mysterious presence who figuratively, if not literally, wore the dark robes of an Oxford don or Greek hierophant.

Yet what I recall more than his looks is his voice. In that deep, rich baritone—“the voice of God,” a friend once said—Reynolds would laugh and gossip, but he would also say things like, “Family is unquestionably the most destructive force there is, except for tornadoes.” “A need to hear and tell stories is essential to human beings, second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter.” Like other students, I was hooked and wanted to absorb as much of him as I could.

Voice was also crucial in his writing. From the Southern colloquial rhythms of Kate Vaiden to the biblical, oracular tones of Permanent Errors, Reynolds generated a range of memorable, highly charged voices. John Updike once observed that Reynolds was unique among writers in “trying to push words into your ear as much as … images into your visual cortex.”

What resonated most, though, was Reynolds’ interest in what he called the “urgent mysteries” of the world. Tuned somewhat differently to the universe from the rest of us, Reynolds was an extraordinary listener and observer. In turn, he taught us how to look more carefully—whether at texts, photographs, films, or the thousand minor events that take place in our daily lives.

Ultimately, he left us with a rich oeuvre of stories that are singular and mysterious. Rooted deeply in one place for a lifetime, Reynolds resembles such earlier masters of American literature as Dickinson and Thoreau, Faulkner and Welty—writers who remained close to home and created a territory all their own, an art like no one else’s. Those of us who knew him were fortunate, and although he is gone, his familiar baritone will continue to resound and sing in our heads for years to come.

Lee Smith
is the author of fifteen works of fiction, including The Last Girls, a 2002 New York Times best seller and winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest collection of new and selected stories, Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, was published last spring.

A territory all their own: Price with his mentor and friend, writer Eudora Welty, at the University of Mississippi in 1979.

A territory all their own: Price with his mentor and friend, writer Eudora Welty, at the University of Mississippi in 1979.
Reynolds Price Papers, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

In memory I can still see Reynolds—at home, in his wheelchair, with bright eyes and genial smile as he tells us about the blue heron that brings him “the purest pleasure” when it shows up again, year after year, to visit him. Though a profoundly sophisticated, cultured, and well-traveled man, Reynolds was truly a writer of region, always deriving the “purest pleasure” from his own beloved land and state of North Carolina with its tobacco fields and little piedmont towns, and from its citizens, whom he viewed with compassion, empathy, and good humor, much like his good friend Eudora Welty. Reynolds’ humor was insightful and understanding, not ironic or hurtful. His regional characters and stories were universal in their meaning and appeal.

And of course he relished a good Southern grotesque anecdote more than anybody. I will never forget the evening I showed up for dinner waving a clipping from the day’s News & Observer, an account of a deliciously macabre family murder in a small town south of Raleigh.

“I’m going to write about it!” I announced.

“No, I’m going to write about it!”

Reynolds was waving the same clipping. “But wait, tell you what, I’ll flip you for it. Heads, it’s me. Tails, it’s you. And if you haven’t got a first draft in a year, I get it back.”

“Tails!” I got to work.

Reynolds did not lose his humor even in the face of his terrible pain and setbacks over the years—in fact, he seemed to grow in grace and compassion for others, especially others struggling with challenges of their own. He was always so kind to my schizophrenic son, Joshua Seay, for instance. Knowing that Josh, a musician, idolized James Taylor, Reynolds called him up out of the blue one day and asked if he’d like to come backstage at Walnut Creek to a James Taylor concert. Of course Josh went and had the great pleasure of being there to hear James and Reynolds sing their song “Copperline” together. Josh never forgot it.

Will Willimon is a former dean of Duke Chapel, currently Bishop of the United Methodist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, area, and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School.

Was it 1992? Seems like yesterday. In our academic finery we paraded into Duke Chapel, Flentrop blaring forth, and marched to the platform for Founders’ Day. I prayed an innocuous invocation, as was my custom, thanking God for our founding family. Medals were bestowed. Recognitions given. Then Reynolds wheeled to the microphone.

I did not know Reynolds well back then, though I had cajoled him into a public reading of his translation of Mark’s gospel in the Gothic Reading Room during Holy Week. (Reynolds adored scripture but not clergy or church.)

As Reynolds was presented to us that Founders’ afternoon, though grandly attired in academic regalia, he looked small, frail. Yet when he began to speak, ex cathedra, his glorious voice reached out and seized us. I sat just behind him on the podium, so I had a good look at his listeners. We were all proud of Reynolds—our celebrity, our artist in residence, or golden-voiced literatus. That day he became, in truth, our prophet.

Reynolds got out no more than a few sentences before he wisecracked, “I defy any of you to ride the bus from East Campus to West and hear a remark of any greater intellectual consequence than, ‘I can’t believe how drunk I was last night.’ ”

Nervous laughter among the students; stunned silence among the rest.

With that, Reynolds launched a jeremiad on the lack of intellectual engagement at Duke—at night, outside the classroom, among our students. He called for an honest assessment of our campus life and condemned all-male living arrangements, fraternities, impersonal dorms, and our Philistine party-partyparty atmosphere. He called for a complete overhaul of Duke (admitting it would take “buckets of money”) and for placing students in residential colleges where they would think, argue, and develop, engaged in pursuits more noble than getting wasted and getting laid.

Have you ever been punched in the stomach and then wrestled to the ground by a paraplegic?

At the end, when Reynolds wheeled back beside me, he leaned toward me and asked, “Preacher, do you think they’ll kill me?”

“You better thank God for tenure,” I whispered.

That night, I wrote Reynolds a long letter in which I confessed, “As someone supposed to be in the truth-telling business, I’m ashamed. A non-church-going writer of racy novels told more truth in my chapel in twenty minutes than I’ve told in the last twenty sermons.”

From there, Reynolds and I became fast friends. For the next year we did evening tag-team verbal-wrestling matches with the students in their fraternity, sorority, and dorm common rooms. To my surprise, many students encouraged us, chiefly out of their love and admiration for Reynolds. Reynolds’ “I can’t believe how drunk I was last night” was an opening shot in a revolution on American campuses in which student life was debated, alcohol abuse was named as an intellectual problem, and Duke led the way with courageous reforms. When I issued my long report on student life, “We Work Hard, We Play Hard,” more than one student said, “Hey, Will, Reynolds said it better in twenty minutes.”

I’ll never forget Reynolds—our living-room, nocturnal theological debates; the afternoons I spent with his novels; the twinkle in his eye when we laughed and exchanged campus gossip together over fried chicken and biscuits. And yet, more than this, I’ll remember Founders’ Day in Duke Chapel, with blue late-afternoon sunlight streaming in Gothic windows, all Duke gathered before us, the president sweating profusely, aging faculty aghast, students stunned, and Reynolds arrayed in Oxford scarlet, in his wheelchair, giving us hell for heaven’s sake, teaching us again how holy it was to be studying at a place like Duke, a genteel Southern voice, telling us the truth.

Launching a jermiad: Price delivers his now-legendary Founders' Day speech in 1992.

Launching a jermiad: Price delivers his now-legendary Founders' Day speech in 1992.
Les Todd

Eric Larson ’93 was Price’s assistant from 1998 to 1999. After becoming paraplegic in 1983, Price hired assistants like Larson, generally for annual terms and nearly always from among the students he had taught. The assistants had to be able to lift Price from chair to bed, tub, or taxi, and were therefore always men. They lived in Price’s house near Duke’s campus, serving as health aide, cook, driver, and overall helper at home and on the road. Larson now lives in Raleigh and is at work on his first novel.

Traveling with Reynolds after he left the ranks of the “temporarily abled” (as he often referred to you and me) produced a fair number of misadventures—humorous in retrospect, harrowing at the time—for the annual assistant.

On one such occasion, Reynolds and I were returning from New York, where we’d watched two of his plays—August Snow and Night Dance—performed triumphantly Off Broadway. I lifted Reynolds out of his chair and proceeded to carry him toward the plane, failing to notice until the last moment that the entrance to the plane was a bit higher than the jet bridge. It was neither part of the plan nor within my physical ability to manage that step, and soon I was down on one knee, as if I were before the Queen of England presenting the esteemed Reynolds Price as my personal gift to the Empire.

Reynolds showed more calmness than one would expect. He just patted my shoulder and said, “Don’t panic, buddy. We’ll get through this.” With the help of a flight attendant, who hooked his right arm under my left, I was able to get that leg up and carry Reynolds the rest of the way, my right quadriceps screaming the remainder of the flight. Reynolds must have told that story fifty times in my presence (to Reynolds, a good story was never diluted by repetition), always portraying my eventual lift—“and then he rose up!”—as if describing a New Testament miracle.

We held his life in our hands, more than twenty-five of us, starting with Dan Voll ’83, when Reynolds was first losing his step, and ending with Braden Hendricks ’10, who endured a shock each of us knew could happen on our watch. The daily routine, grueling as it could be (the morning schedule alone comprised sixty-seven tasks) and lonely as it made us feel at times, allowed Reynolds to write a book a year, to read to crowds, to socialize abundantly and, of course, to teach—for a full quarter century longer than many thought could happen.

Reynolds was so damned independent in spirit (he even cut his own hair, that stark white mane) it’s a marvel that he was able to adapt to his chaired existence and let himself be consistently helped. So it seemed a measure of grace for both of us that every few weeks we’d move with our 5 p.m. drinks (Scotch in the cold months, gin in the warm) onto the deck that wrapped from his bedroom to the front of his house.

I’d settle into my own chair at the edge of the deck and look out over the woods that sloped toward the pond on Cornwallis Road. He might tell me a story about the woods, such as the time, one winter’s day, he heard chopping and emerged on the deck to find a stranger dragging away a fir tree. “Got your Christmas tree?” the man asked. Reynolds replied to the man, in that stentorian voice of God: “They’re all mine.”

Sometimes, we’d spot the immortal blue heron (or at least its descendant) that Reynolds had written about over the years. Then Reynolds, that confounding gentleman, would lock his chair, focus his painter’s gaze, and proceed to cut my hair.

Josephine Humphreys ’67 is a novelist from Charleston, South Carolina. Her first novel, Dreams of Sleep, received the 1984 Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award. As a student, she was in Price’s freshman writing class and senior literature seminar.

Riveting: Price as a young man, on the cover of Learning a Trade: A Craftsman's Notebooks: 1955-1997.

Riveting: Price as a young man, on the cover of Learning a Trade: A Craftsman's Notebooks: 1955-1997.
John Menapace

I wasn’t ready for Reynolds Price’s death. Not that it was unexpected; I’d known it was likely. But when the news did come, its force was a true surprise and a blow beyond anything I could have guessed. I felt the same way I had when falling from the top of a tree ladder years earlier, thinking on the way down, Protect yourself or this will break you. Automatically I’d reached for the nearest maybe-helpful branch. And now, automatically, I reached for Reynolds’ books. I needed the voice. Even more, I needed the pictures on the dust jackets.

I spent two days looking at him, something I’ve always loved to do, not only because he was the world’s handsomest man, but also because in his face and stance and gesture there was something both thrilling and comforting. A presence.

As a teacher, Reynolds was demanding, and he knew how to scowl, eyebrows up, corners of the mouth down. Our stories had to be typed without a single mistake or erasure. Deadlines were serious. I typed one story four frantic times before getting a clean copy to rush in on time. He didn’t mean to be intimidating; he simply expected the best of us. And he always found something worthy in everyone’s attempt. I think he knew how fragile our young hearts were, and he knew his power.

More often, Reynolds wasn’t scowling. He was laughing. He laughed more than any teacher I’d ever had, at his own jokes or ours or the pure comedy of the universe. Sometimes a chortle would spill out in the middle of a scowl. Over the years, I could see that combination, the serious and the playful, in the books that came like clockwork, keeping me under his spell even though I had no communication with him for fifteen years after I went home to South Carolina. I lost touch—but I never lost him.

When finally at age thirty-eight I finished a novel, I wrote to ask him what the next step was. I wasn’t even sure he would remember me. He answered, “What good news. I was afraid you had disappeared into the palmettos. The next step is you send it to me.” He invited me to a workshop in Florida, and suddenly it was as if that fifteen-year hiatus had never occurred. With this grownup group, he was open and witty and engaging; he could let his guard down now that we were no longer his children. We laughed like crazy. One day he said to me, “You and I are both a lot funnier in person than in writing.” But everyone became funnier in Reynolds’ presence. We gave him our jokes like offerings.

Jacket photos of the young Reynolds are riveting. He’s solemnly dark and almost grave, with piercing eyes and a shock of black hair. As time and books accumulate, and even during his hardest years, he’s more likely to wear an easy, generous smile, a laugh about to happen. Seeing him, remembering him, I felt him come back—gradually, stronger—with each picture. What at first had seemed a sudden awful departure turned out to be a return, and what seemed a void became again a presence—still thrilling, still comforting.

James Applewhite '58, A.M. ’60, PH.D. ’69, a widely published, award-winning poet, taught in Duke’s English department from 1972 to 2009. He had known Price since they met as Duke undergraduates in 1954.

I received word of Reynolds Price’s death less than an hour before a call from The Chronicle. Memory, at such times, has its own emotive chronology. I found myself trying to convey to the young reporter a whole countryside of relationships that bound together Reynolds and Duke University. I told of seeing him cross the Main Quad on West Campus, slender, quick-paced, handsome almost to the point of prettiness, his tweed jacket finished at the throat by a plaid wool scarf. He was then just back from Oxford with his B.Lit. (thesis on John Milton), his first novel, A Long and Happy Life, already printed in the British journal Encounter. It was soon to be published in the U.S. and would make him a new star among Southern writers.

Then I remembered him later, in his wheelchair, no longer slender but still ebullient, with that ready, engaging smile, propelling himself with his arms along the flagstone walk to Allen Building, on his way to teach his semester course on Milton to a packed classroom of undergraduates.

I told the reporter that the complex landscape of his relation to Duke included the East Campus classroom where William Blackburn had urged us on, in his writing seminar, with photos of Reynolds at Oxford, impossibly sophisticated and “older,” with his trimmed black beard. Then Reynolds himself was on East Campus as a new writing instructor. I recall Anne Tyler [’61], one of his first students, walking beside the stone wall, intelligently beautiful, only sixteen, a swirl of brunette hair pushed up above her forehead, as if from the intensity of thought then written on her face.

That year, my second in graduate study, Reynolds and Anne and I and Fred Chappell [’61, A.M. ’64] were all on campus together, all somehow orbiting around Blackburn’s Buchanan Boulevard upstairs apartment. We met there some evenings, thrilled, slightly uncomfortable, hearing the Vivaldi or Bach from Blackburn’s turntable, absorbing an atmosphere of rare intellectual possibility. I spoke also to the Chronicle reporter about William Styron [’47, Hon. ’68], whom Blackburn had taught earlier, and who was always much in his mind and in ours. I was trying to convey what seemed to me a lineage, a unique spatial-temporal history inscribed in the East Campus and West Campus grounds. It was a palimpsest for me.

I saw Reynolds sitting beside me and Wallace Jackson, then a young English professor, in the East Campus Dope Shop, over coffee, swiftly writing out a recommendation for a student with his elegant fountain pen. I saw him in his wheelchair in the Rare Book Room on West Campus, signing books after a reading, his hair graying but his smile genial as ever. Still writing, still doing the most strenuous intellectual labor there is with the enthusiasm of a boy.

That an important American novelist should teach for his whole career at his alma mater, a Southern research university striving toward internationalism and national prominence, is an anomaly. He could not essentially change the pragmatic, professional, power-wielding momentum of his home institution and home department, but he has left his image upon them.

When people think of Duke in its national competitions, in athletics and the U.S. News & World Report academic rankings, of its leadership in many academic fields, some will also remember that William Blackburn taught here, and that Reynolds was among his students, and that for almost half a century, Reynolds and a few others of us tried to continue Blackburn’s example. We have been unrealistic enough to believe in literature as an end in itself: an art, like music, expanding the emotive dimensions of its hearers. We have helped many students explore their literary aspirations, confirming them in their own lifelong quests for further understanding through language.

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