BookPage reviewer Henry L. Carrigan Jr. interviewed Reynolds Price in 2003 and was a great admirer of his work. Here, Carrigan shares some of his thoughts on the Southern writer’s work and place in the American canon. Price died last month at the age of 77, after suffering a heart attack.
When Reynolds Price passed away on January 20, 2011, we lost not only a writer whose elegant prose cadences surely grew out of his intimate acquaintance with the Gospels and Milton (whose work he taught over 40 years in one of Duke’s most popular classes) but also the last great Southern man of letters. A poet, playwright, essayist, short-story writer, memoirist and novelist, Price bequeathed to us a body of work, including translations of the Gospels and other passages from the Bible, which explored intimately the fraught world of human relationships.
Through characters like Rosacoke Mustian, Wesley Beavers, Kate Vaiden and Blue Calhoun, Price introduced us to men and women—and critics praised Price for his deep understanding of women’s nature—who, in some cases, were tentatively taking their first steps toward the secrets of adulthood, and in others were struggling to discover their freedom and identity in a world that would just as soon keep them imprisoned in narrow cultural stereotypes.
Although Reynolds Price won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for his first novel, A Long and Happy Life (1962), his body of writing much more closely resembles the stories and novels of his dear friend, Eudora Welty. Their long friendship began when Price was a senior at Duke, and he picked her up at the train station to ferry her to the campus where she would deliver her famous lecture on “place in fiction.” Welty read his story “Michael Egerton” and was so taken with it that she asked Price if she could send it to her own agent. Looking back through his novels and stories, it’s clear that Price not only inherited Welty’s gift for delivering precious gems of understanding about the manners of ordinary folk in charming language but also her deep and vast endowment for friendship and generosity. In many of the obituaries that appeared after his death, two of his students, Anne Tyler and Josephine Humphreys, recall that above all Price was encouraging to them in their writing and joyous when they got something right.
I’ve been a great fan of Price’s work for many years. I first read A Long and Happy Life around 1980, when I was living just down the road from Durham; once I put it down, I couldn’t read the rest of what Price had published quickly enough. His novels named for me that great struggle between flesh and spirit, but even more important, they named the feelings I had about growing up in the South and the affection and repulsion I held in equal parts about my home. As my own professional life as a writer and teacher developed, I had the pleasure of reviewing nearly every book of his that came out after 1994, and I’ve also been pleased to be able to teach his work over the years.
It thus came as a great thrill to me to be able to interview him just after his book, A Serious Way of Wondering (2003), was published. Reynolds very graciously talked to me for over an hour about topics ranging from his new book to his fiction and to his own physical state. Throughout our conversation, he was gentle, an elegant speaker, and encouraging; just before we hung up, he offered to make me drink at his place if I ever got down to Durham. I never had the chance to sip a drink that he had mixed, but I surely know that Reynolds and his work have touched me in a way that perhaps Welty’s life and work touched his own. Reynolds Price will remain—as he once said of Welty—a writer as sizable as any in modern letters and certainly as deep, and we will miss him.
Henry L. Carrigan is a native North Carolinian who now lives in Atlanta with his family.