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Reynolds Price

By Allan Gurganus

Storytelling aloud, doing all the accents—(while incidentally saving some young academic couple’s first dinner party)—Reynolds Price embodied a narrative force. His was a charm unmet before and never likely encountered again.

If his prose became clear and conversational, his conversation could be opulent, allusive. Author of thirty-seven books in all known genres, his every observation brought its own character witness: I mean Reynolds’ God-like James Mason bass-baritone. (If that voice told you how one afternoon in Rome in 1963 while Richard Burton was in another room, Liz Taylor sort of put the moves on beautiful boy Reynolds, the sheer timbre of telling made you feel an infidel for doubting.)

Reynolds was fluent in Aramaic, at ease in ancient Greek. And he was rightly proud of his North Carolina memory. Once asked to talk about his first-grade class—Reynolds smiled, “Left to right or right to left?”

His choicest stories, breathed and written, leapt as a birthright from his rural Warren County. Reynolds’ novels benefit from his having memorized all the parables of Christ. Price’s own prose sounds a sweet clear certainty we hear in ‘The Book of Ruth.’ Like that work, his fiction typically considers worthy people, secure only in family ties, tested by death or poverty, folks who, thanks to memory then forgiveness, somehow endure.

Reynolds Price could be a very funny man. His humor was insinuating, cracked, and at peace with the human body. Since the books he loved most were the Bible and Paradise Lost—from those he’d founded a Christian notion that all of us have fallen but some, have visibly slipped, if not lower than others, then a bit more volitionally, strategically. And these become the storytellers, the feelers, the first-rate first-grade rememberers. Reynolds was all of these combined. Juggling gifts, he was like Isaac Newton tossing all the apples back up.

The worst year of the Depression was 1933, when Reynolds Price appeared in Macon, North Carolina. He remained an only child till his brother Bill, the distinguished historian, arrived less than a decade later. But Reynolds remained for that time the single kid among a bevy of great-aunts and grandparents, folks ready to adore and get him talking. He complied. In early photographs he shines like some MGM feature-player. A dark-eyed pretty child, he opened into the comic intelligence that forever lit his family’s home. He’d been born a prodigy. For all that Existence granted him—then later seemed, via poor health, to withdraw—Reynolds Price remained precocious a full seventy-seven years.

Duke University saw his brilliance at eighteen and took him unto itself. After a Rhodes scholarship, and acquaintance with Auden and Spender, the prodigal returned to publish at age twenty-nine A Long and Happy Life. It is still my candidate for best novel by the youngest person. A short parlous tale of happy people, it loves its young characters into being then absolves them of crimes their own loves require. Most novelists don’t emerge till after forty, after realizing their own mortality by enduring at least three divorces, after delivering too many eulogies of friends.

But Reynolds seemed born knowing and laughing. His social poise was peerless and the one mistake he ever re-admitted he made in this very building. Reynolds regretted it ever-after: he went to introduce Stephen Sondheim then said instead “Stephen Spielberg.” He’d rue this slip aloud a dozen times.

Price’s poems and novels understand how a landscape shapes its citizens. His prose has by heart the names of every bird and wildflower. We likewise feel his deep acceptance of sin and mortality as the very things that give us all our color.

From the start, people knew him as a boy—if one who had already made literature. Price grew up to be, with his Bible translations, his poems, plays, and essays, an old-fashioned Man of Letters, on Victor Hugo’s scale of pursuit-production. In this, he resembles our much-missed colleague John Updike. They both danced a Virginia reel among the genres. Both had so much to say about so many things, they always seemed to be playing doubles against any single subject.

Reynolds’ state of buoyant blessedness darkened at age fifty-one. The aggressive treatment of a spinal malignancy killed both the cancer and his ability to walk. Typical of Reynolds to find, almost at once, immobility’s every hidden benefit. Always a closet pasha, he rightly pointed out: most writers would secretly prefer to be wheeled by some literate young person from their desk to a waiting meal and, after some stimulating (if brief) conversation, back to the desk again.

I’ll devote just five sentences to his positive influence on me, a fellow North Carolinian fifteen years his junior. Not long after I’d escaped our native state, Reynolds read my first stories and summoned me back from Palo Alto to teach at Duke. He’d reeled me back, half against my will, to a state I felt belonged to my family, not me. (Being twenty four, I had Corfu in mind!) This native’s return was eased by my seeing Reynolds’ own lair—its Rembrandt etchings, ancient Russian icons, death masks of Blake and Keats, and more than a few superb new portraits of—somehow, naturally—Reynolds Price. I saw how daily he worked. He showed me: talent is never an excuse to coast. Talent is the one reason to struggle. From Reynolds I learned just three things: how to work, what to write about, and where.

His home still contains a wall of books, in chronological order, all first editions, each of course, by Reynolds Price. In that glass case, across its nearly forty titles, there is not a careless or hurried sentence, not a banal thought, not one image un-felt before being dentally polished and aligned. His is, I think, a truly humane and unified contribution to our literature. It is lasting because it feels as natural, as inevitably breathed-into as some deep clear Schubert song.

But what we remember best is his warming voice, his total recall, his suave simplicity when relaxed and at his funniest. Born Depression-poor, rightly praised from the beginning, there was always something of the prince about Reynolds Price.

And, as with worthy royals, visible adversity became, in his hands, a new and deepening subject. His scope of talent was never insisted on, merely exercised and daily. Not assumed, enjoyed.

Reynolds Price (1933-2011) and forever in print.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters