The Collected Stories brings together fifty short stories Reynolds Price has written over five decades, from “Michael Egerton” in 1954 to “An Evening Meal” in 1992. Half of the stories are reprinted from Price’s two earlier collections, The Names and Faces of Heroes (1963) and Permanent Errors (1970); and most of these stories, as well as the previously uncollected other half in the book, have actually seen print before, in Esquire, Harper’s, Playboy, Encounter, The Paris Review, The Southern Review, The New Yorker, and a dozen other major vehicles for short fiction.
Yet Price is not one of the best-known practitioners of the genre. Perhaps because these stories have been spread over almost forty years and half of them appeared before 1970, Price is not known primarily as a short-story writer. Rather, he is familiar to many readers as an author of twenty-five books and as a poet, playwright, and, most notably, a novelist. Yet as these stories reveal, he is also one of the best practitioners of the short- fiction genre at work in the United States, particularly in the great Southern prose tradition of James Agee. and Eudora Welty, Truman Capote and Josephine Humphreys.
In a short preface, “To the Reader,” Price explains the publishing history of the stories in this collection and gives something of his theory of fiction. What defines short fiction, he argues, is its intensity, and thus “the story’s technical and emotional demands are more strenuous in some ways than the novel’s.” While the novel covers a broader space of time, “the story has charted briefer stretches of concentrated feeling, and it always speaks an intimate language.” What marks a story is “its single-minded intent and the narrow ground from which it looks.” Short fiction, Price concludes, is “the prose narrator’s nearest approach to music… the lean lament or ballad of hunger, delight, revulsion or praise.”
Price has not revised his earlier stories here, but he presents them in an interesting way. Rather than collect the stories chronologically, he has arranged them in a new order, by mood and theme, which suggests “an alteration of voices, echoes, lengths and concerns.” This order juxtaposes stories in such a way as to throw fresh light on their subtle and complex concerns. Older stories are seen anew when placed between more recent examples; newer stories gain some depth by being placed next to similar stories decades older. “The Warrior Princess Ozimba,” for example—collected in The Names and Faces of Heroes in 1970 but first published in the Virginia Quarterly Review in 1961—follows the more recent opening story “Full Day” in the book. Both, however, concern caring for older people, and in their order here they cast revealing shadows on each other.
The range of Price’s stories is remarkable: stories of European travel, of Christmas on the West Bank in Israel, of a visit to an American Indian reservation. The best of Price’s fiction, however, taps his family history, the rich Southern roots of his North Carolina childhood. Like Eudora Welty—Permanent Errors was dedicated to her—and other Southern writers he admires and emulates, Price has found within his own family history a well from which he can draw endlessly for his fiction.
Often, in fact, he has disguised his characters very little. A boy protagonist may be called Reynolds, and his father Buck Price; other characters are various aunts, uncles, and grandparents on several sides of his family, and the black families who have worked for these relatives for generations. Price knows these lives so well that he can render them in rich detail, and his mainly rural Southern characters come alive through the intimate detail he gives so effortlessly—food and flowers, gossip and language, work and religion. Price burst on the American literary scene in 1962 with the novel A Long and Happy Life, a brilliant re-creation of the sexual and religious experiences of several young people in rural North Carolina, and in some ways he has been writing...