Reynolds Price Essay - Critical Essays

Reynolds Price American Literature Analysis

Reynolds Price consistently wrote of human affirmation, and his depiction of the South and his presentation of race relations there have been authentic and commendable. Superficially, one might compare Price to William Faulkner. Both write about the South, and both focus on a limited geographical region. Also, as Price’s work continued, particularly in The Surface of Earth and The Source of Light, his style became increasingly complicated, and some critics thought that it had been directly influenced by Faulkner. Before leaping to such conclusions, however, one must remember that Price was a John Milton scholar who regularly taught a course on that seventeenth century English poet. Close examination is likely to reveal that Miltonic elements are more evident, particularly in Price’s later work, than Faulknerian influences.

Price acknowledged his debt to Milton as well as to Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and to the Bible. His association with Eudora Welty provided another significant influence, as did the work of Flannery O’Connor. Price, who was unusually open in discussing his own approach to writing, admitted in Things Themselves the impact that Ernest Hemingway’s writing had upon him stylistically. He also wrote about his craft in some detail in Learning a Trade: A Craftsman’s Notebooks, 1955-1997, published in 1998.

Price never denied that his works are strongly autobiographical. He contended that although a writer’s imagination is fundamental to any significant piece of fiction writing, writers cannot write from anything but their experience. He cautioned, however, that art reshapes that experience so that few one-to-one correlations exist between writers’ experience and their lives. Therefore, it is risky to draw conclusions about authors from characters that resemble them in their novels.

Two of Price’s books with the strongest correlations to his own life are Love and Work and Permanent Errors, but the protagonists in these books do not exist within the limited context of one person’s life; rather, they function symbolically and metaphorically as types. Kate Vaiden also has strong elements that make Kate resemble Price’s mother, of whom he admittedly was trying to reach deeper understandings when he wrote the book, but Kate clearly is not Elizabeth Rodwell.

The nexus Price used to relate his stories to society on a universal level is the family, which he considered the quintessential element in human existence, the fundamental organism within which society functions. This emphasis on the family is a particular emphasis in southern literature, although it pervades the works of many other major writers as well. Certainly it was the central force in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and later in his less successful East of Eden (1952). It is the driving force behind most of Faulkner’s novels and certainly motivates the action in such Eugene O’Neill plays as Desire Under the Elms (1924), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1947).

The first fictional family Price examined closely was the Mustians, who are central to A Long and Happy Life, A Generous Man, “A Chain of Love,” and to his play, Early Dark, based upon A Long and Happy Life. This examination was essentially of the Mustian characters who are alive at the time of the story. In his examination of the Kendal-Mayfield family in the trilogy A Great Circle, however, Price undertakes something much more ambitious: He seeks to understand four generations of a family.

In his examination of both families, Price is much concerned with questions of heredity. His conclusion is that no matter how hard people try to be different from their progenitors, they are, inevitably, like them. He postulates this as an axiom that cannot be overturned in the course of human existence. Price is much concerned with the concept that the sins of the father are visited upon the children, and all these novels are concerned directly and overtly with the biblical question of Original Sin. Even though people are born with the burden of sin, Price implies, they have free will, and in its exercise lies some hope of salvation.

In The Tongues of Angels, the protagonist, Bridge Boatner, an adult, has spent the past thirty-four years living with the burden placed upon him in the summer before his senior year at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Then struggling to come to grips with the recent death of his father, Bridge grew close to one of the fourteen-year-old campers in his charge. The boy, Raphael Noren, was talented beyond any of the other boys at the camp. His accidental death has haunted Bridge, particularly because he fears that in some way he may have caused it. In this book, Bridge is trying to cope not only with Original Sin but also with a great guilt and emotional upheaval relating to Raphael’s death.

The “permanent errors” of which Price speaks in his book by that title are the sins of the fathers. For Price, they persist, generation after generation. The determinism of heredity is inexorable for Price, as it was for O’Neill, Faulkner, and Steinbeck before him. In much of his work, Price deals with the tensions created by the paradoxes in the Christian mystique. He sees these paradoxes in the whole of southern culture and finds them personified in family relationships.

A Long and Happy Life

First published: 1962

Type of work: Novel

A novel about small town southerners whose hope for a long and happy life is constantly overshadowed by the specter of death.

Few authors have the good fortune to have a whole issue of a major, high-circulation magazine devoted to the publication of their first novel at about the time the hardcover edition is released. Such fortune was Price’s, however, when Harper’s published A Long and Happy Life in its April, 1962, issue. The book went on to win a William Faulkner Foundation Award for a first novel, and the critical reception of this first book was singularly favorable.

A Long and Happy Life presents Rosacoke Mustian to the reading public, as well as her erstwhile boyfriend, Wesley Beavers, who gets the innocent girl pregnant. Although he condescends to marry her, he then pretty much leaves her on her own. The book is alive with local color. In one of the early, most memorable scenes, Rosacoke needs to attend a funeral at a black church on a sizzling day in summer. Her friend Mildred Sutton has died in childbirth and is to be eulogized. Wesley Beavers drives his noisy motorcycle up to deliver Rosacoke to the funeral, but he does not go inside. Instead, he lingers outside and polishes his motorcycle, which is an extension of his being. Before the services are over, he leaves precipitously to get ready for the church picnic that he and Rosacoke are to attend that afternoon. As he screeches away from the church, he raises a trail of red dust behind him that one can almost taste, so vivid is Price’s description.

The book is divided into three long chapters, each with appropriate subdivisions. The action takes place between July and Christmas, and each section marks a visit from Wesley, who three times comes the 130 miles from the naval base in Norfolk to see Rosacoke, his girlfriend. They have known each other for six years. Rosacoke is now twenty, Wesley twenty-two. Wesley is sexually experienced; Rosacoke is not.

Price supplies necessary details unobtrusively, partly through Rosacoke’s interior monologues, partly through the letters she exchanges with Wesley, and partly through flashbacks, most of them part of her interior monologues. He also introduces his readers to an amusing, warm-hearted cast of small-town characters who are far removed from the world outside their own community.

At the church picnic, Wesley tries to seduce Rosacoke, but she resists his advances. It is not until his next visit in November that he succeeds in deflowering Rosacoke, for whom the sexual experience is especially threatening because the death of her friend Mildred is still in the forefront of her mind. Rosacoke realizes that her long and happy life could be cut short by a pregnancy if it were to be a difficult one.

Death is very much a part of the novel. Rosacoke’s brother, Milo, suffers the loss of his first child, a baby meant to carry on the family name, but who, dying at birth, takes the name Horatio Mustian III to the grave with him. Mildred’s baby, Sledge, has survived, and Rosacoke visits him, doing her duty and being calmed by her visits, although they constantly remind her of what could happen to her, because she soon knows that Wesley’s child is growing within her.

Through a series of mischances, Rosacoke is forced to play the Virgin Mary in the annual Christmas pageant that her mother is directing at the Delight Baptist Church. The baby Jesus is an overgrown eight-month-old child, Frederick Gupton, who has been drugged with paregoric so that he will not disrupt the pageant. Rosacoke realizes what her lot will be with Wesley, but she comes to an acceptance of it, partly through her participation in the pageant.

Price chose his microcosm well and constructed it with an authenticity that gained the respect of most of the critics. His dialogue is easy and believable. His humor is irrepressible, as in the scene in which Uncle Simon misplaces his false teeth at the church picnic and in the scene in which the preacher who can walk on water sinks.

The isolation of his characters from the world, being drawn as they are into the social and religious web of their own community, encapsulates them and insulates them from outside influences. Some outside influences—although not very desirable ones—intrude upon the story by means of Wesley’s periodic visits.

Within the limited confines in which he works, Price has been able to find universal significance in his characters and has been able to deal intricately with questions of life and death, with the dream of a long and happy life, and with the fact of quick death for infants and other relatively young people within the story.

A Generous Man

First published: 1966

Type of work: Novel

A southern posse’s search for a hydrophobic python echoes the meaning of life and death.

The story of the Mustians that Price initiated in A Long and Happy Life is also the focus in A Generous Man, his second novel. The cast of characters is not identical, but enough of them overlap that readers of the first novel will have a sense of identity with the main characters in the second.

The action of A Generous Man takes place nine years before the action of A Long and Happy Life. Wesley Beavers is not a part of the narrative because Rosacoke, now only eleven years old, has not yet met him. Milo, married and a father in A Long and Happy Life, is a fifteen-year-old boy in A Generous Man.

The book revolves around an unlikely event that imposes a light, sometimes hilarious tone upon a story that deals with matters of enduring importance with universal meaning. As the story opens, Milo Mustian, fifteen, has just lost his virginity to Lois Provo—a girl who, significantly, works with the snake show at the Warren County fair. Milo, waking the next morning, finds that the family dog, Phillip, is sick. In typical southern fashion, the whole family must go with Phillip to the veterinarian, a drunkard who quickly misdiagnoses Phillip’s ailment as rabies, although Rato, the retarded son, later discovers it is only worms.

His dire diagnosis does not cause the doctor to confine or destroy the dog. Rather, he provides a muzzle, and Phillip goes off to the fair with the family. Rato takes Phillip’s muzzle...

(The entire section is 4958 words.)