Ardent Spirits begins its narrative just after Reynolds Price’s father has died of lung cancer at fifty-four and Price has been awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study in England at Oxford University. Already determined to be a scholar and writer, the precocious Price embarks on his first major journey. He is concerned about leaving his mother and younger brother but also driven to make his mark by ambitiously attempting to write both short fiction and a major study of Milton’s poetry.
Academia never quite suits Price, even though he will remain in it all his working life. Thus, his academic study of Milton seems in this memoir to be more an idea than a fully realized project. Price seems far more engrossed in his fictioneven when he puts off writing it to fulfill academic requirements. As narrator, Price provides wonderful insight into his younger self, the budding young writer trying to make a name for himself who nearly gets into serious trouble when two journals accept the same story for publication.
Although Price studies hard at Oxford, he also engages in a full social life, making a few lifetime friendships and taking the time to tour Italy with a British friend. Price portrays himself as an earnest young man already encouraged by major writers such as Eudora Welty and renowned scholars such as Lord David Cecil. Cecil comes alive as a caring teacher very much attuned to his student’s sensibility. He is also an excitable lecturer who inadvertently spits on his students. Oxford don Helen Gardner, on the other hand, is inscrutable. She seems inexplicably to thrive among many male scholars who do little to make her welcome. Price clearly wishes that she had opened up to him during his time at Oxford, but her very mystery speaks volumes about the repressive Oxford milieu, which the outgoing Price negotiated with surprisingly little angst. By contrast, Price treats Welty with too much reserve. A literary icon, she appears without much color in the memoir, as though Pricein an effort to preserve her privacyhas censored his otherwise candid commentary on his friends and acquaintances.
Although only in his early twenties, Price has already secured an agent. He keeps an eye on the literary world, even as he adopts the mannerisms of a British scholar. Price describes Great Britain as a country still recovering from the ravages of World War II. Compared to the culinary sophistication Britain would later flaunt, the land in Ardent Spirits serves bland food, lacks central heating, and is populated with people who wash rather infrequently. At Oxford, Price puzzles over the lack of showers for students and the mysterious absence of toilet paper dispensers, but he treats these shortcomings with considerable understanding. He is there, after all, to learn from the world’s greatest scholars and writersalthough he is noticeably eager to leave for his Italian vacation.
Thus, Price lives a bifurcated life in England, juggling academics with social and literary endeavors. A young man of extraordinary poise, he makes friends with literary greats such as Stephen Spenderwho becomes a lifelong friendand with famous actors such as John Gielgud. The latter emerges as a sensitive, openhearted man who welcomes the young American. Even with the distractions of his busy social life, Price manages to earn a B.Litt degree and to return home a success.
Price deals with his homosexuality in a straightforward way, while acknowledging that, during the years he was at Oxford, this was hardly a subject that could be broached in public in Englandor even among close friends. Some of Price’s male friendships seem charged with sexual tension, but Price describes only one long-term relationship with a British academic. In a highly amusing incident, Spender dines with the distinguished American critic Lionel Trilling, who is the object of some amusement for Price’s British literary friends because Trilling published a book about the novelist E. M. Forster without realizing that his subject was homosexual. According to Price,...
(The entire section is 1664 words.)