Reynolds Price’s goat, Topsy, is something like James Joyce’s moocow in that both reflect the earliest recollection of a protagonist struggling hard to reconstruct his past, something that anyone who writes autobiography must do. The difference between Price’s technique and Joyce’s is that Price, having undergone painful spinal surgery that has left him a paraplegic since 1984, sought relief through hypnosis and biofeedback from the pain that had plagued him almost constantly for three years.
The process, through which Dr. Patrick Logue of the Medical Center at Duke University—where Price is James B. Duke Professor of English—guided him, succeeded in mitigating much of Price’s pain, but in the process also put him in touch with parts of his earliest past that he had presumed were forgotten, even though he had always had the remarkable memory that is the distinguishing mark of most successful writers. Realizing the value of having his early past unlocked for him, Price continued to work with Logue, using hypnotic techniques that did not at first include memory regression, but that moved toward that technique at Price’s urging as their association continued.
An outgrowth of this technique is a book that is in many ways reminiscent of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Marcel Proust’s A La recherche du temps perdu (19134927; Remembrance of Things Past, 19224931), or of much of Eugene O’Neill’s drama, most notably Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1947). Price’s book is more modest in scope than the works mentioned above, but it shares an artistic and psychological kinship with them. Just as Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea was a kind of hypnotic triggering device from which six volumes of autobiographical writing ensued, so was Price’s first exposure to medically prescribed hypnosis the triggering device for a mental search from which this volume of his autobiography has been derived.
As the book opens, Reynolds is four or five months old, lying on a white blanket on the warm grass outside his Macon, North Carolina, home after a bleak winter. The family goat, Topsy, born the same day as Reynolds, licks the baby’s face with its rough tongue and tries to eat his diaper. Whether such an early remembrance is a genuine recollection or something recalled from the lore of a talkative, storytelling family is hard to discern, and Price does not struggle to make a case for its being an actual memory of the event. Whatever its source, it fulfills admirably its purpose as a triggering device. Before long, Price has enlisted the reader as a conspirator in trying to solve the puzzle created by memories dredged up from a distant, nearly lost past.
On the first page of Clear Pictures: First Loves, First Guides, Price informs readers that the book is an exploration into how people learn about life, love, and death. The focus of the search is the Price family, a close entity in which Reynolds was the only child for eight years. By the time of his birth, his parents had known each other for twelve years, six before their marriage in 1927 and six after. They were a passionate, loving couple through twenty-seven years of marriage, clouded in the early years by the Great Depression and by Will’s drinking, a problem that had also afflicted other members of his family.
Reynolds’ birth was not easy. As Elizabeth lay in labor in her parents’ home in Macon, just south of the Virginia border, her doctor knew that she was in for trouble. It was a breech birth, and it appeared that both mother and child would die. Will, beside himself with concern, ran to an outbuilding and made a compact with God: He swore that if Elizabeth and the baby were spared, he would never drink again, a pledge he kept—although not immediately—until his death in 1954.
The Prices moved frequently during...
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