Clear Pictures

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1838

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...

(The entire section contains 2128 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Clear Pictures study guide. You'll get access to all of the Clear Pictures content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

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 Reynolds’ early years. Work was scarce. Will, a salesman, went where the opportunities were best, although the thought of leaving his native North Carolina was completely out of the question. Reynolds’ parents doted on him, and he was the particular favorite of his Aunt Ida Drake, almost forty-six years older than he, one of his mother’s seven siblings, eighteen years her senior. Temperamentally, Reynolds, who often felt the need for solitude and reflection, was more like Ida, who suffered from melancholia fed by hysterical pregnancies, than like his gregarious parents. He and she both realized this, and a special bond grew between them that lasted until Ida’s death.

Reynolds’ upbringing was in small towns and in the country north of Raleigh, where many of his relatives, including the Drakes, lived. He spent long summer days playing in the fields and the woods near the Drakes’ home as well as near his parents’ home in Asheboro and other locations. The chapter that deals with Macon Thornton, a bachelor relation on his mother’s side, is particularly warm and appreciative. Thornton took the ten-year-old Reynolds into a tobacco field and asked him which furrow he liked best. The boy chose his furrow, and Thornton told him the profit from it was his. In similar ways did Mac Thornton help him through his college years, never an oppressive presence in his life but always there when the lad needed him, giving him occasional princely gifts to help support his education.

Will Price was a kindly, loving man. He suffered from a hypochondria that kept him going to doctors through most of his adult life. He fretted over his family, always fearful that some harm would befall it. He hated having to be separated from his wife and children, although at times his job selling insurance kept him away from home four nights a week.

As rich as Price’s book is in family recollection, it does not confine itself solely to that. It is also an incisive commentary on what it was like to grow up in the South in the period between his birth in 1933 and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Among the close acquaintances of Price’s family were black people who had been born into slavery and who now worked and lived in situations somewhat less secure than what slavery had offered them.

Price has had to reconcile his love and admiration for his family with his knowledge that they shared social views that one of his own generation finds less palatable than they did. He valued his family enough that he could continue to love them when he, as an intelligent, thinking person, realized that they were bigoted in some of their attitudes about race and society.

Essentially, Clear Pictures is a book about Reynolds Price’s teachers. They were found everywhere—in his family, among his friends, and among those who actually taught him in school. Among these were public school English teachers who directed him in the paths that he would follow throughout his professional life as a writer: Jane Alston (Miss Jennie) and Crichton Thorne Davis of John Graham School in Warrenton, who were his seventh- and eighth-grade teachers respectively, and Phyllis Peacock of Needham-Broughton High School in Raleigh, who encouraged and inspired him to write clear, unencumbered poetry and prose. It was Phyllis Peacock who took Reynolds on his first theater and opera expedition to New York City over Thanksgiving break in 1950. It was also Phyllis Peacock who made him aware that the best in literature is an outgrowth of one’s early recollections of the world.

Perhaps the most tender part of Clear Pictures has to do with Will’s death. Reynolds, now a student at Duke University, is called home because his father is ill—this time legitimately ill, not hypochondriacally so. An X ray has shown a spot on his lung, and it is decided by his physicians that his best hope is to have the lung removed. Will gathers his family—his wife, his children, and his sisters—around him to discuss his options. They boil down to having surgery now or going on as he is and having perhaps two years left.

Surgery seems the sensible option, so on Wednesday, February 17, 1954, Will Price has his lung removed. Four days later he is dead, his son by his bedside with his hand pressed to his father’s pulse as it recedes and then disappears completely. Reynolds had been with his father throughout the surgery and its aftermath, staying in his room, sleeping through each night in a chair because his father insisted on his being there. When the end finally comes, Reynolds realizes that his father has provided him with the last lesson he could offer him, a poignant one about how to die.

Reynolds’ mother lives for another eleven years, long enough to see her son become a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, long enough to see his first novel, A Long and Happy Life, published and printed in full in the April, 1962, issue of Harper’s Magazine—the first time in that magazine’s history that it devoted an entire issue to the publication of a single novel. By now he had begun his teaching career at Duke and was established in his comfortable house on a pond in Orange County. Elizabeth lived to see her younger son marry Pia Taveruise, daughter of fugitives from Benito Mussolini’s Italy before World War II. Then she died, suddenly, quietly, when an artery burst in her brain as she talked on the telephone. She was gone in a day.

Perhaps the greatest tribute one can pay this first volume of Price’s autobiography is to say that it has genuine integrity. It is true, direct, and honest. It will hurt no one. It reveals no dark secrets, trades on no intimacies that were not meant to be shared. Its ethical tone is impressive. The book makes its greatest contribution in revealing how an intelligent, sensitive youth matured in the South during a time of social change that seemed cataclysmic to some and, while obeying his own code of morality, remained true to his roots and accepting of a family that did not embody his own social points of view.

One hopes that now that he has found the triggering device that frees his memory to write a book like Clear Pictures, Price will continue his autobiographical writing. As he has in such novels as A Long and Happy Life, A Generous Man (1966), and Kate Vaiden (1986), Reynolds Price in this nonfiction volume has captured the quintessence of Southern life, whose center is the family with all its warts, all its blemishes, but never absent its deep and abiding love and its inherent self-respect and dignity.

Further Reading

Library Journal. CXIV, May 15, 1989, p.68.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, June 4, 1989, p.10.

Newsweek. CXIV, July 17, 1989, p.54.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, April 21, 1989, p.73.

Time. CXXXIV, July 10, 1989, p.62.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, June 18, 1989, p.3.

Analysis

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 290

In 1984, cancer of the spine left Reynolds Price a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair. Thus freed, as he has explained, from many of the exigencies of routine existence (“No responsible citizen ever has the least idea of how much energy leaks away in going to the dry cleaners and catching the bus”), he began to enjoy the most productive period of his career, turning out novels, stories, poems, and plays, among them some of his best work. He did not begin--or even contemplate--this memoir, however, until 1987, when a course in hypnosis and biofeedback to relieve back pain triggered some vivid images from early childhood.

Price’s account of his boyhood and youth in North Carolina focuses on his parents, relatives, caretakers, and teachers, rendered with great affection. It is clear that, even as a boy, he was developing the habits of mind that would serve him well as a novelist, yet he is unfailingly generous to the memory of those who helped him along the way.

Price writes with an innocently oblivious narcissism which can occasionally be exasperating but which serves him well as a memoirist. CLEAR PICTURES--the text is supplemented by evocative photographs, many of them family snapshots, with commentary by Price--belongs on a shelf with Philip Roth’s THE FACTS: A NOVELIST’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY and John Updike’s SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS: MEMOIRS. Updike was born in 1932; Roth, like Price, in 1933. Their memoirs, published within the span of a year, offer three fascinatingly different portraits of the novelist as a young man.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CXIV, May 15, 1989, p.68.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, June 4, 1989, p.10.

Newsweek. CXIV, July 17, 1989, p.54.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, April 21, 1989, p.73.

Time. CXXXIV, July 10, 1989, p.62.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, June 18, 1989, p.3.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Clear Pictures Study Guide

Subscribe Now