The Collected Stories

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436

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...

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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 have actually seen print before, in ESQUIRE, HARPER’S, PLAYBOY, THE SOUTHERN REVIEW, THE NEW YORKER, and a dozen other major vehicles for short fiction.

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. But the best of Price’s stories tap his family history, the rich Southern roots of his own North Carolina childhood. Like Eudora Welty—and PERMANENT ERRORS was dedicated to her—Price has found within his family history a well from which he can draw endlessly for his fiction.

Often, in fact, he has disguised his characters very little, and they are “Reynolds” as a boy, and “Buck Price” his father; various aunts and uncles and grandparents on several sides of his family; and the black families which have worked for these relatives for generations. He 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 Price gives so effortlessly—of food and flowers, gossip and language.

If Reynolds Price has an overriding theme within this setting, it is adolescence, particularly for the young boy of eleven or twelve whose experiences are propelling him toward adulthood. What distinguishes Price’s version of the American growing-up story is a dual focus on sexuality on the one hand, and spirituality, even mysticism, on the other.

Price’s elegant, often first-person prose is perfectly appropriate to his themes. Price’s characters are constantly discovering the mysteries of the human and natural worlds, of the spiritual heart residing within life, and the power which humans have of achieving that spirituality, by caring for each other and achieving true intimacy. For Price’s characters, the lessons of this world are full of aching joy and sadness. And Reynolds Price’s short fiction often achieves an intensity close to music, with an expressiveness that few writers ever achieve.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, April 15, 1993, p.1495.

Chicago Tribune. May 16, 1993, XIV, p.1.

Choice. XXXI, October, 1993, p.293.

Commonweal. CXX, December 3, 1993, p.22.

Library Journal. CXVIII, May 1, 1993, p.120.

National Review. XLV, June 7, 1993, p.68.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, July 4, 1993, p.8.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, April 19, 1993, p.49.

San Francisco Chronicle. June 27, 1993, p. REVS.

USA Today. June 18, 1993, p. D4.

The Collected Stories

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1696

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 about that experience ever since.

If Price has an overriding theme within this setting, it is adolescence, particularly for the young boy of eleven or twelve whose fictional experiences are propelling him toward adulthood. Like James Agee, Carson McCullers, and a whole raft of twentieth century American writers, Price has a peculiar feel for the difficulties of the young person navigating the shoals of adolescence. What distinguishes his version of the American growing-up story is a dual focus on sexuality on the one hand and spirituality, even mysticism, on the other.

In “The Enormous Door,” the third story in this collection, for example, a twelve-year-old boy narrates his encounter with adult sexuality. The burning question in his adolescent mind is “What are grown men like, truly, in secret?” He miraculously gets his answer when, in a boarding house where he and his parents live, he is able to observe Simon Fentriss, the new high school math and science teacher, through a hole in the door. What he sees is both a sexual and a mystical experience. As he says at the end, “I’m the last man alive… to whom a god unquestionably came and showed the sacred joy that waits in any human body.”

Many of Reynolds Price’s stories echo these sexual and spiritual initiation experiences in one way or another. In “Deeds of Light” a boy gets to share his life briefly with a young soldier in the summer of 1942. “Don’t let this end,” the boy says to himself. “Let it teach me everything I need.” His momentary friendship with the older male has all the joy and homosexual tension such an experience can possibly carry. Yet the Price adolescent learns about more than sex; in “Watching Her Die,” for example, the young narrator discovers the mystery of death. Such an experience can even be humorous: in “The Company of the Dead,” two boys are hired as “setters” to stay by the corpse for the night, and their adventures (especially after they discover that “Miss Georgie was blowing a sizable bubble”) may remind readers of the works of other Southern writers from William Faulkner to Fannie Flagg.

It would be a mistake to say, however, that Price is best only when he stays in his family’s South. Some of his most powerful fiction breaks those boundaries. “Endless Mountains” is a long account of a soldier wounded in the Civil War and nursed to health by a young girl and boy. “An Early Christmas” is a religious allegory using both Old and New Testament terms and taking place in 1980 in the Old City of Jerusalem in Israel’s West Bank. “The Last of a Long Correspondence” is the letter to a woman from her dying godfather recounting the weekend of the Cuban missile crisis some thirty years earlier, when he took her into the mountains for safekeeping.

It would not be unfair to say, however, that Price’s weaker fiction nearly always takes place somewhere outside the South. He has several stories of American couples wandering aimlessly around Europe and suffering from some angst that readers cannot identify and the characters will not talk about (as in “Waiting at Dachau,” from Permanent Errors). There is also a strong strain of sentimentality in Price; controlled, it creates a tension that is reminiscent of such writers as Truman Capote and James Agee. Yet occasionally, as with all writers, the author’s control is lost, and the sentimentality sweeps readers away on its flood. (“Walking Lessons,” for example, the longest story here, never recovers from its opening line: “My wife killed herself two weeks ago, her twenty-sixth birthday.”)

Put another way, Price is often writing intimate family stories; their tragedies and triumphs are poignant but can quickly slip over the edge into the maudlin. “Uncle Grant” is a good example. This story of an old black family retainer could easily become mawkish; Price controls it by focusing not only on this wonderful old character but on the growth of the narrator within Uncle Grant’s sight and love. A similar case is “Bess Waters,” the story of generations of a black family in all their sadness and sorrow. This is in fact where Price is at his best, describing his own Southern history, and in a metaphorical language matched by none. “Buckeye Price’s son, Reynolds,” asks the one-hundred-year-old Bess to tell her story.

And honest to God, Bess tries to tell it. Her dry lips work and her mind sends words—she only recalls these scattered hours—but what comes out is dark shine and power from her banked old heart and the quick other bones, dark but hot as a furnace blast with a high blue roar. It burns the boy first. Bess tees him blown back and starting to scorch; then it whips round and folds her into the light till both of them Sit in a grate of embers, purified by the tale itself, the visible trace of one long life too hard to tell.

Price’s best prose, like this, is the poetry of detail and metaphor. Few American writers can match it.

Price’s prose is also perfectly appropriate to his themes, for a strain of spirituality runs through many of these stories, a thinly veiled mysticism that may remind readers of much in Native American literature. Price’s characters are constantly discovering the mysteries of the human and natural worlds, of the spiritual heart residing within life, and the power humans have of achieving that spirituality by caring for one another and achieving true intimacy. For Price’s characters, and his adolescents in particular, the lessons of this world are full of aching joy and sadness. Like the fiction he defines in his preface, Reynolds Price’s short fiction often achieves an intensity close to music.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, April 15, 1993, p.1495.

Chicago Tribune. May 16, 1993, XIV, p.1.

Choice. XXXI, October, 1993, p.293.

Commonweal. CXX, December 3, 1993, p.22.

Library Journal. CXVIII, May 1, 1993, p.120.

National Review. XLV, June 7, 1993, p.68.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, July 4, 1993, p.8.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, April 19, 1993, p.49.

San Francisco Chronicle. June 27, 1993, p. REVS.

USA Today. June 18, 1993, p. D4.

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