A Common Room Summary
by Reynolds Price

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A Common Room

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

A COMMON ROOM: ESSAYS, 1954-1987 offers a many-faceted writer’s view of his craft. It is a richly rewarding volume, but readers who have followed Price’s work should be warned that many of the pieces collected here have already appeared in book form. (The dust-jacket blurb fails to mention this fact.) Most of these are drawn from Price’s only previous collection of essays, THINGS THEMSELVES, published in 1972. This group includes remarkable tributes to two writers who could hardly be more different from each other: Henry James and Ernest Hemingway. The long, brilliant essay “A Single Meaning” first appeared in A PALPABLE GOD, published in 1978, accompanying Price’s translations from the Bible.

Still, A COMMON ROOM is not merely a reissue; there are a number of new pieces here as well. The title essay (“A Vast Common Room”) celebrates fiction’s power to take readers across barriers of gender, race, class, and time--a theme that Price is well qualified to explore, since his two finest novels, KATE VAIDEN and A LONG AND HAPPY LIFE, are both told from a woman’s point of view. (Technically, the latter is a third-person narrative, but its central character and informing sensibility is a woman, the unforgettable Rosacoke Mustian.) One of the best pieces in the collection is also one of the most recent: “Man and Boy: A Life on Campus,” based on a lecture given in 1987 at Duke University, where Price studied as an undergraduate and where he has taught for almost thirty years. A generous tribute to his teachers, an account of his growing sense of vocation, this memoir reminds the reader what a college education is supposed to be. Finally, there is “At the Heart,” the short piece with which Price chose to conclude the volume: a testimony to his faith in God.

Since 1984, when cancer of the spine led to paraplegia, Price has had cause, one might think, to complain about his fate. Instead, he has enjoyed the most productive years of his career. Now, he says, he has fewer distractions and more time to write.