Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1117
Reynolds Price was born during the Great Depression in the small town of Macon on the North Carolina side of the Virginia-North Carolina border. His birth was difficult and almost killed both him and his mother, Elizabeth Rodwell Price. Price’s father, William Solomon Price, a salesman with a taste for liquor, vowed that if his wife’s life was spared, he would stop drinking. After a prolonged labor, Reynolds, the first of the Prices’ two children, was born. Will, whose twenty-seven-year marriage to Elizabeth was happy and passionate, struggled to keep his vow.
A second son, William, was not born until eight years later, so Reynolds was raised as an only child for nearly a decade, doted on by a gallery of aunts and uncles, most of whom appear in one form or another in his writing. Money was tight, and the Prices moved from town to town. They lost their house when Will fell short of an overdue fifty-dollar mortgage payment.
Reynolds, having few playmates and being brought up among adults with the penchant for storytelling common to people from small southern towns, depended upon his imagination for company. Besides being good storytellers, Price’s relatives were readers, so, following their examples, he developed an early enthusiasm for books. He was a good enough listener that he learned early the rhythms, cadences, vocabulary, and syntax of southern speech, which he was later to reproduce authentically in his writing.
The adolescent Price wrote poetry as well as some plays. Reynolds grew close to his mother’s sister, Ida Drake, who was forty-six when he was born. Price’s early school experiences were positive. Jane Alston (called Miss Jennie) and Crichton Thorne Davis, his seventh-grade and eighth-grade teachers at the John Graham School in Warrenton, were exceptional motivators who recognized the young Price’s potential. The family moved to Raleigh when Reynolds entered high school. There Phyllis Peacock, head of the English department at Needham-Broughton Senior High School, a demanding taskmistress, taught Reynolds how to write prose.
Price entered Duke University as an English major in 1951, beginning an association that continued throughout his professional life. When, at the invitation of Professor William Blackburn, Eudora Welty came to Duke University early in the 1950’s to work with undergraduates interested in creative writing and to comment on some of their work, Price’s submission rose above the rest. A decade later, Price was back at Duke, having completed a residence at Merton College, Oxford University, which he had attended as a Rhodes scholar and from which he received a bachelor of letters degree in 1958. A fledgling assistant professor of English, he was pushing hard to finish his first novel.
Welty not only gave Price perceptive critiques of his early writing but also had a hand in helping him to place A Long and Happy Life, which was published in 1962. It was through her interest and intervention that Harper’s agreed to publish this first novel in its totality in its April, 1962, issue. The novel won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for a first novel. Following a return to England in 1963, Price published a collection of short stories, The Names and Faces of Heroes (1963). His early story that Welty had praised during her visit to Duke a decade earlier, “Thomas Egerton,” is included in this collection.
Price’s second novel, A Generous Man, was published in 1966. Although it was not artistically up to A Long and Happy Life, it is, nevertheless, interesting for its frank phallic symbolism as represented by a python named Death that is suspected of having hydrophobia and has recently escaped from a traveling circus. The novel is humorous if heavy-handed in its symbolism.
Price’s next novel, Love and Work, published in 1968, is an academic novel, but Price remains close to his southern roots: Town in this book is more pervasive than gown. Even though the protagonist, Thomas Eborn, is a thirty-four-year-old college professor, he cannot legitimately be viewed as a completely autobiographical character. The book received mixed reviews. Some of what Price experimented with in Love and Work, the intermixing of autobiographical fact with fiction, continued in his next book, Permanent Errors (1970). In that year, Price received an award from the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters.
As the 1970’s began, Price had started work on a more ambitious novel than he had yet undertaken, The Surface of Earth, which was finally published in 1975 and was followed by its sequel, The Source of Light, in 1981. A collection of essays, Things Themselves: Essays and Scenes (1972), was his only other book in the early 1970’s. The critics were divided in their reception of the two novels.
In 1977, Early Dark, a play based on A Long and Happy Life, was published. At about the same time, Price published A Palpable God: Thirty Stories Translated from the Bible with an Essay on the Origins and Life of Narrative (1978), which brought him considerable critical praise. A collection of poetry, Vital Provisions, followed in 1982. Mustian, a collection that includes Price’s first two novels and “A Chain of Love,” was released in 1983.
A turning point came in Price’s creative life in 1984, when an operation for spinal cancer left him a paraplegic. To help control the pain that he was suffering, Price underwent hypnosis, and this course of treatments resulted in unlocking for him much of his distant past, putting him in touch with information that helped him produce a flood of books in the next few years.
Another volume of poetry, The Laws of Ice, appeared in 1986, as did the immensely popular novel Kate Vaiden. A collection of Price’s essays, A Common Room: Essays 1954-1987, was published in 1987. In 1988, another novel, Good Hearts, appeared, and in the next year his extensive autobiography, Clear Pictures: First Loves, First Guides, was published, followed by the novels The Tongues of Angels (1990), Blue Calhoun (1992), The Promise of Rest (1995), and Roxanna Slade (1998), as well as the autobiographical A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing in 1994. His amazing productivity continued into the twenty-first century with the children’s book A Perfect Friend (2000) and the novels Noble Norfleet (2002) and The Good Priest’s Son (2005). During this period, he also published various collections of his stories, poetry, and plays; wrote a number of religious books; and oversaw the publication of A Great Circle: The Mayfield Trilogy in 2001, consisting of The Surface of Earth, The Source of Light, and The Promise of Rest.
In 1988, Price was elected to membership in the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters. He taught at Duke University, where he was named James B. Duke Professor of English in 1977, for 53 years. Price died in 2011 at age 77.