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...
(The entire section is 2,111 words.)