Reynolds Price Price, (Edward) Reynolds (Vol. 3) - Essay

Price, (Edward) Reynolds (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Price, (Edward) Reynolds 1933–

American novelist, short story writer, and critic, Price is best-known for his novel, A Long and Happy Life. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[The] most impressive first novel [of 1962] was Reynolds Price's A Long and Happy Life. Now Price has published a collection of short stories, The Names and Faces of Heroes, and if not all the stories reach the high level of the novel, the volume is a considerable satisfaction. In the novel Price made it clear that he was not afraid of pathos and that he ranked compassion high among the virtues. In the stories he shows that he is willing to run many risks, including the risk of being thought sentimental….

All the stories are laid in the North Carolina county in which Price was born and spent his boyhood. He is not, he has said, aiming to found another Yoknapatawpha County, but he finds in his native region materials of which he can make imaginative use.

Granville Hicks, "The Names and Faces of Heroes," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1963 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 29, 1963.

I have seldom read a first novel that had such sustained lyric power as Reynolds Price's A Long and Happy Life: not pretty, pseudo-poetic prose but a vigorous, joyful outburst of song. In his second novel, A Generous Man, Price displays the same gift, but he employs it in a more varied fashion. The first novel was a love story, simple and poignant; this describes the complicated experiences that contribute to a young man's coming-of-age….

[A Generous Man] is not intended to be realistic but is a kind of fable about youth and love. As such, it is to be judged in terms of the author's insights into his characters, and it is here that Price is most impressive….

Granville Hicks, "A Generous Man," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 26, 1966.

Reynolds Price's first novel, A Long and Happy Life (1962), was an unusually distinguished performance, as impressive in the lyricism of its style as it was in the renewed vitality he brought there to his time-worn theme (the fearful and immense complexities of human love). Amidst a spate of pornographic and programmatic novels, it stood out like a beacon of life and light or, at the least, a breath of fresh country air. Price was not afraid to narrate (something many of our fiction writers have either forgotten how to do or now disdain to do), nor was he afraid to retell one of the oldest stories in the world.

Such, however, is not the verdict one must finally render on his second novel, A Generous Man. The story here is essentially the coming of age, both sexually and intellectually, of Milo Mustian, older brother of Rosacoke Mustian, the heroine of Price's first novel….

In certain ways, the narrative line may remind readers of Eudora Welty's "The Wide Net," where a whole community is united to find a missing wife (or her drowned body) and emerges from its quest more solidly joined, despite its diversity, than ever…. Price's style is also reminiscent of Miss Welty's, especially in her later works, as is also what seems his predilection here for the mythical or perhaps allegorical. But here all resemblance both to Miss Welty and to himself ends because Price seems to have gone off now in quest of strange gods. His theme in A Generous Man seems much the same as that of his first novel; but it often appears confused because, in speaking of love, he frequently seems to be dealing mainly with sex…. [It's] all mixed up with some sort of "meaningful" chase after "Death," and daughters and mothers and sons and lovers all being reunited and understanding each other. What to make of it all remains finally, at least for this reviewer, something of a mystery.

Furthermore, Price's style, which seemed so powerful and moving in his first novel—shot through as it was with perceptions of natural beauty of the freshest intensity—seems to have degenerated here into a manner. His prose has become more modish, as his theme has become more muddled. A case in point is his fondness for the simple sentence with a simple subject but endlessly compound predicate, which has a certain hypnotic power but eventually becomes tedious and finally no substitute for a legitimate style which supports and reinforces the theme at every step.

This novel is supposed to present, apparently, a dramatic rendering of an elemental human experience, one fraught with pain and peril, which all men must finally undergo. Its possibilities for beauty and drama are certainly endless; but Price appears content to give us a fifteen-year-old North Carolina boy, wise both in speech and in thought far beyond his years—more a suburbanite Ivy Leaguer than a country boy whose folks raise tobacco. When he lets North Carolina speak and act for itself, Price is on home territory and safe. When he tries to impose a false intellectual and stylistic sophistication on his native material, it will simply not support this factitious superstructure, with a resulting loss of clarity and power. For all his implications about the necessity of both give and take in human love, Price's treatment involves largely the give and take of sex: his metaphysics becomes largely acrobatics. Finally, as Rosacoke remarks when Milo is discoursing on the dramatic events of "Death's" escape, "Just call it a snake. I'll know who you mean." Price might have done better if he had followed this advice more closely himself. His talent is a very fine one. Let us hope that he will not further abuse it.

Robert Drake, "Coming of Age in North Carolina," in The Southern Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter, 1967, pp. 248-50.

In spite of the meagerness by conventional standards of the existence led by the Mustians and the other characters in A Long and Happy Life and A Generous Man, these novels are rich with color and brightened by joy. Love and Work, by comparison, is spare and somber. One would not want Price to deal with the same sort of material over and over again, and the material here given him directly by his own experience, offered him a challenge that he could not ignore. I am not so excited by this novel as I was by the other two, but I recognize it as a necessary stage in his career.

Granville Hicks, "Love and Work," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1968 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 25, 1968.

Love, in its various manifestations, pervades [Price's] stories and novels, which makes A Long and Happy Life both representative in a sense and indicative of Price's ability to make it new….

The intricacies and obliquities of A Long and Happy Life should incline one to a close and intent reading of the novel, to musing on a single sentence or phrase, and this accurately reflects Price's management of character and theme. While the novel has its share of what Honor Tracy called "warmth and innocence and sweetness," it is also very carefully constructed, with Price very much in control. Sometimes, as it seems, carefulness becomes self-conciousness, and control manipulation. One is more aware of authorial glosses on the fable than one should be, and of the fact that alternatives are sometimes posed largely as alternatives, and then dismissed. Stylistic resources occasionally show themselves in a technical virtuosity which outweighs the uses to which it is put. These are minor objections, though not cavils. Finally, however, while he may overcalculate them, Price is a writer willing to take chances, and this problematic novel reflects a number of interesting problems well solved. In the conclusion of A Long and Happy Life the meaning of the action finds final focus not in mechanical resolution nor allegorized ethereality but in vital human effort, doomed perhaps to failure, but validating the ethic of the freely given gesture.

Allen Shepherd, "Love (and Marriage) in A Long and Happy Life," in Twentieth Century Literature, January, 1971, pp. 29-35.

The truth that [Permanent Errors] vaunts is, things happen in the past. It's not easy to remember. For these characters, action is past, the present is for thinking, the future hypothetical, chancey. The past is also lethal, threatening to take vengeance on the present for not being included: errors take place, like everything else, in the past, their permanence demands continuance. The pressure of the past on the present, its tyranny, ends a few of the stories in simple cries for help, for what is not possible: reversal—Gatsby's desire that Daisy annihilate those five years with Tom Buchanan.

The relation of present thinking (writing) to past event is the axis these writings turn on, though the energy of the thinking, the massive attempt at meaning, often overwhelms the really spectacular actions that surround the thinking. Let me emphasize that these stories do not take place in the past; they are lived out in a furious, tumultuous present. But it is strange how completely the thought swallows, say, the dinner at the cafe in "Waiting at Dachau," or the shooting in "Walking Lessons." Meaning is in the mind. Again, the present is for making sense of the past, outliving it.

The exclusion of the characters also issues from the shadow of the past on their lives; each seems not to fit in, somehow—each has blood on his hands….

[The] characters are no lovers of the past. They respect and fear the past as Emerson and Hawthorne and, nearer in time but no closer to home, John Berryman do; that is, they do not live on easy terms with the past. They do not snuggle up to history, they honor it by flight….

[Price] uses language for the rarest (oldest?) of reasons, to say the truth. In the presence of this writing, the reader may think of Carraway's discomfort at the disclosure of confidences, but, another name, I believe he would be better to sit still, albeit painfully, with The Wedding Guest. The tales may turn your head, but the voice is worth attending to. Nobody I know of writes better prose.

Henry Sloss, "Price's Reliques," in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review; reprinted with the permission of the Editor), Spring, 1971, pp. 94-6.

Reynolds Price is not a writer in whose work nature and the relation of man and nature seem of the first importance, as they do, in different senses, in the fiction of Faulkner, Warren, Wolfe, O'Connor, or Dickey. Whatever the difficulties, though not because of them, Price is not given to celebrating nature. Beyond the dark pastoral of A Long and Happy Life (1962) and the jokes-in-character turned rather grim romance of A Generous Man (1966), an engagement with nature is consistently evident in Price's fiction through which characters receive or miss messengers, signs, emblems from the world of nature, whole lives changed in the process…. Where do these signs originate? "The world of nature" is an answer, true as far as it goes but incomplete. More comprehensively, one says the Great World, the supernatural, whose existence, presence, and force are intimated, even affirmed, most clearly in Price's recent work. One might indeed consider the stories collected in Permanent Errors (1970) or Love and Work (1968), the author's best novel, as religious statements, though not of a conventional variety….

Price is not ecological nor allegorical nor consistently symbolical…. A Long and Happy Life and A Generous Man offer the clearest, most obvious examples of the juxtaposition of men and beasts, of natural phenomena as emblems to the perceptive or wary human observer, and thereby aid in the articulation of central concerns….

[One] can see that the images of the deer and the spring recur throughout [A Generous Man]; that they represent one aspect of nature, an abiding, self-regulating beauty, the deer or his kind surviving, the spring clearing after being muddied; and that natural phenomena display no care, comprehension, much less compassion….

A Generous Man, perhaps better termed a romance than a novel, has suffered considerable indignities from reviewers and critics who have set it down as a playful allegorical quest for the great snake Death. That a part of the author's intention slipped past undetected is not surprising: Price's observation [in an essay, "News for the Mineshaft," in Virginia Quarterly Review, 44 (Autumn, 1968)] that he let the name Death "become one more nail in the coffin I was building for the great Southern hunt" might well come as news even to the attentive reader. Nature, the importance of man's relationship to nature, or, put another way, man's being a natural creature, shows not in the guying of such mythicized solemnities as the hunt but rather in a sense of place radically altered from the one communicated in A Long and Happy Life….

Price's two volumes of short stories, The Names and Faces of Heroes (1963) and Permanent Errors, illustrate several strategies in the delineation of man's relation to nature, man's heightened perception of his own identity in that relation. With the exception of "A Chain of Love" and the title story, The Names and Faces of Heroes seems an effort, largely successful, at the revivification of cliches, Price undertaking to make the worn and familiar new and his own….

Permanent Errors, as Price notes in a foreword, represents "the attempt to isolate in a number of lives the central error of act, will, understanding which, once made, has been permanent, incurable, but whose diagnosis and palliation are the hopes of continuance" (vii). By and large the stories are fine, intense, complex, sterner stuff than those in The Names and Faces of Heroes….

Price's more recent novel, Love and Work, offers variations on and apparent contradictions to the thesis that the point of contact of man and nature, as of man and the supernatural, is important and may be crucial—that its informed perception could and does change whole lives….

Nature of any description is little in evidence in Love and Work, the focus turned inward, the protagonist self-absorbed, living life at second hand or attempting to recreate it in charming vignettes….

Price clearly espouses no program after the manner of the Agrarians. In his fiction the naturalistic perspective receives no adherence; the pastoral mode, in so far as the term describes his first novel, was a point of departure…. [The] "literally human qualities" of life are best grasped, interpreted, and communicated in and through a place where man's status as created and creating being, where his amphibian nature and the more constant spectacle of his fall from grace, irresistibly present themselves.

Allen Shepherd, "Notes on Nature in the Fiction of Reynolds Price," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XV, No. 2, 1973, pp. 83-94.