Reynolds Price Price, (Edward) Reynolds (Vol. 6) - Essay

Price, (Edward) Reynolds (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Price, (Edward) Reynolds 1933–

Price, a Southern American author of short stories and novels, essays and poems, disclaims inevitable comparisons with Faulkner, pointing out that Southern writers may seem similar because they experienced a similar oral narrative tradition as well as a similar environment. Concerning that environment, Price comments that "complaining about its narrowness is like complaining that all the great Victorian novels were about England." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[The] most memorable short stories [in Permanent Errors] are those of the first section, titled "Fool's Education."… The impressive factor in all of these stories is a nightmare undertone of considering all relationship with other humans to be potentially hurtful or unrewarding…. And more than once the stories seem to advocate a negative withdrawal (not at all the withdrawal of the saint or holy man) as an answer to life's problems.

The preoccupation of the series "Good and Bad Dreams" with the relation of marriage to suicide, for example, suggests that since such relationships are painful, we ought not to get into them in the first place. Marriage is portrayed as essentially destructive, and solitariness, freedom from relation, is made a positive value. (p. 71)

My feeling that this withdrawal is being advocated by the author gains support in the "clearly personal" Section Two, in which the central figure, Reynolds Price this time, wishes to save his father from suffering by asking his father that he, Reynolds, not be born at all. There are overtones of Delmore Schwartz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" in this section, with the narrator looking backward, pitying his parents while gazing at their photograph, but it seems to me a suicidal variation on the theme….

There is something spectator-like about the way the narrator wishes to visit the camp [in "Waiting at Dachau"]: he doesn't want to experience suffering, but only to look at it from a distance. (p. 72)

The final story, "Walking Lessons" is thematically murky, so that it is difficult to check it for the presence of the summed themes of all the other stories. But it is a story of compelling interest…. The cold, the mud, the snow, all seem to rise above themselves in a dream-world of unforgettable vague guilt…. The story works for me in [this] way; we are walking with the narrator in a morass of guilt from which we cannot extricate ourselves…. Price is working the difficult area between miracle and suicide, not making all the connections for us, like Salinger with the suicide of Seymour Glass. The miracle is not believable. But every time the novella threatens to fall apart at our feet, the cold scenery and the hostile world … give this fiction a life of its own. (pp. 72-3)

Del Marie Rogers, in Carolina Quarterly (© copyright 1970 Carolina Quarterly), Winter, 1971.

The fingers of Reynolds Price creep steadily, evenly, over people, things, and properties of existence, seen and unseen. They are like the fingers of the blind, ruthlessly gentle, respectfully demanding. They seem to enjoy inspection as an end in itself. Maybe that is why some say that Price is all manner. But if they do, they take the endings of his stories too much for granted; they consider them to be more of the same. Not so. There the fingers stop feeling. They go over into a recognizable sign language. They are now the fingers of the dumb, and they talk. His way is as simple and as tensile as that. (p. 233)

John Hazard Wildman, in The Southern Review (copyright 1973, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 233-42.

Reynolds Price's imagination is large, and so are his sympathies and powers. And on the face of it The Surface of Earth is anything but superficial. It is determined to plumb the servitudes and grandeurs of family life and of generational dependencies—but then "determined" is perhaps the trouble, is perhaps the reason why, although I was moved by and respected it, I somehow don't see myself reading it again. For it is overwritten, not just locally (Mr. Price's style can ripen with fatal fluency, and then the rot sets in), but also in the insistence of its scheme, the relish that taints the enterprise because when the mills of God grind slowly it is all grist to the novelist's mill.

From the first words on, and at a good many crucial moments, the death of a mother in childbirth is urgently central; yet this urgency (unlike the free urgency of innumerable moments and anecdotes when Mr. Price is free of the doom which is being visited upon his characters) has something factitious, voulu. So I couldn't help being reminded of what William Empson wrote, forty years ago, about another excellently intentioned American writer who became a touch religious, and a touch too preoccupiedly convenienced, when there was death in childbirth:

Mr. Robinson Jeffers, like Mr. Galsworthy, often seems to write from his conscience rather than his sensibility. He chooses painful subjects, one may suspect, less because he feels strongly about them than because he feels it shameful not to feel strongly about them….                         (pp. 14-15)

Christopher Ricks, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), June 26, 1975.

That there is no present Southern literary art of any distinctiveness, any special energy or élan, is part of the larger truth that there's no weighty, alluring regional literature (in the best sense of the term, beyond hymns to prairies or apostrophes to elk) being created anywhere in the United States today.

The mystique of place is of course one form of a mystique of time, which is why so much Southern fiction took the shape of invented family history and of inherited moral dilemma and quest. But such themes or dispositions have largely succumbed to the pressure of a radical leveling contemporaneity conceived of as universal, traditionless fate. For some time now we've been under the sway of the more or less detached, ironic, cool and essentially unlocalized American literary intelligence and vision: Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, John Hawkes, Donald Barthelme, even Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller and John Updike, whose sense of place is real but incidental, a ground for their wit and passion but not an instigation or a sustenance. We are all displaced persons to such imaginations; "home" is wherever the sensibility can defend itself, where humanness can begin to rediscover its outlines against a backdrop of ruins.

It's only with such a perspective as this that I can begin to account for the strangeness of ["The Surface of Earth"]. As "Southern" in most ways as any regionalist could desire, as steadfastly devoted to local weathers and indigenous happenings, to downhome storytelling, as any work of Faulkner or Eudora Welty or Flannery O'Connor (to my mind the last Southern writer of genius …), "The Surface of Earth" comes to us like a great lumbering archaic beast, taking its place among our literary fauna with the stiff queer presence of the representative of a species thought to be extinct. A mastodon sprung to life from beneath an icefield, it smells at first of time stopped, evolution arrested.

Who could have imagined that any novelist presumably sensitive to the prevailing winds of consciousness—Price's previous fiction has moved between competent conventional storytelling and a mild and somewhat brittle thrust into fantasy—could have written a relentless family saga at a time when most of us feel self-generated, inheritors of obliterated pasts? The only writers of stature I know of who have employed the genre recently are Gabriel García Márquez and Günter Grass, but in the former case it was for the purpose of a literary myth about history as a creation ("One Hundred Years of Solitude") and in the latter for the sake of a perspective on grotesque politics ("The Tin Drum"). Price is moved by no such strategic considerations: his story is perfectly straightforward, entirely without allegorical or symbolic dimension….

"The Surface of Earth" is a narrative of astonishingly fierce, parochial single-mindedness, whose narrow thematic range and indifference to nearly everything but its central obsession leave it largely bereft of dramatic incident, intellectual complication or any sense of full destiny.

The obsession is with love, its difficulty and rarity, the expense of giving and gaining it, above all the necessity of recognizing its basic simplicity. For against the hugely dominant literary tradition of love as mystery, revelation, disaster or derangement—in any case something extreme, fateful—Price sets a vision of it as "simple peace and continuance," as "kindness," "help," "generosity," "welcome," "promise," "pardon" and "gift," all words that recur again and again in the text. Love is a "house" or "home" which is "lasting," "useful," "safe," "harmless." It is "God's main gift, once he's given blood and breath." It is "faces [one] could honor … could need." It is "permanent thanks."

Price's characters seem invented only to seek and mostly fail to attain these unremarkable qualities and states. (p. 1)

[The characters] fall upon each other like characters in the most Russian, the most Dostoevskyan of novels, talking all the time (or writing long letters when separated), loading each other down with speech, baring their hearts in a continual urgency of self-revelation (or condemnation). One effect of this is to turn the novel away from any sort of conventional naturalism, even though the book's structure remains realistic throughout. Before one is a quarter-way through, the sense arises of being in the presence of a vast, awkward, overwhelming poem, a portentous lyric of such intransigent fixity of purpose, such deep melancholy honorableness as to ride over all demurrers.

Ride over them, not sweep them away. As I read on I was continually assailed by an awareness of everything that isn't present, all the wit and humor we have been accustomed to in recent fiction, for example, the pure verbal play or desperate jest stemming from a sense of the embattled relations between writing itself and life. What is missing here, too, is any element of terror at seeing the face of the times, any of that acute contemporary insight into the chasms that accompany changing moral systems and that lie in fact behind all values at any time….

It seems to me that writing such as this …—the sonorous abstractions, the quasi-mystical energies, the undramatic final ambition—can only succeed cumulatively, wearing us down, so to speak, with its commitment, its prophetic timbre, above all and precisely its strange anachronistic voice speaking insistently of what we may have overlooked or been too clever to acknowledge. Ionesco once spoke of the surreal as that which lies at our very feet; the whole long quest in our literature for reality as the extreme, the astonishing and incomparable is what this homely, ingenuous novel opposes. I can't imagine our fiction being greatly influenced by it, writers plundering it for secrets of style or morale, but for the rest of us it's there: stubborn, dreamlike, old-fashioned, incorruptible and hermetic. (p. 2)

Richard Gilman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 29, 1975.

Just when I thought the Southern Gothic novel had been declared extinct and its best specimens put away safely under glass, Reynolds Price offers this slablike vestige, a novel ["The Surface of Earth"], about repeating patterns of search, failure and rejection among three generations of North Carolina white folk and their guardian Negroes. True to tradition, the whites are lonely, ill of mind and body; lacerating themselves and their kin, they nurse for decades festering family grudges. Meanwhile, the blacks work, watch, accommodate, endure. Can these bones live? Well, no, but because novels of comparable ambition are rare, I raise my knuckle to my forehead. If "The Surface of Earth" fails, it fails nobly, victim of its author's determination to make it unendurable. (p. 57)

Price's fourth novel is a huge one, longer than all his preceding novels put together. In its lumbering course there are many good effects: the complexity of its characters, white and black, their delicate and shifting relationships, their unpredictable destinies. Any given part of this novel is impressive, and yet there is a cumulative overbearingness to the whole that makes it finally difficult to finish. Too many dreams told in full; too many letters unabridged; too many monologues in which people tax each other for their failures or burden them with more personal history than they (or we) can bear to hear.

Price's story relies too much on compulsive explanations. Mother and son have only to sit on a porch on a pleasant evening and it's once more into the metaphysical molasses: the uses of life and death, the nature of happiness and of one's debts to others. The Greek tragedian knew how to do this—they kept the action offstage—but they didn't run on for so long. If Sophocles had fitted the chorus of "Oedipus at Colonus" with 60 more statements on the human condition we all would have fled the theatre. Price, in his long book, has no sense of proportion. Less is more—that kind of thing. (pp. 57-8)

Peter S. Prescott, "Into the Molasses," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), July 7, 1975, pp. 57-8.

Reynolds Price's first novel, A Long and Happy Life, appeared in 1962, the year of William Faulkner's death. The coincidence was not lost on littérateurs. Ever since, Price has been the odds-on favorite of those who believe that the U.S. must always have a Southern writer-in-residence whispering of dark doings behind the magnolia. This dreadnought of a family saga ([The Surface of Earth,] Price's fourth novel) proves that he has earned the title. It is also strong evidence that the post is obsolete.

Despite its prodigious length, respectful traditionalism and grim high seriousness, The Surface of Earth is so much shadowboxing with the ghosts of a gothic past. Price assembles as pallid a clan of relatives as ever sipped juleps on the veranda. (pp. E3, 64)

Clearly, Price loves these people and cherishes the suffocating orneriness of extended family living. What he does not do is demonstrate that this collection of etiolated creatures deserves anybody's attention but its own. (p. 64)

Paul Gray, "All in the Family," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), July 21, 1975, pp. E3, 64.

Although The Surface of Earth is a saga about four generations of self-hating Southern fathers and sons bound together in elaborate mutual failure from 1903 to 1944, this novel's strength is neither as a psychological study nor as a realistic evocation of the heat, the cold, the aromas, the social realities of the Carolinas or Virginia. True to the intense rhetorical traditions of Southern fiction (within which the book locates itself with no merely casual self-consciousness), immediate perceptions are here invoked only to serve the novel's larger end, which is neither evocation nor immediacy, but what comes across as an essentially visionary, all-but-prophetic task….

Reynolds Price follows the Southern tradition, using the high rhetorical possibilities of the language to wrap their condition in a verbal veil of doom and suffering, his fictional voice rhapsodizing and moralizing in a manner that calls to mind not merely William Faulkner, but something rather like Isaiah's view of the sins of the fathers, persisting among us all.

The novel's aspirations are, to say the least, very grand; the scope of its conception, the intensiveness of its prose, make The Surface of Earth what Norman Mailer would probably call a Major Contender. And Price's gifts—his capacity to sustain his voice, the flawless ear with which he hears it spinning out on the page—are so very considerable that no reviewer should presume to pronounce himself on the book's ultimate prospects for fulfilling those high designs. Reynolds Price is anything but naive: among the many contenders, he knows that he almost alone has on his side the grandest traditions of American fiction. From Melville to Faulkner, our Overwhelming Achievements have tended to be the products of overwhelmingly gifted rhetoricians. I must confess that I myself, though very impressed, was not overwhelmed by The Surface of Earth. Mr. Price by now must be understandably fatigued by the inevitable comparisons of his work to Faulkner's; unfortunately, he is such a careful and conspicuously gifted pupil of that master that the comparison is inevitable. Price is in some ways a "better" writer than Faulkner. Where Faulkner is (as he often is) sloppy and fatuous, Price never would be. Where Faulkner is tortured and obscurantist, Price is elegant and masterful. The advantages are obvious. So are the risks. There are moments—long moments—in The Surface of Earth in which the writing intoxicates itself on a decidedly academic belletrism, rapt in the rather empty mellifluousness of its own voice.

Yet this big book—big in every sense—has real power: certain images in it obsess the mind after one reads it, just as they must have driven and obsessed Price's mind as he wrote it. (p. 23)

Speaking for myself, my hesitations before the achievements of this very remarkable book arise from an ingrained mistrust of an intellect quite so obsessively visionary as Price's One reads, sometimes avidly, and his marvelous Southern language fills the inner ear. But as the book's rich, driven decades roll by, as sons who "killed" or nearly killed their mothers in childbirth rise to guilty, obsessed manhood, as the stupid blunders and sudden fears of a moment stretch into crippled, deprived lifetimes, as this novel's superbly envisioned characters scatter apart across the surface of the Carolinas to nurse old wounds, endure their destined solitudes, and harbor their impenetrable private wisdoms, an impatient philistine inside one wants to cry out, "Oh, come on now, things don't really happen like that!" And of course they don't. Without stooping to yet another tiresome plea for realism, one is forced to wonder aloud if such a heavy reliance on its own rhetorical coherence, however masterful and elegant, can finally sustain a visionary fiction so grandly ambitious as this one is. Unflawed coherence is not enough. Penance and prophecy must impinge on something, something in us that is considerably more fertile than the frigid ground of doubt. (p. 24)

Stephen Koch, "Penance and Prophecy," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 26, 1975, pp. 23-4.

[In The Surface of Earth] Mr. Price chronicles, for forty slow years, the affairs of a southern family addicted to uncomfortable marriages, interminably evasive conversations, and persistent misery. Since all these troubles appear to arise from the bad upbringing of one character, and since that upbringing precedes the events of the novel and is never described, the whole affair becomes unconvincing to the verge of absurdity, despite the author's skillful prose. The book has one distinction, however. It undoubtedly contains the largest number of deaths in childbirth ever packed into a single novel. (p. 88)

Phoebe Adams, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), August, 1975.

The Surface of Earth,… a saga of the rural upper South,… deals with the lives, customs, wanderings and the emotional and spiritual gropings of the members of two middle-class families that slowly become enmeshed along the way. This is a book, also, of forbidding aspect. Its very bulk seems to imply that it is a major novel and demands serious, close attention.

But the reader's attention may wander at times before he reaches the end on page 491, a conclusion that could be merely a pause before we get a continuation of the annals of the Kendal and Mayfield families. In scale, and to a degree in subject matter, this novel of Price's is suggestive of the work of his fellow North Carolinian, Thomas Wolfe. Price, however, is a more skillful writer than Wolfe was, and maintains far better control over his characters than Wolfe ever managed. And where Wolfe sought to create a universal hero, full of sound, fury and undefined significance, Price seems to be trying to create a whole family line out of two potentially antagonistic pieces of human material—a Tar Heel girl and a displaced Old Dominion male. (p. 281)

Interwoven with the lives of the Kendals and Mayfields are the lives and fates of several generations of blacks, domestics, sharecroppers and girl friends…. Price has a strong feeling for place, the weather, the seasons, and he renders accurately enough the way people lived in most of rural America during the years the novel covers. The reader doesn't, however, get many clues as to what was happening in the outside world during the booming 1920s, the depression, or in the World War II period.

As for the relationships among the white Kendals and Mayfields, the story at times reminds one of the chronicles of the Hatfields and McCoys, although Price's people substitute the tongue, the pen, and the studied silence for the rifles the Hatfields and McCoys employed. Price must use the letter more than any author has since Tobias Smollett wrote Humphry Clinker. He's also very good with letters; his people reveal their hearts when Price lets them write a letter.

The Surface of Earth is old-fashioned in the sense that it tells a story, several stories in fact, and has characters of more than one dimension. Price's method is naturalistic, but the novel also carries strong overtones of the picaresque. Price's people are not rogues and his treatment of them is not satirical, but they are vagabonds of the spirit; they are searching, in their hit-or-miss fashion, for love and fulfillment.

In particular, Price is concerned with the difficulty of finding and giving love or even recognizing it when it is offered. His success in dealing with the two themes of love and destiny is considerable. But I left the book with the feeling that somehow it ought to have been better—and about 150 pages shorter. (p. 282)

James Ross, "Price: 'The Surface of Earth'," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), September 27, 1975, pp. 281-82.

[The theme of "The Surface of Earth"] is indulgence: both self-indulgence and indulgence of others. The book has charted countless violations of the hearth, and with sad gentility it speads forgiveness over them all. Unhappily, the book's self-indulgence extends to its language, which has a poetic turn, and sometimes approaches the sublime, but more often remains in a state of inarticulate, if heroic, groping. (p. 177)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 13, 1975.