Introduction

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 76

Price, (Edward) Reynolds 1933–

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Price, a southern American author of short stories, novels, essays, and poems, resists the 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 CLC, Vols. 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Anne Hobson Freeman

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557

When a work of fiction as compelling and original as [The Surface of the Earth] comes along, it deserves evaluation in its own terms. Why should the reader worry if, in its relatively straight forward narrative, its rich, rhythmical and rather formal language and its brooding obsession with family as a kind of fate which a child must come to terms with before he can be free "to walk clean away into his own life," it seems to be out of step with the march of most contemporary fiction?

More important is the fact that it meets what seems to me the supreme test of a novel: it manages to recreate a world and people it with characters as complex and stubbornly mysterious as those in life, and it draws the reader into that world—sensually, emotionally and intellectually—to the point that he experiences those lives and earns whatever insights may be gained from them.

In this, his longest and most ambitious novel, which took ten years of planning and three years of writing, Reynolds Price focuses on the harm that parents do, through the flawed choices, emotional failures and unsatisfied hungers they pass on to their children unto the third and fourth generation. (p. 637)

[A] curious deafness to the din of the world outside the family may be partially explained by the fact that Mr. Price presents his characters to us during periods of emotional crisis when they are forced to make, in minutes, choices that they and their children will spend decades, even lifetimes, living out. (p. 638)

Despite the book's length and what begins to seem toward the end a plethora of explanations and confessions from the characters themselves, the narrative remains, on the whole, surprisingly succinct, displaying Mr. Price's gift for catching whole landscapes in a few images, whole characters in a few telling gestures or fragments of talk. And what a luxury it is to be immersed in his majestic prose.

There is, however, a static quality to the novel as fragments of human experience are seized and held for microscopic observation, then analyzed at length from shifting points of view in dreams, in letters and in endless talk. This quality is suggested in the Blake-like image which the author has designed for the jacket of the book—a fixed sun face gazing with an intensity that threatens to burn through surfaces to the mysteries beneath them.

Admittedly, only a small patch of the surface of earth is under scrutiny here,… [but] this small area is evoked with such authority and examined so relentlessly that the reader feels, at times, perilously close to penetrating to that core which one character defines as "the heart of the world … the precious meaning of life and pain." (pp. 638-39)

Although this powerful novel seems in the end to be overweighted with wordy explanations of the emotional demands, debts and failures that constrict the Mayfields' and the Kendalls' lives, it represents a leap forward by a gifted novelist into visionary territory which few of his contemporaries have the courage to explore, territory which, if conquered, can yield the hard-won wisdom of the human heart. (p. 641)

Anne Hobson Freeman, "Penetrating a Small Patch of the Surface of Earth," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 4 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 637-41.

Walter Sullivan

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

[In The Surface of the Earth] Price works with a heavy hand. In almost every word he insists on his seriousness, the significance of the events as they unfold; and as if to underline the images that he wishes us to grasp, he repeats himself again and again through the course of the novel.

Miscegenation is rampant [in this forty-year chronicle of two families]. Children of mixed blood are born, one of whom, the son of a Mayfield, becomes a major character in the novel. Older generations interfere in the lives of the young; misunderstandings accrue; marriages are disrupted…. The men are weak, unreliable; the women are strong. Events, characters, gestures—males lying down on top of other males, not in sexual irregularity, but in mystic farewell—lead finally to a similarity of voice, a stylistic monotony that for a quarter of a million words is unrelieved. All the characters think in the same phrases, write the same letters, use the same diction when they speak.

I would suggest two things that have gone wrong in this novel. First, it appears to be a totally cerebral performance. One never gets the feeling that Price turned a corner and found a surprise, that events ever moved in a way he had not expected, or that the characters ever took over the dialogue and found their own words. Whatever the actual case may have been, the action has all the earmarks of having been given its final dimensions according to a procrustean plan. Second, I think Price has been injured by his determination to be southern above all else. I want to linger over this point only long enough to say that the southernness is studied and therefore stilted. The South Price writes about is not the South of his experience but the South he has learned about in books. Even in his rendition of the society he has drawn from a literary blueprint; he does not quite play straight. One of the reasons we do not believe in Grainger and Forrest and Rob and the others is that they are not really southerners of the first half of this century. Instead they are anachronisms, people enlightened by the later views and opinions of Reynolds Price. He has made them as he wishes they might have been, their morals reconstructed to suit the prejudices of the present, their social consciousness sharpened to fit a later time. This is romanticism in its destructive manifestation. (pp. 118-19)

Walter Sullivan, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1976 by The University of the South), Winter, 1977.

Jay L. Halio

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 272

The Surface of the Earth is a grim, Faulknerian story of three generations of middle-class southerners…. Covering a span of forty years and told largely through long letters or stylized speeches (sermons or lectures), the novel makes its stolid point: "People get what they need if they stand still and wait till the earth sends it up…. What they need, not want." This is the sum of Rob Mayfield's wisdom…. (p. 842)

The ideal is modest enough, as Rob describes it: "an ordinary home containing no more than an ordinary home. A decent grown man with clean work to push against ten hours a day that would leave him with the strength to come back at dark in courtesy and patience to the people who had waited—a woman he had chosen for their mutual want (who went on wanting and receiving as he did: courteous, patient) and the child they had made…." Being so modest, why is it then so difficult to achieve? None of the characters in the book, for all of their articulateness and insight, attains the goal fully or for very long. The most they get is a little temporary easing of their pain or hunger, although several, like Rob's father, finally succeed with something stable but much more modest…. He attains what he does because he has at last learned to stand still and watch till the earth sends up what he needs, not wants. But most of the others either care or want too much, press for it, and lose. (p. 843)

Jay L. Halio, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1977, by Jay L. Halio), Vol. XIII, No. 4, Autumn, 1977.

Anthony Burgess

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

Reynolds Price is a considerable prose writer. "A Palpable God" must be taken as a serious testimony to a virtue rare among contemporary producers of fiction—the compulsion to examine at intervals the rationale of his craft. All we novelists forget too often that our job is not to spin words to the greater glory of the complex, book-drenched, allusion-loving, ambiguity-adoring civilized sensibility, but to tell tales. The telling of a plain tale is, however, as hard for the contemporary writer as plowing with a plank and a nail would be to the contemporary agricultural operative. Sometimes we have to get back to see how the ancients did it, and Mr. Price's mode of self-refreshment has been to examine the Bible. (p. 14)

[The 19th-century Roman poet Giuseppe] Belli, refreshing the dialect of the Roman streets through contact with the Bible, was, in his own way, on a quest that is perennial among writers. We have to get back to the beginning again, startle the dullness of our everyday language with a swipe from the exotic, and remember that "a need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens—second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter." That comes from Mr. Price's long introductory essay, which from now on must be required reading in creative-writing courses. (p. 22)

Anthony Burgess, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 12, 1978.

[A Palpable God] is a curious book. Reynolds Price begins with an interesting study of the origins of human narrative and concludes that the Bible offers us "a chance unique in our civilization for observing the rise and recording of primal sacred tales in close proximity to the events which generated them." Attempting to give the modern reader the same feeling of immediacy and freshness that the ancient listener experienced in the telling of these stories, Price then proceeds to translate thirty Biblical stories which he believes show "the core of sacred story—God's appearances to man, His withdrawals from him: presences and absences, our deepest hope and terror." All this is admirable and not uninteresting or untrue. But the key to the book—Price's translation and the Biblical excerpts chosen—doesn't really impress as fresh, strikingly different or particularly meaningful—results that would justify the big buildup. And, in the end, you might be forced to conclude that the book may be more rewarding for the writer than for the reader. (p. 91)

The Critic (© The Critic 1978; reprinted with the permission of the Thomas More Association, Chicago, Illinois), Summer, 1978.

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