Reynolds Price Price, (Edward) Reynolds (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Price, (Edward) Reynolds 1933–

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Walter Sullivan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Jay L. Halio

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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