(Edward) Reynolds Price Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Macon, North Carolina, 1933. Education: Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, 1951-55 (Angier Duke scholar), A.B. (summa cum laude) 1955 (Phi Beta Kappa); Merton College, Oxford, 1955-58 (Rhodes scholar), B. Litt. 1958. Career: Member of the faculty since 1958, assistant professor, 1961-68, associate professor, 1968-72, professor of English, 1972-77, and since 1977, James B. Duke Professor, Duke University. Writer-in-residence, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1965, and Greensboro, 1971, and University of Kansas, Lawrence, 1967, 1969, 1980; Glasgow Professor, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia, 1971; member of the faculty, Salzburg Seminar on American Studies, 1977. Editor, the Archive, Durham, 1954-55. Since 1964 advisory editor, Shenandoah, Lexington, Virginia. Chair, National Endowment for the Arts Literature Advisory Panel, 1976. Awards: Faulkner Foundation prize, 1963; Guggenheim fellowship, 1964; National Association of Independent Schools award, 1964; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1967; American Academy award, 1971; Bellamann Foundation award, 1976; Lillian Smith award, 1976; National Book Critics Circle award, 1987; Bobst award, 1988; R. Hunt Parker award, North Carolina Literary and Historical Society, 1991; Northcarolinana award, 1999. Litt.D.: St. Andrews Presbyterian College, Laurinburg, North Carolina, 1978; Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1979; Washington and Lee University, 1991; Davidson College, 1992; Elon College, 1996. Agent: Harriet Wasserman Literary Agency, 137 East 36th Street, New York, New York 10016.
A Long and Happy Life. New York, Atheneum, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1962.
A Generous Man. New York, Atheneum, 1966; London, Chatto andWindus, 1967.
Love and Work. New York, Atheneum, and London, Chatto andWindus, 1968.
The Surface of Earth. New York, Atheneum, 1975; London, Arlington, 1978.
The Source of Light. New York, Atheneum, 1981.
Mustian (2 novels and a story). New York, Atheneum, 1983.
Kate Vaiden. New York, Atheneum, 1986; London, Chatto andWindus, 1987.
Good Hearts. New York, Atheneum, 1988.
The Tongues of Angels. New York, Atheneum, 1990.
Blue Calhoun. New York, Atheneum, 1992.
The Promise of Rest. New York, Scribner, 1995.
The Honest Account of a Memorable Life: An Apocryphal Gospel. Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Wesleyan College Press, 1994.
The Three Gospels. New York, Scribner, 1996.
Roxanna Slade. New York, Scribner, 1998.
The Names and Faces of Heroes. New York, Atheneum, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1963.
Permanent Errors. New York, Atheneum, 1970; London, Chatto andWindus, 1971.
Home Made. Rocky Mount, North Carolina Wesleyan College Press, 1990.
The Foreseeable Future: Three Long Stories. New York, Atheneum, 1991.
An Early Christmas. Rocky Mount, North Carolina Wesleyan College Press, 1992.
The Collected Stories. New York, Atheneum, 1993.
A Singular Family: Rosacoke and Her Kin. New York, Scribner, 1999.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Night and Day at Panacea," in Harper's (New York), August 1974.
"Commencing," in Virginia Quarterly Review (Charlottesville), Spring 1975.
"His Final Mother," in New Yorker, 21 May 1990.
"Two Useful Visits," in Virginia Quarterly Review (Charlottesville), Summer 1990.
"Serious Need," in Esquire (New York), November 1990.
"Full Day," in Harper's (New York), January 1991.
Early Dark (produced New York, 1978). New York, Atheneum, 1977.
Private Contentment. New York, Atheneum, 1984.
New Music: A Trilogy. New York, Theatre Communications, 1990.
Full Moon and Other Plays. New York, Theatre Communications, 1993.
Late Warning: Four Poems. New York, Albondocani Press, 1968.
Torso of an Archaic Apollo—After Rilke. New York, AlbondocaniPress, 1969.
Lessons Learned: Seven Poems. New York, Albondocani Press, 1977.
Christ Child's Song at the End of the Night. Privately printed, 1978.
Nine Mysteries (Four Joyful, Four Sorrowful, One Glorious). Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Palaemon Press, 1979.
Vital Provisions. New York, Atheneum, 1982.
The Laws of Ice. New York, Atheneum, 1986.
The Use of Fire. New York, Atheneum, 1990.
The Collected Poems. New York, Scribner, 1997.
The Thing Itself (address). Durham, North Carolina, Duke UniversityLibrary, 1966.
Two Theophanies: Genesis 32 and John 21. Privately printed, 1971.
Things Themselves: Essays and Scenes. New York, Atheneum, 1972.
The Fourth Eclogue of Vergil. Privately printed, 1972.
An Apocryphal Hymn of Jesus. Privately printed, 1973.
Presence and Absence: Versions from the Bible. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Bruccoli Clark, 1973.
A Nativity from the Apocryphal Book of James. Privately printed, 1974.
Annuciation. Privately printed, 1975.
Conversations, with William Ray. Memphis, Memphis State University, 1976.
The Good News According to Mark. Privately printed, 1976.
Oracles: Six Versions from the Bible. Durham, North Carolina, Friends of the Duke University Library, 1977.
A Palpable God: Thirty Stories Translated from the Bible with an Essay on the Origins and Life of Narrative. New York, Atheneum, 1978.
Christ Child's Song at the End of the Night. Privately printed, 1978.
Question and Answer. Privately printed, 1979.
The Annual Heron. New York, Albondocani Press, 1980.
Country Mouse, City Mouse (essay). Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Friends of the Wesleyan College Library, 1981.
A Start (miscellany of early work). Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Palaemon Press, 1981.
A Common Room: Essays 1954-1987. New York, Atheneum, 1987.
Real Copies: Will Price, Crichton Davis, Phyllis Peacock, and More. Rocky Mount, North Carolina Wesleyan College Press, 1988.
Back Before Day. Rocky Mount, North Carolina Wesleyan CollegePress, 1989.
Clear Pictures: First Loves, First Guides. New York, Atheneum, 1989.
Conversations with Reynolds Price, edited by Jefferson Humphries. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1991.
Michael Egerton (for children). Mankato, Minnesota, Creative Education, 1993.
A Whole New Life. New York, Atheneum, 1994.
Learning a Trade: A Craftsman's Notebook, 1955-1997.
Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 1998.
Letter to a Man in the Fire: Does God Exist and Does He Care? NewYork, Scribner, 1999.
A Perfect Friend (for children). New York, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2000.
Reynolds Price: A Bibliography 1949-1984 by Stuart Wright and James L.W. West III, Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1986.
"A Conversation with Reynolds Price" by Wallace Kaufman, in Shenandoah (Lexington, Virginia), Summer 1966; "The Reynolds Price Who Outgrew the Southern Pastoral" by Theodore Solotaroff, in Saturday Review (New York), 26 September 1970; "Love (and Marriage) in A Long and Happy Life, " in Twentieth Century Studies (Los Angeles), January 1971; Understanding Reynolds Price by James A. Schiff, Columbia, South Carolina, University of South Carolina Press, 1996; Critical Essays on Reynolds Price, edited by James A. Schiff, New York, G.K. Hall; London, Prentice Hall International, 1998.
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Reynolds Price has moved from detailed examination of North Carolina rural life to an intense concern with the artist's vision of reality. Beginning with the tragicomic saga of the Mustian family (the novels A Long and Happy Life and A Generous Man, and the story "A Chain of Love," now collected in Mustian), he has come in Love and Work and Permanent Errors to wrestle with narrative forms closer to the bone. In the preface to Permanent Errors Price described his work as "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."
This applies to all Price's fiction. A Long and Happy Life is the inside story of Rosacoke Mustian, a country girl seeking a conventional life with an unconventional young man, Wesley Beavers. Her error is that she conceives "a long and happy life" only in the clichéd terms of romance, of settled-wedded-bliss tradition. She reviews her life, her family's life, is discontent, becomes pregnant by Wesley and finally comes to see him and herself in larger terms, terms of myth, in a Christmas pageant which shows her the complete (and divine) meanings of motherhood, birth, and love.
Myth becomes the vehicle of self-understanding more overtly in A Generous Man, which shows the Mustian family several years earlier. It describes an allegorical search for an escaped circus python, a giant serpent named Death, and the discovery of a lost treasure. Milo Mustian describes the stifling forces of convention which circumscribe their lives: "it's what nine-tenths of the humans born since God said 'Adam!' have thought was a life, planned out for themselves—all my people, my Mama, my Daddy (it was what strangled him), Rosacoke …" Only by transcending the everyday, by seeing human life in larger terms, can the individual escape the slow strangulation of "permanent errors" and find direction and meaning in existence.
Good Hearts updates and completes the saga of Rosacoke Mustian and Wesley Beavers, who have reached married middle age and the wisdom of accumulated domestic experience. Wesley, after 28 years of marriage to Rosacoke, suddenly leaves home. Both Wesley and Rosacoke learn about their unique needs and natures, especially their sexual temperaments, in this separation. By the end of the story they are reunited after realizing essential truths about the evolving physical and spiritual demands of love.
Price's fiction has become increasingly abstract and complex as he has moved to a more inward vision. From the first he has used sets of images and metaphors to suggest a mysterious or magical reality beyond his pastoral settings. He has deepened this metaphorical (and psychological) interest in Love and Work and Permanent Errors, where the protagonists are no longer the eccentric pastoral figures of the Mustian clan but are closer to Price's own viewpoint. Price's fiction has always dealt with confusion of the heart and alienation of the mind, but the recent work draws its images and symbols from Price's own experience—his family, a visit to Dachau prison camp, the writer's situation. The grotesqueness and unfamiliarity of the Mustian clan are replaced by more familiar and universal facts of contemporary life.
In The Tongues of Angels, Price creates a memoir-like bildungsroman, a story of adolescent initiation and adult epiphany, set in a Smoky Mountain summer camp. The novel explores directly the spiritual springs of art and the religious meaning of experience as an artist renders it. This is Price's most overt and effective disquisition on profound religious experience and memory as the basis of art.
In two large novels, The Surface of Earth and The Source of Light, Price is most ambitious. The narratives deal with a family saga encompassing the first half of our century and drawing from Price's own experience. The novels detail through letters, conversations, and lyrical soliloquies the Mayfield family and its cycle of birth, maturity and death as viewed by Rob Mayfield, who focuses the narratives. The family is more genteel than the Mustians, and these novels detail a world of important things and social valences. The search by Rob Mayfield for a sense of himself and for a peaceful reconciliation with his father's memory is an important mirror image of Rosacoke Mustian's growth into adulthood.
Love and death are polarities in Price's work—how to save life from death, how to prevent life from becoming deathly, stale, void of myth and magic. The theme appears most clearly in A Generous Man, when the Mustians set out to find and kill Death, the great serpent, and are finally told, "Death is dead." In the course of this magical hunt, Milo Mustian comes to understand what he must do to save himself from the slow death of a clichéd life; Rato Mustian, the wise fool, grapples with Death and escapes its coils through his cunning folly; Rosacoke moves from complete innocence to the dawn of maturity. In his later fiction Price has moved from symbols of external life to more internalized ones: sleep, dreams, a writer seeking a relationship between love and work, self and others, private life and shared life. Price's fiction describes the individual's perceptions of himself and of the realities around him, the uses of imagination. His characters travel on a quest for the potency of myth and the ability to transcend a closed vision of everyday reality. They move toward permanent truths through "permanent errors."
Blue Calhoun is, in essence, another story of permanent errors, the novel being an extended letter written by Blue to his granddaughter through which he hopes for penance. Blue has seen his life crumble: a relapsing alcoholic, his decline begins with an affair with sixteen-year-old Luna. For Blue, these errors move inexorably to tragedies for which he feels responsible, including the death of his wife and his daughter by cancer. The feeling of guilt pervades Price's work, as does the desire for absolution, and both center on the interweaving of death and love.
Any understanding of love in Price's work is necessarily connected to grief, loss, and death, so that in The Promise of Rest, just as in Blue Calhoun, Price draws to the center of his work a man whose life of errors works to uncover the truths offered by love even in the shadow of death. While The Promise of Rest details the final days of Wade Mayfield, the novel is more the unburdening of Wade's father Hutch and parallels Blue's unburdening of his past to his granddaughter. Hutch's mission to rescue Wade from isolation as he dies of AIDS is more a mission to revisit his own bisexual past and to understand the crumbling of his marriage and his disavowal of his African-American relationships.
Wade's gay relationship with an African American causes, literally and metaphorically, Hutch to reconnect with his past, with his errors, and to reconcile them with the fact of the death of his son. Hutch's various loves are at the center of the work, and each of those loves ends in a death: Hutch fails to reunite with Straw, his African-American friend with whom he had a gay relationship; Hutch's marriage to Ann ends in divorce; Wade, Hutch's only child, dies of AIDS. Each of these deaths are explorations of the love that once gave them life, of the relationships Hutch nurtured with different people in his life.
In Roxanna Slade, Price returns to a female narrative voice for the first time since Kate Vaiden, but the story, which reads variously as advice manual and extended elegy, parallels Blue Calhoun 's life narrative of love and death and the awful connections forged in the dark corners of the South. Indeed, Roxanna's life as told in the book literally begins with the death of Larkin Slade. Roxanna marries Larkin's brother, Palmer, and the two have a child, who is named after Larkin. The novel, told in the rambling, but forceful, narrative voice of Roxanna Slade, centers upon the complex relationships between black and white, male and female, and how those relationships affect others around them.
Palmer's illegitimate daughter, born by a poor African-American woman, becomes in almost Dickensian fashion the helpmate of Roxanna, and through the connections, Roxanna's life is laid bare. The narrative of Roxanna is self-consciously concerned with "telling it straight," and in large part, that purpose undergirds Price's work as a whole. While by no means a realist, Price uncovers the complexity that governs relationships and how love and death compete in a structuring reality. Price's works increasingly focus on the intensity of the relationships that govern lives, and how those relationships essentially change the realities of the world.
William J. Schafer,
updated by Roger Thompson
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