Reynolds Price, Southern novelist and memoirist, dies at 77
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 7:50 PM
Reynolds Price, a gifted writer who explored the world of the rural South in his fiction and who later wrote movingly of his ordeal with cancer and paralysis, died Jan. 20 at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., after a heart attack. He was 77.
Mr. Price spent almost his entire life in North Carolina, whose people and landscapes were the wellspring of his imagination and carefully wrought prose. When his first novel, "A Long and Happy Life," was published in 1962, he became a literary sensation and was considered an heir to the Southern tradition of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor.
He wrote 38 books in all, including 14 novels, dozens of short stories, plays, poems and essays, as well as three volumes of memoirs. Former president Bill Clinton once called Mr. Price his favorite author.
After entering Duke University as a freshman in 1951, Mr. Price went on to spend more than 50 years on the Duke faculty. His brother said in an interview that Mr. Price had been scheduled to begin teaching a seminar on the Gospels of the New Testament on Jan. 19, three days after he was stricken with a heart attack.
In his fiction, Mr. Price drew deeply from childhood memories of growing up in small towns in North Carolina. His family moved 11 times by the time he was 13, and he often said he was inspired by the stories he heard being told on front porches.
As a student at Duke, Mr. Price attended a lecture by Welty, who impressed on him the importance of writing about the place he knew best.
"One of the things she showed me as a writer," he told The Washington Post in 1986, "was that the kinds of people I had grown up with were the kinds of people one could write marvelous fiction about."
Mr. Price was publishing short stories while still in college and was taken on by Welty's well-connected agent, Diarmuid Russell. After graduating summa cum laude from Duke in 1955, Mr. Price won a Rhodes scholarship and spent three years studying literature at Oxford University in England.
He became an authority on the 17th-century poet John Milton, the author of "Paradise Lost," and taught a course on Milton at Duke for decades, as well as courses in writing narrative prose. His students included novelists Anne Tyler and Josephine Humphreys.
In his own fiction, Mr. Price showed an uncanny ear for the vernacular speech of the South and a particular affinity for writing about female characters.
"A Long and Happy Life" told the story of a headstrong young woman, Rosacoke Mustian, who was seduced by a backwoods charmer. Two later novels, "Kate Vaiden" (1986) and "Roxanna Slade" (1998), were told in the first-person voices of sturdy women of the Carolina countryside.
By the mid-1970s, critics were noting that Mr. Price had tilled the same patch of soil too many times and, with his sometimes-ornate descriptive passages, was more than a little in love with the sound of his own voice.