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Reynolds Price, Southern novelist and memoirist, dies at 77

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

When a Time magazine critic called Mr. Price a "Southern-writer-in-residence" of limited scope, Mr. Price retorted that the comment was like "complaining that all the great Victorian novels were about England."

Praise for Mr. Price's work, however, far outweighed the criticism.

"He's a genius with the language," Humphreys, his onetime student, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1998. "He can put words together in ways that no other living person can. . . . He makes real poetry out of it, and we all wanted to learn the secret."

Edward Reynolds Price was born Feb. 1, 1933, in Macon, N.C., and lived in several towns before attending high school in the state capital of Raleigh, where teachers encouraged his interest in writing and books.

"Like most kids," he told The Post, "I just kept going in the direction the praise pushed me."

When Mr. Price applied to Duke University, he told Raleigh's News & Observer in 1986, he scored 14 points out of a possible 100 on a mathematics entrance exam - "an honest index of my knowledge of mathematics." He said a dean waived the math requirement for his entire college career.

In 1984, while walking on the Duke campus, Mr. Price noticed some awkwardness in his feet and legs. Doctors found an 11-inch cancerous tumor wrapped around his spinal column. After surgery and repeated radiation treatments, he became paralyzed from the waist down and spent the rest of his life using a wheelchair.

Mr. Price was a third of the way through "Kate Vaiden" when his cancer struck. When he returned to his writing desk, he found an unexpected burst of energy. In a few months, he finished the novel, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award, as well as several essays, poems and a play.

"I don't write with a conscious sense of the hangman at my door, of my own mortality," he told The Post in 1986. "But I am a tremendously driven person, and I have gotten more so since sitting down. Words just come out of me the way my beard comes out. Who could stop it?"

After undergoing hypnosis to relieve near-constant pain, Mr. Price began to uncover vivid memories of childhood, which he drew on for a 1989 memoir, "Clear Pictures," that critics considered one of his finest books. He recounted his struggle with cancer in another memoir, "A Whole New Life," in 1994.

Mr. Price, who had a resonant baritone voice and a compelling speaking style, was a classroom favorite at Duke and delivered occasional essays on National Public Radio in the 1990s. He often spoke of his cancer and paralysis, but he did not publicly address another side of his life until his 2009 memoir, "Ardent Spirits."

In that book, he confirmed an open secret among literati that he was gay - or "queer," as he preferred to put it. Previously, as he said in 1987, "I . . . always felt that my private life was private. . . . All that I wish to say about my life is said in my work."

Mr. Price had completed most of a fourth memoir at the time of his death, said his brother and lone immediate survivor, William S. Price Jr.

When Mr. Price published "Kate Vaiden" in 1986 - his first novel since his cancer treatment - it was seen as a major personal breakthrough, as well as a triumphant return to his early literary promise.

At one point in the novel, in words that could have applied to Mr. Price himself, his title character said: "Strength just comes in one brand - you stand up at sunrise and meet what they send you and keep your hair combed."

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