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Sensual in the South

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William Blackburn
Reynolds Price near Hampstead Heath, London, summer 1956; photograph by William Blackburn from Price’s memoir Ardent Spirits

Reynolds Price once said in an interview:

I think I had as miserable an adolescence as any human being can ever have had—at least outside the novels of Dickens…. My problems were simply the problems of being an unpopular kid in a small town who was always being beaten up—partly through my own fault but to a large extent through just the malice of my contemporaries.

No wonder Price exulted when he escaped his native North Carolina on a Rhodes scholarship and attended Merton College, Oxford, for three years, from 1955 to 1958 (he returned to Merton for a fourth year in 1960–1961). Ardent Spirits, which recounts his years at Oxford and his first years of teaching in North Carolina, is heady in tone, starting with the title. Price delighted in everything—from the college’s special vocabulary (the Thames is called “the Isis” where it flows past Oxford, and “sconcing” is the punishment of drinking a full tankard of beer at a single go for daring to talk about studies over dinner). He made scores of friends, including some famous ones —Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, and John Gielgud, among others. Spender published in Encounter an early story of Price’s and over the years would write him some three hundred letters. Auden drank endless amounts of tea and gin with him and rewarded him with his ceaseless eloquence, almost always fairly impersonal.

Price traveled throughout England to see the best productions of Shakespeare. He fell in love with a young straight man, Michael Jordan, a fellow student, and had a sexless romance with him, a relationship that turned into an enduring fifty-year friendship. Price asks himself in this memoir if Auden and Chester Kallman were the first “admittedly queer couple I witnessed in public life.” (I myself can remember that ten years later, even in New York in the mid-1960s there were very few openly gay couples to be met or even seen.)

Although Americans, especially Southerners, pride themselves on their friendliness, Price quickly discovered that American hospitality could scarcely rival Oxford sociability—the endless invitations to tea, to drinks, to elevenses, to supper, eventually to High Table. When Price buys a Volkswagen he’s suddenly free to go careening down narrow roads to country houses for long weekends. He even travels with his “bromance” to Italy in the Beetle.

Perhaps because he teaches at Duke University and has done so for half a century, Price is careful to recognize with gratitude his old teachers. In an earlier memoir, Clear Pictures,1 he renders homage to Crichton Davis, an unusual young woman teacher in his small-town North Carolina high school who made him memorize reams of poetry and improve his drawing skills, and to Phyllis Peacock, an English teacher in high school for whom Price wrote his first real short story. At Oxford he studied with Nevill Coghill, Helen Gardner, and David Cecil.

His portrait of Cecil is perhaps the most affectionate. Lord David, the biographer of Max Beerbohm and Lord Melbourne, was also a champion of Hardy. He was a famously eccentric don in his antics before an audience, with long, long fingers that would stretch upward like feelers while he spoke. He would spray his listeners out of enthusiasm and sometimes stand on tiptoe while making some excrutiatingly interesting observation. Helen Gardner, best known for her studies of Donne and T.S. Eliot, is pictured as a tough scholar who worked with enormous drive and discipline to prove herself in a world in which women intellectuals were rare.

One of the joys of Oxford was its extraordinary libraries. While writing a study of Milton’s Samson Agonistes, for instance, Price was able to take home and peruse Milton’s own copy of Euripides, complete with the young poet’s annotations (this copy had also belonged a hundred years later to Doctor Johnson).

Price has written two of his three memoirs (Ardent Spirits and Clear Pictures) in a rapid, casual style, entirely at odds with the careful, almost lapidary eloquence of his fiction. The third memoir, A Whole New Life, is a more meticulous account of his battle with cancer of the spine, which left him unable to walk.2 In that book about his illness he must have wanted to give a precise record of his despair and ultimate optimism, of the medical procedures and mishaps he had to undergo, and of his intense if unchurched religious faith and the saving power of his friendships.

By contrast, Ardent Spirits feels appealingly breezy and almost slapdash. Because Price did not keep notes or a journal he has little to say, for instance, about Auden beyond remarking the quantities he drank and the filthiness of his rooms and his comment on Emily Dickinson, “Very little-bitty at times, don’t you feel?” His essential response to Auden was awed admiration, a conviction that the poet was one of the supreme artists of our times:

Even in the most relaxed moments in his Christ Church rooms, coming to the end of our first half-quart of martinis, he’d fall silent for two long draws on his endless cigarette; and in the brief silence that fell around us, I could hear his great mind turning like the wheels of a vast locomotive. Surely the barrels of alcohol and the kegs of amphetamines were, in part, mere means of damping that motion, the heat and light it steadily induced as it did its work….

We get a general impression that there was a lot of dazzling and witty conversation at Price’s Oxford. Of course nothing is more elusive than humor, and even if Price had been a note-taker the remembered repartee of even the greatest wits invariably sounds disappointing. David Cecil was the best conversationalist Price has ever heard (and he has met everyone over the years), but he can recall only one real zinger. When a famous bore interrupted himself and said to David’s uncle Hugh Cecil, “I hope I’m not boring you, Lord Hugh,” the kindly Lord Hugh replied, “Not yet.” That’s stretching it a bit, isn’t it, to quote someone’s clever uncle ?

What does come across is Price’s sheer joy in living at Oxford, in doing textual criticism with eagle-eyed scholars, in being punted down the Isis by a broad-shouldered youth, in complaining cheerfully about the eternal cold and rain while scurrying through medieval rooms built by kings. Even the appalling food has the appeal of tradition.

Of course, Price’s main focus while at Oxford was on his own fiction. He had written several stories, he had an agent, his teachers and even Eudora Welty had all encouraged him—and he was convinced that he had a genuine vocation. While at Oxford and then back in America one of his stories grew into a novella and eventually became a short novel, A Long and Happy Life. Nothing could be more homegrown Southern than this elegantly economical book with its rural cast of black and white characters and its country idioms. How strange that he wrote it mostly at Oxford; it’s as though Faulk-ner had written As I Lay Dying at Versailles. In Ardent Spirits Price gives us a running account of how and where he came to develop and perfect this darkly lyrical first novel. “Perfect” is the telling word, since we learn how painstaking the young author was in fashioning each scene and how perilous the whole venture must have felt.

Reynolds Price was born in Macon, North Carolina, in 1933—not to be confused with the much larger and more thriving Macon, Georgia. Though middle-class, his family had been impoverished like most others by the Great Depression. His father, Will, was a drinker and had only a high school education; he drifted from being a train conductor to a clerk in the freight office to a door-to-door salesman of life insurance. He courted his wife-to-be for six years and then, after six years of marriage, a first child, little Reynolds, was born. The birth was so difficult that Will made a bargain with God—if Reynolds and his wife Elizabeth survived, he’d never take another drink. They survived and, eventually, Will sobered up. The child had terrible convulsions during his first three years of life, possibly as a result of the forceps that had dug deep into his skull trying to rescue him from a breach birth.

Soon after Reynolds’s birth his father got his first real job as a salesman of electric appliances. Elizabeth’s parents had died when she was young but Will’s mother was a bit of a tyrant and only when he got his job selling appliances were they able to move fifty miles away from her—a saving distance that afforded them all some quiet and independence. Reynolds was an only child for the first five years of his life; then a baby brother Bill was born and his extreme closeness to his parents came to an end.

Reynolds as a child spent hours and hours listening to older relatives “visit,” as we say down South. “Visiting” means trading family anecdotes with an eye to astounding and amusing one’s listeners; that everyone knows the stories by heart only enhances rather than lessens their charm. Even relatives living in the same state might not see each other more than once or twice a year; the occasional reunions would call for lots of eating, teasing, and endless laughing and visiting. These stories of friends, neighbors, and relatives are the source of Price’s fiction and drama, not so much as tales copied from life as myths that resemble those he had listened to over the years. In Clear Pictures Price recalls that he and his aunt Ida would go through her box of old photos and she would describe each one: “That’s Mama in the awful hat she bought to wear on a trip to Portsmouth.”

While Price was still a youngster he saw and heard a recital given by the great African-American contralto Marian Anderson. His father accompanied him as he paid a call on the singer, whom he worshiped. She invited him back for a twenty-minute “audience” the next day and signed his copy of her recording of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody. The year was 1948 or 1949 and that such an unruffled exchange could have taken place in Raleigh at that time is a tribute to how civilized the two races could be under the right (and all too rare) circumstances:

She’d paid me the highest compliment you can pay a stranger, patient courtesy. What she couldn’t have begun to sense was how far the respect with which she received a young white Southerner went toward validating my own ambitions to make—like her, with only the strengths of my body and the Spirit’s inspiration—works of art.

Except for his four years at Oxford, Price has never lived outside North Carolina, which, as he points out, “sent more men to the Confederate Army than any other. Unlike a number of Southern writers in my generation, I never felt driven out of my region, whatever its wrongs.” Racial strife, however, did turn him into an alienated observer and caused him to adopt James Joyce’s motto, “silence, exile and cunning.” The only problem, morally, with the silence of the internal exile is that it can rather take one off the hook. In the 1960s I can remember how we “radicals” would say that though we were keeping our corporate jobs we were really undermining the “system” from within—something we’d say with defensive conviction but with a sheepish smile at the ready.

As a little boy Price had been interested in drawing and painting but by the age of thirteen he had started writing. As an adolescent he became addicted to books and read constantly—a habit his parents indulged to the best of their means. Although we think of Reynolds Price as someone who never left his home state, in fact he lived in thirteen different places in North Carolina in fourteen years as a youngster. After his family moved to Raleigh he began to write poetry, plays, and fiction. Throughout his life he has continued to write in all the genres, including essays, a book of interviews, and another volume called Learning a Trade: A Craftsman’s Notebooks, 1955–1997.

Price attended Duke as an undergraduate but during his first three years there his studies and the riotous socializing of that campus left him no time to write fiction. And then, when he was a junior, his beloved father died of cancer in his fifties. Only in his last year of university, after his father’s shocking death and encouraged by a professor who had the knack for validating those few students he found to be gifted, did Price write about forty pages he was able to keep. It was on this foundation that he built his first novel while at Oxford.

A Long and Happy Life, which appeared in 1962, is just 195 pages long. It is a love story between a young man, Wesley, and a woman who has the curious name of Rosacoke. Typical of the hushed and somewhat mannered prose is this passage:

Wesley was on his feet at the corner of the porch nearest Rosacoke, leaning one shoulder on the last post, facing the road but looking down. From the trees Rosacoke could see three-fourths of him—the dark blue trousers he had worn all summer, the loose white shirt, his hair lighter from the sun at Ocean View—all but his face. He covered most of that with his hands that quivered tight on the harmonica till the music stopped for awhile. Then one hand opened and it started again—not songs or tunes and like nothing she had known since she was a girl and heard old Negroes blowing harps as if they remembered Africa and had been grand kings or like Milo [her brother] that summer he grew up (when his beard arrived, the color of broomstraw) and went past telling her his business and every evening sat in the dusk after supper before he would leave the house, whistling out his secrets in tunes she never understood and planning back of his eyes what he would do with the night when it fell altogether (which would be to walk three miles to see an Abbott girl who was older than him—and an orphan that lived with her uncle—and was taking him in dark tobacco barns, teaching him things too early that some folks never learn).

It’s all here—the infinite regress of stories, the sexual passion Rosacoke feels for Wesley displaced onto a nested tale of her brother’s adventure with the Abbott orphan, the gnarled syntax, and the simple words that convey complex meanings (“teaching him things too early that some folks never learn”). Expressions such as “when his beard arrived” and “back of his eyes” look like plain speech but in fact require the reader to pause and parse.

Although Price is sometimes compared to Faulkner, inevitably, they are different in most ways, especially in their use of the language. Faulkner redoubles all his effects and keeps piling them on, whereas Price, a much edgier stylist, advances one square only to swerve off to one side with the next move (that “too early” that moves like a knight into “never”). Faulkner can be obscure, whereas Price realized early on that he wanted his country cousins and aunts to be able to make sense of his prose (“These were not highly educated, supremely literate people, and yet I wanted to be understood by them”).

By the time twenty-five years later that Price was writing his best-known novel, Kate Vaiden (for which he received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986), he’d cut back the underbrush of the run-on sentences but preserved the queer Southern turns of phrase. In this novel you can hear a country woman sizing herself up as if she were an animal: “I’m nothing but a real middle- sized white woman that has kept on going with strong eyes and teeth for fifty-seven years”—the “that” instead of “who” properly objectifies her. Despite his Oxford education, worldly connections, and endowed chair at Duke, Reynolds Price has remained true to the impoverished gentility of his childhood, the women’s way of talking in elegant periphrases (“she had died on him before he was grown”), the men’s charming, hopeful bluntness (“If you’d started earlier, and I knew enough, we could have you singing on big-time stages before you vote—Madame Butterfly!”). People in his fiction have a hard time getting anywhere because they can’t scare up the bus fare. They are happy to have a room “with bathroom privileges.” Price knows intimately the old South as it was before it became prosperous in the 1970s and he has remained true to it, both as subject and as audience.

In 1984, when he was fifty-one, Price was diagnosed with a large tumor in his spinal column. He ended up having three surgeries—and his lower body was left paralyzed by the radiation treatments. He had lived alone out in the country for years but now he was helpless, entirely dependent on around-the-clock nurses and assistants. He was also plagued with constant and excruciating pain, which was relieved only when he learned how to hypnotize himself and employ biofeedback techniques.

In the midst of his pain he had either a dream or a vision, though he himself opts for it having been a vision. Christ appeared to him, beckoned him to follow. Price stripped down and, naked, entered the water. Jesus cupped water in his hands and poured it over Price’s head and said to him, “Your sins are forgiven.” But sin wasn’t what was worrying Price. “Am I also cured?” Price asked. Jesus said, “That too.”

Reynolds Price is an admirable man. His beautiful books, his tremendous productivity, his spirituality and cheerfulness, his abiding friendships with former students (Anne Tyler is the most famous one) and other writers his age (including the late William Styron)—all these generous traits and dynamic accomplishments have characterized him over the decades despite the constant pain and the loss of physical independence he has had to endure.

Ardent Spirits is an innovation in that it seems to be the first time that Reynolds Price has acknowledged his homosexuality in print. In his fiction and poetry he has touched on homosexuality as a theme, but lightly and seldom at length. In his 1995 novel, The Promise of Rest, a male character comes home to die of AIDS. In Good Hearts (1988) Wesley Beavers (like Mayor Giuliani) takes refuge from a bad marriage with a gay male friend. In Tongues of Angels (1990) a summer camp experience between a boy and a counselor (never openly expressed sexually) forms a bond between the two men. In several poems there is a Housman-like lyricism about the beauty of young men’s bodies.

As a writer who wants to be read by his friends and relatives and neighbors, Price has never been explicit about his own desires and has seldom touched on queer life. But his deep sensuality, which he freely acknowledges, has worked its way into all his evocations of heterosexuality and his Tiresias-like double vision of the two sexes. It would certainly be crudely reductive to suggest that he could have written better if he’d been more open about his own homosexuality. All one can say is that if he’d been less closeted his fiction might have been as effervescent as his new memoir and perhaps just as insouciant.

  1. 1

    Clear Pictures: First Loves, First Guides (Scribner, 1989).

  2. 2

    A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing (Scribner, 1994).

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