Sensual in the South

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…

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