Friday, January 21, 2011

On the Death of Reynolds Price

Reynolds Price died yesterday. I could forgive you if you didn't know him. While I admired him, I've read very few of his books. Every five years or so, I'd pick up one of them and try again. Somehow, they never captured me.

But his life captured me. His dedication to Milton. His support of new writers, some of whom (Anne Tyler and Josephine Humphreys, for example) went on to be my favorites. And of course, that tumor, and the operation to remove it that left him paralyzed from the waist down for the last 25 years of his life. What inspires me most is how the operation left him physically scarred, but seemed to liberate his writing. He wrote more and a wider variety once he was confined to his wheelchair.

In one of my all-time favorites in the category of books of interviews with writers (Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers; interviews by Dannye Romine Powell and photographs by Jill Krementz), Price ruminates on possible reasons for his post-operation prolific pace: "I've cut so much rival activity out of my life. Teaching and seeing my friends are the only old things that I still do. I've cut out all the chores and going for groceries, and I've cut out almost all the old going-places-to-give-readings stuff. So, I've got all that time."

Later in the interview, he ruminates on the tendency for 20th century writers, the male ones at least, to destroy themselves with liquor, drugs, and sex, unlike nineteenth century writers who "tended to be terribly solid citizens." He points out that the generation before him--Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway most notably--were dead by their early 40's or "had drunk themselves off the air. Their best work was behind them."

He hated this idea "that a writer was supposed to be somebody who was drunk all the time, or drunk at least once a day, and the marriage was disorderly, and the children were on food stamps or whatever."

What does he conclude? He says, "So, I really do try to remind my students, if they don't know, that writing is done by a physical organ called the human brain, and the human brain has needs that are just as ascertainable as the needs of your liver or your kidneys or your heart, and they are basically nutritional. An in terms of nutrition: exercise, rest, self-respect. Which doesn't mean I don't like to have a nice drink now and then."

In later years, it seemed to me that his writing became more tinged with theology--and then there were the works of outright theology (for more on this, see this post on my theology blog). You might expect a man who spends his days teaching Milton to move in this direction. But I think his lasting legacy can be summed up as The New York Times said it best in this article : "At Duke University, where he taught writing and the poetry of Milton for more than half a century, he encouraged students like Anne Tyler and Josephine Humphreys. Simply by staying in the South and writing about it, he inspired a generation of younger Southern novelists."

That generation of Southern writers turned out to be the one that most inspired me. So, Reynolds Price, thank you. I hope that there's a heaven where you've left that wheelchair behind, where you're finally pain free. I like to think of you and Milton arguing over those age old questions of human freedom and constraint, what we owe each other, and what God owes us.

Those of us left behind on this tired old earth will continue your work of observation and contemplation and writing it all down. We will heed your call to take better care of our physical selves. We will remember what you said: "Let's say that my material is simply everything that's been deposited in my mind--conscious and subconscious--for the last fifty-five years. A fiction writer's--and probably a poet's and dramatist's--success is in direct proportion to his or her ability to open up direct lines to all that material. Not to be frightened by it." We will not be frightened.

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