A Whole Life in Literature

This piece appeared in the Jan. 28 News & Observer (Raleigh, NC).

By Suzy Barile

HARMONY -- As a young reporter for The Henderson Daily Dispatch, one of my "beats" was Warren County - its school board and county commissioners, the town councils of Warrenton and Norlina, the ill-fated Soul City, then in its heyday, and occasional activities in Macon and Littleton.

Though I spent just two years at the Dispatch, it was long enough to be introduced to Reynolds Price. The author was a favorite son of Warren County - born in Macon and raised in Norlina, both of which figure prominently in several of his novels. Residents were proud of the young man who had graduated from Duke and Oxford universities, then been hired by Duke to teach composition.

By the time I happened upon him, he'd been teaching nearly 20 years and already had published a highly acclaimed first novel "A Long and Happy Life," and added "The Names and Faces of Heroes," "A Generous Man" and "Permanent Errors," among others. The Henderson library never had a better customer as I devoured his works, taken in by the narrative voice that his colleague James A. Schiff once described as ranging from "austere, solemn, detached and at times, even biblical or oracular in nature."

Tt was Price's way with words that captivated me: "They observed Papa's birthday with a freezer of cream even if it was the dead of winter, and they had given him a Morris chair that was not brand-new but was what he had always wanted. The next morning he was sick, and nobody could figure the connection between such nice hand-turned cream that Rato almost froze to death making and a tired heart which was what he had according to Dr. Sledge."

Readers could "see" the stories he told and "hear" the characters speak, relating to their plights, their joys and their sorrows. I relished his work - bragging to those to whom I'd recommend him that he'd written not only novels but plays and poetry and memoirs and essays and songs - the lyrics to James Taylor's "Copperline" and "New Hymn" - even published his personal writing journals.

But it was Price's voice itself - that "deep, lovely voice," noted former student and novelist Josephine Humphreys - that soothed me. I never passed up a chance to attend a public reading or lecture. His pauses, often at the end of a descriptive phrase, even if it wasn't the end of a sentence, delighted me. When I read his words, I could hear him reading them to me: "Papa said 'Tired of what?' and refused to go to any hospital. He said he would die at home if it was his time, but the family saw it different so they took him to Raleigh..."

During a reading at Quail Ridge Books in late 2007, Price spoke of his own mortality. It wasn't an unusual topic: In "A Whole New Life," the memoir of his bout with cancer, he shared an encounter with Jesus and the healing he'd been promised. Now, 20 years later and nearly 75, he acknowledged that death was a certainty.

Never hear his voice again? Never hear that wryness with which he broached ideas about which he was passionate, that careful placement of words and phrases? I purchased his memoir in audio - "author and reader," the cover claimed - and placed it intentionally, yet unopened, on the bookshelf containing my Reynolds Price collection.

At the conclusion of "A Whole New Life," Price described his writing after cancer: "The books are different from what came before in more ways than age. ...Even my handwriting looks very little like the script of the man I was in June of '84. Cranky as it is, it's taller, more legible, with more air and stride. It comes from the arms of a grateful man."

This grateful man, who enjoyed 50-plus years of a prolific and varied writing and teaching career, died Jan. 20 following a heart attack. As are other fans, I am grateful for that career. And one day soon I will unwrap and listen to the audiotape, certain that for me his words will live on.

Shannon, Illinois, History One That Generates Pride

By Suzy Barile

In this world of social networking, with self-promotion at our fingertips, it’s easy to get information about oneself out into “the world.” But is that what’s best when tackling a serious matter such as a review of artwork or a film or a book? Can we legitimately review ourselves and not seem self-serving?

I’d say “NO!” if asked by my Intro to Journalism students. Yet as I paged through Shannon, Illinois: 100 Years – 1860-2010 published late last year by the town’s 2010 Sesquicentennial Committee, I couldn’t help but want to issue a glowing review, despite the fact that it includes a piece I wrote on one of the town’s first physicians, my great-great uncle Richard Caswell Swain.

At 272 pages, Shannon, Illinois is a comfortably-sized hard-cover, coffee-table-worthy book jam-packed with history, anecdotes, celebrations, and photographs about a town that was “founded in 1860” and chartered in 1869, but had its stirrings some 40 years earlier as settlers headed west in search of new lives found lead in the mines of the prairies of Illinois – lead for making ammunition, vessels, pipes, roofs, tanks, coffins; the list goes on and on. So many settlers arrived that by the time the Village of Shannon became an official town, it already had farms and homes, a railroad stop, churches, a hotel, and a school, everything any growing and thriving town needs.

Richard C. (Bunky) Swain and Ella Swain by Suzy Barile
Richard C. (Bunky) Swain and sister Ella
I knew little of Shannon until I began the research into my ancestor. He moved there to practice medicine at the behest of his brother-in-law, Freeport, Illinois, postmaster, lawyer, and newspaper editor Smith D. Atkins, a former Union soldier who saw promise in this man who also had served during the Civil War -- as an assistant surgeon for the Confederacy -- and apparently suffered from what today is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the 1860s, however, he was a drinker, among the thousands of soldiers who came home from the war damaged, labeled as suffering from hysteria, melancholia, and insanity. Swain seemed unfit to treat anyone, until his sister’s husband intervened.

His move to Shannon in late 1865 was apparently a welcome one for residents of the village, as he immediately began seeing patients, soon building a thriving practice. His wife and daughter followed him in early 1866, just as talk of incorporation was taking place, and he continued treating his neighbors until a train accident in January 1872: While attempting to board, he somehow slipped and was pulled onto the tracks. He was killed instantly.

Swain was not the only doctor to serve Shannon and its surroundings, and he and others who made the town what it is are remembered fondly in chapters entitled “People of Our Town,” “Businesses of the Past,” “Businesses of Today,” and “Memories.” Readers will learn about the area’s first residents, its first businesses, the groups and organizations that were a part of a growing farming community, and most importantly, about Shannon today.

It took a little more than a year for the Souvenir Committee of the Sesquicentennial Committee to raise the funds and gather information – stories and photographs -- for Shannon, Illinois, the second such publication to examine the town’s beginnings (a paperback titled A Memento of Shannon, Illinois Centennial Celebration 1860-1960 was produced for that milestone). This newest committee’s success is reflected in the new volume’s “Introduction”: “It has been a very exciting journey. We have learned a lot … To the best of our knowledge, we have done our best to issue a Shannon Book to be proud of…”

If my words have been self-serving, my apologies. If they make you want to order Shannon, Illinois, then such self-servance has been well worth it!

(Shannon, Illinois: 150 Years – 1860-2010 was designed and produced by its editor and Foreston, ILL, resident Kathy Pasch and printed by Walsworth Printing Group of Marceline, MO. It is available by contacting Carolyn Deininger, Box 626, Shannon, IL 61078.)