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.


kbos2hm said...

love the pictures bellow they must of been in the summer there is so no leaves on the trees at the moment i was just up in the country the other day and it was so gloomy and deppresing

The Sage Butterfly said...

It is interesting to hear the views of a writer before and after cancer. I am sure it changes one in profound ways. Thanks for sharing this lovely story.