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Remembering Reynolds Price

Reynolds Price
Duke University

Reynolds Price has died. The prolific author and professor of English at Duke University passed away yesterday. He was 77 years old.

Reynolds Price had a motto. The man who wrote dozens of books, poems, essays, and plays and taught for six decades at his alma mater lived his life by words offered to him by a teacher at Oxford University more than 50 years ago.

You’ll only regret your economies.

He explained what that meant in a promotional video for his publisher, Simon and Schuster…

"and I’ll have to say for the remainder of my life, and there have been great patches of my life when I’ve had almost no money whatsoever - I’ve had to borrow $5 from friends to buy food for the next week or whatever - nonetheless, I’ve always splurged whenever possible. Financially, emotionally and almost any other legal way."

Reynolds Price was born during the worst month of the worst year of the great depression in Warren County, near the Virginia border. His large extended family offered protection against some of the worst effects of the time, but, as he said on The State of Things in 2006, it was hardly easy…

"Both sides of my family were tremendously afflicted by alcoholism, so there was a bad gene loose in both sides. Luckily my brother and I avoided getting plagued by it."

Price’s artistic, deft mind made him a target as an adolescent, but he thrived once he arrived at Duke. He graduated summa cum laude and earned a Rhodes Scholarship. By the time he was 30, he was on the faculty at his alma mater and had written a highly-acclaimed first novel, A Long And Happy Life.

It sold a million copies and won the Faulkner Award. Many critics labeled him the heir to the great southern write - a label he spent a lifetime deflecting, as he explained on the Charlie Rose show in 2009.

"then I got all this Mister Price, young southern writer, Mister Price, heir to Faulkner, and I thought, Oh God, I’m not the heir to anything. I’m a young American writer…"

During his writing career, Price explored rural life in the south, translated biblical stories, wrote memoirs and did commentaries for NPR. In 1984, he was stricken with spinal cancer. The subsequent treatments took away his ability to walk, but not to write.

His first book after becoming a paraplegic won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He would go on to write 21 more.

Price’s teaching career, while not as celebrated, is no less impressive. Duke English professor Ian Baucom told WUNC in 2008 that students felt “moved” to be in Price’s classes:

I"I’m struck by the fact that Reynolds doesn’t have to teach, he’s not in a position where he needs the salary from Duke in order to do this. But he does it out of a desire to return a gift that was given to him, as he says that he likes to test himself against the fire and vibrancy of young thoughts and young minds. And I do think that is an extraordinary unique gift and capacity that he has."

Price himself put it more succinctly in a video produced by Duke on the 50th anniversary of his first year teaching there*.

"I’m just trying to be an interesting and useful teacher, someone who someone might wake up in the middle of the night and say, gosh, remember when old Doc Price said so and so…"

Price was a little more certain of his impact as an author, when questioned by Charlie Rose.

"Do you believe that you maximized your potential, that you reached the place you grasped the place you were reaching for, as a writer? Price: Do I think I got there? Rose: Yes. Price: I think I’m a very good writer."

Price died of a heart attack he suffered early Sunday morning. He leaves behind 38 acclaimed books as well as hundreds, maybe thousands, of thankful students.

* Correction: The video referenced is from a documentary film "Pass It On" by Wil Weldon.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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