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Reynolds Price (1933-2011)

Reynolds Price, the prolific North Carolina-based fiction writer, essayist, literary scholar, memoirist, and longtime professor of English at Duke University, who was widely considered his generation's foremost successor to the Southern literary tradition of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, died Thursday in Durham, N.C., of complications following a heart attack he suffered last Saturday. He was 77.

Price was the author of more than 40 books, including his debut novel "A Long and Happy Life" (1962), with its gamboling, paragraph-long opening sentence that evoked both Faulkner's baroque narrative style and the post-war energy of Mailer, Bellow, Kerouac and the Beats. The novel was published in its entirety as a supplement to Harper's Magazine, and established Price at age 30 as the presumptive heir to and spokesperson for the Southern literary voice in the United States.

A more accomplished literary scholar than many of his aforementioned peers, his career proved to be more eclectic and diverse, producing 13 novels, three story collections, four volumes of poetry, as well as volumes of plays, books of biblical scholarship, three memoirs and numerous essay collections, including several on his unorthodox but devout Christian faith and the art of writing.

Born into a Depression-era working class family in the poor, rural, cotton and tobacco farming community of Macon, N.C., he attended public schools and Duke University, where he first studied with Eudora Welty and graduated summa cum laude in 1955. He subsequently received a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Merton College at Oxford University, where he studied with W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender and wrote his thesis on John Milton. Returning to North Carolina in 1958, he was offered a temporary teaching position at his alma mater. He remained on the faculty at Duke for more than 50 years, eventually becoming the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of English, his title at the time of his death this week.

In 1984, Price was afflicted by a rare form of spinal cancer, the surgery and radiation treatment for which left him paraplegic, and often in great pain for the rest of life. He sought pain management through hypnosis, and far from restricting his writing career, he found the experience of his illness as transformative, and to a certain degree, liberating. He embarked upon an extraordinary period of productivity that produced more than a dozen books over the next decade, including the acclaimed novels "Kate Vaiden" (1986), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and "Blue Calhoon" (1992), as well his much-praised memoir "Clear Pictures: First Loves, First Guides" (1989) and its follow up "The Tongues of Angels" (1990), based on his experience as a youth camp counselor in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the early 1950s. Price wrote about his surviving spinal cancer in his 1994 memoir, "A Whole New Life."

Price's exhuberant 2009 memoir, "Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back," was the subject of much discussion in the literary world, as it not only recounted his intellectual experiences at Oxford and travels in Europe in the 1950s, but also for the first time in his career candidly acknowledged his homosexuality and various sensual and romantic expressions of it in settings more tolerant than his native North Carolina. Through 39 previous books, he had addressed the subject only obliquely in his work, although his exemption from military service on the stated grounds of homosexuality was a matter of public record.

Price's immense learning and literacy, his familiarity with the folkways of Southern rural culture and the cadences of Southern speech, and his distinctive baritone voice made him a favorite essayist for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" from 1996 to 2002. A compilation of 52 of those NPR essays was published as "A Feasting of the Heart," which was published by Scribner's in 2000.

In the Winter 1991 issue of the Paris Review, Price discussed his life and work with fellow writer Frederick Busch. You can read that interview in PR's famous "The Art of Fiction" series at Paris Review - The Art of Fiction No. 127, Reynolds Price.

--R.D. Pohl

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