Author, professor defines intellectual


Reminiscent of a museum with ornate, antique furnishing and walls covered with masks and paintings spanning myriad times and cultures, Reynolds Price's living room is almost a shine to intellectual pursuit.

The renowned southern author and James B. Duke Professor of English has long epitomized intellectualism. Last December, in his Founder's Day address, he accused the University of having an anti-intellectual atmosphere. Price proposed drastic measures to remedy the campus climate, such as removing the greek system from campus and switching to a residential college system, causing a major uproar in the community.

"For many Duke students, the word `intellectual' has an almost perjorative tone to it," Price said. "I think of an intellectual as being one of the millions of human beings who pays very close attention to the world and tries to draw intelligent conclusions for his or her own life and the lives of others. It's not a life choice someone makes in the sixth grade to be some bookwormy, nerdy person who derives no joy from life."

Price pursued his own intellectual development as an undergraduate at the University in 1951. Apart from his four years at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, Price has spent his career in the gothic wonderland.

In his essay, "Welcome to High Culture," Fred Chappell, an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who went to college with Price, described Price's dorm room as "an entirely different universe." In contrast to the Playboy pinups on the walls of freshman rooms, Chappell remembers reproductions of Botticelli, Blake, and Matisse adorning Price's walls.

The University's atmosphere has changed a great deal since Price was an undergraduate. Not only has the undergraduate population almost doubled since the 1950s, but when Price was an undergraduate, alcohol was illegal on campus.

Price, who was a member of Phi Delta Theta, said his fraternity had social events but that alcohol was never a part of them.

Chappell said many students drank during the 50s, but it just did not happen in Price's circle of friends.

"That's one of the things a fraternity was good for--a place to keep your bottle. No one went dry who wanted to drink back then," Chappell said. "Reynolds was the kind of person the fraternities used to bring in to raise their GPA up so they could stay on campus."

Duke English Professor James Applewhite, who was a freshman when Price was a senior, agreed that it was not difficult to acquire alcohol off campus during the 1950s. He also said although alcohol was forbidden, fraternities found ways around the rules.

Contrary to Applewhite and Chappell, Price said he had an "extremely wide" circle of friends and never saw people drinking on campus.

Applewhite and Chappell met Price one night in 1955 when they staggered into his room drunk. Chappell later wrote that he expected Price to greet them with, "Hello, jerks. Welcome to High Culture."

Instead, Chappell found Price to be polite and amiable, and was so impressed by him that he began asking Price to edit his writing.

Price used his college experiences to help him write his Founder's Day speech. Alcohol has a devastating effect students because it decreases their hunger for knowledge, he said.

"It was certainly no garden of Eden of intellectual serenity back then, but there really was a gigantic change. It was a sober place," Price said.

The residential system at the University needs to be overhauled, he said. Fraternities are not "innately wicked," but he wonders why they have exclusive rights over prime pieces of campus real estate.

"Getting rid of fraternities is by no means a priority," Price said. "My priority is getting a sane, civilized and encouraging system of residential life."

Price said his criticism last year on Founder's Day was not a direct attack on the students. He wanted to inform the administration that something needs to be done.

"If I didn't care passionately about this place, I wouldn't even bother to open my mouth," he said.

During his childhood, Price began subconsciously to amass knowledge. Fascinated with his relatives' stories about the old South, Price cites his family's "gift for narrative language" as a major influence on his interest in writing and learning. Often, Price's mother would order him to go outside and play with the other children, but he was so intrigued by the stories being told that he would sneak back in and listen to the adults reminisce.

Price's intellectual interests served as a source of stability during his childhood, because his father's job as a travelling salesman forced his family to move from town to town in North Carolina. In every school he attended, Price fed his "terrific appetite" for learning and reading.

"Without having any consciousness of it at all and without having anybody in the family making a decision to train up somebody to be a writer or a teacher, I was probably born with some genetic bent for using the English language in an interesting narrative fashion," Price said.

By the time he was a junior in high school Price knew he wanted to pursue two professions--writing and teaching. His break as a writer came at the end of his senior year during writer Eudora Welty's visit to campus.

After reading the first short story Price wrote, Welty asked him if she could show it to her agent. Her agent immediately took on Price as a client, and the story, "Michael Egerton," was later published in a national magazine.

In addition to his 40-year writing career, Price collaborated with another native Carolinian, James Taylor on "Copperline." He was also a co-writer for Taylor's new album.

As a teacher, Price has helped students nurture their own intellectual goals. As a freshman English instructor in 1958, one of Price's first students was 16-year old A.B. Duke scholar Anne Tyler, the author of "An Accidental Tourist." Price continues to teach classes on Milton and creative writing.

In 1984 Price's outlook on life changed dramatically when doctors discovered a 10-inch highly malignant tumor running along his spinal cord.

Price underwent radiation treatment to kill the tumor which resulted in paraplegia. Three years later, doctors removed the tumor using a new type of surgery, but Price still does not have use of his legs. Changes have occurred in both mind and body.

"Once the immediate shock has passed, I wish someone had said to me, `You are no longer Reynolds Price. Who do you want to be?' Your only real choice is to invent a whole new life."

"A Whole New Life" is exactly what Price has titled his new autobiographical account of his ordeal with spinal cancer, due out next spring.

Although Price's means of mobility have changed, his pursuit of intellectualism has not. He has merely decided to expand his intellectual shrine to include his lifelong home--Duke University.


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