To readers worldwide, Reynolds Price was an esteemed Southern author. But for the Duke community, he was an “institution.”
The James B. Duke Professor of English passed away Thursday afternoon at age 77, after suffering a major heart attack Jan. 16. Price, who graduated from Trinity College in 1955, taught at Duke for more than 50 years. 2011 marks the 60th year since Price began his undergraduate career at Duke.
“He will be remembered as a great American novelist and he will be remembered by the lives of the students that he worked with,” said Ian Baucom, former chair of the English department. “I was struck by how... consistently he had remained a part of hundreds and thousands of students.”
A novelist, a poet and an author of short stories, Price inspired now-famous writers such as Anne Tyler, Women's College ’61, and Josephine Humphreys, Trinity ’67, at Duke. A native of Macon, N.C., Price’s work was often influenced by his Southern roots. His first novel, “A Long and Happy Life,” stands out among his books. The novel won the William Faulkner Award.
Still, for others, Price’s poetry was the highlight of his work.
“I have been teaching his collective poems to thousands of students and I think that he should have gotten the Pulitzer Prize for his collective poems,” said English professor Victor Strandberg, who said he knew Price for about 45 years. “I thought that he was the first great poet.”
Although Price ultimately became known worldwide for his work, some initially doubted his future success. When he received his first job at Duke in 1958, his letter of acceptance specified that the job was a three-year appointment—with no opportunity for an extension.
As the University reflects on Price’s life and contributions 53 years later, many question what Duke would have been like without the now-famous writer.
“He has somewhat identified with Duke,” Strandberg said. “I knew him as a man but you could say Reynolds was an institution. He grew with Duke.”
Writing for ‘its own sake’
Since coming to Duke as an undergraduate, Price only left the University once to spend three years studying in Oxford, England as a Rhodes Scholar. Although some say he was always interested in British culture, most of his career stemmed from the influence of the South—leading to many comparisons to William Faulkner, to Price’s annoyance.
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As a professor, Price was best known for the courses he taught on the 17th-century English poet John Milton and for his creative writing courses, including a class in which students wrote their own gospels.
One of the defining characteristics of his course was that he required students to memorize a Milton poem and recite it out loud, said English professor James Applewhite, one of Price’s colleagues who knew the writer in his undergraduate days.
Former students said Price’s class was unique—not just because of his status as a nationally-renowned poet but because of his dedication to his work.
“I think that the passion about his subject matter is something that I really admired,” senior Sarah Helfer said. “He was in his 70s and he was still teaching Duke undergrads.”
Price’s belief that writing “is worth doing for its own sake” should be cherished, Applewhite stressed, adding that Price’s distinct interest in the importance of writing is at risk of fading away.
“To me, Reynolds’ contribution to Duke is a major part of a direction which began in the ’30s,” Applewhite said, noting that Price was influenced by former English professor William Blackburn. “The meaning of these writers for people like us is endangered in the current world.”
Others think Price was unique in the way he led his courses because he emphasized the value of a liberal arts education. Students and colleagues also remember him for his unique voice in the classroom.
“You knew he was a writer when you heard his voice—the quality of it was striking,” Baucom said. “You could tell within his teaching and within his writing the seriousness with which he took the task of the writer.”
Price’s characteristics won him many accolades. In addition to numerous national awards, he received the University Medal for Distinguished Meritorious Service at Duke, the University’s highest honor, as well as the Distinguished Alumni Award. In 2008, the University celebrated Price’s 50th year as a Duke professor, on the eve of his 75th birthday. That same year, Duke established a creative writing professorship in his honor.
A lasting legacy
In one of his defining moments outside of the classroom, Price delivered the address at the 1992 Founder’s Day ceremony. In his speech, Price commented on the fading intellectual culture among Duke students, which he attributed to the social scene. Price called for the elimination of fraternities and sororities and instead encouraged the development of a “sane adult” community to foster a stronger intellectual climate.
Beginning in 1984, Price was confined to a wheelchair after a tumor affecting his spinal cord left him paralyzed from the waist down. Despite the pain, he developed a significant amount of strength from the incident, his colleagues said. In the midst of the pain, Price prioritized his work.
“You might say that he prevailed,” Strandberg said. “He could have taken drugs, but that would have also dulled his brain power. He made the choice to go on.... he simply paid that price.”
The accident also brought out a new element in Price’s writing. He continued to publish nationally-acclaimed works, including “Kate Vaiden” in 1986, which received a National Book Critics Circle prize.
But his suffering also became the theme of some of his work. In 2003, he published a chronicle of his cancer survival in “A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing.” He also spoke publicly about coping with chronic pain.
Although much of Price’s private life remained silent, the author’s homosexuality was evident in much of his writing. But this topic rarely came up in conversation with some of his older friends, Applewhite said.
“As a deeply Christian and deeply Southern young man, I think on one side he was uncomfortable with it,” Applewhite said. “That was not something that he shared with us, his old friends. I could not put my finger on a single moment when he came out.”
Despite the more than 50 years spent teaching and working at Duke, Price’s legacy was not limited to the University. He co-wrote the song “Copperline” with celebrated N.C. musician James Taylor, and was known to be one of former President Bill Clinton’s favorite writers. In many of his endeavours, however, he represented the face of Duke, President Richard Brodhead said.
“Every university has a small number of people who embody that place to hundreds and even thousands of people,” Brodhead said in an interview Thursday night. “How many times have I gone somewhere where people say that the most remarkable professor they ever had was Reynolds Price?”