Himself When Young
An American novelist on his formative years at Oxford.
Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
A quarter century ago, in the midst of what had been a rich life of writing and teaching, Reynolds Price suffered a devastating spinal cancer whose treatment by radiation and surgery left him wheelchair-bound and deeply depressed. He was given 18 months to live; but happily the prognosis was wildly premature, and he has since enjoyed a triumphant increase of artistic powers. And it continues. As if in compensation, that drastic encounter with illness opened doors of memory and inspired a triptych of distinguished memoirs.
Ardent Spirits, the latest, is about his experiences at Oxford (1955-58). The preceding volume, A Whole New Life, described his struggle with pain, physical and emotional, and the spiritual vision and professional rededication that attended it. It is a classic of a difficult genre.
The "ardent spirits" in this latest volume are obviously figurative. He was intrigued to hear a guide at Monticello say that while Jefferson preferred fine wines, he kept ardent spirits (distilled liquors) for guests. These spirits are his hosts of friends from the Oxford years and later, none more ardent than Price himself.
Oxford, a place of physical power and haunting memories, is famously challenging to write about. One who seeks its inward texture must contest very articulate forerunners--for instance Edward Gibbon, who wrote several versions of his autobiography. Gibbon came to Magdalen College as a teenager, became a Catholic convert, and was quickly snatched away to Geneva by his father for Calvinist reprogramming. But not before he unforgettably deplored the "monks of Oxford, steeped in port and prejudice," an immortal phrase stamped on the mind of every word-conscious Oxonian. Gibbon's successors are legion and include Cardinal Newman, whose poignant farewell to the snapdragons of Trinity College is as indelible as the "dull and deep potations" of Gibbon's dons.
Reynolds Price's recollection of the Oxford of 50 years ago are, however, in a way atypical--less concerned than others have been with the textures of place. Price is not especially haunted by the misty fogs and buildings of the aged city--encrusted, in his time and mine, by a century of industrial soot. It is true that he lived for a year in Mob Quad at Merton College, reputedly the oldest such structure in the university. There is, of course, some routine grumbling about plumbing and heating.
In Price's day, Oxford maintained the amusing conceit that students--even green transatlantic visitors--should be treated as friends and peers. Price obviously took advantage of that conceit. Ardent Spirits is crowded with detailed, often amusing, pen portraits of the university's personalities.
One lacks space for much of this rich vein, but one or two examples may give the flavor: Lord David Cecil, who directed his BLitt thesis on Milton: "[I]n a lifetime's acquaintance with world-class talkers, I've known no other conversationalist who equaled David Cecil." Or W. H. Auden, who came twice a year to lecture as professor of poetry: "Even in his relaxed moments . . . coming to the end of our first half-quart of martinis, he'd fall silent for two long draws on his endless cigarettes; and in the brief silence . . . I could hear his great mind turning like the wheels of a vast locomotive."
Later, after his return to the United States, there was a snapshot viewing of Edmund Wilson at work on his Civil War book, Patriotic Gore: "(Wilson . . . for me had the almost transparent physical air of an ancient Chinese sage with tiny expressive hands and a tendency to talk straight forward into the air as though none of us was present.)"
Price, indeed, seems to have had a genius for notable encounters, unlikely eminences sometimes turning up briefly in the lanes of Oxford (Nikita Khrushchev) or in their dressing rooms at Stratford (Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh) or reciting tales of personal humiliation at small London dinners (John Gielgud) or being fetched for Rhodes House receptions (Robert Frost).
Price's first full-length tale, a North Carolina country story called A Long and Happy Life, began to take shape at Oxford, even as he labored at his thesis on "Samson Agonistes." Price felt a growing consciousness, even at a distance of thousands of miles, of the personal legacy of folk speech and storytelling of his native eastern North Carolina, the land of his people for generations. The iconic opening paragraph of his first novel, in its verbal agility, foreshadowed his success as a phrasemaker and teller of tales. It certainly sticks in the reader's ear:
Just with his body and from inside like a snake, leaning that black motorcycle side to side, cutting in and out of the slow line of cars . . . staring due-north through goggles toward Mount Moriah and switching coon tails in everybody's face was Wesley Beavers, and laid against his back like sleep, spraddle-legged on the sheepskin seat behind him was Rosacoke Mustian, who was maybe his girl. . . .
Once viewed, the rustic cyclist Wesley Beavers, weaving his way through a funeral procession with his pregnant girl clinging behind, is hard to forget.
Ardent Spirits is, then, a gallery of portraits and a chronicle of artistic self-discovery. It is also a strong contribution to the literature of sexual candor. Price, self-described as "a devoted disciple of physical beauty," evokes his sexual inclination with urbanity and honesty--nothing morbid or pathological about it. Homosexuality is today a topic rendered almost as banal with political contention as it was shrouded in bigotry and illegality 50 years ago; but Price, as usual, has fresh things to say. As a guardian of English, for instance, he is unhappy with the preemption of the useful adjective "gay."
Gay struck me at once as merely inaccurate if not seriously inappropriate. I saw none of us as especially carefree. . . . The degree to which it still seems to me a bad misnomer was clarified, above all, when the AIDS plague hit the nation. . . . Gay as a common label for homosexual identity became not only a cruel joke but also a political error at a time when federal money for research and treatment was desperately needed. The enemies of homosexuality were handed, gratis, a name which suited their contention that homosexuals were giddy irresponsibles.
This may be taken as a companioning sentiment to his trenchant protest, in one of his books of religious apologetics, against the fashionable "gender-neutral" designation of the godhead as possibly feminine, implicating women as it does in the woeful mischief of the divine will. In any case, Ardent Spirits is not "about" sexuality. It is about love and friendship in their broad, particular reaches.
Price writes also about his first three years as an apprentice instructor at Duke, where he is now James B. Duke Professor of English. During those years he published his first significant fiction. He has since published some 37 volumes of fiction, memoirs, poetry, biblical translation, and criticism--all of it attesting to the variety and durability of his talent. If his readers are lucky, Ardent Spirits will certainly not be the last.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. wrote about Oxford in his own memoir, Telling Others What to Think: Recollections of a Pundit.