When Reynolds Price died in January 2011, after a gallant battle of three decades with disabling spinal cancer and chronic pain, he left an uncompleted fourth volume of reminiscences. Its quality, notwithstanding its abrupt end, bears testimony to his gifts: His literary exit is almost as striking as his debut 60 years earlier.
That debut was heralded by a precocious novel, A Long and Happy Life, featuring the small-town people of his native northeastern North Carolina. As it happens, he and I lived parallel Carolina boyhoods, a year apart, in the old tobacco country of the upper and eastern Piedmont, with its complex castes and characters, black and white. Our lives followed similar arcs, although the neighboring universities under whose auspices we first met—his Duke, my Chapel Hill—could hardly differ more: the one new, Methodist, bustling, private; the other the nation’s oldest state university, imbued with the 18th-century ease of its founders, who had been among the eastern gentry. Our teachers of writing had the pleasant custom of bringing their classes together for a joint picnic every spring, and it was at one such function in the spring of 1955 that Reynolds stood to read a story stamped with a budding literary modernism.
I mention this, in part, because I was there. And, in one comic passage of Midstream, Reynolds describes his collision, as a visiting teacher, with the leisurely ethos of Chapel Hill. He had begun to tongue-lash the young Laodiceans for their idleness, only to be reminded, in crisp terms, that this was not Duke!
The title of this fourth memoir speaks for itself, but one surmises that it stands for the plunge into adult life we make in our mid- to late-twenties, the period covered here, sink or swim. Reynolds was, to say the least, an adept swimmer: novelist and short story writer, poet, memoirist, operatic and musical impresario, Bible translator, spiritual meditator, and mentor to a grateful succession of students at his alma mater.
Midstream is set mainly at the University of Oxford, whither he returned in 1961 for a delayed fourth year of study on his Rhodes Scholarship. (His single, deplorable verbal slip is the use of the term “Rhodesters” for its holders.) Reynolds’s gift for friendship is on display—and, as before, so is the collection of celebrities. In Ardent Spirits, the penultimate reminiscence, he wrote much of his friendship with the great W. H. Auden; here, he lavishes time and energy on the university’s stars of that time, notably the Chaucer scholar and translator Nevill Coghill and the critic Lord David Cecil, for Price a beloved father figure.
Through the good offices of Stephen Spender, he passes a bedazzled afternoon in Rome with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the Hollywood supernovae of the nonce, who are there filming Cleopatra. Both are welcoming, and drink flows such that Reynolds makes a depreciating remark about a portrait of Ms. Taylor which she had hung over the mantle of her temporary quarters. She pronounces it her favorite and slaps him playfully on his trick knee, which flies up and upsets a coffee table. Much laughter.
The long list of these glittering encounters, including ones with the composer Samuel Barber and the great diva Leontyne Price (an honorary “cousin”), might be taken as indicating what the English (with their old-world caste-consciousness) rudely call “tuft-hunting.” On the evidence here, however, Reynolds can be acquitted of that snobbish offense because these encounters with the famous are invariably lightened by his wit and modesty: Indeed, he confesses to being a “cipher” among all these friendly celebrities.
After a sojourn of some months in England, where he is jilted by a former lover with whom he had hoped to resume intimate relations, he returns to America in the late summer. His first novel is on the verge of its spectacular debut. He continues to rub shoulders not only with friends and occasional lovers (sorry, no graphic details) but with yet more celebrities. In New York he evades a fleeting chance to shake hands with his idol, William Faulkner. In Hollywood he makes new friends, consults about a screenplay of his novel, and absorbs valuable lessons about the high ratio of action to words in movies. Then, Midstream tantalizingly ends at some two-thirds of its projected length.
As his brother Bill writes in a poignant afterword, Price finally became too ill to write. But what he finished brings to an end a rich set of reminiscences, anchored in his commitment to his Carolina roots, his ever-alert sense of the human comedy, and his abiding generosity of spirit. None of this is surprising in a teller of tales, true and invented, who earlier wrote in A Palpable God and repeats here:
A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens—second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our days’ events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths.
Midstream is apt to raise two intriguing questions. One is whether, and if so, why, the Reynolds Price memoirs overshadow his fiction. The other is, as he asks himself: “If . . . your experience had left you with an overpowering need to deliver yourself of written stories, then why did you—a queer man—produce stories . . . about more conventional men and women—the kind who married and produced both you and your brother?”
Regarding the first question, Reynolds was a modernist technician of fiction from the outset, and, in consequence, one occasionally hears a faint but distracting knocking about in
the control room. In simple terms, the nonfiction is more relaxed and less self-conscious. As for the second question, Reynolds had come to candid and comfortable terms with his sexuality as the dangers and cruelties of legal and social censure receded. But that censure, condemning as illicit and antisocial what seems to be an involuntary fact of nature, may generate preoccupation—and with it a yearning curiosity about conventional patterns of life and love. Who can say, really? Certainly there can be no doubt of his love and gratitude for his parents and their like.
Whatever the fact, Reynolds’s farewell book released a formidable and catholic talent from all hindrances and left us pages that will last as long as candor, friendship, close and witty observation of our human nature, good humor, and eloquence endure.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.