Monday, January 24, 2011

Jill Krementz remembers Reynolds Price

Remembering Reynolds Price
February 1, 1933-January 20, 2011

Reynolds Price,
a poet and novelist, had the deep melodious voice of a tenor and a heart filled with goodness and laughter.

We met in 1972 when our mutual friend Eudora Welty told me there was a wonderful young writer from North Carolina who would be coming to New York and that I should take pictures of him.

I had read his first novel, A Long and Happy Life, published in 1962 to rave reviews. I still have the paperback in my library and it's easy to see why its first sentence was boxed in The New York Times obit that appeared on Friday, January 21st.

In addition to being an excellent writer of prose with a pitch-perfect voice for the rural South where he was born and lived his entire life, Reynolds Price was a fine poet, playwright, essayist and translator.

He taught writing, and the poetry of John Milton, at Duke University for more than fifty years. Anne Tyler and Josephine Humphreys were among his early students.

In 1984, Reynolds learned he had cancer, a ten-inch-long, eel-like tumor inside his spinal cord that seemed certain to kill him. It did not, but the surgery and subsequent radiation therapy left him paralyzed from the waist down and he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. His book, A Whole New Life, An Illness and Healing is his personal narrative of his journey and a perfect reflection of his wisdom, his faith, and his deep intelligence.

We will all miss him but we are all so grateful for his life.
Reynolds Price with Eudora Welty at the Algonquin Hotel.
Reynolds was often compared to William Faulkner but he preferred to be thought of as the heir to his mentor, Eudora Welty.
After meeting at the Algonquin and having a brief visit with our mutual friend Eudora Welty, Reynolds and I walked over to Bryant Park where I took some photographs of him.
This photograph of Reynolds appeared in my postcard book, Men Writers, published by Pomegranate Artbooks in 1996. The reverse text read:

Reynolds Price is a novelist, storyteller, poet, playwright, essayist and Duke University professor whose career is driven by a spiritual hunger and graced by human decency, qualities that distinguish his writing. Among his best-known works are his award-winning first novel, "A Long and Happy Life" (1962), "The Surface of Earth" (1975), "A Palpable God" (1978), and "Kate Vaiden" (1986).
The front jacket of A Long and Happy Life, which was published by Avon Books in 1962 and cost 60 cents.

The back jacket describes the novel:

This is the story of Rosacoke Mustian, an intelligent, marriageable young girl, daughter of a working-class white family in a rural Southern community. Rosa works patiently in a dull job as a telephone operator. Mostly she pines for the love of Wesley Beavers whom she has adored from adolescence. Wesley is just discharged from the Navy and given, it seems, wholly to loose women and motorcycles, and to muteness in regard to Rosacoke.
The opening sentence of A Long and Happy Life.
My paperback copy is so old that the pages have yellowed.
Walker Percy, Reynold Price, Albert Murray, and Joseph Mitchell at the reception following the ceremony at The American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Reynolds Price with Composer Ned Rorem at luncheon preceeding awards ceremony of The American Academy of Arts and Letters, May 18, 1988.
Reynolds Price and Rose Styron at The American Academy of Arts and Letters, May 18, 1988.
In 1994 Reynolds Price published A Whole New Life, an eloquent memoir of his struggle with cancer.

"This is a book about a mid-life collision with cancer and paralysis, a collision I've survived for ten years and counting. It means to be an accurate and readable account of a frightening painful time that ended; but while I know that any account of human realities will travel best in the form of a story, a compelling story is not my first aim. That aim is to give, in the midst of an honest narrative, a true record of the visible and invisible ways in which one fairly normal creature entered a trial, not of his choosing, and emerged after a long four years on a new life—a life that's almost wholly changed from the old. The record is offered first to to others in physical or psychic trials of their own, to their families and other helpers and then to the curious reader who waits for his or her own devastation."
In 1994 I visited Reynolds Price in Durham, North Carolina where I photographed him in the woods behind his house. This picture appeared in a book of interviews with 23 southern writers called Parting the Curtains, a collaboration with Dannye Romine Powell.
In July of 1996 I returned once again to Durham to visit and take some photographs for his upcoming book, Roxanna Slade.
For my 2005 desk diary, The Writer's Faith, published by Barnes & Noble, I used this photograph of Reynolds with the accompanying quote:

Prayer has always been a very important part of my daily life.

It's so much part of my daily life I don't even think of it as prayer. It just seems like the same thing as making the coffee and answering the phone and doing the work. I don't have elaborate, ceremonial ways that I do it. I am not a churchgoing person. But I think I'm an intensely
religious person.
My photograph of Reynolds on the cover of his book, The Collected Poems, published in 1997 by Scribner.


Every angel from its height
Sheds a pure though blinding light,
Intermittent noon and night.
Yet—or thereforeit deserves
Thanks, attentions, steady loves:
Every angel on its height
Burns itself, itself its light
Burn, clear angelI observe,
Thank, attend, attempt to serve.
JK with Reynolds on the terrace behind his house: July 16, 1996.
Once again at the annual ceremony of The Academy of Arts and Letters, this time with poet
Paul Muldoon.
One of my last portraits of Reynolds. It was a long and happy friendship.
Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz
all rights reserved.