Monday, January 24, 2011

In Memoriam: Reynolds Price

In the spring semester of 1986, the novelist, poet, and scholar Reynolds Price returned to teaching at Duke University after having had surgery to remove a 10-inch tumor from his spine. He taught his usual two classes: a writing workshop and a literature class on John Milton.

I sat in the front row of his Milton class.

On the first day, he rolled into class and parked his wheelchair at the large desk. Everyone was quiet. We were in the presence of a Duke legend, someone famous, someone who had a serious list of publications to his name, someone who’d been interviewed on NPR. Mr. Price—not Doctor Price or Professor Price—lived up to the legend. I’d heard stories of his wearing a black cape with red lining around campus in his younger years. He needed no such props in 1986. All he needed to do was speak.

His rich voice drew his audience in. When he read Milton, I heard the poetry. When he read his own poetry, I found a twentieth-century poet that touched me. When he described the horror of staring out a locked window at a beloved running down a sidewalk toward an unseen patch of ice, I felt that horror.

When he talked about how ridiculous Tina Turner was to be prancing around on stage in skimpy costumes at her age, I agreed with him. After leaving class, however, I realized how judgmental he had been. I thought if I had a body like Tina Turner’s at fifty, I wouldn’t mind flaunting it. But coming from a dignified man who used to strut around campus in a red-lined cape but was now in a wheelchair, the judgment fit.

And that is how he taught me an important lesson in perspective.

On the first day of class, Mr. Price laid down the rules, which included zero tolerance of tardiness and mandatory class participation. The tardiness rule didn’t bother me in the least. I, ever the geek, arrived early to every class in college. But in those days I didn’t open my mouth in class. I was terrified of saying something stupid because my father habitually critiqued my “performance” after he heard me speak in social situations. Everything I said fell short of my father’s expectations. His criticism had paralyzed me, making it impossible for me to speak up in any class, much less one taught by someone famous.

I still remember the day I wanted so badly to answer one of Mr. Price’s questions. I knew my answer was intelligent and meaningful. I knew he would appreciate it. I was sitting right in front of him as he glanced around the room, anticipating a response from one of his students. I started sweating, my hands started to tingle, and I saw stars. Literally saw stars. I had to put my head down. Another student answered the question, and I felt shame and humiliation for my weakness. Mr. Price, after all, never humiliated students for their comments, never made them feel stupid even when they were wrong. He wanted us to participate so much he made participation one-third of our grade. He wanted to hear us.

It wasn’t his fault I could hear my dad saying, “Well, that was a stupid thing to say. You really blew it.”

The space shuttle Challenger exploded that semester. I don’t remember Mr. Price’s exact words, though he spent a large portion of class that day reflecting on it. I do remember leaving class feeling a sense of perspective for the event: the enormous personal tragedy of individual lives lost, the enormous loss to our nation, and the enormous price of the human desire to take risks in search of knowledge and experience. In Mr. Price’s voice, the Challenger disaster became one more important story woven into the larger, longer, tragic, and beautifully connected story of humanity.

At some point during the semester, Mr. Price had an accident and ended up bedridden at home. The English department tried to set up a two-way sound system at his request so he could teach from his bed. This was the 80s, long before teleconferencing became routine. The sound system didn’t work right so Professor Stanley Fish, another famous Milton scholar, taught for a few days. When Mr. Price returned to class, we all breathed a sigh of relief. His warm, confident voice made Stanley Fish’s voice seem coldly intellectual, useful in its own way but hardly one to inspire a personal connection to the poetry of a dead blind man. Also, I couldn’t see Professor Fish teaching from his bed while flat on his back in pain. Mr. Price, however, really tried.

His published books include volumes of poetry, short stories, novels, and personal essays. His examination of the Gospels is on my shelf to reread as I start a year-long study of Jesus. But my favorite book of his is A Whole New Life. His clear voice communicates what it is like to become a gimp (his word) after years of striding confidently through life. In the preface, he writes,

"[The book's] 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 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 my worst times, I’d have given a lot to hear from veterans of the kind of ordeal I was trapped in."

I’ve kept the book like a talisman, mandatory insurance for the time of my own devastation or that of a loved one, because another thing Mr. Price taught me is that stories, if you let them, can heal both those who tell them and those who listen.

Last Christmas a dear friend gave me a book called Simple Little Words. It’s a collection of stories by people who heard a few simple, yet transformative, words at critical points in their lives. As I read the book during the Christmas break, I thought about those people who had spoken simple little words to me. Mr. Price was one of them, although his words to me were written (how fitting!) rather than spoken.

Because I knew my class participation grade was a disaster, I worked hard on my term paper and final exam. My paper was titled “The Balance of Sound and Sight Imagery in 'L’Allegro' and 'Il Penseroso.'” Doesn’t that catchy title make you want to read it? When I finished typing all 15 pages of it on my electric typewriter (because only nerds used the computer lab in the mid-1980s), I didn’t just hope it was good; I knew it was good. In fact, it’s the first paper I ever wrote that I knew was good. But was it good enough for Mr. Price?

When Mr. Price returned the term papers, I was too nervous to read the grade in front of him and went out into the hall. I saw the A first, and then I read his words. “Susan—a really elegant paper—richly attentive & clearly stated. Thank you.”

My high-school senior English teacher had told me I could write, and Mr. Price's simple little words, especially that underscored thank you, made me believe it, and they made all the negative words my father had spoken begin to fade. It took years for that story of healing to write itself, but I am grateful to Mr. Price for his words that helped me through that story.

I was one among thousands he taught in his fifty years at Duke. He did not know me, the silent one sitting right in front of him that spring semester of 1986, and I didn’t know him, not personally. But his influence changed me. He showed me how powerful a voice can be for good. He showed how personal battles—Adam and Eve’s temptation, Milton’s blindness, astronauts’ deaths, a cancer patient’s determination to keep living and writing and teaching, a girl’s search for self-confidence and a voice of her own—were part of a larger story of transformation, growth, recovery, generosity, kindness, and hard things.

Legends are people with strong voices, and Mr. Price had a very strong voice that wasn’t silenced twenty-five years ago by a 10-inch tumor. That voice isn't silent now that he is gone, either. His stories and poems remain accessible and helpful, a gift from a generous man to anyone willing to listen.

I’ll close with his words from “First Green,” a poem from The Use of Fire.

All ancient hopes are not, by nature, lies.
The dream of green does not preclude new leaves.

The fact that here in drystick winter
We long for spring, new life on limbs,
Does not mean spring will not transpire.

That intricate all-but-smoke of green
On the smallest trees at the riverbank
(Their upmost hands) is only the billionth
Promise paid—resurrection,

Frank hint of endless rounds in steady light.


Today, I am grateful for Mr. Price, his life and his writing. What are you grateful for? Who touched your life a glancing blow that sent it rolling off down some useful path?


  1. Yes, you can write, thank you for sharing that wonderful story.

  2. ah! i had that same father. and yes, there was an adult friend of my mother who saved me. she would invite me to come over on weekends when my father was home so that i could "get away" from his mean ways, whew! she is gone now, i miss her and think of her often, how wonderful and what a savior she was to a young girl, ack! i am crying. but it is good! i will always, always, always remember her kindness and hope i reflect that every day. thank you for the lovely post, i loved every word!

  3. An absolutely beautiful tribute to Mr. Price. Thank you for sharing with us, Susan. You are an amazing writer.

  4. Susan,
    A piece worth clipping out and putting in a book for a rainy day. Thanks! I wish I had had the privelege of meeting such a fine and inspiring man and teacher. Have you shared this post or your writing about him with his family? You should. Or perhaps send it to the Duke Alumni magazine.

  5. Susan, I love your blog and find inspiration here. A wise mentor provided me with an important lesson while I was grieving the tragic death of my little brother. I was not sleeping (which can make you a little crazy all by itself!) and was experiencing the middle of the night wakefulness as intensely painful and negative. My desperation only served to exacerbate the insomnia, of course. He told me that when he has those nights, he thinks of it as a call to prayer, and that God is waiting for him to listen. Immediately, I had some comfort during my dark nights of the soul, and also achieved a return to sleep more readily. I learned an important lesson about perspective, and how important it is to examine, as well as actively choose, my perspective in any situation. Thanks for sharing your lesson, which serves to increase the impact your teacher had on the world, and thanks for affording me an opportunity to do the same.

  6. antlol,

    Thanks so much for sharing those wonderful words. I totally agree that examining and actively choosing your perspective in any situation is vital to keeping us sane. Choosing prayer in the midst of pain shifts our perspective in very healthy ways!

    Blessings to you.

  7. The late Reese Cleghorn was the dean of the journalism school at the U of Maryland when I studied there. Under his leadership the university would eventually see its j-school among the top ten in the U.S. He was experienced and tough. As an older returning student I had plenty of doubts about my abilities. One day he remarked, “You’re doing some good work in here.” It was not a compliment he gave freely, and the confidence that simple statement gave me was remarkable. I didn’t need to ride the Metro home that day; my spirits were soaring!

  8. What a lovely tribute. Different people have inspired me by work and example at different times and helped me cope with a variety of difficulties over the years.

    A few years ago, when I was in a rough spot in my personal life and feeling hurt and overwhelmed, a friend who had known me for decades said, "Remember who you are." Those words grounded me when I felt lost, strengthened me when I felt weak, reminded of all I'd come through and who I *really* was at a time when I felt my worth being challenged in the most profound and personal way. I carry them with me...


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!