When I was a freshman at Duke in 1961-62, the school was all abuzz about Reynolds Price's first book, A Long and Happy Life. A Duke grad, Price had studied at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and returned in 1958 to take a three year teaching position at his alma mater. Curious about this campus legend, primarily because he was as handsome and dashing as a Jane Austen hero, I bought the book to see what the fuss was all about. Save for his notable skill at writing one brilliant turn of phrase after another, I found the story he told rather mundane, even a cliche. Kind of like covering the wood cabinets in your kitchen with fancy gold leaf. I always wondered if he was just showing off. "Hey watch me turn this opening sentence of my first novel into a work of art." It was as if he wrote competitively, not necessarily to tell an interesting story, but to astonish you with his skillful and beautiful arrangement of verbal furniture.
I am breathless reading that sentence, chasing it down the page.
I forget when he came out of the closet, but even I could tell that gay professors were rather numerous on campus, so he wasn't going to be a novelty in that climate. Or a pariah, despite Duke's southern Protestant proclivities. He continued to publish, nothing earthshaking, mostly what you might describe as little gems I suppose, the kind of writing appreciated especially by the Duke students and faculty because it reflected on them. By writing books in a timely fashion, he not only kept his job, he parlayed his original three year gig into a fifty year career, becoming a beloved local icon in the process.
Reading a Time Magazine review about his latest book many years ago, I learned that a bout with spinal cancer had left him in a wheel chair. His picture shocked me. The gloriously thick black hair I remembered had turned white. He was now forever seated and paunchy from inactivity, hunched over with age. But he still had a great smile, a sonorous speaking voice, and enough charm to keep himself surrounded with two generations of adoring students and readers of his books.
What struck me most about his passing from a heart attack this week is how quickly he had become old enough to die. How did fifty years pass in so few hours?
Chances are you have never heard of Reynolds Price. He was southern. He was gay. He wasn't a media darling. His illness made him look old before his time. So I won't post a photo of how he looked in his last years, but remember him in a picture taken when he was young, striking, and beautiful, standing on the edge of his future, wondering whether he, too, would have a long and happy life.