Sunday, August 11, 2019

A Common Room (1954-1987)

More exciting tales of my misspent youth misspent the wrong ways. In the '70s, not quite a college student though old enough, I spent most of one winter and spring haunting the basement of Wilson Library at the University of Minnesota. I was taking a night class in American literature and the rest of the time prowled the library stacks, reading randomly. That's when I encountered Reynolds Price's work. Price was a lifelong professor at Duke University in North Carolina, where he also got his undergraduate degree. He wrote fiction, essays, plays, and poetry. He started teaching in the late '50s and published his first novel in 1962. Wikipedia says he was openly gay, but there's little hint of that in this collection of essays, aside from his unremarked status as a perennial bachelor and, in one piece from the '80s, a surprising candor about transsexuals. Probably, as usual, my gaydar is just off. I read his stories back in the day but his gently insistent and patient voice are very much present in these pieces too. He occupies an unusual place in literature, a son of the New Critics bravely facing the changes of the '60s, '70s, and beyond. At times I found myself irked or less than interested in some of his more conventional positions—openly Christian, a fan of John Milton (especially), Henry James, and Eudora Welty. A Southerner, his views sometimes shade over into the rationalizations of the Confederacy, yet he has an appreciation for Jimmy Carter that is refreshing to see after all the years of Carter's abuse by the organized right. Price was a very careful writer and sometimes these pieces feel one of two revisions overlabored. But he's good too—more than anything I came to respect in this collection his patience in developing and expressing his themes. These pieces are often personal but they always maintain a distance and formality appropriate for an academic. The circumstances of his life also included onset paraplegia when he was in his 50s. I was often disappointed with his opinions—typically for his generation he thinks too much of Hemingway and too little of Faulkner to suit me, for example. Yet his humility and focus make him rewarding to read—still.

In case it's not at the library.

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