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North Carolina's literary elder statesman - in his youth

By D. G. Martin
Posted Tuesday, July 7, 2009

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Chapel Hill, NC - “An elder statesman of American letters.”

What North Carolina writer comes to your mind when you read those words?

These are the words a New York Times reviewer of Reynolds Price’s new book, “Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back,” used to describe Price.

Although Price is 76 years old, has published about 40 books, has been on the faculty at Duke for 50 years, and has been wheel-chair bound since 1984, his writing and his public appearances project too much vigor and youth for the “elder” tag to stick.

Beginning with the publication of “A Long and Happy Life” in 1962, Price has earned such widespread admiration in the nation’s literary community that he is without a doubt one of North Carolina’s great living treasures.

Except for three years at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and a year of further study there, Price has lived in North Carolina all his life. He was born in Warren County, grew up in Raleigh, went to college at Duke, and has lived near the same pond in rural Orange County for a half century.

The just published “Ardent Spirits” is Price’s memoir of the first three years at Oxford and the following three years teaching at Duke.

The new book will be many different things to different readers: a description of the Oxford university experience through the eyes of a North Carolinian and Duke graduate, a travelogue of Britain and Europe, stories of friendship and love, character studies of important and interesting people, books and ideas that framed Price’s intellectual development, the characteristics that make for a successful writer, and much more.

Price’s longtime fans cannot forget Rosacoke Mustian and Wesley Beavers, characters from “A Long and Happy Life.”

Price tells how that book, which is set in North Carolina, began to come together in England, but could not be completed until Price was back home where he could hear the voices of people who talked like Rosacoke and Wesley.

Even as he wrote and his book was accepted for publication, his teaching became much more than a paycheck to support his writing. “Writing was still very much my chief vocation, but teaching was surely my love.”

One reason for his early enthusiasm for teaching was a 16-year-old student in his first year of teaching. Her name was Anne Tyler, today one of America’s most admired writers of fiction. Price recognized and encouraged her talent from the beginning. He remembers their first day in class, “She sat at the head of the row on my right, and she faced me with the same grave self-possession I was struggling to show—a beautiful clear face, long black hair and dark eyes.”

For some Reynolds Price fans, the big news from the new book is Price’s specific acknowledgement of his homosexuality, which influenced his relationships with his colleagues and mentors in England.

He describes his great friendship with a fellow Oxford student (named, coincidently, Michael Jordan) for whom he developed strong romantic feelings. Jordan, however, was solidly straight. Amazingly, the friendship endured for many years.

Price describes with delicacy the consummation of his relationship with another male love interest, and the subsequent painful breakup.

Notwithstanding these disappointments, the time abroad and the early years of teaching were, according to Price, perhaps his happiest times. Hence, the title, “Ardent Spirits,” which a guide at Monticello had told Price were the “hard liquor—homemade spirits” that Thomas Jefferson reserved for those important visitors who declined Jefferson’s fine French wines.“By the words ‘spirits’ I’d intend the intimates who’d lent such usable heat to the years I’d describe—years which would seldom again be matched for such gifts in my life.”

D.G. Martin is the author of “Interstate Eateries,” a guide to family owned homecooking restaurants near North Carolina’s interstate highways

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North Carolina's literary elder statesman - in his youth

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