When William Blackburn in the early 1950’s arranged Eudora Welty’s visit to Duke University to give a reading and comment on the work of undergraduates interested in creative writing, Edward Reynolds Price’s sample stood out among those of the others she saw. (A decade later, Price was back at Duke, after completing a residence at Merton College, Oxford, which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar and from which he received a bachelor of letters degree in 1958.) Welty not only gave Price perceptive critiques of his early writing but also helped him to place A Long and Happy Life, which was published in 1962. It was through her interest and intervention that Harper’s magazine agreed to publish his first novel in its April, 1962, issue, thereby giving an unprecedented vote of confidence to an unknown author.
A Long and Happy Life, an ironic, bittersweet love story, seethes with the atmosphere, loquaciousness, and dialect of Price’s native Macon, North Carolina, just south of the Virginia border, where he was born in 1933 to William Solomon and Elizabeth Rodwell Price. Rosacoke Mustian loves Wesley Beavers, who scarcely knows she exists. When she finally yields to him sexually, after having denied him for some time, he forgets her name and says, “Thank you, May,” as he is leaving. Rosacoke soon realizes that she is pregnant. Her marriage to Wesley will not be the love match she had romanticized but rather a marriage into which a reluctant father is forced by the social pressures of his community. Price uses many of his characters in more than one story, and the Mustian clan keeps cropping up in his work, especially Rosacoke and her brother Rato, short for Horatio. The South of which Price writes has a stable catalog of characters; his novels and stories reflect this stability. He is at his best when he depicts the small Southern towns he knows well and the people in them, most of them recalled from vivid childhood memories. Moreover, he is particularly effective in capturing the mental processes and vernacular of young children, as is evident most notably in A Long and Happy Life, A Generous Man, Kate Vaiden, and Blue Calhoun.
A Generous Man is particularly interesting for its frank phallic symbolism. Milo Mustian, a boy of fifteen, is an impatient virgin. The crux of the story is that a traveling circus has lost its python, Death. The python is thought to have hydrophobia, creating an outrageous phallic image. The impotent sheriff, whose wife sleeps with anyone who can satisfy her, is named Rooster. Rooster is hunting for the python just as Milo is losing his virginity to Rooster’s wife. A Generous Man is funny if heavy-handed in its symbolism. Price has also written some of the most sensitive short stories in twentieth century American literature. The early story that Eudora Welty had read, “Thomas Egerton,” capitalizes on the same local color, meticulously recreated, that pervades his novels. “The Names and Faces of Heroes,” the title story for his first collection, demonstrates how successfully Price captures the psychology of a child. Even in the novel that focuses most closely on life in academia, Love and Work, Price does not stray far from home. The protagonist, Thomas Elborn, a thirty-four-year-old college professor, is Wesley Beavers come of age.
Two of his novels, The Surface of Earth and The Source of Light, present sequential views of the lives of a single cast of characters. Kate Vaiden, a particularly well-received novel, contains many echoes of Price’s early work. A collection of essays, Things Themselves, is interesting for its literary essays on such notable authors as John Milton (on whom Price taught courses), William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. Some of the essays from Things Themselves were included in a later collection, A Common Room, which also includes much new material. Price introduces his retelling of thirty biblical stories, published under the title A Palpable God, with a fascinating essay on the nature of stories and storytelling. Price’s poetry, too, has been well received, particularly the first collection, Vital Provisions.
In 1984 Price underwent surgery for cancer of the spinal cord which resulted in paraplegia. The condition did not kill his spirit, however, and he subsequently enjoyed one of the most productive periods of his career. In A Whole New Life he published a compelling chronicle of his illness and its aftermath. In 1988, in recognition of his achievements, Price was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and his Collected Stories was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Price died of a heart attack in 2011 at age 77.