DURHAM, N.C. -- Reynolds Price, the celebrated writer of fiction, poetry, memoirs, essays and plays who turned a three-year teaching appointment into more than 50 years on the faculty at Duke University, died Thursday afternoon. He was 77.
Price, the James B. Duke Professor of English at Duke, his alma mater, had a major heart attack early Sunday. “With a poet’s deep appreciation for language, Reynolds Price taught generations of students to understand and love literature,” said Duke President Richard H. Brodhead. “Reynolds was a part of the soul of Duke; he loved this university and always wanted to make it better. We can scarcely imagine Duke without Reynolds Price.”
Price was a Rhodes Scholar and studied in Oxford, England, with W.H. Auden and Lord David Cecil. He returned to the United States and took a teaching job at Duke in 1958. The letter offering Price that job warned that the position was a three-year appointment -- with no chance of being extended.
“That seemed a little discouraging, but I thought, ‘Well, three years is three years,’” Price recalled in a 2008 interview. During those three years he wrote his first novel and was asked to stay on. He remained a Duke faculty member for the next 53 years.
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In 1962, his novel “A Long and Happy Life” received the William Faulkner Award for a notable first novel. Price published numerous books after that, including the novel “Kate Vaiden,” which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986.
In his early days as a published writer, Price took offense at reviewers labeling him as the heir to Faulkner. “The search for influences in a novelist's work is doomed to trivial results,” Price wrote in a 1966 piece for The New York Times. “A serious novelist’s work is his effort to make from the chaos of all life, his life, strong though all-but-futile weapons, as beautiful, entire, true but finally helpless as the shield of Achilles itself.”
Price became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and received the John Tyler Caldwell Award for the Humanities from the North Carolina Humanities Council. In 1987, Price received the University Medal for Distinguished Meritorious Service at Duke, the university’s highest honor, and the Distinguished Alumni Award. A professorship in creative writing honoring Price was established at Duke in 2008.
He had a commanding presence in the classroom, using his deep, rich voice to convey the beauty of the English language. For many years, Price taught courses on creative writing and the work of 17th-century English poet John Milton, as well as a course on the gospels in which students wrote their own version of a gospel story. Price’s Halloween reading of ghost stories and poems became a tradition on campus that lasted more than a decade.
Price said he experienced two main rewards as a professor: reading and teaching great writing by other people, and getting to know his students, who included Tyler, writer Josephine Humphreys and actress Annabeth Gish.
In a fiery Founders’ Day speech in 1992, Price took aim at what he deemed a lack of intellectualism at Duke, describing students as enthusiastic about partying but marred by a “prevailing cloud of indifference, of frequent hostility, to a thoughtful life,” reported Duke Magazine. Some university officials cited that speech as an impetus for a greater emphasis on recruiting more intellectual students to Duke, according to the magazine article.
Price, who considered himself an “outlaw” Christian, wove his faith into his writings. His 2007 book “Letter to a Godchild,” for example, was a christening gift to his godson, intended as a brief guide for the child’s spiritual future. He also published two biblical translations: “A Palpable God” (1978) and “The Three Gospels” (1996).
Price became confined to a wheelchair in 1984 when a cancerous tumor affecting his spinal cord left him paralyzed from the waist down. A 2006 article in The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., noted that Price had pondered and accepted the truths articulated in the Book of Job: that God’s ways are often beyond understanding or finding out.
“The fact that my legs were subsequently paralyzed by 25 X-ray treatments ... was a mere complexity in the ongoing narrative which God intended me to make of my life," he said. Price’s account of cancer survival is captured in his 2003 book, “A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing.”
Price’s third volume of memoir, “Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back,” was published in the spring of 2009. The book explores six crucial years in Price’s life, from leaving home in 1955 to attend Oxford University to his return to North Carolina and the start of his career as a university teacher.
A native of Macon, N.C., Price graduated summa cum laude from Duke in 1955, where he studied creative writing under influential professor William Blackburn.
According to Price’s wishes, there will be no public funeral. Duke University has not yet announced plans to honor Price.