A week ago today, Reynolds Price, the James B. Duke Professor of English at Duke University, died at the age of 77. Other than the three years he spent as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford, England, Price lived his entire life in northeastern North Carolina. He once described his hometown of Macon as “227 cotton and tobacco farmers nailed to the flat red land at the pit of the Great Depression.”
The undercurrent of Christian charity evident in Mr. Price’s previous work became even more pronounced in these and later novels, like “Roxanna Slade” (1998) and “The Good Priest’s Son” (2005), in which fallible characters face momentous moral choices. The deepening moral tinge, which some critics found too schematic, was rooted in Mr. Price’s Christian faith: he was an unorthodox, nonchurchgoing believer.
“The whole point of learning about the human race presumably is to give it mercy,” he told The Georgia Review in 1993.
If Mr. Price shook off the burden of Faulkner, his work remained elusive despite its strong regional flavor and commitment to “the weight and worth of the ordinary,” as the novelist Janet Burroway once put it. Mr. Price himself ventured a succinct appraisal for The Southern Review in 1978: “It seems to me they are books about human freedom — the limits thereof, the possibilities thereof, the impossibilities thereof.”
Price was diagnosed with spinal cancer in 1984 and received radiation treatments that, unfortunately, left him paralyzed from the waist down. In the midst of that, before the radiation treatments began, he experienced what he believed to be a vision that was set along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. He once described that unusual experience in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross:
And all of a sudden [a man] got up and came toward me, and silently, sort of, beckoned me to follow him into the water. And I did and we wound up in this lake up to our waists. . . . And I could see my back and I could see the very bad scar that was down my back and the sort of tattooed radiation lines that had been drawn around that scar to guide the radiation when that was to begin. And this man, whom I realized was Jesus, was just simply picking up handfuls of water out of the lake and pouring them over that scar. And he said – the only thing he said, initially, was – your sins are forgiven. And I thought well, that’s the last thing I want to hear right now. And I said am I also healed? And as though I had extracted it from him, perhaps rather against his will, he said: that too. And he turned and walked away and that was the end of the vision.
Lastly, in case you’re wondering about the addition of the label “outlaw” to his identity as a Christian, read the last section of this transcript of a different interview with Ray Suarez of the PBS NewsHour.