Midstream: An Unfinished Memoir
192 pp., $25.00
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Last year was a cruel one for Southern literature, taking from us several of the most eloquent writers who have ever trod the deltas, backwoods, and byways of North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida. Like Flannery O'Connor, Doris Betts, William Gay, Lewis Nordan, and Harry Crews cultivated in their own ways the many-furrowed fields of dysfunctional relationships, broken families, spiritually tortured souls, agnostic preachers (or preachers who simply pretended to embrace the vocation lusting after a woman or a dollar), violent backwater individuals, and rural individuals whose world and values bumped up against an encroaching urban sprawl whose superficial values threatened to suck dry their spirits. Although only Betts explicitly declared the hard-rock faith woven through her fiction—she once told Lee Smith: "Honey, if you ever see a mouse running within the pages of one of my stories, that mouse is a Christian mouse"—each of the other three novelists explored the relationship between faith and doubt, between spiritual aridity and spiritual fullness, in his own fashion.
When Publishers Weekly acknowledged "Notable Deaths of 2012" in the issue of January 7, 2013—a feature that ran to seven pages, with a capsule biography for each figure—only Crews was included. No sign of Betts, Gay, or Nordan. Ah, well. But perhaps the greatest recent blow to Southern belles lettres came two years ago this month. When Reynolds Price passed away on January 20, 2011, we lost not only a writer whose elegant prose cadences surely grew out of his intimate acquaintance with the Gospels and Milton (whose work he taught over forty years in one of Duke's most popular classes) but also a great Southern man of letters. Poet, playwright, essayist, short-story writer, memoirist, and novelist, Price bequeathed to us a body of work, including translations of the Gospels and other passages from the Bible, which explored intimately the fraught world of human relationships. Through characters like Rosacoke Mustian, Wesley Beavers, Kate Vaiden, and Blue Calhoun, Price introduced us to men and women—and critics praised Price for his deep understanding of women's nature—who, in some cases, were tentatively taking their first steps toward the secrets of adulthood and in others struggling to discover their freedom and identity in a world that would just as soon keep them imprisoned in narrow cultural stereotypes.
In 1984, Price was discovered to have a thin, malignant tumor wrapped around his spine just below his neck. Over the next three years, he endured aggressive surgeries and radiation therapy to remove part of the tumor and to neutralize it. These procedures produced powerful hallucinations and lucid dreaming states—in one of which Price talked with Jesus about the nature of discipleship and the difficulty of holding onto an enduring faith—and also left Price paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Yet, following this torturous experience, he eventually began what he called a "whole new life," (the title of his 1994 memoir of the surgery and recovery), and in spite of his deep physical pain—which continued until the day he died from complications resulting from a heart attack—he entered one of the most fecund and productive periods of his career. His novel Kate Vaiden (1986), an extraordinary portrait of a middle-aged North Carolina woman whose search for love and security results in bitterness and disappointment, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.
Out of the fire of illness, Price wrote four memoirs, the last of which—posthumously published as Midstream—was unfinished at his death. In 1989, Price vividly painted a picture of his coming-of-age in rural North Carolina in Clear Pictures. Under the spell of hypnosis therapy that he hoped would relieve his pain, Price experienced a flood of memories about his childhood, and he wrote about them in this first memoir and in the novel, The Tongues of Angels (1990), based on his own experiences as a camp counselor in the North Carolina mountains. In the closing pages of Clear Pictures, Price eloquently recalls that the fading moments of his father Will's life bequeathed to him a reckless hunger to proceed with life and learning. In some ways, Clear Pictures remains the most elegant of Price's memoirs. He reveals his view of his own childhood: "Any soul that endures a normal childhood—not to speak of the all but unthinkable who last through torture at the hands of adults or disease or God—is made of strong stuff, a thing worth trusting thereafter in the dark." Throughout his childhood struggles, Price is nevertheless guided by a number of teachers who nurture his passion for literature and encourage him to foster his imaginative gifts. By the age of ten, he and his cousin Martha are writing a novel, and at fifteen he reports that he has "an overwhelming encounter with Madame Bovary and the slower but vastly greater power of Anna Karenina." Nineteen months after his father's death, Price is boarding a ship in New York, waving goodbye to his mother and brother, and setting off to Oxford on a two-year Rhodes scholarship.
Twenty years later in Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back (2009), Price took up where Clear Pictures left off, painting the portrait of a young man lighting into the new and unfamiliar territories of England and Europe and the lessons he learns about literature, life, and love during his days in Oxford. Covering a span of six years (1955-1961), Price chronicles the challenges of living in a strange place, his emotional insecurities about his distance from his family, his anxieties about his ability to complete the thesis on Milton to secure the B.Litt. degree, his adventures in Europe with his close friend, Michael Jordan, and his eventual return to his alma mater, Duke University, to teach writing and literature. Along the way, Price recalls friendships with Stephen Spender, Cyril Connolly, and W.H. Auden, and his brief encounters with Jean-Paul Sartre and J.R.R. Tolkien. Price's memoir also traces the coming-of-age of a writer and displays the tenacious desire with which Price, after warm encouragement from Eudora Welty and William Styron, embarks on a round of writing that produces his first published story, "A Chain of Love" (1958). At the close of this memoir, Price is still working on his first novel, encouraged by the publication of this short story yet working slowly to capture the rhythms and cadences of his young protagonists and their world.
Regrettably, Price never had the chance to complete Midstream, which continues the narrative from 1961 to 1965. As Price's brother, William, writes in an afterword, Price had completed 208 pages of the manuscript—more than half of the 350 pages he envisioned—before he had to stop working on the project because of his steady and mounting pain. Midstream eloquently and poignantly guides us through the struggles of a young man on the cusp of thirty seeking out to determine what the future might bring. "The most ominous reality of age thirty is likely to be the realization that This is it. I'm now the person I'm likely to be—barring mental or physical accident—from here to the end." The memoir begins when Price is twenty-eight, and it traces his return to England in the hopes of rekindling a love affair. When he arrives, however, his lover reveals to Price that he is getting married to a woman he's met; devastated, though surprisingly docile in response to his old lover's deceit and the news of the breakup, Price throws himself into other pursuits, traveling to Sweden for a friend's wedding, then journeying to Rome with Stephen Spender, where he meets and spends much of a day with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, in Rome to film Cleopatra.
Two momentous events stand as bookends to Midstream. In 1962, Price's first novel, A Long and Happy Life, is published to great acclaim, winning the William Faulkner Foundation Award. On the night of his return from England, Price accompanies the composer Samuel Barber to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, where Eudora Welty will be presenting the gold medal for fiction to Faulkner. Though he spies Faulkner standing in a corner by himself, Price is too hesitant to introduce himself to the great writer; in a few months, Faulkner will be dead, and Price will be the first winner of the Faulkner Award not to receive the plaque from Faulkner's own hands. In 1965, Price's mother dies, and he recalls the several stories—later worked into the collection Love and Work (1968)—in which his mother described a visitation by the spirit of her long-dead husband. Price chronicles the months after her death as he settles into a new house (where he would live the rest of his life); finishes his second novel, A Generous Man (1966); works on a Hollywood screenplay; and launches his teaching career in earnest.
Early in Midstream, Price responds to critics who asked why as a queer man he continued to produce stories about more conventional men and women, the kind who married and produced children. Price answers by affirming that "it's been his general desire to write about the kinds of people who comprise the huge majority of the human race, the kinds of people who've likewise been my kin, friends, and loved ones … and the greatest homosexual writers—Melville, Proust, Virginia Woolf—have done the same."
Unlike Clear Pictures, Ardent Spirits, and A Whole New Life, Midstream feels rushed and sometimes superficial. Price endlessly patches together memories prompted by writings in his journals and his calendar recorded by his younger self, and he doesn't pause to offer nearly the steady kind of wise reflection that characterizes his earlier memoirs. Yet, surely this is no fault of his, for no doubt he heard the wings of the death-angel beating at his door, and he kept right on trying to work through excruciating pain. Midstream gives us more Price at a time when we can now have no more of his eloquent voice, and we can be grateful that he's given this gift from beyond. Since Midstream leaves off in 1965, we're left wanting his reflections on the rest of his years on earth—though we have that in part in his Learning a Trade: A Craftsman's Notebooks, 1955-1997 (2000). We'll have to wait for a definitive biography to weave together Price's own words from his letters and journals to tell the complete story of this brilliant North Carolina writer. Midstream testifies to the fact that Reynolds Price will remain—as he once said of Miss Welty—a writer as sizable as any in modern letters and certainly as deep.
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., writes about books in many venues, including BookPage Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and ForeWord.
Copyright © 2013 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.