Midstream: An Unfinished Memoir
192 pp., $25.00
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
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."