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.