When I applied to colleges in 1962, my first choice was Duke. My parents said it was a great university where I could take amazing classes, and I agreed. But really I had a secret motive. I’d seen a Seventeen Magazine article about a 33-year-old writer named Reynolds Price. He had just published a hugely successful first novel, A Long and Happy Life, which I quickly read and loved, and he was teaching at Duke. But I admit, what I liked most — and the main reason behind my application to Duke — was his picture there in Seventeen. He was the handsomest man I’d ever seen in my life.
By several strokes of luck, I got a scholarship, successfully tried out for a spot in Reynolds’ freshman English class for writers, and wound up spending four years at Duke under his spell — a spell that would last at least another 47 years, right up through his death last Thursday afternoon, and on, I am 100 percent sure, for the rest of my life. He was brilliant, intense, generous, hilarious, and beyond charismatic.
What he gave me, and gave everyone, was a faith in language — as a path to wisdom, as healing medicine, as revelation. Nothing less.
These were lofty aims, almost a spiritual mission. Reynolds was a man of deep faith but not a church-goer. “Outlaw Christian” was how he put it. He used the word “mystery” a lot in class, and I came to understand it as a complex clue to how he saw the world and how he wrote it. “Mystery” would have meant more to him than “puzzle.” He would have had in mind its early connotation of a hidden truth or sacrament. Writers see mystery, he said, in everything, and while they can never fully explicate it, they can seek it and mirror it. Nothing is insignificant, everything in the wide created world will yield, upon examination, some new hint at the secret of life. Never the answer, because any answer would be inadequate and limiting, but a hint.
His characters are fully human and fully Southern — Rosacoke Mustian, Kate Vaiden, Hutch Mayfield, to name my favorites — and they’re rendered in a language that always strikes me as the invention of a genius god. Reynolds’ prose sounds like plain Southern talk, and yet it bears a heavier weight of meaning than we Southerners generally intend. It’s word-intensive. There are no throwaway lines. You could go at each sentence with a linguistic microscope and find a wealth of nuance and poetry even though the single (often monosyllabic) words are as simple as those you might hear at a rural gas station. For instance, this description of 100-year-old Bess Waters when she is asked to tell her story: “And honest to God, Bess tries to tell it. Her dry lips work and her mind sends words ... but what comes out is dark shine and power from her banked old heart and the quick of her bones, dark but hot as a furnace blast with a high blue roar.”
Most of us reading that passage would slide right over the crucial phrase “honest to God.” But Reynolds means it literally. He himself aimed for that kind of honesty. And the scene, in which the ancient woman is poised to tell her story, mirrors the very mystery of writing as he saw it. She starts to speak — and what comes out is fire. What comes out burns the listener, blows him back, scorches him, and leaves both teller and listener folded into light, “purified by the tale itself.”
For a long time, I thought my adulation of Reynolds Price was probably more the result of a college girl’s crush than anything else. But ask anyone who knew him or anyone who has read him. He had a presence and a power that touched us all, to the quick of our bones.
Josephine Humphreys is a Charleston novelist whose latest book is Nowhere Else on Earth.