Friday, January 21, 2011

Reynolds Price, 1933-2011


Reynolds Price, 1933 - 2011

Life is short and often stingy; feast the heart with what it craves, short of cruelty, and let the world wonder.

I think we Southerners have talked a fair amount of malarkey about the mystique of being Southern.

From the age of six I wanted to be an artist. At that point I meant a painter, but it turned out what I really meant was I was someone who was very interested in watching the world and making copies of it.

What I still ask for daily - for life as long as I have work to do, and work as long as I have life.

Even now, after whatever gains feminism has made in involving fathers in the rearing of their children, I still think virtually all of us spend the most formative years of our lives very much in the presence of women.

Strength just comes in one brand - you. Stand up at sunrise and meet what they send you and keep your hair combed.

I said to one of my students a couple of years ago, what is it with you people? You never get off the phone to one another, you travel through whole continents to be with one another for 14 hours. And he said, Mr. Price, we had to invent families of our own, our own families disappeared.

Almost all of my really good times have been silent but have had to end.


In a 1999 commentary on NPR, Price considered as an epitaph two lines from Homer:

Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had the fingers of no heir will ever hold.

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Reynolds Price obit from New York Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/21/books/21price.html

Price was born in Macon, NC a little town in the northeastern part of the state. It was a quiet place when I drove through there three years ago and snapped these pictures:





This was memorably odd - the grand old schoolhouse in Macon about to fall in, while the grounds were still tended carefully:



Price desribed his hometown as "227 cotton and tobacco farmers nailed to the flat red land at the pit of the Great Depression.”

Price's 1992 Founder's Day speech at Duke ruffled a few feathers:

...while I encounter in my classes each year a nexus of extraordinary students who keep me teaching, I likewise encounter -- and all my classes are elective -- the stunned or blank faces of students who exhibit a minimum of preparation or willingness for what I think of as the high delight and life-enduring pleasure of serious conversation in the classroom and elsewhere.

Disturbingly often I'm left wondering why a particularly lifeless student -- one so apparently vacant of Mr. Duke's "real ambition for life" -- is present in a university that affirms its luxury of choice and its stringent standards. Whose rightful place is that dullard usurping? My baffled curiosity is by no means eccentric in me.

If we are getting the students we claim to deserve -- our earned share of the most intelligent, original and ambitious American high-school graduates -- then why do I hear so many colleagues whom I know to be dedicated teachers sharing the same puzzlement; and why do so many long-time members of the faculty agree that our standards of grading have steadily inflated in recent years? A teacher who grades the students of the '90s as realistically as he did in the 1950s or '60s will face a roomful of empty desks at the start of the next term.

Anyone present here today who has not recently spent sustained time in a Duke classroom and who doubts my word owes him or herself an unobtrusive campus tour. Before I suggest a few stops on your route, let me forestall any question of my devotion to the place by stating the obvious -- that I've happily chosen to spend my life here and that I'm certain you'll find rewarding sights. You'll witness many probing enlightening, even pleasing investigations of the urgent mysteries of Homo sapiens -- investigations conducted by alert and communicative men and women. You'll likewise witness, among all ages, exchanges of magnanimous courtesy and mutual profit.

But you'll find other sights that breed concern. Visit especially those classes in which a teacher encourages student discussion and is frequently met by a speechless majority who are either lost in riveting meditations of their own, too precious to expose, or have simply never bothered learning to talk in a challenging forum. You'll also note occasional teachers who waltz alone in self-intoxication before their ready but unfed students.

Then walk your attentive self through the quads. Stand at a bus stop at noon rush-hour; roam the reading rooms of the libraries in the midst of term and the panic of exams. Lastly, eat lunch in a dining hall and note the subjects of conversation and the words employed in student discussion. (I'm speaking mostly of undergraduates, but not exclusively.)

Try to conceal your consternation at what is often the main theme of discourse -- something much less interesting than sex and God, the topics of my time. If for instance you can eat a whole meal in a moderately occupied Duke dining hall without transcribing a certain sentence at least once, I'll treat you to the legal pain reliever of your choice. The sentence runs more or less like this, in male or female voice -- "I can't believe how drunk I was last night."

Considering that the social weekends of many students now begin -- indeed are licensed by us to begin -- at midday on Thursday and continue through the morning hours of Monday (as they never did in the old days of "country club" Duke), maybe the sentence is inevitable -- at least in the bankrupt America we're conspiring to nurture so lovingly and toward which we blindly, or passively anyhow, wave our students.

But how vehemently I doubt that we ought to accept such a message as normal fare in a place as honored as this by a huge gift for doing better with our botched genes. And how bitterly that impoverished sentence in the mouths of students flies as the banner of the university's remaining enormous failure to them and to J.B. Duke's intention....

As I debated a theme for today and asked a number of current undergraduates for a personal list of local hits and misses, their all but invariable refrain come to this -- With our many causes for gratitude, still the thing that holds us back by the minute at Duke is the prevailing cloud of indifference, of frequent hostility, to a thoughtful life. If the students are truthful, and I'm sure that they are, we've partly wasted years of their lives; and we owe them recompense -- if not at once, then at least to their younger siblings and children.

Grant, for the moment, that those students are more than half right, where do we turn to redeem the wrong? And what do we do by way of repair? The question has defeated generations of us; and though I've participated here since I was 18 in numerous student- and faculty-conceived discussion groups, coffees, wine and cheese parties, dorm courses, picnics, overnight seminars beside Lake Michie, I've seen such initiative die for lack of commitment or continuity on the part of all involved. I'm long since certain that our failure proceeds from a lack of courage to confront the failure.

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