When I was a child I believed my Uncle Reynolds was electric.
He flew on trips to New York, and even when it wasn't all that cold, he wore a hat made from wolf fur and a brown suede sportcoat. His job was being a teacher and writing books. Though his battle with spinal cancer forced him into a wheelchair in the mid-1980s, and he had long since abandoned the hat and the sportcoat, in my memory he's always impeccably dressed and always walking.
Reynolds Price died on Jan. 20, 2011, leaving behind 38 books, a half-century of teaching at Duke and a wide circle of family and friends. He also left the partial manuscript of his fourth volume of memoir, which he titled Midstream and which Scribner, his longtime publisher, released last month. Though it's subtitled "An Unfinished Memoir," it feels whole, a fitting coda to a long and fruitful career. My father, William Price, is Reynolds' only brother (eight years his junior), and I worked with him to bring Midstream to print.
The memoir centers on the years 1961–1965, a momentous period when Reynolds returned to England, wrote his acclaimed debut, A Long and Happy Life (of which Dorothy Parker wrote, "A lovely novel, with the firm brilliance of its writing to keep its loveliness from sticking to your fingers"), settled into the house on Cornwallis Road he would live in until he died, and weathered the death of his mother, Elizabeth Price.
Elizabeth died before I was born, as did Will Price, my grandfather. I knew the two of them through the stories my father and Reynolds told and, later, through Reynolds' books. It was both wonderful and eerie, then, when I sat at my kitchen table, less than a week after Reynolds' death, to read the manuscript of Midstream and found this sentence: "Mother had saved almost every scrap of paper that preserved the least significant record of a financial or personal transaction."
While I was reading the manuscript, my parents and Reynolds' assistant, Braden Hendricks, were plowing through a mountain of paper at the house on Cornwallis Road. Like his mother, Reynolds never threw anything away. We found, as Reynolds wrote of his mother's effects, the papers were "impossible to discard before scanning."
He left reams of catalogs, magazines, receipts, postcards and index cards. Reynolds was no fan of Post-its: He wrote notes on index cards in his spidery hand and in the green ink he favored. It was hard to get rid of those without pausing to try and decipher whether they held any meaning beyond a scribbled phone number or phrase.
But the letters proved most difficult of all. Reynolds corresponded with everyone, it seemed: fellow writers, former students, Biblical scholars, fans. Even when he was at his most healthy he struggled to keep up with the volume of mail: requests for articles and graduation speeches, for appearances at book clubs, for autographs and jacket blurbs. It was overwhelming, and it gave me a real appreciation for how much work he put into being Reynolds Price, author. When he was in decline, I fielded one such request for him to contribute a short article, and when I explained to the requestor that he was actually quite ill, she was outraged. What must the pressure of all of those unmet tasks have been like for him?
Sometimes it was impossible not to read entire letters. My mother called one day to say she'd read the most beautiful note from Raymond Carver, struggling to beat the lung cancer that would kill him. There were long, newsy letters from the actress Polly Holliday (a classically trained stage performer and Alabamian who achieved fame as Flo on the TV sitcom Alice). There were others, far too many to recount here. Over weeks of sifting, staff from Duke would come to the house and take them in a panel van to their present home at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
In bringing Midstream to print, my dad and I managed somehow to find a space between the personal and the professional. Once we contacted Scribner and sent them the pages with edits in Reynolds' hand (green ink), we got down to business: There was a book to finish. Braden and I backed up Reynolds' computer, where we'd found a digital copy of Midstream and a list of the photos he wanted to include.
At Scribner, Reynolds' editor, Susan Moldow, and her colleague, Paul Whitlatch, said from the outset that they wanted a very light edit, keeping as close to what Reynolds wrote as possible. My father suggested the help of Wallace Kaufman, a writer, friend and student of Reynolds who had been in England during the Midstream period and who helped fact-check details and add key clarifications based on his own correspondence with Reynolds. It went very quickly, and pages that Reynolds had last touched in late 2010 began to transform into something complete.
The novelist Anne Tyler was in Reynolds' first writing class at Duke, and in her foreword to Midstream she tells of that time but also about later, when she returned to Durham to interview him for Vanity Fair, and even later still, when her husband was struggling with lymphoma. She writes in her introduction: "I wonder now, if those of us who loved Reynolds did him a disservice in taking those high spirits at face value. I think of the time I returned to Durham to research a profile of him before the publication of Kate Vaiden ... he suddenly grew serious. 'But when you write about this,' he said, 'I hope you won't minimize things.'"
The last two years of Reynolds' life were especially difficult. He'd experienced chronic pain since 1984, when his cancer was discovered. In 2009, his pain became excruciating and he leaned hard on a few folks, especially my dad. Surgery brought a brief respite, but in the end his body had weathered all it could bear. Dad, in his afterword to Midstream, describes what it was like when Reynolds resisted and then finally succumbed to the regular doses of morphine that dulled his pain but also his intellect. There were the awful logistics of decline familiar to anyone who has cared for an aging relative, and there were also the frustrations and the raw emotion of loss. As my father wrote of losing his only brother, "He was also my surest link to our dead parents and their world; that loss is profound."
Many eloquent folks have shared their memories of Reynolds in the months since his death. I've heard stories of him as a teacher, friend, mentor, correspondent and even as an enemy. He was as brilliant, funny and dashing as people say, but he could wither you with a look. All of those stories, I'm sure, are true in their context. But I think the truest story of all is the one in Midstream. When the bound galley arrived and I sat down to read the text as a book and not a typescript, I realized Reynolds had constructed the core of his own eulogy by leaving us an unfinished memoir. At the heart of it is the story of a young man establishing his future—A Long and Happy Life was published when he was just 29, and it was during this time that he settled into his identity as an English professor. The photos, which required a bit of sleuthing to track down, express for me the beauty and confusion of the years that were, in many ways, the fulcrum of Reynolds' life.
As he approached 30, Reynolds wrote, "This is it, I'm now the person I'm likely to be ... from here to the end." Forty-seven years after the conclusion of the events in Midstream, I find myself looking at my uncle as the electric young man on the cover and realizing that, even after the ravages of cancer and age, the image I see is the person he remained to the end.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A long and happy life."