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Celebrated novelist, Duke professor Reynolds Price dead at 77

Posted January 20, 2011 5:53 p.m. EST
Updated January 20, 2011 10:54 p.m. EST

— Reynolds Price, the celebrated writer of fiction, poetry, memoirs, essays and plays who turned a three-year teaching appointment into more than 50 years on the faculty at Duke University, died Thursday afternoon. He was 77.

Price, the James B. Duke Professor of English at Duke, his alma matter, had a major heart attack early Sunday.

“With a poet’s deep appreciation for language, Reynolds Price taught generations of students to understand and love literature,” Duke President Richard Brodhead said in a statement. “Reynolds was a part of the soul of Duke; he loved this university and always wanted to make it better.”

According to Price’s wishes, there will be no public funeral. Duke has not yet announced plans to honor Price.

A native of Macon, N.C., Price graduated summa cum laude from Duke in 1955 and was a Rhodes Scholar, having studied in Oxford, England.

He returned to the United States and in 1958, took a teaching job that was supposed to last only three years.

Over the next 53 years, Price wrote more than three dozen books, including his first novel, “A Long and Happy Life,” in 1962, which received the William Faulkner Award for a notable first novel, and “Kate Vaiden,” in 1986, which received the National Book Critics Award.

Price, who considered himself an “outlaw” Christian, wove his faith into his writings, publishing two biblical translations: “A Palpable God” in 1978 and “The Three Gospels” in 1996.

He became confined to a wheelchair in 1984 when a cancerous tumor affecting his spinal cord left him paralyzed from the waist down.

A 2006 article in The News & Observer of Raleigh noted that Price had pondered and accepted the truths articulated in the Book of Job – that God’s ways are often beyond understanding or finding out.

“The fact that my legs were subsequently paralyzed by 25 X-ray treatments ... was a mere complexity in the ongoing narrative which God intended me to make of my life," he said.

As an English professor, Price taught courses on creative writing and the work of 17th century English poet John Milton, as well as a course on the gospels, in which students wrote their own version of a gospel story.

Price said he experienced two main rewards as a professor – reading and teaching great writing by other people and getting to know his students.

Students described Price as an enigmatic writer, poet and teacher with a great mind who inspired his students.

As a young man, he was a dashing presence at Duke with a spirit of Hollywood rebel James Dean, having often been seen riding his Harley Davidson around campus.

"I will always remember the young man who taught me literature. He had me mesmerized,” said Madeline Hartsell, a 1962 Duke graduate who studied under Price. “There are few teachers whom we remember and who we believe inspired us to write, to read and to love words. That was Reynolds Price’s legacy.”

“Even when he was bedridden, he would call in on a speaker phone and teach his classes,” said Amanda Lamb, a WRAL news reporter who studied in his class at Duke in 1984. “He made difficult literary material interesting and approachable to young minds.”

In 1992, Price took aim at what he deemed a lack of intellectualism at Duke, describing students as enthusiastic about partying but marred by a “prevailing cloud of indifference, of frequent hostility, to a thoughtful life,” reported Duke Magazine.

Some university officials cited that speech as an impetus for a greater emphasis on recruiting more intellectual students to Duke, according to the magazine article.