Reynolds Price and His “Queer” Identity

When I heard that Reynolds Price died, I instantly remembered the first time I’d read any of his work — the 1995 Promise of Rest, the final book in his A Great Circle series. The story of a Duke professor dealing with the impending death of his son who has come home to die of AIDS.  It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read and it inspired me to read many of Price’s others books.

I was curious, when I started reading obituaries, how they would deal with the subject of Price’s sexual orientation. Besides writing one of the greatest books in the heyday of AIDS literature, Price discussed his sexual orientation in his 2009 memoir Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back. He also wrote the forward to a recent printing of Larry Kramer’s Faggots.  He was a gay man who rarely talked about it, yet it was a “open secret” up until his 2009 memoir.  So what did his obits deal with the issue of his sexual orientation? Simply, discretely, and . . . . generally appropriately.

Here’s how the Los Angeles Times dealt with the information:

He said the hypnosis techniques he learned to manage his pain freed memories that led him to write memoirs: “Clear Pictures” (1989) focused on his childhood, “A Whole New Life” (1994) on his illness and recovery, and “Ardent Spirits” (2009) on his years as a graduate student at Oxford and the beginning of his academic career. In the latter he wrote for the first time about being a gay man — he preferred to be called “queer” — after decades of refusing to answer questions about his sexuality.

And the Washington Post

Mr. Price, who had a resonant baritone voice and a compelling speaking style, was a classroom favorite at Duke and delivered occasional essays on National Public Radio in the 1990s. He often spoke of his cancer and paralysis, but he did not publicly address another side of his life until his 2009 memoir, “Ardent Spirits.”

In that book, he confirmed an open secret among literati that he was gay – or “queer,” as he preferred to put it. Previously, as he said in 1987, “I . . . always felt that my private life was private. . . . All that I wish to say about my life is said in my work.”

Mr. Price had completed most of a fourth memoir at the time of his death, said his brother and lone immediate survivor, William S. Price Jr.

The New York Times was more subtle, although tipped its hand by featuring Southern gay writer Alan Garganus commenting on his Price’s literary legacy.

“He is the best young writer this country has ever produced,” the novelist Allan Gurganus said in an interview for this obituary. “He started out with a voice, a lyric gift and a sense of humor, and an insight about how people lived and what they’ll do to get along.”

. . .

After graduating summa cum laude from Duke in 1955, he won a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford, where he wrote a thesis on Milton, and developed career-enhancing friendships with the poets Stephen Spender and W. H. Auden and the critic and biographer Lord David Cecil. He wrote about his years in Britain in the third installment of his memoirs, “Ardent Spirits” (2009).

Spender published the story “A Chain of Love” in the journal Encounter, a coup for Mr. Price, who was also offered a teaching position at Duke when he returned. He was turned down for military service after he stated, without hesitation, that he was homosexual.

His first class included a promising 16-year-old named Anne Tyler. “I can still picture him sitting tailor-fashion on top of his desk, reading to the class from his own work or from one of his students’ papers,” Ms. Tyler wrote in an e-mail. “He seemed genuinely joyous when we did the slightest thing right.”

The question for journalists is was the treatment of Price’s sexual orientation too subtle. For me, the answer is no. Price was not a writer who’s literary identity was in gay literature or as a gay writer. He was infamously private about his personal life, waiting until he his 2009 memoir to writing about it publicly. In his memoir, he acknowledged his discomfort with the term “gay” and that he preferred the term “queer.”

At the LGBT literary and culture blog Band of Thebes, Price is described as “of the old Southern school of homosexual discretion.”

Given how Price lead his life–private but not secret–the obituaries appear to hit the right note in how they treat his sexual orientation. Your thoughts?

2 Responses

  1. I read Ardent Spirits last year, after hearing Mr. Price on NPR. I was enthralled by his descriptions of his academic and personal life. I have always been fascinated by stories of gay life in the twentieth century before Stonewall. His literary talent made the odd mixture of subterfuge in public and openness among friends come alive. I’m not surprised to find the same mixture involved in his obituary. His voice will be missed.

  2. Good post. The entry on Price in glbtq.com, the encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer culture, emphasizes that his poems and novels often reflect homoerotic and homosocial male relationships, citing especially “The Source of Light,” “Good Hearts,” and “The Tongues of Angels.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: