Duke celebrating Reynolds Price’s 50 years of teaching

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 18, 2008

DURHAM ó Reynolds Price, James B. Duke Professor of English and a writer of fiction, poetry, memoirs, essays and plays, will be honored for 50 years of teaching at Duke University with a celebration Jan. 31-Feb. 2.
“We want to accentuate the 50 years of being a faculty member at Duke ó 50 years as a mentor and teacher,” said Ian Baucom, chair of the Duke English department. “He is someone who cares very deeply about his students, someone who students keep in touch with for decades.”
Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison, television host Charlie Rose and literary theorist and legal scholar Stanley Fish will take part in the event, which includes video presentations, performances, interviews, panels and readings.
“I’m looking forward to seeing a great many old friends and former students and classmates,” Price said. “I’m tremendously grateful.”
When Price first received the letter offering him a teaching job at Duke, it warned that the position was a three-year appointment with no chance of being extended.
“That seemed a little discouraging, but I thought, ‘Well, three years is three years,’ ” Price said. During those three years, he wrote his first novel and was asked to stay on. “I’ve been here ever since.” There have been two main rewards, he said: “I have the chance to read and teach great writing by other people, and the chance to get to know these young people.”
A native of North Carolina and a 1955 summa cum laude graduate of Duke, Price was a Rhodes Scholar and studied in Oxford, England, with W.H. Auden and Lord David Cecil. He returned to the United States and began teaching at Duke in 1958.
In 1962, his novel “A Long and Happy Life” received the William Faulkner Award for a notable first novel and has never been out of print. Price has published numerous books since then, including the novel “Kate Vaiden,” which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986.
Price has written volumes of stories, poems, plays, essays and two memoirs, including “A Whole New Life,” which is his account of his survival of spinal cancer. He also has published translations from the Old and New Testaments, a children’s novel and a book of essays that were broadcast on National Public Radio.
Price is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has received the John Tyler Caldwell Award for the Humanities from the North Carolina Humanities Council.
At Duke, he is known for his commanding presence in the classroom, using his deep, rich voice to convey the beauty of the English language. For many years, he has 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 write their own version of a gospel story.
Duke senior Teshonne N. Powell took both of Price’s courses in the spring of 2007 as part of her English major.
“He effortlessly gives his knowledge about different aspects of life, and he always connects the literature to life and modern culture,” Powell said. “There’s a sense of wisdom but also a sense of youthfulness in his voice. I could listen to him talk for hours.”
Price’s Halloween reading of ghost stories and poems is a 12-year tradition on campus, and in the spring he does a public reading from his translation of the Gospel of Mark.
The three-day celebration is open to the public, but visitors must register for all events except Morrison’s appearance at Duke Chapel at 11 a.m. Feb. 2. Morrison’s appearance is free and open to the public; seating is limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Price will introduce Morrison, a novelist, critic and lecturer specializing in African-American literature. In addition to the Nobel Prize for Literature, she also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for the novel “Beloved” and the National Book Critics Award in 1977 for “Song of Solomon.” She is a professor emerita at Princeton University.
A $50 fee is required to register for the other events. Full information, including a schedule of events, is online at www.dukealumni.com/jubilee. The registration deadline is Wednesday.
Duke students may attend all events for free, though space is limited.
There also will be a special exhibit honoring Price in Perkins Library through March 1. “Reynolds Price: A Long and Happy Life” will include displays on his life and career, an audio installation of some of his NPR commentaries and original manuscripts and printed works from the Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library at Duke and from Price’s papers that focus on his writing process and development as an author.