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Reynolds Price at Duke 

The encomiums heaped upon Reynolds Price since his death last week at age 77 somehow miss the man. Sure, he left Duke for a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford and returned to his alma mater to teach for the next 53 years, authoring 40 books and winning literary prizes along the way. Naturally, various obituaries treat him as an institution in himself—a safe abstraction, a scion of the university, a novelist who wrote about his North Carolina home and explored his distinctive Christianity through the Gospels.

But this is bloodless praise for a flamboyant genius and a sweet, critical teacher. Mr. Price, for instance, loved to read John Milton's description of Satan in the Garden of Eden for students lucky enough to hear his voice, a divine instrument. As a sophomore 40 years ago, I heard him read these lines from Paradise Lost. I will never forget his glee at Milton's spectacularly priapic serpent:

Fold above fold a surging Maze, his Head
Crested aloft, and Carbuncle his Eyes;
With burnished Neck of verdant Gold, erect
Amidst his circling Spires...

Indeed, Reynolds Price had some danger in him.

In 1970, Duke was the intellectual mecca for the best students from the small towns of the South. For these pupils, especially, Mr. Price served as a beacon. He was born a small-town Southerner, too. He regarded his own thoughts as important, crafted his words into art and attended to the care of his mortal soul—and of ours. In 1991, he told the Paris Review of his students, "I take steady pleasure in trying to slip them, like notes between jail cells, the few hard sureties I think I know about human decency, and all the danger it's constantly in from our native bent to reckless self-reward and hate."

The road from boy to man rose over difficult terrain—the war, the draft, frat culture versus counterculture, the women's movement. Mr. Price offered his male students a thrilling, humane path to manhood through literature. Many embraced the climb.

We'd heard the stories: how he wore a cape in his undergraduate days, how he befriended Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden, how Miss Welty befriended him. When we read Milton with him, we filled the margins with notes, marking the passages he identified as Tennyson's favorites, or Matthew Arnold's. Under his influence, I went to see Auden speak in Chapel Hill. The auditorium was full, but fortune smiled, and an usher—a friend from my hometown of Lynchburg, Va.—opened a window and let me crawl through. I sat in the aisle, rapt.

Mr. Price's obituaries ignore his sexuality or call it ambiguous, some noting he explored it publicly for the first time in his 2009 memoir, Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back. But in 1970, during the first faint stirrings of the gay liberation movement in the South, we all knew he was gay. He didn't disguise his sexuality, and for my gay friends at Duke, this was another light along their path to adulthood.

Mr. Price's two greatest fictional characters, Rosacoke Mustian and Kate Vaiden, are women. Along with them, he produced scores of students devoted to the life of the mind and the "few hard sureties" of human decency—many of us grateful Southern boys striving to grow up.

  • Reynolds Price had some danger in him.

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