Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A 2002 chat with Reynolds Price in Bomb magazine: "The South was a very separate country"

Bomb magazine offers a surprising mix of artists and writers talking together, often across disciplines. The magazine's website also includes pieces from the archives, such as a warm 2002 conversation between Reynolds Price and Caleb Smith, who was studying at Duke University at the time. Smith has gone on to teach at Yale, and his academic interests have included topics from antebellum literature to his 2009 Yale University Press book, The Prison and the American Imagination.

The Bomb interview, part of which is excerpted here, is a comfortable chat between teacher and student. Price died in January 2011; he was diagnosed with a spinal cancer in 1984 which left him a paraplegic. The illness did nothing to dampen the author's wit or his opinions. As Smith notes in 2002 about Price at his home in Durham, North Carolina: "He sits on his wheelchair more like a monarch on a throne. ... Reynolds and I poured a drink and talked. Recorded here is simply a
visit, which between us is something shared, not paid."

RP I wasn’t able to go to Eudora Welty’s funeral in August, so I wanted to get down there and do something in the way of rounding off my long friendship with her. We had dinner with some of Eudora’s friends and family and went over to her house, which is sitting there empty now, waiting for museumification. It seemed both very desolate and also very haunted by her presence. She had lived in that house every day from the time she was 15 years old; she died at 92. It was her central place of residence for all those years, and there’s a lot of her still in the house. Finally we drove on through Alabama up to Atlanta, where we spent the night, then through South Carolina and on home.
The deep South is not the upper South. It’s deeply different — much older feeling (though it’s not) – and yet there are tremendous likenesses. The social life and the accents and the body language of my friends who are my age and come from Mississippi are almost identical to the ones I grew up with as a boy in eastern North Carolina. But it’s 800 miles away.
CS I’ve just come back from my first trip ever to Charleston, and it felt like even the things I was discovering about that place were somehow genealogical to me.

And what does it all come out of except slavery and the Confederacy? I finally have to think that’s what the South is still about. I was born in 1933, in the Depression; and at that point, the South was a very separate country. People rarely left unless they were miserable with their station in life or fleeing their mother or father.

CS You think people’s whole imaginations about the world were more regionally bound?

God, yes. My father, who was born in 1900 — a wonderfully witty and perfectly viable man — saw no reason whatever to go outside the state of North Carolina. He made a trip to New York once on business, and he couldn’t wait to get home — those harried people were driving him insane. Then in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s virtually everybody with a college education got out of the South — everybody who was interested in the arts went straight to New York City. I stayed, for complicated reasons that had nothing to do with virtue. We were the most hated place on the face of the Earth in those days, because of the tragic responses to the civil rights movement. Some of the hatred was righteous judgment on the South, and some of it was just utter hypocrisy — as though the whole nation isn’t profoundly racist.
And now, again, the South has slowly emerged and is looked upon as a very attractive part of the world — but also still very exotic and a little scary. When you get off the interstate at a diner in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and see the waiters and the staff, you realize that this ain’t Kansas, Toto.
CS I took a walk around a swamp in Charleston. You’re about a foot above the stillest green water you’ve ever seen in your life. Alligators are sunning themselves on these planks. The Spanish moss. It’s the tropical gothic that’s been so fantasized.

People think we made it up. (laughter)
The first time I ever went through one of those gardens was with some Duke colleagues of mine in the late 1950s, in a rowboat. You paid a young black man, probably 13 years old, to row you through the swamp. One of the people with us was British. He saw these very live alligators and this very dark water, and he said, “About how many people a year do you lose in here?” The young man said, ”’Bout 11.” (laughter) I loved his precision — 11 people vanish in that swamp in a year.

Not ten, or a dozen.

RP No, 11. (laughter) That was very Southern too.....

(At top, Reynolds Price in 1961, by Wallace Kaufman from The New York Times)

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