Shortly after North Carolina novelist Reynolds Price died in 2011, his friend, Duke professor Alex Harris, received an unusual assignment: To photograph and document the rooms in Price’s Durham home before the estate was broken up.
Price – the author of “A Long and Happy Life,” “Kate Vaiden,” “The Surface of Earth” and some 40 other books – had lived in the modest house, in a grove of pine trees, continuously since 1965. It became his refuge after 1984, when surgery for a life-threatening spinal tumor left him confined to a wheelchair.
In that time, Price had stuffed the walls from floor to ceiling with artworks and souvenirs: Greek statues (or copies), steer skulls from New Mexico, long-eared bodhisattvas from various East Asian countries, Hindu gods, Madonnas, African and Japanese masks. Row after row of books were stacked thick on the shelves.
Little gilt and plaster angels (plus a Miss Piggy figurine) hung by wires from some of the ceilings. Russian Orthodox icons were side by side with James Dean figurines. (Price was an old-movie buff.)
Photos of relatives, friends and mentors (from opera singer Leontyne Price to the poet W.H. Auden), filled corners, next to busts of John Milton. (Price’s Milton courses were legendary at Duke.)
Harris – whose photographs are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Museum and the High Museum in Atlanta – made a specialty of taking “portraits” in which the sitter does not appear, telling the story of a person by the rooms he or she occupies or the things they use daily. “I felt as if I had been training for this moment my entire life,” he wrote.
Then Harris and Duke editor-curator Margaret Sartor (“Miss American Pie”) compiled a book, complementing the images with quotations from Price’s fiction, essays and poetry.
Their book, “Dream of a House,” takes its name from a long Price poem.
Some observations are obvious: Price, a lifelong bachelor, had a distinct fondness for male nudes, and his tables and shelves were dotted with photos of fit, shirtless young men.
Yet more complexities emerge. Price, by his own testimony, was a homebody. Pulled from place to place as a child, as his parents sought work in the Depression, he longed for roots, and when he found the house of his dreams, he stayed there.
Except for a term as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, the editors note, Price never strayed far from North Carolina for any long period of time. He graduated from Duke and taught there for half a century.
Yet it’s clear that Price traveled widely, studied cultures far from home and developed passions, such as grand opera, far from barbecue country.
He also liked to portray himself as a loner: the kid who’d always played by himself, the adult who preferred solitude. Yet, as Harris and Sartor themselves would attest, Price could be an affectionate friend and a raconteur easily at home at a White House dinner. (During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Price wrote to President Clinton, noting “Bill, I’ve done worse.”)
While he savored earthly delights, Price was also preoccupied with eternal questions. He never joined a church, and Jesus and Mary had to share space with Krishna, Buddha and Apollo. Yet he studied his Bible and late in life made a rather controversial translation of the Gospel of John from the original Greek.
Like Walt Whitman, Reynolds Price contained multitudes – which gave him the imaginative resources to create living, breathing characters, such as Kate Vaiden, Rosacoke Mustian and Blue Calhoun, whom scores of readers still care about.
“Dream of a House: The Passions and Preoccupations of Reynolds Price”
Edited by Alex Harris and Margaret Sartor; photos by Alex Harris
George F. Thompson Publishing, in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, 152 pages.
An exhibit of Alex Harris’ photographs from the book, with reception, talk and book signing, 5-7 p.m. with remarks at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 28, Rubenstein Library, 411 Chapel Drive, Duke University, Durham. The exhibit runs through Nov. 5. 919-660-3663.