Spencer, Elizabeth (1921—)

views updated

Spencer, Elizabeth (1921—)

American novelist and short-story writer. Born in Carrollton, Mississippi, on July 19, 1921; daughter of James L. Spencer (a farmer) and Mary J. (McCain) Spencer; Belhaven College, B.A., 1942; Vanderbilt University, M.A., 1943; married John Rusher (an educator), on September 29, 1956.

Selected writings:

Fire in the Morning (1948); The Crooked Way (1952); The Voice at the Back Door (1956); The Light in the Piazza (1960); Knights and Dragons (1965); No Place for an Angel (1967); Ship Island and Other Stories (1968); The Snare (1972); The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer (1981); The Salt Line (1984); Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories (1988); The Night Travellers (1991); Landscapes of the Heart (autobiography, 1998).

Elizabeth Spencer is best known for her short stories and for her novel The Light in the Piazza, which was made into a film in 1962. She was born in 1921 in Carrollton, Mississippi, the daughter of prosperous farmers, and grew up with stories of all kinds—the Bible, traditional stories, local history, and classic literature. While attending Belhaven College, she met writer Eudora Welty and formed a lifelong friendship with her. Faculty at Belhaven encouraged Spencer to pursue a graduate degree, so she went to Vanderbilt University, then the intellectual gathering place of Agrarian Luddites, who were dedicated to the preservation of the rural traditions of Southern culture and land ownership. As a student there, she met Allan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, whom she counted as a colleague, Donald Davidson, who became her mentor, and John Crowe Ransom. After college, Spencer taught English and creative writing at several schools: Northwest Mississippi Junior College in Senatobia (1943–44), Ward-Belmont in Nashville (1944–45), and for several years at the University of Mississippi. She also served a stint as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean (1945 and 1946).

Spencer published her first novel, Fire in the Morning, in 1948. In it, she created a fictional community, Tarsus, Mississippi, that resembles the Mississippi hill country she knew as a child. The novel has an intricate, well-made plot and vivid characters, and its themes are chiefly discovery and reversal: a young man finds that the past cannot be separated from the present, that his good intentions are no assurance of good deeds and outcomes, that evil is rarely dramatic and clearly designated. Though a fire at night is the more familiar image of destruction, as the epigraph makes clear, a fire in the morning can be more devastating. Spencer's controlling metaphor is exact: burning in full sunlight, fire, like evil, takes on a stealthy ordinariness, its ambiguity and mediocrity bemusing those in its presence.

Spencer turned again to the hill country people of Mississippi for her next novel, This Crooked Way (1952). The story is a family chronicle taken from a brief account in Fire in the Morning. With her third novel, The Voice at the Back Door (1956), she completed what amounts to a cycle of novels that, taken together, portray the social and political circumstances of the rural South during the first half of the 20th century. In this novel, she focused upon the racial relationships in a small Mississippi town between the end of World War II and the beginning of the civil-rights upheavals of the 1960s, a time when peaceable change in the white South's treatment of blacks seemed possible. The Voice at the Back Door portrays a society described in rich detail, succeeding both as social criticism and as a portrait of provocative characters caught up in the business of living. The novel was widely reviewed and much praised for its penetrating insights into the motives of human action, as well as for the social realism that Spencer evokes through taut dialogue and fast-paced narrative.

In 1953, Spencer was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and left the United States to live in Italy and write full-time. Reflective of this, her subsequent four novels are about North Americans in Europe. The first of these were The Light in the Piazza (1960) and Knights and Dragons (1965). Critics particularly praised the novella The Light in the Piazza, which received the first McGraw-Hill Fiction Award and also was made into a Hollywood film starring Olivia de Haviland and Rossano Brazzi. The American-in-Europe theme, as well as the book's concern with subtle motives and introspections, led to many comparisons with Henry James. Even the plot, concerning the courtship and marriage of a blushingly open and innocent American girl to an Italian, suggests a Jamesian influence. No Place for an Angel (1967) enlarges upon and intensifies Spencer's earlier portraits of displaced Americans who wander haphazardly in and out of foreign countries, relationships, and private dreams of success.

In The Snare (1972), Spencer took a different direction in her exploration of the possibilities for living in a menacing world. The threat that the main character faces is not stultifying materialism, or lotus-eating artiness, or even power hunger; it is rather her discovery within herself of an unappeasable appetite for bestiality that matches an appetite for human, civilized life. The novel's New Orleans setting serves, as does Italy in the earlier novels, as an enlarged symbol of the possibilities for life beyond the conventional margins of most Americans' lives.

Spencer also published dozens of short stories, many of which won prizes and inclusion in story anthologies. Ship Island and Other Stories (1968) shows her artisanship and control in the handling of the form and includes some memorable characters who are marked by mystery and vitality. Like the novels, the stories vary in setting from small Southern towns to Europe, and they show many different stylistic approaches.

Women and girls are key characters in Spencer's collections of short stories. In Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories, their relationships are the central theme. "Spencer is dispassionate about domestic morality but intensely curious about the things people do, the lies they live and the truths they hide. Her stories are graceful, solidly crafted and honest," observed R.Z. Shepherd in Time. On the Gulf is a collection of all the stories Spencer set in the semitropical Mississippi Gulf region. According to Robert Phillips in Southern Review, "Each of the girls or women in these stories is on a journey toward self-knowledge."

In 1956, Spencer married John Rusher, a native of Cornwall, England, and two years later they moved to Montreal, Canada, where she taught at Concordia University from 1976 until 1986. She returned at last to the South in 1986 when she accepted a professorship in creative writing at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Spencer retired from teaching in 1992 and concentrated on writing her autobiography, Landscapes of the Heart, published in 1998.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Commire, Anne, ed. Something About the Author. Vol. 14. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1978.

Contemporary Authors. Vol. 65. New Rev. Series. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998.

Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 22. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1982.

Prenshaw, Peggy Whitman. "Elizabeth Spencer," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2: American Novelists Since World War II. 2nd series. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1978.

Zenner, Boyd. "Ungracious Living," in The Women's Review of Books. July 1998.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts, and Peggy Whitman Prenshaw

About this article

Spencer, Elizabeth (1921—)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article