The celebrated writer Elizabeth Spencer passed away late last year at her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She authored nine novels, many short stories, and a memoir widely seen as a masterpiece, Landscapes of the Heart. Retired executive editor John Easterly reflects on Spencer’s relationship with LSU Press.
By John Easterly
When she began publishing her fiction in the late 1940s, Elizabeth Spencer quickly established herself as a rising author, and throughout her long career, her books were first published by commercial presses. A new tax law—one that seriously penalized publishers for keeping on hand large inventories of good books that sold moderately well for decades—provided the golden opportunity for LSU Press to publish major works by her, as well as other well-known authors like Robert Penn Warren, Lee Smith, and Thomas Wolfe.
At the urging of several southern literary scholars and authors, LSU Press launched its Voices of the South series of trade paperbacks in the spring of 1994 with six titles, among them Elizabeth’s The Voice at the Back Door, which had originally come out in 1956.
Peggy Prenshaw, a longtime scholar of southern literature, especially women writers, has provided an account of the background of the writing of that novel.
Elizabeth grew up in the small Mississippi town of Carrollton. After the success of her early books she won a Guggenheim fellowship and in 1953 went to work on her next novel in Italy. In 1955 she returned home, thinking her new manuscript “honestly explored southern racial troubles but also offered the prospect of reconciliations,” as she wrote. “But the temper of the times had sharply changed.” The Brown v. Board of Education decision had come in 1954, and shortly before her return from Italy, the Emmett Till murder had taken place, “only a few miles from my family home, over in the Delta,” Elizabeth later recalled.
In The Voice at the Back Door, an idealistic leading citizen of a small Mississippi town becomes interim sheriff and soon makes public his heretofore private conviction that whites and blacks should be treated equally before the law. The novel explores the townspeople’s wide-ranging reactions to the sheriff’s efforts to put his principles into practice—reactions that include vitriolic racist intimidation and violence. As the cover copy for our edition noted, in this novel “Spencer makes palpable the psychological milieu of a small southern town hobbled by tradition but lurching toward the dawn of the civil rights movement.”
As Peggy Prenshaw has observed, “After The Voice at the Back Door, Elizabeth Spencer turned outward, writing fiction placed in large urban settings, in the North, in Italy, in Canada.” The book was a major factor in her estrangement from most of her family, especially her father, and in 1958 she and her husband settled in Montreal, which would remain their primary residence until 1986, when they moved to Chapel Hill. After The Voice at the Back Door, she never again wrote a novel about the small-town South in which she had grown up.
After The Voice at the Back Door, Spencer never again wrote a novel about the small-town South in which she had grown up.
Her most famous work is probably the novella The Light in the Piazza, set in Italy and made into an MGM movie in 1962 and a Broadway musical in 2005. Another outstanding novel is The Snare, a kind of murder mystery, about the coming of age of a young woman attracted to the seamy side of life in the New Orleans of the 1960s. Another novel, The Salt Line, treated lives on the Mississippi Gulf coast of the time, and The Night Travellers explored American social and political conflicts of the Vietnam War years.
Elizabeth’s short fiction gained wide praise from readers and critics throughout her long career. She won many major awards for her stories, and has been compared with such famed writers of short fiction as William Faulkner, Henry James, and her friend Eudora Welty. More than forty of her stories are collected in The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer and The Southern Woman: New and Selected Stories. In 2014 she published her final collection, Starting Over, of which a New York Times reviewer commented, “Given that Spencer is ninety-two, it’s tempting to call the title audacious, but since there seems to be nothing this extraordinary writer can’t do, maybe she’s just being realistic.”
Over her long career, Elizabeth had a rich relationship with The Southern Review. LSU Press became The Southern Review’s publisher in 2011, but both were founded in 1935 and have always had close ties from their beginnings. Between 1972 and 2004, Elizabeth published ten stories in the magazine, and The Southern Review also ran a lengthy interview with her in 1982, one that is quite revealing about her early career.
In 1998, fifty years after the publication of her first novel, Elizabeth published her memoir, Landscapes of the Heart, which received wide attention and glowing reviews. In it, she at last returned in her writing to the small-town Mississippi of her childhood and youth. We at LSU Press acquired that book for our Voices of the South series in 2003. It was one of the final books in the series, as internet used-book sales and e-books and other technological trends ended the economic situation that had made it viable for university presses to republish worthy out-of-print books that were ideal for the university press market. We published 83 books in the series, which have sold tens of thousands of copies. We have many of them still in print. Five of those books were Elizabeth’s—more than for any other author: in addition to The Voice at the Back Door and Landscapes of the Heart, we did This Crooked Way, The Salt Line, and The Night Travellers.
We asked three of our authors who knew Elizabeth and her works well to provide some memories and thoughts about her.
First, Fred Hobson, Lineberger Distinguished Emeritus Professor in the Humanities at UNC-Chapel Hill, specializes in the history and literature of the South and has written several pathbreaking books in the field, including “Tell About the South”: The Southern Rage to Explain and But Now I See: The White Southern Racial Conversion Narrative. He was for more than two decades editor of our Southern Literary Studies series.
It’s something of a cliché—when considering white southern writers who came of age in the early and mid-twentieth century—to speak of a love-hate relationship with the South, and Elizabeth Spencer’s was not quite so intense, at least not so dramatic, as certain other southerners of her generation. And it took Spencer a bit longer to question the values of her home country, the Deep South—and her place in it—than it did others.
Although her first two novels were set in the Deep South, she did not fully question southern assumptions until she was in her early or mid-thirties, after she had lived abroad for two years and then came back to Mississippi in 1955 shortly after the murder of Emmett Till. In one of the most insightful chapters of her memoir, Landscapes of the Heart, she describes the reaction of her father, whom she had earlier seen as relatively enlightened on matters of race. No longer. His defense of the southern status quo—even more his refusal to discuss any challenges to prevailing white southern racial attitudes—as well as his lack of support for her literary ambition, led Spencer to conclude, in perhaps the most notable line in her memoir, that she didn’t “belong down here anymore.”
Spencer concluded, in perhaps the most notable line in her memoir, that she didn’t “belong down here anymore.”
She never went home again. She lived briefly in New York, somewhat longer in Italy, and for a number of years in Canada, but she never came back to Mississippi to live—although I see her move to Chapel Hill in 1986 and her residence there for the rest of her life as a halfway move back, not to the Deep South but to what I believe John Shelton Reed has called the Shallow South.
Spencer’s awakening in Mississippi in 1955 shaped her in other ways too. She was, to the end, a keen social observer, with a deep commitment to racial justice and an intense interest in politics. In the last year of her life, until the very last weeks, when I went by to see her—at age ninety-eight, lying in bed—she almost always had on CNN or MSNBC absorbing news and commentary. The world still engaged her; to the end she shared the action and passion of her times.
Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, Millsaps College Humanities Scholar-in-Residence, and Fred C. Frey Professor of Southern Studies Emerita at LSU, is author or editor of many books on southern women’s literature, including Composing Selves: Southern Women and Autobiography. The following remarks are the closing passage from a talk she gave last year at the dedication of a bronze highway marker in Elizabeth’s honor erected in 2019 along Mississippi’s Literary Trail commemorating the state’s writers.
l want to celebrate the 1998 memoir, Landscapes of the Heart, published fifty years after [Elizabeth’s first novel] Fire in the Morning. Here an older Elizabeth Spencer revisits Carrollton and the Carroll County of her birth, locating the experiences and relationships that would shape the woman and writer that she would become. At the opening of the memoir, the twelve year old Elizabeth, ‘enveloped in overalls, a long-sleeved white shirt, and a big straw hat’ set out on her horse for Teoc, her mother’s family plantation that lay thirteen miles away. It was a place where she would find bustling activity, including lively book talk by uncles who were great readers and talkers. Should she be questioned along her way, she was told to answer that she was Luther Spencer’s daughter and her uncle was Joe McCain. She was firmly situated within prominent families, protected, but also constrained to grow into a role expected of young white women like her in 1930’s Mississippi.
Elizabeth Spencer traveled a different way. Family and neighbors in Carrollton, those family members at Teoc, her friends, her teachers, her passion for reading—all showed her that there were many ways she could live her life. But however distant and differently from her Carrollton youth that life would turn out to be, she would always hear Mississippi voices. Like the character in her recent story, “Return Trip,” she “knew she would hear them always, from now on.”
We Mississippians, along with a world of readers, are grateful for the choices Elizabeth Spencer made. Her memorable writings have enlarged our understanding of our own lives and have helped us interpret the continuing influence of our history. We will soon be able to read the collected works of Elizabeth Spencer in the prestigious Library of America series. Her words, her literary legacy will enrich the future that lies ahead for us in this state—and for her wide world of readers.
Terry Roberts, author of Self and Community in the Fiction of Elizabeth Spencer, one of the first books to explore Elizabeth’s work, has since written three novels. Longtime Director of the National Paideia Center in Asheville, North Carolina, he has recently published The New Smart: How Nurturing Creativity Will Help Children Thrive.
I first met and began what would become a three-decades long conversation with Elizabeth Spencer in the spring of 1988. I was a Ph.D. student in American and Southern Literature at UNC, and she was semi-retired as a teacher of creative writing in the same department. I had seen her in the hallways of Greenlaw Hall several times, and she had a certain presence that suggested she wouldn’t suffer foolish grad students gladly.
Impressed by this somewhat mysterious figure, I bought a copy of The Salt Line, at that point her most recent novel. I was stunned by its disturbing grace and resonance. Even though I lived in the same town and worked in the same department, I wrote her a letter and mailed it to her home. In that letter, I tried to say just how subtle I found her work and how moved I was in reading it. I still have the postcard she sent in return, with her phone number and the request that I would call.
I read further and deeper over the next few years, and Elizabeth and I began to talk.
I read further and deeper over the next few years, and Elizabeth and I began to talk. I still recall the departmental Christmas party, when (after we’d both had a few glasses of wine) the more formal reserve between us melted away, and she began to describe her true feelings about the people around us and—much more importantly—her novels and stories. For me, that conversation glittered like gold.
After some back-and-forth, I convinced my dissertation advisor to allow me to do two unusual things: write about a living, breathing author, and interview that author as part of the process. The dissertation became a book (Self and Community in the Fiction of Elizabeth Spencer), and we became fast friends. Other articles followed the book and our families grew to know and appreciate each other; Elizabeth stood up in the Chapel of the Cross to become my son Henry’s godmother. Eventually, she championed my own fiction, as I will always, passionately, champion hers.
It goes almost without saying that Elizabeth was a brilliant and accomplished artist. What many who will miss her may not know is that she was also a brilliant friend—witty, loyal, and extraordinarily sensitive and supportive. To lose her was inevitable but so, so sad. Thomas Nashe’s line resonates in my mind . . . brightness falls from the air.
I’ll continue to drink my nightly toast to Elizabeth and propose that we—you and I—reread her marvelous work, starting at the beginning and on through to the end.