Elizabeth Spencer: “A Veritable Seurat of Southern Life”

Like Afia Atakora, who wrote the introduction to The Southern Woman: Selected Fiction, I’d never heard of the author Elizabeth Spencer, much less read her short stories or the novella for which she is most well-known, The Light in the Piazza. I could regret my own negligence, or perhaps blame the patriarchy that relegated her and her stories — written for and about women — to the dark corners of the canon, but instead I will rejoice in finally having discovered her.

Spencer belongs among the American South’s most lauded writers and is part and parcel of the literary tradition that brought us Kate Chopin, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty — the latter a contemporary and lifelong friend of Spencer’s. This edition of Spencer’s work, reissued by the Modern Library nearly two years after the author’s death, comprises the best of her short fictions and reflects the author’s Southern upbringing as well as her peregrinations abroad in Italy and Canada.

The first of four sections, titled “The South,” contains the most resonant stories of the collection, in my view. It is in these Southern stories that Spencer feels most luminous, most at the top of her game. Born in the small town of Carrollton, Mississippi in 1921, and raised in the South during the Great Depression, Spencer knows the Southern backwoods.

The subsequent sections are “Italy,” “Up North,” and “New Stories.” The Light in the Piazza — made into a film in 1962 starring Olivia de Havilland and into a musical that won a Tony in 2005 — is included in “Italy.”

The words that came to mind as I read Spencer’s stories are masterful, literary, novelistic, even dark. Her subjects are rural Southern towns and townspeople; home, whether drawn to it, leaving it, or returning to it; family, especially mother-daughter relationships; and the rich and roiling interior lives of women who want to break away and forge their own identities.

Race relations is an undercurrent, too. Spencer was arguably ahead of her time when it came to writing about race. The work she most wanted to be known for was her Faulkner-inspired novel, The Voice at the Back Door, a condemnation of racist Southern whites that was unjustly denied a Pulitzer Prize in 1957, just four years before To Kill a Mockingbird won the prize in 1961.

Spencer is indeed a master of place, especially the rural South, but I also found her to be a master of tone and character. There is something Austen-esque about Spencer’s tyrannical invalid Mrs. Harvey in “First Dark,” a ghost story overlaid — adroitly, remarkably — with whimsy. Mrs. Harvey is “of the old school of Southern lady talkers; she vexed you with no ideas, she tried to protect you from even a moment of silence.” When called upon to host her daughter Frances’ new beau Tom, she reflects, “What a pity no longer to show her ankle, that delicious bone, so remarkably slender for so ample a frame.”

The power of a gesture is explored in a quiet nugget of a story, “A Christian Education,” in which a grandfather foregoes church on a Sunday in favor of treating his granddaughter to an ice cream cone at the local drugstore, an ungodly act in a town where it was “an absolute that the whole world was meant to be part of the church.”

As I read “The Girl Who Loved Horses,” I could not help but be reminded of O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” In this and in her later work, wayward women predominate. There are women who forego caregiving responsibilities, women who shirk motherhood, married women having affairs, women seeking solitude or solace, women seeking escape. In “I, Maureen” a woman leaves her marriage and children and strikes out on her own after a premonition and while suffering from acute mental illness.

The elegance of her prose makes Spencer a writer’s writer. But she is also a reader’s writer. Atakora calls Spencer “a veritable Seurat of Southern life,” in that her stories are like dots of color which we as readers must imbue with meaning. Meaning here is not inherent in the words as written but in what we create by the act of reading. We must meet Spencer halfway.

So much of the power in Spencer’s stories is in what is held back, what remains unsaid. Even her endings lack definition. More often than not, after reading her work, I was left unsettled and in awe of the complexity of human nature. Nothing felt finished. Spencer seems to be saying that there are never easy answers.

The Southern Woman: Selected Fiction
By Elizabeth Spencer
Modern Library
Published May 11, 2021