This Master of American Fiction Is 92, and Her New Book Is as Good as Ever

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 2 2014 11:47 PM

The Master

Elizabeth Spencer, at 92, is still writing essential stories of life in the South. But she’s not (only) a Southern writer.

Illustration by Gustavo Duarte.

Illustration by Gustavo Duarte

We last heard from Elizabeth Spencer more than a decade ago. In 1998 she published a memoir, Landscapes of the Heart, followed in 2001 by a “greatest hits” roundup of her novellas and short stories, The Southern Woman, which was followed by a quiet 12 years. One could be forgiven the thought that after a long and illustrious career Spencer, as Alice Munro has hinted and Philip Roth has declared, had decided to put her feet up and recline a little on her laurels.

But Spencer is back with a new collection, Starting Over. The title takes its cue from the book’s many characters trying to find new homes, recover from life’s fumbles. Some might muse that Spencer herself is starting over, once more back to the typewriter, but there is nothing of rebirth here. She is, as she ever was, one of America’s best short story writers, with her invention and craft undimmed.

Next time they bring out Spencer’s Selected Fiction they will have to wedge in at least two more masterpieces from Starting Over. “On the Hill” is about a family who sweeps into a rural small town and dazzles everyone with cocktail parties and star presence, only to withdraw and disintegrate obscurely. Eva, our narrator and a neighbor, tries to play sleuth—by visiting the family’s disturbingly cultish church, by looking in the window of their benighted country house … and although she finds plenty of fragmentary clues, no final story of this family’s ruin emerges. Our narrator even contemplates naming her new child after Riley, the mysterious family’s lost little boy—until her husband puts his foot down. “What’s gone is gone,” he firmly prods; let the broken people slink away to the shadows. Our lot is happier, for whatever reason.

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I think the best story—as good and deft as anything she has written—is “Blackie.” The “starting over” theme is here again: Our heroine, Emily, finds a big family to love after a failed first marriage to an alcoholic that resulted in an estranged son. This second family is loud and needy—three boys, a traveling salesman husband, a senile father-in-law—but it is a servitude she welcomes, despite the warnings of friends. But with the death of her first husband (a splendidly drawn old rascal), Emily is reunited with Tim, her distant, sensitive son, who barely scrapes by as poor musician.

When Tim shows up at Emily’s new house, requiring nothing more than a space in the shed out back, washing from a hydrant and using the woods as his toilet, the boys find even this intrusion unacceptable. They bully him, taunt him for being gay (it’s unclear if he is), damage his instruments, beat him up, and shoo him away. Here, it seems, Emily’s attempt to start over has fatally stalled—how can she stay on and cook and do laundry for this lynch mob, the imperfect people she has chosen to love and who loved her back with a such a terror of her leaving them that they attacked her son? Tim proposes that she live on the road with his band—and the amazing thing is how Spencer makes the reader hope that Emily might do something reckless like join her son’s ragtag ensemble, healing a decadelong mother-son breach …

I fretted for a while over why Spencer named this story “Blackie,” after the grandfather’s dog that is peripheral to the story, a detail. Darkly, it occurs that a pet is to its owner the way we are to our lives, at a certain age: We have a place we eat, a place we sleep, people who care for us or mistreat us, and we have no more power to change that than Blackie has the power to change the contents and location of his doggie bowl. That is sobering, but that is the kind of truth Spencer’s mature stories deal in. One is pleased to find Spencer at the height of her powers, undiminished by age.

About that. I wanted to pay the work the respect it deserved without getting sidetracked but now we must collectively marvel: Elizabeth Spencer is bringing out this collection of new work at 92 years of age.

Oh, I will answer to my mother for such bad Southern manners—to speak at length of a woman’s age—but it is worth admiring such productivity and longevity. Spencer’s generation of Southern writers, born in the 1920s after the fact of William Faulkner and the Agrarians, have one way or another put down their pens: Ellen Douglas, Truman Capote, James Dickey, William Styron, and the two ladies who are still with us, Shirley Ann Grau and Harper Lee. If Flannery O’Connor were still alive today she would be 88, younger than Elizabeth Spencer.

When Spencer reports in her memoir that their housekeeper declined to do laundry for a white woman and then was beaten with a board with nails in it by the woman’s husband for “sassing” his wife, or when Spencer imagines a bothersome white girl tagging behind a black sharecropper in her 1957 story “The Little Brown Girl,” a man yoked to the plow behind two mules, these are not hand-me-down folk memories but things she herself witnessed in post–World War I Mississippi. Spencer has written that, even for her generation, the end of the Civil War constituted “A.D.” Aside from the occasional secessionist crank, who in this generation—150 years on from Appomattox—really feels that?

Spencer’s work retains a storehouse of racial politesse, survivals of phrase and diction, social niceties and savageries of an Old South in all its charming perversity. I was struck by an observation the narrator makes in one of Spencer’s best stories, “Sharon” from 1970, as she enters the cookhouse of her uncle’s servant, Melissa.

You never know for sure when you come into a Negro house, whether you are crossing the threshold of a rightful king or queen, and I felt this way about Melissa’s house. It was just Uncle Hernan’s cook’s cabin, but I felt awkward in it. It was so much her own domain, and there was no set of manners to go by.

Only a Southerner of a certain vintage could detect a sentiment like that. This beautiful story goes on to reveal to the narrator that her Uncle Hernan the white widower and Melissa the black cook are, and have been, lovers.

Eula tells Miss Ary in Spencer’s 1952 novel This Crooked Way that a local woman “done switched her bottom round every man in this Delta.” Switched, not swished. Horses rare back, people get along when they leave, gossip is talking out and unflattering gossip is po’-mouthing, kudzu used to be spelled cudzu, and to look tired is to look peaked (which is said with two syllables). And barely a page of any of her books goes by without something memorably Deep Southern to quote; i.e., in 1948’s Fire in the Morning: “August in Mississippi is different than July … July heat is furious, but in August the heat has killed even itself and lies dead over us.”

Yet for all these treasures, looking over the praise of several generations of writers who take inspiration from her (“a rare and true master,” writes Richard Ford) and, particularly, noting the adoration she has inspired below the Mason-Dixon line (from Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Allan Gurganus, to whom the new book is dedicated), I’m not that sure her regional roots are the primary source of her esteem.* A case could be made that though Southern in upbringing and manners, Spencer is decidedly more American and universal in sensibility.

* * *

After World War II, there was an amazing flowering of fearsomely good short story talent from female writers: Patricia Highsmith, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Shirley Jackson, Jean Stafford (who Spencer knew), with Katherine Anne Porter from the previous generation—still going strong—and the then-influential Rebecca West in the mix, too. These women were tough-as-nails writers who could write circles around their softer male counterparts: good for an O. Henry Prize–winning story, some pulp fiction or potboiler, whatever paid in that golden age of the American short story, before television replaced the Saturday Evening Post. (These women could hold their liquor with their male counterparts, too, though that proved unhealthy for many concerned.) Spencer was part of that wave of American masters, more interested in the constraints of middle-class life and how her characters rebel and react than she was grafted to the South and its insoluble history.

Unlike her lifelong friend Eudora Welty, Spencer was not tied umbilically to a specific place in her writing. Her stories take one to Italy, New York, and Montreal, in addition to Mississippi and North Carolina—indeed, the new stories in Starting Over depend very little on their setting being Southern and could be in upscale vacation cottages or college towns anywhere.

The South may have had a firm hold on her when she was starting out. One can tell that the long shadow of Mr. Faulkner once upon a time fell across her typewriter, as in this passage from her first novel, Fire in the Morning:

Through slants of white and green light he saw his dog drown and when he ran away in the wood the wild weight around his heart still blinded his eyes so that he did not see the brush he ran through and falling before the thick black wall he thought he saw, he was surprised at the nearness of the ground.

Her shoulder-rubbing with the Agrarians at Vanderbilt, where she received a Master’s degree, proved influential but not fatal. In a 1959 story, “First Dark,” the main characters decide they had better abandon their old homeplace full of obligating ghosts before their family histories swallow them whole:

Their hearts were bounding ahead faster than they could walk down the sidewalk or drive off in the car, and, mindful, perhaps, of what happened to people who did, they did not look back. Had they done so, they would have seen that the Harvey house was more beautiful than ever. All unconscious of its rejection by so mere a person as Tom Beavers, it seemed, instead, to have got rid of what did not suit it, to be free, at last, to enter with the abandon the land of mourning and shadows and memory.
Starting Over.

Rich as a praline, lovely in its scansion—Andre Lytle would be proud. Spencer could purple it up with the best of them but over time she dispensed with her “long, lyrical, girlish passages,” as she described them, and became a model of elegant precision in her stories and novels, favoring (as she told the Paris Review) a “plainly-stated, hearty style—hospitable to sensitivity but not dependent on it.”

And she in no way, despite her much-expressed gratitude to Donald Davidson, her mentor at Vanderbilt, followed the Agrarians down the path of I’ll Take My Stand and their other neo-Confederate whimsies. In their romanticizing of the rural Old South, their condemnation of modern industry and innovation, it was a very short step to sentimentalization of the condition of Negroes, making their servitude and sufferings part of an aesthetic. Robert Penn Warren (who championed Spencer) would see civil rights as a necessary door for the South to pass through; her mentor Davidson remained a staunch segregationist.

And then she took flight. Funded by a Guggenheim fellowship, Spencer departed for Rome in 1953, where she met her British husband and took up a long residence. From Italy she wrote her most important novel, The Voice at the Back Door, published in 1956. It was four years before Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird took the country by storm, and perhaps the country wasn’t ready for Spencer’s brutal and unvarnished take on a seething Southern town (based on her hometown of Carrollton, Miss.). Lee’s novel has become, by some reckonings, the most read novel in the United States and has survived its translation into 40 languages intact due to its moral clarity. Atticus Finch is so good, the townsfolk and the white-trash Ewells are so ignorant and bad, the blacks (along with Boo Radley) are so innocent and victimized. And then there’s the movie, which is inextricably bound up with our iconography of the book.

I prefer the edgy ambiguity of Spencer’s novel. The Voice at the Back Door is far more populated and the moral lines more tangled. The skein of how the blacks and whites (of all classes and degrees of education and privilege) interact and need each other seems to capture the mid-20th century South as few books, aside from Faulkner, were smart enough to. The glory of the book is the minor characters. There is Miss Mattie, the black woman whose self-worth is wholly tied up in her white employers; there is elderly white Senator John, who loves nothing more than Robinson, the black boy he employs to push his wheelchair around and yearns to redeem through education, reciting the presidents in order as they do a turn in the garden. Whenever love and human feeling cross those racial lines, though, doom is certain to descend.

Robinson, waiting in a courtroom for a friendly judge with whom he is social, is killed by a marauding white mob storming the courthouse in order to kill three black World War I veterans whose only crime seems to be that of standing out, telling repetitious stories of their time in France. A white girl has turned up dead, and as the most newly visible Negroes in town, they are the natural defendants.

Spencer based this incident on something true but unresearchable; she grew up hearing whispers but few details of the Carroll County Courthouse Massacre of 1886. A white horde of 50 vigilantes burst into the courthouse and killed more than 20 black citizens before a trial in which there was a black plaintiff and a white defendant, the case stemming from an attempted murder in revenge for a black delivery man’s spilling molasses on a white man. Spencer, in her memoir, said it was the “primal mystery” of her town and it haunted her—and why did no one ever plaster over the bullet holes? As a warning to other would-be uppity plaintiffs? As she said in another context, when imagining events lost to Mississippi history, that “there is a terrifying thing that may occur: one sometimes invents what has actually happened. This won’t bear too much looking into.”

The Pulitzer Prize jury in 1957 sent forward her book as the sole nominee for the award only to have the Pulitzer board of directors dither. A central black character in The Voice at the Back Door is Beckwith Dozer, another innocent sought by a lynch mob. He gives his mixed-race, light-skinned son (from an English mother) some advice:

“You liable to have a little white baby one of these days, black boy … If you marry light enough, your children might cross the color line, but if they do, you tell them to make sure when they marry a white girl that she’s really one hundred percent white, because if not she’s apt to wind up with a black baby and that might not go down so well with her folks. That is, if anybody still cares much by that time. In another thirty years or so … they might think it’s cute to have a dark child. Look how they all gots to have a sun tan … The day of the white skin might be near about over. I never exactly meant to mess with the white, but the British women came running to the black skin.”

Bet that was a little too hot for 1957. The Pulitzer committee ignored the jury’s recommendation and did not award the prize that year. (Harper Lee’s novel, with its white moral paragon we could all root for, would win the Pulitzer in 1961.)

Amid the stormy events of the civil rights era, The Voice at the Back Door was brought out again in a 1965 edition. Spencer wrote an extraordinary new introduction for it, in which she lamented that the idealists she’d written of no longer existed in the newly polarized Mississippi—anyone who thought he might improve the racial divide through politics would have to be naive as well as “a lunatic.” She noted that Emmett Till had been murdered 30 miles from her hometown.

Spencer made it clear she wouldn’t be coming back to Mississippi anytime soon:

One goes North on a train, traditionally, and one somehow knows when the trip is definitive and final, when it is true, that no return visit will ever erase its meaning. This is a traditional American journey—I do not think it has been written about very much as “going West” has been, or “going East.” … Yet thousands of people, of every shade of color, of every degree of intelligence and talent, have made this journey and are still making it, and all for the same reason: they don’t belong down there any more.

Spencer made the acquaintance of Walker Percy, and in her memoir she expresses surprise (and a little delight) in hearing him say, “I am not a Southern writer.” Percy’s concerns were philosophical, she writes, Christian and modern. Then she declares, “I think of the South as no longer an entity,” although she notes the region’s beauty and weather and distinctness. She concludes,

But interests and manners and all other aspects of daily life are now thoroughly encoded by the whole of American experience, and points of reference that were once so “different” as to be thought of as ours exclusively no longer really exist. If Southerners insist upon them anyway, it all becomes a sort of put-on.

Her tales and novels continued to have a Southern setting or connection, but from about 1960 onward (by her own calculation), she saw her Southern settings as incidental and her work as part of a greater American whole.

Author Elizabeth Spencer
Author Elizabeth Spencer.

Courtesy of the author

One of the inescapable American writer tropes is the grand tour to Europe and participation in a genre that we have polished to perfection—the international tale, most familiar to us in the transatlantic short stories of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Old World meets New, heiresses amid the lotharios, innocents abroad. Spencer was to enter into the pantheon along with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Paul Bowles and James Baldwin, with her complex “The Cousins” and her world-famous, inescapable greatest hit, “The Light in the Piazza.” The Paris Review asked Spencer if she found her 1960 novella–Hollywood movie–eventual Broadway musical a beloved object or an albatross. Spencer wasted no time in answering: an albatross. She was charmingly grouchy about never having thought of Henry James for a moment during its conception, and wondering how this overlong short story, whipped out in less than a month, had found such staying power. Let’s annoy her further by agreeing with what a half-century of readers have decided: “The Light in the Piazza” is a masterpiece, providing every bit the enjoyment of Daisy Miller.

In 1956, Spencer and her husband decided to go back to North America, but not back down south. In Montreal, Spencer found a corollary between vanquished Quebec, subject to the Anglo-Canadian plutocracy, and vanquished Mississippi, trampled and Reconstructed. She became friends with Alice Munro, to whom, if I had only five seconds to describe Elizabeth Spencer to someone who hadn’t read her, I would compare her. They have a similar directness, clarity, and elegance—but elegance with no prettification or softening from life’s coarser episodes. They both are vivisectors of the family relation, the well-worn marriage, the challenges of sustaining beauty and purpose through the dilapidations of middle age and beyond. Munro has frequently cited her survey of Southern writers as she worked to create a regionalism of Canadian farm country and the prairie. It’s more chronological, I suppose, to say that Munro is like Spencer than Spencer is like Munro.

Throughout the 1970s, the late Louis Rubin Jr., co-founder of Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., brought Spencer back regularly to North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, for university readings and book fairs, for conferences and panels of Southern literature. Rubin introduced her to a generation of Southern writers who became her friends. And when Québécois defeat became less quiet and the FLQ started with kidnappings and protests and each referendum of independence shattered the once-dependable Canadian tranquility, Spencer felt it was time to move again, and this time back to the South.* Well, a part of the South as if vetted by Massachusetts. Chapel Hill, dubbed the “People’s Republic of Chapel Hill” by Sen. Jesse Helms, after all, isn’t the Deep South. Citizens ride the buses for free; there are same-sex partner benefits for city employees; you can’t throw a rock without hitting something organic—or another writer, for that matter, in the Hillsborough–Chapel Hill corridor.

I suppose she’s leaned her way back into the Southern Writer Group Photo, after all. Although I might—and she might—insist on that asterisk by her name, the one Virginia born-and-raised Willa Cather and Tennessee born-and-raised Cormac McCarthy share, that leads to a warning label saying Don’t harp on the Southern thing too insistently. There’s some great all-American writing going on here.

In late January, Spencer appeared on Chapel Hill’s NPR radio affiliate. Modest as always, she made her new story collection sound as if it was brought out to please her publishers, a mere gathering up of old magazine pieces and “accumulated” stories lying around. But, intriguingly, she said that for some time she had felt the stirrings of a novel coming on. “It may just happen,” she predicted, “almost by accident.”

I pray she writes another one, although it’s greedy to want more when there’s so much. (We North Carolinians should all go sharpen her pencils, take in her mail, and keep her refrigerator supplied, in hopes of speeding this accident into being.)

Just think of it—65 years, and counting, of superb writing. From the 20th-century South of sharecroppers and mules, damned idealists who learned too much at Ole Miss, bad men with guns from the backwoods, to the 21st-century South of Starting Over, liberal Chapel Hill dinner parties and mother-daughter banter where the daughter is dating a Mexican and the mother denies she is dating an Indian, but just might—it’s a New South more New than South. Who among our great living writers has been such a witness to our historical changes and follies? Spencer’s life and fiction span an era that comprised the great American questions of equality, justice, human dignity, while never ignoring the great individual questions as well—how do we be true to ourselves in bad circumstances? How do we survive the battles of family obligation, of time passing us by? Spencer's body of work—her short stories more in vogue than her novels, but that may turn around with time and fashion—is a lasting contribution to the permanent national shelf.

Let’s hope she adds some more to it.

Correction, Feb. 3 2014: This article originally misspelled the first name of Allan Gurganus. (Return.) The wrong acronym for the Front de Libération du Québec was also used. (Return.)

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Starting Over by Elizabeth Spencer. Liveright.

A North Carolina native, Wilton Barnhardt is the author of four novels, including Lookaway, Lookaway. He teaches in the MFA program at N.C. State University in Raleigh, where he lives.

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