Elizabeth Spencer: Southern Author Still Running To Catch Up

By Sharon Swanson

In the South, we have certain expectations about our literary icons. We are intrigued when we learn they talk or act in an overblown fashion, like miscast characters in a Tennessee Williams play. But Chapel Hill writer Elizabeth Spencer defies such characterizations — both in her work and in her life.

Spencer, slender and quietly elegant, speaks in the soft, lyrical tones of her Mississippi roots. When she smiles, she reveals dimples set beneath high cheek bones. And while it’s true that Spencer is often described with shop-worn literary labels, such as “revered” and “grande dame,” that isn’t how she’d like to be portrayed.

“How would you like being described in that way?” she laughed. “Then there’s ‘venerable.’ That has to be the worst.”

Spencer, 86, has been publishing books and short fiction for 60 years; her first novel, Fire in the Morning, was published in 1948, and most of her nine books and seven short story collections are still in print. One novella, “The Light in the Piazza,” has seen life, not only as a 1962 Hollywood movie starring Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux, but also as a recent Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. “The Light in the Piazza” was first published in The New Yorker and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Spencer has also written a memoir, Landscapes of the Heart, and a play.

Spencer’s young life was steeped in Southern tradition. She was born in Carrollton, MS, in 1921. Her father was a savvy, but conservative, Presbyterian businessman. Her mother was a McCain (and the great aunt to presidential candidate Sen. John McCain). Spencer’s grandfather McCain was a beloved figure in her childhood:

“It’s very strange,” Spencer said. “I’m only one generation away from the Civil War. My mother was the last of a string of about six or seven children and so was my father. And so my grandfather was, I think, 14 at the time of the Civil War. … He wanted to go to war because his brothers were in the war. And he went up to a town where they inducted soldiers. He said that he was 18. And they laughed at him.

“But he went back and tried to run a plantation.”

Although Spencer’s father was never convinced that writing was a good way for a “proper” young Southern woman to make a living, she attended graduate school at Vanderbilt on a scholarship. There she was introduced to Donald Davidson, Allan Tate and Robert Penn Warren, writers who became instrumental in finding a supportive home for her work.

In defying the expectations of her father, Spencer also defied the traditions of her upbringing, both in her writing and in the life she chose to establish outside the confines of her home state. In her fiction, Spencer confronted the racial issues of the post-World War II era. Her first National Book Award finalist, The Voice at the Back Door, published in 1956, alludes to the custom that allowed people of color to knock only at the back door, never at the front.

“There were Pulitzer rumors when that book came out,” Spencer said, “but I was young, and relatively unknown by the committee at the time.” The Pulitzer was not awarded in 1957.

Spencer also avoided typecasting in her depictions of Southern women. Her characters were sometimes naïve, but often independent, with subtle traces of humor. Spencer, too, displayed a strong sense of independence, marrying John Rusher, an Englishman she’d met in Italy, where the couple settled for five years before transplanting to Montreal for nearly three decades. There Spencer continued to write and teach.

Over the years, her work has captured numerous awards, including The William Faulkner Medal for Literary Excellence, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Thomas Wolfe Award for Literature, the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award for Fiction, and the Award of Merit for the Short Story from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Spencer moved to Chapel Hill with Rusher in 1986 to teach Morehead Scholars at UNC-Chapel Hill. Widowed since 1998, Spencer said she still misses her husband of 42 years. She adds that she has made a home in Chapel Hill, where she has developed “a rich store of friendships.”

On December 7, 2007, the author was in Washington, DC, to accept the most recent of her many writing awards — the PEN Malamud Award for Short Fiction. And, in conjunction with a celebration of Spencer’s 60 years of publishing, there are plans to release a video featuring the author discussing her life and work.

“The world of today, so vital and various, sends out a challenge for any writer to get down something valuable, no matter how daunting even to think of such a task may be,” said Spencer. “I keep running to keep up, not so fast as before, but still trying. This means a short story every so often, a novel when I can.”