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.”