Thirteen years ago, the Modern Library published The Southern Woman in what was in all likelihood meant to serve as both a definitive edition and capstone to the career of Elizabeth Spencer. But now, at the age of ninety-two, she has published a new collection of stories, Starting Over. These nine spare stories, each one as compressed as a breath, show a steady, lifelong devotion to craft from a career that has spanned seven decades. Despite her significant body of work and cache of awards, Spencer remains woefully overlooked, rarely mentioned as one of the giants of our literature. The publication of Starting Over should serve as a moment for us to reevaluate and applaud the career of one of the finest writers in contemporary American letters.
A native of Carrollton, Mississippi, Spencer has often written on the social mores and manners of the South. But any attempt to locate her as “an important regional voice,” as the New York Times review of Starting Over put it, misses how truly universal her characters’ longings are and neglects the wide geographical terrain in which her stories are set. Early in her career she was compared to William Faulkner and then Eudora Welty—her first mentor and champion—but when appraising Spencer, either against or alongside her fellow Mississippians, we see a writer whose gifts and concerns were different. Faulkner, at his best, chronicled an encroachment of the modern, technological world into the agrarian South. Welty, that master of place, allowed her Mississippi to locate a mood and expectation for her characters often rooted in familial obligation. By Spencer’s own admission, her correlation to Faulkner can only be one of proximity. She told her Paris Review interviewer, “If my material seems like his … it must be that we are both looking at the same society.” In Welty a much closer kinship can be drawn, particularly in the area of families, which for Spencer serve as a tether her characters almost always are forced to break away from.
In this latest collection, her characters find themselves at odds with loved ones, and this leads to an inner upheaval that compels them to set out on new paths. Starting Over demonstrates Spencer’s immense psychological acuity and keen eye for telling human and natural details—twin spires of her genius.
The collection’s opening story, “Return Trip,” gives us Patricia and Boyd, a middle-aged couple vacationing in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. Patricia’s cousin Edward leaves a message saying he might come for a visit, “if at all welcome.” Years ago, after much drink at a party celebrating their marriage, Boyd and Patricia had a disagreement. Boyd left while everyone continued drinking. Later, when he entered the room where he and Patricia were staying and flipped on the light, he saw Edward passed out on the bed beside his wife. The two shot up, groggy, and swore nothing had happened. “Patricia had always maintained he was fully clothed, though why she had to maintain it was the real question.”
Spencer neither confirms nor denies Patricia’s question. The matter remains an open wound for Boyd, but the story isn’t about finding out whether something happened or not. Instead, Spencer shows how that night wrecked Patricia loose from her family. Edward’s arrival represents the past she once held close and had to release for her life with Boyd, who was unable to accommodate them after the incident, as if her home was a competitor for her affection. When Edward leaves without saying goodbye, we get this gorgeous bit of reverie:
She kicked off her shoes, sat on the boat pier and put her feet in the cool, silky water. It was then she heard the Mississippi voices for the first time. She knew each one for who it was, though they had died years ago or hadn’t been seen for ages. Sometimes they mentioned Edward and sometimes herself. They talked on and on about unimportant things and she knew them all, each one. She sat and listened, and let the water curl around her feet.
“The Boy in the Tree” is a story that pits Wallace Harkins between his mother and his wife. “His problem was women, he told himself.” Wallace wants to move his mother into a “retirement community.” She calls it a “nursing home” and refuses to budge. Complicating the matter is a boy she sees out her back window every day. When she tells Wallace, he disbelieves her. Knowing she is aging, the reader sides with him, but on his way to work the next day he nearly wrecks. “The occasion was the sight of a boy standing on a street corner … wearing knee britches, completely out of date now, but just what he himself used to wear to school.” The boy was eating peanuts—as Wallace did as a boy. The story swiftly takes on a hint of magical realism. If this boy is not an illusion, it may mean his mother is not in need of a care facility, after all. The interplay between naturalism and the possibly fantastic pushes the boundaries of the story in a surprising and fresh way that mirrors Wallace’s own confusion about how to handle the deteriorating relationship between his wife and his mother and his role as a peacemaker, son, and husband. To oblige one woman in his life means ignoring the other; he can’t shake the shackles of family.
The story is reminiscent of two early works of Spencer’s, “The Little Brown Girl” and “First Dark,” among the first stories she sold to the New Yorker. In these stories we see her use of an apparition-like figure to entice and draw her characters out and set them into action. It’s a testament to her range that she so easily wrote stories that shifted between elements, calling on the traditions of folklore and oral storytelling while at the same time writing realistic fiction with such technical bravado and proficiency exemplified by the stories that followed them: “A Southern Landscape” and her most famous piece, “The Light in the Piazza.” She would later turn this into a stand-alone novella, and along with Knights and Dragons and “The Cousins” it forms a triumvirate of powerful long stories, a genre that allowed Spencer to express her talent with grand emotional sweep and power. Her ability to compress and manage both time and a large cast of characters is on full display in these stories and rivaled only by her friend Alice Munro.
From 1956, with the publication of her third novel, The Voice at the Back Door, to 1972, when she published her fifth, The Snare—a novel wildly ahead of its time in its treatment of female sexuality and empowerment—we see the most beautiful and sustained writing of her career. Of note in this stretch is The Voice at the Back Door, which was the novel that, ultimately, pushed her away from the Mississippi she knew and loved best into the exile that would come to inform and ground so much of her subsequent work.
Set in fictional Lacey, Mississippi, the novel revolves around a race for county sheriff, which, in turn, pivots on how the town will move forward on the issue of racial division. From the novel’s opening to its forlorn ending, Spencer shows herself to be an adept reader of the lives and minds of Southern segregationists during the era leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Allan Gurganus says of the novel, “The opening, with its cinematic grand view of the whole county’s map, announces itself as something conclusive, a point of view that is system-wide. [Spencer] shows how much she understands about the off-kilter workings of business and government and racial politics.” In taking on these underpinnings in Lacey, Spencer takes on a whole system of racism and obstinacy in Mississippi—the South, writ large.
With its concussive narration and plotting, the novel is a riveting examination of attitude, and its publication was not without controversy. It drew on true events of a massacre that occurred in her hometown of Carrollton in 1886 when two African-American men were in court having accused a white man of assault. As Spencer later wrote in her memoir, Landscapes of the Heart (1998), a gang of some fifty white men entered the courthouse and shot and killed at least ten African Americans attending the trial.
Writing to me by e-mail, Spencer said that after the novel was published, “I wasn’t very welcome around some people at home in my town, but my family at least always pretended to be glad I was there.” Her father never approved of her writing as a career; after the publication of this novel, he was even less fond of it. Having spent a year in Italy on a Guggenheim fellowship in 1953, Spencer lived abroad during the writing of the novel, separating herself from her family and disassociating from the South, which had shaped so much of how she thought about family and life. She could no longer abide the customs she was raised by once the turmoil of the fifties began. Her bravery was in confronting and questioning such a way of life and then writing about it objectively and without sentimentality.
The novel predates Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird by four years, and for any reader wanting an accurate depiction of the South in the Jim Crow era, this is the novel to turn to, not Lee’s classic bildungsroman with its simplistic moral painting of Atticus Finch. Spencer’s novel shows us that self-interest, more often than hate, is what kept that awful system of injustice in place. Her insight into these matters is blinding—all the more so when one considers she never lived in Mississippi once it was published.
All of this is detailed in a new documentary (Landscapes of the Heart—The Elizabeth Spencer Story), which also reveals that in 1957 The Voice at the Back Door was due to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Spencer’s novel was the unanimous choice of the fiction jury, but for reasons that were never explained, the Pulitzer Prize Board decided to award no prize in fiction that year. The documentary speculates that—only two years after the murder of Emmett Till and with racial segregation still alive and thriving—it might have been too much for the conservative members of the board to bear.
After living abroad, Spencer and her husband settled in Montreal for decades. It was at his suggestion she write something about Italy, and from that was borne The Light in the Piazza, one of the most moving tales of motherly sacrifice and love ever written. More Italian stories followed, often about Southerners abroad, but they are rarely fish out of water. They move about and travel the European continent, but they carry Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana in more than just their accent. They hold family dear and close. They love with great passion even when they know their love is doomed.
The precision and clarity of Spencer’s vision, as well as her sentences, are honed in those Italian stories. It’s telling that when asked by the Paris Review why she no longer lived in the South, Spencer’s answer was an exasperated one:
Someone much wiser than I once told me that Southern families were cannibals. He was an enthusiastic Southerner himself, so I felt even more the weight of that judgment. The family assigns unfair roles, and never forgives the one who does not fulfill them. Of course, a sense of freedom is a large part of my own nature. I can’t be straitjacketed.
“The old fierce pull of blood,” is how Faulkner phrases it in “Barn Burning,” and this tension between the roles one is assigned and one’s own internal desires is the pulse of Spencer’s fiction and the great conflict of her life, according to Lee Smith. “Part of the essence of Elizabeth herself is the whole dichotomy and tension between the traveler and the one who stays put. A writer leaves a family the minute she begins to write about it.” And in this we see that Spencer’s exile was as much psychic as physical.
The stories in Starting Over are all set in the South. Spencer is a returned native in this collection, but a life and a body of work that have dealt so much with those opposing forces give the stories a certain detachment. It’s not an unpleasant effect, but I did sometimes want her to dig in more. Spencer’s stories have always resisted lots of exposition; the briefness and choppiness of many stories in Starting Over come from her use of white space. She writes her characters to the edge of a cliff, and then she leaves them, and us, there. The result in the narrative is often a sort of masterful silence that keeps us curious. Along with “Return Trip,” the stories “Sightings,” “Rising Tide,” “The Ever-lasting Light,” and “Blackie” give us characters who are comforted by the ways in which they know their families will eventually fail them, like a favorite blanket filled with holes. They aren’t trying to escape so much as they are trying to cope. It is a moving collection whose characters’ choices leave them with an aching loneliness even when the step forward is an assured one.
The last story, “The Wedding Visitor,” feels as if it is a denouement for both the collection and Spencer’s writing life. Long gone and working for a congressman in Memphis, Tennessee, Rob Ellis returns for his cousin’s wedding in Mississippi. His father was the black sheep of the family, who often forced Rob on his brother, Uncle Mack. So Rob spent each summer at this old home place surrounded by these cousins. As he enters the house for the first time as an adult, one cousin after another greets him with faint recognition. Once discovered, he easily slips into the old ways, the history of the family. He soon finds his skills as an attorney and speechwriter for the congressman—the uses of his adult life—are needed to help the family of his childhood. Rob goes to work, agreeably and decisively. After settling a dispute on behalf of his cousin’s fiancé, he returns to the house before the wedding. “The house was quiet,” Spencer writes. “He welcomed its peace and the chance to feel what he had come for, reflection and memories.” In this house of fiction, we find ourselves in a contemplative story, which seems to be, at last, where Spencer’s mind has turned as well: reflection and memories. Surrounded by all this history, feeling always an outsider, Spencer’s surrogate Rob has moved closer to his family than he has ever felt. Later, at the reception, Mack pulls Rob aside and says, “Son, I know your father died not long ago and you got nobody left. But you got us… . I want you to call this home. It’s a sacred word, son. It’s yours.” Rob is moved by this touching gesture, and when he leaves in the story’s closing moments, we learn: “He held to the warmth of his uncle’s words. They grew like a firm standing place beneath his feet.”
As it is with these stories.
One hopes Starting Over isn’t the last stone in the magnificent castle Elizabeth Spencer has built. But if it is, she concludes, like her character Rob Ellis, reconciled and finally at peace.