9 minute read

Elizabeth Spencer Biography

Elizabeth Spencer comments:

Nationality: American. Born: Carrollton, Mississippi, 1921. Education: Belhaven College, Jackson, Mississippi, 1938-42, A.B. 1942; Vanderbilt University, Nashville, 1942-43, M.A. 1943. Career: Instructor, Northwest Mississippi Junior College, Senatobia, 1943-44, and Ward-Belmont College, Nashville, 1944-45; reporter, Nashville Tennessean, 1945-46; instructor, 1948-49, and instructor in creative writing, 1949-51, 1952-53, University of Mississippi, Oxford; Donnelly Fellow, Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, 1962; creative writing fellow, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1969; writer-in-residence, Hollins College, Virginia, 1973. Member of the creative writing faculty, 1976-81, adjunct professor, 1981-86, Concordia University, Montreal; visiting professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1986-92. Charter member, 1987, vice-chancellor, 1993, Fellowship of Southern Writers. Awards: American Academy Recognition award, 1952, Rosenthal award, 1957, and Award of Merit Medal, 1983; Guggenheim fellowship, 1953; Kenyon Review fellowship, 1957; McGraw-Hill fiction award, 1960; Bellaman award, 1968; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1982, and award, 1988; Salem award, 1992, for literature; Dos Passos award, 1992, for fiction; North Carolina Governor's award, 1994, for literature; Corrington award for literature, 1997; Richard Wright award for literature, 1997; Fortner award for Literature, 1998; award for non-fiction, Massachusetts Library Association, 1999; award for non-fiction, Mississippi Library Association, 1999. D.L.: Southwestern (now Rhodes) University, Memphis, 1968; LL.D.: Concordia University, Montreal, 1988; Litt.D.: University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, 1992; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1998; Belhaven College, 1999. Member: American Academy, 1985. Agent: Virginia Barber, 353 West 21st Street, New York, New York 10011, U.S.A.



Fire in the Morning. New York, Dodd Mead, 1948.

This Crooked Way. New York, Dodd Mead, and London, Gollancz, 1952.

The Voice at the Back Door. New York, McGraw Hill, 1956; London, Gollancz, 1957.

The Light in the Piazza. New York, McGraw Hill, 1960; London, Heinemann, 1961.

Knights and Dragons. New York, McGraw Hill, 1965; London, Heinemann, 1966.

No Place for an Angel. New York, McGraw Hill, 1967; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968.

The Snare. New York, McGraw Hill, 1972.

The Salt Line. New York, Doubleday, 1984; London, Penguin, 1985.

The Night Travellers. New York, Viking, 1991.

Short Stories

Ship Island and Other Stories. New York, McGraw Hill, 1968;London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.

The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer. New York, Doubleday, 1981;London, Penguin, 1983.

Marilee: Three Stories. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1981.

The Mules. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Palaemon Press, 1982.

Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories. New York, Viking, 1988.

On the Gulf. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

Uncollected Short Stories

"To the Watchers While Walking Home," in Ontario Review (Princeton, New Jersey), 1982.

"Madonna" and "Puzzle Poem," in Hudson Review (New York), Summer 1983.

"Up the Gatineau," in Boulevard (Philadelphia), Spring 1989.

"The Weekend Travellers," in Story (Cincinnati), Winter 1994.

"The Runaways," in Antaeus (Hopewell, New Jersey), Spring 1994.

"The Master of Shongalo," in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), Winter 1995.


For Lease or Sale, in Mississippi Writers 4: Reflection of Childhood and Youth, edited by Dorothy Abbott. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1991.


Conversations with Elizabeth Spencer, edited by Peggy WhitmanPrenshaw. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

Landscapes of the Heart: A Memoir. New York, Random House, 1998.



By Laura Barge, 1976, and by C.E. Lewis, 1994, both in Mississippi Quarterly (Starkville).

Manuscript Collections:

National Library of Canada, Ottawa; University of Kentucky, Lexington.

Critical Studies:

Elizabeth Spencer by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, Boston, Twayne, 1985; Self and Community in the Fiction of Elizabeth Spencer by Terry Roberts, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

I began writing down stories as soon as I learned how to write; that is, at about age six; before that, I made them up anyway and told them to anybody who was handy and would listen. Being a rural Southerner, a Mississippian, had a lot to do with it, I have been told, with this impulse and with the peculiar mystique, importance, which attached itself naturally thereto and enhanced it. We had been brought up on stories, those about local people, living and dead, and Bible narratives, believed also to be literally true, so that other stories read aloud—the Greek myths, for instance—while indicated as "just" stories, were only one slight remove from the "real" stories of the local scene and the Bible. So it was with history, for local event spilled into the history of the textbooks; my grandfather could remember the close of the Civil War, and my elder brother's nurse had been a slave. The whole world, then, was either entirely in the nature of stories or partook so deeply of stories as to be at every point inseparable from them. Even the novels we came later to read were mainly English nineteenth-century works which dealt with a culture similar to our own—we learned with no surprise that we had sprung from it.

Though I left the South in 1953, I still see the world and its primal motions as story, since story charts in time the heart's assertions and gives central place to the great human relationships. My first three novels, written or projected before I left the South, deal with people in that society who must as the true measure of themselves either alter it or come to terms with it. Years I spent in Italy and more recently in Canada have made me see the world in other than this fixed geography. The challenge to wring its stories from it became to me more difficult at the same time that it became more urgent that I and other writers should do so. A story may not be the only wrench one can hurl into the giant machine that seems bent on devouring us all, but is one of them. A story which has been tooled, shaped, and slicked up is neither real nor true—we know its nature and its straw insides. Only the real creature can satisfy, the one that is touchy and alive, dangerous to fool with. The search for such as these goes on with me continually, and I think for all real writers as well.

(1995) I returned to the South in 1986 and have found a not altogether different world, for the South can maintain its continuity better perhaps than most other areas. But the media and the electronic age are doing their work of restructuring, and enduring as a separate, recognizable region of the United States tests and will continue to test the considerable talents of southern writers. We remain, however, what we have always been—storytellers, some of the world's best.

* * *

Elizabeth Spencer's first three novels portray the upper middle class of her native Mississippi trapped between the decadent planter aristocrats and politically ambitious "redneck" bigots who were William Faulkner's special province. Five in the Morning (titled from Djuna Barnes's Nightwood) grimly depicts the effectiveness of petty greed in stifling a small community's vitality. The Gerrard family moved into Tarsus in the wake of Civil War disruptions and made themselves leading citizens through perjury and blackmail. Their machinations result, however, only in the destruction of almost everyone involved except one Gerrard son and a former schoolmate, son of one of the family's principal victims. These young men achieve a reconciliation when the Gerrard follows the many other people driven from the community and the other, Kinloch Armstrong, learns that his strength is the very "strangeness" he has always felt that allows him to transcend the squalor that engulfs the others. This Crooked Way is a less complex and more cynical tale about an opportunist who comes down from the hills to become a Delta planter. Amos Dudley has always dreamed of seeing a ladder of angels, but his inability to face reality results only in the wreckage of the lives of his family and most of those around him.

Spencer's most powerful novel, The Voice at the Back Door, bares the history of a well-educated and inherently decent young lawyer, Kerney Woolbright, who must sacrifice his integrity to win political preferment in his community. The novel contrasts Kerney's lying about his knowledge of an explosive situation involving a black man in order to assure his victory at the polls with the behavior of Duncan Harper, a truculently honest athlete—once idol of the community—who sacrifices a comfortable career to protect the man from ignorant bigotry.

After this chilling revelation of the corruption of competence and the persecution of decency, Spencer abandoned Mississippi for Italy, which inspired two brief novels about women who escape abroad to victory. The Light in the Piazza, source of an unusually tasteful and subtle film, tensely relates an American mother's risky effort to marry her mentally retarded daughter to an attractive young Florentine despite her husband's misgivings and the Italian family's efforts to profit by the match. Knights and Dragons studies an American woman who has fled to Rome after her marriage collapses and who finds at last that human love demands too much of the individual to be worth the struggle, so that she frees herself—like Federico Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits—to become "a companion to cloud and sky."

After these short, intense international novels, Spencer returned by stages to the United States and, at last, Mississippi. No Place for an Angel chronicles against an international background (Washington-Florida, Rome-Sicily and elsewhere) the intricate interrelationships of two married couples and their sprawling families and a young American sculptor, who dreams like Amos Dudley of angels. One wife says of her husband, "Jerry had to be great, and he almost made it." The novel is a mature, unsentimental account of characters that almost make it, only to find—as one put it—that "life keeps turning into a vacuum," though the author tempers the bleakness by suggesting that these people's children may find happiness by wanting less. The Snare concentrates on a woman who does at last "make it" by never seeking greatness. Julia Garrett's life in a New Orleans that the novelist pictures with special skill has been a search on "a many-branched road" for an identity from the time that her aimless father abandons her in the arms of better-placed relatives. Frustrated in efforts to achieve mature relationships, Julia realizes herself at last not through the vision of an angel, but the person of her own very real child.

After a long period during which she experimented with a variety of short stories, Spencer returned to Mississippi's Gulf Coast in The Salt Line; but the region is no longer Faulkner's gothic south nor the transitory plastic America that materialized after World War II. The Salt Line occurs after Hurricane Camille, which in 1969 devastated the modernizing region. We witness efforts to rebuild principally through three survivors—two of whom were former friends as college professors, the other a petty gangster—through whose own lives hurricanes have passed. While they blame "bad luck," they are what Scott Fitzgerald called "careless people." Just as residents of the hurricane-prone areas return to waiting out seasons nervously, these leading characters return to their old ways. At the end of the novel, Spencer holds out the possibility of "the bright redemption of love"; but the vision illuminating the novel is that love helps people endure, but not prevail. As Peggy Prenshaw points out, the Byronic central figure of The Salt Line faces the future asking the same question as Robert Frost's oven-bird—what to make of "a diminished thing."

With The Night Travellers, Spencer suggested one solution: take a Southern character and move her out of the South. The fact that Mary Kerr Harbison came from an aristocratic Southern family is only part of her story, though perhaps it informs some of her gullibility. Pulled into a deeply emotional relationship with a left-wing social activist, Jefferson Blaise, she is ultimately forced to go with him as a fugitive to Toronto. Their love is intense and almost all-powerful, and this makes the tragedy of their story all the more compelling.

—Warren French,

updated by Judson Knight

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Nate Smith Biography - Fought His Way into the Union to Theodosius II Biography