Authors: Elizabeth Spencer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Fire in the Morning, 1948

This Crooked Way, 1952

The Voice at the Back Door, 1956

The Light in the Piazza, 1960

Knights and Dragons, 1965

No Place for an Angel, 1967

The Snare, 1972

The Salt Line, 1984

The Night Travellers, 1991

Short Fiction:

Ship Island, and Other Stories, 1968

Marilee: Three Stories, 1981

The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, 1981

Jack of Diamonds, and Other Stories, 1988

On the Gulf, 1991

The Southern Woman: New and Selected Fiction, 2001

Nonfiction:

Conversations with Elizabeth Spencer, 1991 (Peggy Whitman Prenshaw)

Landscapes of the Heart: A Memoir, 1998

Biography

Elizabeth Spencer, a major fiction writer of the second half of the twentieth century, is often classified as an important figure in the later Southern Renaissance, but she does not limit herself in setting, subject, and theme. She was the daughter of a businessman, James L. Spencer, and Mary J. McCain Spencer, whose families had lived in northern Mississippi for almost a century. Elizabeth spent her childhood roaming the countryside, reading, and avidly listening to local stories about the past.{$I[AN]9810001614}{$I[A]Spencer, Elizabeth}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Spencer, Elizabeth}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Spencer, Elizabeth}{$I[tim]1921;Spencer, Elizabeth}

After graduating from high school, Spencer attended Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi. During that period, she became acquainted with the writer Eudora Welty, who later contributed the foreword to The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer. After earning her B.A., Spencer continued her studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. There one of her mentors was the scholar and writer Donald Davidson. After completing her M.A., Spencer taught in Senatobia, Mississippi, and in Nashville, and also spent a year working on the Nashville Tennessean. With Davidson’s help she obtained a contract to publish her first novel, Fire in the Morning. The year it appeared, she began to teach at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

By this time she was regularly publishing her short stories. She was also working hard on her second novel, This Crooked Way, which appeared in 1952 and led to an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters that enabled her to spend a summer in New York. In 1953 a Guggenheim Fellowship enabled her to travel to Italy. There she met John Arthur Blackwood Rusher, an Englishman from Cornwall who was the director of a language school. In 1956, shortly after the publication of her third novel, Spencer and Rusher were married. Two years later they moved to Montreal, where they lived for more than twenty-five years.

Spencer’s new experiences began to be reflected in her works. Whereas her first three novels had been set in the South, the novellas that followed, The Light in the Piazza and Knights and Dragons, were set in Italy. Spencer continued to write about life in rural Mississippi, as in the “Marilee stories,” but she set The Snare in New Orleans, The Salt Line on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and the novel The Night Travellers and a number of short stories in Canada. Though the settings may vary, however, her themes do not. She writes about the sense of place, the power of the past, the need for community, the quest for a personal identity, and the eternal struggle between good and evil.

In the 1960’s, however, a change of focus can be detected. Often a woman searching for her identity is blocked in her efforts either by a man or by the assumptions of a male-dominated society. In Knights and Dragons, for example, when harassed by her former spouse, Spencer’s heroine reacts traditionally: She looks for a knight to slay her dragon. Though the men who come to her aid are well intentioned, they are no more willing to let her be herself than her husband was. Similarly, in The Night Travellers, Spencer’s focus is not on the male antiwar activists but on the women whose lives they affect.

Spencer uses a wide range of techniques to reveal the full complexity of her vision of life. She moves rapidly in and out of her characters’ minds, leaps into the past, imagines the future, and incorporates other fictions, such as legends and dreams, into her own. Though her patterns are complicated, however, she never leaves her readers stranded.

In 1976 Spencer began teaching creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal. Periodically she also appeared on American university campuses, and she regularly visited the South. In 1986 she and John Rusher moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and she began teaching at the University of North Carolina, a position she held until her retirement in 1992. She received the Dos Passos Award for Fiction and the Salem Award for Literature in 1992, the North Carolina Governor’s Award for Literature in 1994, and the Richard Wright Award for fiction in 1997.

BibliographyEntzminger, Betina. “Emotional Distance as Narrative Strategy in Elizabeth Spencer’s Fiction.” The Mississippi Quarterly 49 (Winter, 1995/1996): 73-87. Discusses emotional detachment in Spencer’s fiction; argues that Spencer’s female characters become separate and autonomous by repressing the emotion that traditionally binds them to their confining domestic roles; claims that Spencer involves the reader with the emotions that her characters hide from themselves.Greene, Sally. “Mending Webs: The Challenge of Childhood in Elizabeth Spencer’s Short Fiction.” Mississippi Quarterly 49 (Winter, 1995/1996): 89-98. Argues that, as human relationships become more fragile in her fiction, Spencer repeatedly turns to the imaginative perspective of a child to mend and protect these relationships. However, because of social fragmentation, Spencer’s children face increasingly difficult challenges in holding their world together.Nettels, Elsa. “Elizabeth Spencer.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990. This insightful essay draws on biographical details, as well as on comments in a number of published interviews with Spencer, in order to trace the development of her art and thought. The extensive annotations and the list of interviews in the bibliography are particularly helpful.Phillips, Robert. “The Art of Fiction CX: Elizabeth Spencer.” The Paris Review 31 (Summer, 1989): 184-213. A lengthy series of questions and answers assembled from Phillips’s three interviews with Spencer, as well as from some questions submitted in written form. Focuses on her theories about writing and her personal approach to the practice of her craft. The essay contains some interesting comments about literary influences on her work. A one-page typed draft, with hand-written corrections, is printed opposite the initial page of the article.Prenshaw, Peggy Whitman. Elizabeth Spencer. Boston: Twayne, 1985. An authoritative book-length study based on numerous interviews with the author and checked by her for factual accuracy. The novella Knights and Dragons and “Ship Island” are treated together; other short stories are discussed in another chapter. Contains a chronology and a helpful selected bibliography.Roberts, Terry. “Mermaids, Angels, and Free Women: The Heroines of Elizabeth Spencer’s Fiction.” In Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. Argues that, in Spencer’s later fiction, strong female heroines characteristically move from confusion through pain and dislocation to assertion of the self, courageously accepting the alienation that that implies.Roberts, Terry. Self and Community in the Fiction of Elizabeth Spencer. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994. Discusses a wide range of themes appearing in Spencer’s fiction. Includes a bibliography and an index.Spencer, Elizabeth. Conversations with Elizabeth Spencer. Edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991. Interviews with Spencer about her writing and the representation of Mississippi in her work. Includes an index.Spencer, Elizabeth. “Elizabeth Spencer: The Southern Writer Optimistically Explores the Almost Impenetrable Mysteries of the Human Heart.” Interview by Amanda Smith. Publishers Weekly 234 (September 9, 1988): 111-112. This interview took place after Spencer’s return to the South, where she established a permanent residence. Focuses on Spencer’s assessment of her own relationship with the South. Includes perceptive comments by the author about the stories in the collection Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories.Spencer, Elizabeth. “An Interview with Elizabeth Spencer.” Interview by Betina Entzminger. The Mississippi Quarterly 47 (Fall, 1994): 599-618. Comments on the quality of detachment in The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer and on whether constantly writing in a hard, masculine style contributes to that detachment; discusses her handling of women protagonists, her feelings of empathy with her characters, and individual characters in her fiction.Welty, Eudora. Foreword to The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981. Welty offers a brief but significant description of her first meeting with Spencer and the friendship that developed between the two writers. Welty’s succinct evaluation of Spencer as a writer who is both part of the southern tradition and uniquely herself is essential reading for students.Winchell, Mark Royden. “A Golden Ball of Thread: The Achievement of Elizabeth Spencer.” The Sewanee Review 97 (Fall, 1989): 581-586. In this overview of Spencer’s fiction, Winchell argues that its excellence can be explained, at least in part, by two facts: that moral issues and moral decisions are inherently complex and that real independence can be attained only by someone who recognizes and accepts every human being’s need for a memory of home.
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