Elizabeth Spencer, arguably one of our country’s greatest writers, died in December 2019 in Chapel Hill, where she had lived since 1986.
Due to the upcoming COVID outbreak, we haven’t done enough to celebrate and recognize his contributions.
This month we have another chance to remember her. On June 1, her life and work were honored with the publication of “Elizabeth Spencer: Novels & Stories” by the Library of America series. In the more than 800 pages, the editors inserted three novels, 19 stories and a wealth of reference material.
Spencer was best known for her 1960 short story, “The Light in the Piazza”.
“You’d think it’s the only thing I’ve ever written,” she once told me, reflecting her mixed feelings that this book overshadows some of her most important works and best.
The new volume includes “Light in the Piazza” and a good selection of his other works.
In “The Light in the Piazza”, an upper-class American mother from Winston-Salem visits Italy with her mentally handicapped adult daughter.
A charming young Italian man falls in love with the girl, neglecting her mental handicap, or taking her for a naive charm.
The mother’s dilemma is to approve and facilitate the marriage or reveal the state of her daughter and lose the opportunity for her happiness.
In 1960, I read a first version of it in “The New Yorker” and I was fascinated by the history and the connection with North Carolina.
Alas, the connection with North Carolina was mythical. Spencer told me she was really thinking of Birmingham, where she had friends, but changed the town’s name to Winston-Salem so her Birmingham friends weren’t trying to see each other in history.
The story became the basis for a popular film in 1962. It starred Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux and Rossano Brazzi. In 2005, a story-based musical was staged in New York City and aired on public television.
Before moving to Chapel Hill, Spencer and her husband lived in Italy and Canada. His roots, however, were in his hometown of Carrollton, Mississippi, and his early work reflected the complex racial caste systems of the South.
The headliner of the new collection is “The Voice at the Back Door”, Spencer’s 1956 novel. Michael Gorra, the editor of the new volume, writes that it is “widely regarded as Spencer’s masterpiece.”
Located in rural Mississippi in the early 1950s, complicated race relations and violence are at the center. Gorra writes that in 1886 there had been a massacre in Spencer’s hometown, where more than 20 blacks were shot dead at the local courthouse. “The bullet holes remained visible until the 1990s, and as a child she always wondered about them, puzzled at not being able to get adults to tell her what had happened.
Gorra continues: “The novel portrays the everyday racism of white society, ventriloquizes the spitting vehemence of the speech of its characters. And then Spencer does something more: She describes her own rising generation as one that in private could almost seem progressive, but in public preached segregation. She names the conscious hypocrisy of the world to which she belonged, in which political expediency could excuse everything. Some white readers have called her a traitor, and her Vanderbilt teacher Donald Davidson, a Confederate apologist, refused to speak to her again.
The Pulitzer Prize judges unanimously recommended “The Voice at the Back Door” for the Fiction Prize. According to the cover of the new book, however, Pulitzer’s board of directors decided not to award a prize, and that decision was never sufficiently explained. Perhaps it was “out of fear that Spencer’s racial subject was too inflammatory for the national climate at the time.”
Too late for the Pulitzer, but the new volume of Spencer’s work gives us another chance to rejoice in his courage and his beautiful stories.
DG Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m. and other times.