Elizabeth Spencer established herself as one of the major fiction writers of the Southern Renaissance, a writer whose subjects and preoccupations have kept pace with the times through which she has lived, while her style has remained unique. Throughout her career, Spencer has been particularly interested in the influence of memory, the sense of place, and the power of tradition in the life of the individual. Although in theme and complexity she reminds critics of fellow Mississippian William Faulkner and in subtlety of Henry James, no comparisons do justice to Spencer’s art, for, as her readers inevitably realize, the voice in Spencer’s fiction is unmistakably her own.
In terms of tone, Spencer’s fiction might be described as a combination of disciplined detachment from her subject matter and passionate attachment to her southern roots, to lush, semitropical natural settings, to the rich language of born storytellers, and to the conviction that the past dwells in the present. Spencer is much admired for her craftsmanship, which enables her to handle complexities of time, memory, and imagination so deftly that the shifts of focus are almost imperceptible. It is this combination of intellectual power and disciplined skill that ensures Spencer permanent recognition as one of the important writers of her generation.
For the subject matter of her novels and novellas, Spencer often chooses issues tied to a particular place and time; for example, The Voice at the Back Door (1956) deals with changing attitudes toward race after World War II; The Salt Line (1984) describes the transformation of the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Camille; and The Night Travellers (1991) examines the ongoing plight of Vietnam War activists. In most of Spencer’s short stories, however, the narrative is less clearly dependent on a particular time in history. Instead, Spencer concentrates on a brief period in an individual’s life, when that person comes to recognize some need or some truth.
The themes of Spencer’s short stories remain constant from her earliest works to her later ones. One of these themes pits the demands for social conformity, often expressed in the family, against an individual’s need for freedom; similarly, the conflict may be internalized, with the individual torn between two desires, one for security, the other for independence. A related theme is the search for identity, particularly by women, whose enslavement to conformity has been especially evident in the conservative South. In addition, there is always a moral element in a Spencer story; to her, evil is very real, and her characters make difficult choices between good and evil. Spencer also recognizes, however, the fact that fate, or chance, can restrict those choices. Finally, as a writer, she is conscious of the importance of imagination and memory as a part of life; these human faculties can torment or liberate her characters.
“The Little Brown Girl”
The imagination dominates the earliest story in The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, “The Little Brown Girl.” The story is told in the third person, but the point of view is limited to that of the seven-year-old white girl, Maybeth, who is charmed by a black man, Jim Williams, who works for her father. Maybeth loves Jim’s stories, some of which she knows he invented. She chooses, however, to believe that he has a little girl who is going to come and play with her. Even though her parents tell her that Jim is not telling the truth, and even though she half knows it, Maybeth lets herself think about the little girl and even gives Jim her own birthday money, supposedly to buy the little girl a dress. Prompted by Jim, she even sees a glimpse of her playmate in the yellow dress. At this point, frightened, Maybeth runs home to her mother’s arms. What Spencer leaves unstated is the source of Maybeth’s fear. Is it the fact that she can be so deceived by a friend, or is it that her imagination can be prompted to see the unseen? Obviously, Maybeth is too young to analyze her own reactions. Even with adult protagonists, Spencer frequently ends her short stories with this kind of uncertainty, which leaves room for the reader’s interpretation.
“First Dark” and “A Southern Landscape” illustrate the conflict between conformity and independence, the security to be found in family and home and the freedom to be experienced when one escapes. In “First Dark,” Frances Harvey is surprised to find her elderly mother urging her marriage to Tommy Beavers, whose family background is distinctly inferior to that of the Harveys. In fact, Mrs. Harvey evidently commits suicide to make sure that she will not stand in the way of the marriage. What both Frances and Tommy know, however, is that the house in which Mrs. Harvey expected them to live would possess them and stifle them. At the end of the story, Tommy insists that Frances leave with him, and she chooses to do so.
“A Southern Landscape”
In “A Southern Landscape,” however, the earliest of the Marilee Summerall stories, Spencer reveals her very real appreciation of those things that never change, symbolized by Windsor, an antebellum mansion in ruins, and by Foster Hamilton, whom Marilee is dating. Like the mansion, Foster has grace. He so admires Marilee’s mother, his ideal of southern womanhood, that simply the suggestion of her presence can shock him into instant sobriety. Foster, too, is already in ruins, joyfully addicted to drink. Years later, when she tells the story, Marilee rejoices that some things have not changed, among them, the mansion Windsor, the heavenward-pointing hand on a Presbyterian church, and Foster’s addiction. Obviously, Spencer is not arguing for alcoholism; her point, instead, has to do with permanence: “I feel the need of a land, of a sure terrain, of a sort of permanent landscape of the heart.” Spencer does realize that this sense of a sure...
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