Elizabeth Spencer Spencer, Elizabeth (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elizabeth Spencer 1921–

American novelist and short story writer.

Born and educated in Mississippi, Spencer is admittedly influenced by Faulkner and what she calls the "mystic community" of the South. However, extended visits to Italy, the setting of her best known novella, The Light in the Piazza, and her residence in Canada have broadened the scope of her fiction.

(See also Contemporary Author, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed., Something about the Author, Vol. 14, and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6: American Novelists since World War II.)

Ernest Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Fire in the Morning" is, to be trite, a promising first novel. The chief virtue of this tale of a two-generation vendetta in a Southern town is that Miss Spencer has something to say—the simple if not original proposition that evil is no remedy for evil—and that her fiction gives life to this proposition…. [Miss Spencer] is heavily influenced by Carson McCullers, by Eudora Welty, perhaps by Truman Capote. Southern Gothic may, I suspect, be as bad an influence for young writers as Kafka is or as Hemingway used to be. The book, however, is entertaining, sensitive, and skilful; and if one were ignorant of the younger Southern school, it would appear startlingly original. (pp. 353-54)

Ernest Jones, "Some Recent Novels: 'Fire in the Morning'," in The Nation, Vol. 167, No. 13, September 25, 1948, pp. 353-54.

Harrison Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The plot of "Fire in the Morning" is] the familiar story of the revival of a feud over property after it had lapsed for a generation. But the characters are in no way stock figures of a Southern melodrama. They are alive and vital, and the author is able to create an atmosphere of brooding suspense before she reveals the reasons for the antagonism of Kinloch for the family with whom his wife is spending too much of her time. If the author's pattern of Southern violence had been less stylized, and the denouement less fortunate for the virtuous and less destructive for the corrupt, the cause of realism would have been better served. As it stands, Miss Spencer's novel is an exciting story, well told. It is her manner of writing it that reveals her true talent. If her next novel is as admirable in delineation of character and in dialogue, she can afford to drop the complications of an involved and conventional plot.

Harrison Smith, "New Faces, Old Story," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1948, copyright renewed © 1976, by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 45, November 6, 1948, p. 30.

Anthony West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["This Crooked Way"] is an account of the life of Amos Dudley, a Mississippi farm boy, whose simple desire to have money is complicated by a religious experience, in the nature of a revelation, that comes to him at an early age…. Amos's knowledge that his god despises him and his ambitions is compensated for by his talent for getting what he wants….

The problem of shaking off the stern and jealous god who curses all his good fortune with guilt remains, though, and it takes some dark, involved, and Faulknerian doings to exorcise him…. [Miss Spencer] writes a limpid and attractive prose, accurate and sharp about tastes, smells, appearances, and emotions, which is essentially Southern and which pleasingly enlarges one's picture of the South. (p. 129)

Miss Spencer's story is an original one, in both plot and incident, and she handles her ideas about the inward decay of a religious enthusiast with real imagination and invention. But because so much of what she has to say has been put into poor words and so many of her ideas and observations have been decked out in the rags and tatters of intellectual poverty, her otherwise excellent book has all the appearance of being just another Southern novel, one out of a thousand assemblages of familiar material, a little sexy, a little violent, a little odd. It is much better than that, and one can only regret that Miss Spencer, with her obvious gifts for doing something finer, should have decided to hide her light under this beat-up old bushel. (p. 130)

Anthony West, "Sweet Talk and Sour," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1952, copyright renewed © 1980, by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with permission of New York Magazine), Vol. XXVIII, No. 5, March 22, 1952, pp. 129-33.∗

Robert Tallant

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The voice … Elizabeth Spencer refers to in the title of [The Voice at the Back Door] is of course the Southern Negro calling to his Southern white folks…. It is a poignant voice; it is sad and pleading; yet at the same time there is power in its demands for its rights. And Miss Spencer makes clear its questions are right and true.

There have been many novels on this same subject, but this one is written with special perception and understanding….

And Miss Spencer does not draw strong lines of demarcation. Her Negroes are not all angels, nor her white characters devils. She knows her South, her country, and she draws it with justice….

[Elizabeth Spencer] writes with clarity and honesty, often with beauty. Her people live, and her ear for dialogue is fine. She has a magnificent sense of narrative and the gift of sympathy.

She also has humor. As serious as is this book in theme there are moments of mirth and gaiety. There is vitality too; the book has a strong and vibrant liveliness. And do not think it is entirely concerned with the current Negro and white problem. This is an entire town alive, with people alive, and all their real problems, not to be solved easily by a word or a law. Here are all their morals and mores, sometimes peculiar to outsiders, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes brutal.

Robert Tallant, "Call to Conscience," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1956 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIX, No. 42, October 20, 1956, p. 18.

Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

No two ways about it—"The Voice at the Back Door" … is a practically perfect novel. Miss Spencer has a thrilling story to tell and she tells it quickly and modestly, never raising her voice and never slurring a syllable. Her subject is as old as the hills: what happens when a man of good will consents to accept the responsibility of power. The gulf between entertaining ideas about right and wrong and being obliged to act on those ideas is notoriously great, and if the man who attempts to bridge the gulf is exceptional only in his goodness and energy the results are apt to be disastrous. Miss Spencer makes us see this, and then something more. For though the just man who is her hero meets a fearful doom, he is not defeated; he has had a few moments, at least, in which to taste the victory of deliberately choosing right over wrong "in front of people daring you to do what you believe in and they don't." And later there are other victories, which Miss Spencer makes us see are no less his for being unknown to him. "The Voice at the Back Door" is not a tragic novel—is not even a sad one, despite all the blood spilled and the hearts bruised or broken—because the author takes what is, in these dark days, a prodigiously optimistic view of the human predicament….

The setting of "The Voice at the Back Door" is a small town in Mississippi, and the prospective reader is begged not to be put off by that perhaps gruesome-sounding fact…. [We] must be careful to feel no unreasoning prejudice against Mississippi as Parnassus; in another decade it may be Oklahoma's turn, or Utah's. As for...

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Elizabeth Janeway

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Light in the Piazza"] is almost a very good book, and I nearly believed it…. [The] way in which [Elizabeth Spencer's] novel falls just short of being very good seems to me important….

The book is built around a very Jamesian situation. A devoted American mother is in Florence with her daughter—a beautiful and, at first glance, entirely normal young girl—who has been the victim of an accident which left her with the mind of a 10-year-old….

In Florence a young man falls in love with Clara. He is Italian, middle-class, devoted, innocent of spirit. Of course it is impossible….

[But at the end of the novel] Clara is blissfully married, and her new...

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Susan M. Black

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Spencer's beautiful tale [The Light in the Piazza] is quietly told but filled with suspense. Subtly and intricately the author takes us backward in time even as she takes us forward, until there is not a character or a relationship we do not perfectly fathom, nor an aspect of this tragic situation which has not been explored…. As Jamesian as the thematic notion that Americans confronted with Europe react drastically, is Miss Spencer's attitude of detachment in dealing with her characters and plot and her sensitive apprehension of value judgments. Jamesian too is the prose itself, beginning with the opening sentence: "On a June afternoon at sunset, an American woman and her daughter fended their way along a crowded street in Florence…."

Susan M. Black, "A Dream in Italy," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1960 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 143, No. 24, December 5, 1960, p. 20.

Nash K. Burger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Elizabeth Spencer is like William Faulkner in at least three respects]: her setting is the hill and Delta country of north Mississippi; she ranges widely in time and society within this milieu; and her narratives, in the Southern and nineteenth-century tradition, are rich with happenings and complicating incidents. In her humor, sensitivity and clarity, her sharp, discerning eye and ear, her fondness for neat and intricate plotting, she is herself. (p. 351)

In Fire in the Morning, Miss Spencer presents Negro-white relations as they are, not as a "problem" calling forth such question-begging epithets as "guilt" and "hate" as so many ideologists would have it, and not in the simplified,...

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Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Elizabeth Spencer's] career began with three novels about her native South…. I have read one of them, The Voice at the Back Door,… which I remember with respect as a well-modeled, empathetic work. Subsequently she has lived much in Italy and has written two short novels about Americans living there. The Light in the Piazza (which was filmed) seemed to me unevenly written and thematically hollow. Its story was a sentimental grotesque…. (p. 27)

Now Miss Spencer presents Knights and Dragons, another short novel about an American woman in Italy, and it seems to me a further deterioration, diminished in plot interest. This time she is concerned with neurosis, not...

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Carlos Baker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a stylist, Miss Spencer is one of the best we have; as an analyst of motivations and organizer of narratives, she has had her ups and downs. The peaks of her previous achievement were "The Voice at the Back Door" and a novella called "Light in the Piazza." Two years ago, in "Knights and Dragons," she entered a valley. The settings were sharply defined, the weather was actual, but the people were oddly wraithlike, their preoccupations so subtly attenuated that one wondered what it was all about. She displayed welcome affinities with James and E. M. Forster, with Rosamond Lehmann, but could not evade—at least not wholly—that kind of preciosity which unduly rarefied the later novels of Virginia Woolf. Now, in "No...

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Sara Blackburn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Most of the stories in Ship Island and Other Stories] are about people who are consciously but helplessly trapped and ruined by their environments or, conversely, about those who are able to lift the spell by walking away from it. Instead of describing what is happening to her characters, Miss Spencer, almost by signals, makes the reader not only know what is happening but also become the character's ghostly accomplice—or the other way around. Her methods are magical rather than psychological, and, along the way, she isolates and illuminates particular facets of Southern white culture with a dreamlike intensity which is startling in its power. This collection is that rare volume that truly deserves to...

(The entire section is 145 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is no questioning Elizabeth Spencer's talent, but her stories [in Ship Island] are very much in the New Yorker belt; there is an almost indefinable polish which just takes off the most distressing or challenging edges. She writes with a slow, casual sensitiveness—unobtrusively stylish—about the Deep South at the present time; but current conflicts and disorders seem very far away. Something of the melancholy grandeur of the South remains: children are given "full-blown Confederate names", elderly and dependent mothers and aunts keep their daughters in vast decaying houses well into pathetic spinsterhood, there is nostalgia for the old, splendid family homes. Her characters are sometimes...

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Patricia S. Coyne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elizabeth Spencer overindulges [in The Snare]. Her heroine, Julia Garrett—a fine girl, good bones, good blood (molested in childhood by her adoptive grandfather)—weaves her surefooted way through a New Orleans world of aristocrats, murderers, millionaires, jazzmen, junkies, and one hopped-up Manson-type preacher, acting on all the wrong impulses as she goes….

But despite the lurid story line, there is no special attempt at pornography here, and there's every indication that the author is attempting to make a social statement garnished with artistic pretensions. "She saw too much and could have screamed with the seeing. All too much seeing is a failure of love…. The great life snare,...

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Rayburn S. Moore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A novel about life in contemporary New Orleans, The Snare delves into the New Orleans milieu—setting, characters, topics (the conflict between the French heritage and Anglo-Saxon values; tradition; love; jazz), but these factors appear to be based upon observation and intellectual comprehension rather than upon what Allen Tate has called "knowledge carried to the heart." All of this is by way of suggesting that Miss Spencer's latest novel is not likely to appeal to a large general audience, for whatever may be said about The Snare's subject matter, its chief contribution is in style and technique.

The New Orleans setting, for example, is carefully realized, but few characters seem...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I think the South has … a native tendency to the mythical and to the imaginative and to the primitive…. I think this has something to do with the South's more fundamentalist approach to religion, that the things of religion are to be taken literally, not rationalized, but to be taken instinctively and in an immediate sense. This is part of it. The other part comes from being a land-based society that is more immediately in touch with natural things. (p. 436)

I wasn't satirizing [the South's Bible Belt brand of religious fundamentalism in This Crooked Way]. I was trying to come to terms with it as a valid human experience and seeing where that took me. That was really the theme of that...

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Fraser Sutherland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Better than most writers Spencer recognizes her true material, which is to be found in the warm landscapes of Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Italy….

Italy gave her Knights & Dragons, The Light in the Piazza, and some of her best stories. Thematically, Italy and the American South provide her with a form of fictional snakes and ladders: the snake that tempted Eve, the Jacob's ladder that angels ascended and descended. As a fictional locale, Montreal has been less than paradisiacal….

[However,] living in Quebec has had an oblique impact on her work. She finds that Vieux Montréal reminds her of New Orleans, and what may be her best novel, The...

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Reynolds Price

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer" is a collection of nearly 35 years work. At] first sight the mass of [Spencer's] short work does seem willing to take a back seat to [that of] its more famous compatriots [Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor]. The established resonators of what may be called Indoor Southern Fiction are struck again and again—dead-accurately, amusingly, touchingly, but with a little of the air of dutiful scale work. Even in a story as early as "First Dark," however, [Spencer] has begun to draw from her own throat a distinctive timbre in which to sing familiar scores. It's a voice without the enveloping size or the ceaseless curiosity of Welty's and certainly without the willful harshness of...

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Garrett Epps

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"There have got to be some things you can count on, would be an ordinary way to put it," says Marilee Summerall in Elizabeth Spencer's "A Southern Landscape." "I'd rather say that I feel the need of a land, of sure terrain, of a sort of permanent landscape of the heart."

This is the cri de coeur of many Southern writers. It appears in the fourth story of this black volume [The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer], the fruit of more than three decades of a distinguished writing career. The reader may fear that the remaining 300 pages will be trapped in that landscape, Spencer's native Mississippi. But persevere: by the next story, the pastoral landscape gives way to a world of new suburbs,...

(The entire section is 782 words.)