Elizabeth Spencer Spencer, Elizabeth (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Elizabeth Spencer 1921-

American short fiction writer and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Spencer's short fiction career through 1997.

Spencer is noted for her short stories and novellas set in the American South, Montreal, and Italy. Her fiction is thought to exhibit a Southern sensibility, and she is praised for her use of evocative dialogue, descriptive language, and a strong sense of place. Although her early work garnered mixed reviews, she is now recognized as an important American author and is often commended for her mastery of the short story form.

Biographical Information

Spencer was born in Carrollton, Mississippi, a small town invoked in many of her stories. Spencer attended Vanderbilt University, studying under Donald Davidson, and was part of the later stages of the Southern Renascence in American literature. After receiving her M.A. in 1943 from Vanderbilt, Spencer taught college English from 1943 to 1945, and then worked as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean from 1945 to 1946. From 1948 to 1951, she taught English at the University of Mississippi. During the winter of 1955-56, Spencer lived in New York City, enmeshing herself in the literary scene there. She travelled to Italy on a Guggenheim fellowship in 1953. There, Spencer met John Rusher, an Englishman, who she married in 1956. They settled in Montreal and then subsequently in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Spencer has been on the faculty of such universities as North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Concordia University in Montreal. In 1983 Spencer received the Award of Merit Medal for the Short Story from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Although Spencer is often perceived as a regional writer, some of her best-known short fiction is set in locales other than the American South. Her novellas set in Italy focus on American female expatriates undergoing life crises. For example, in the novella The Light in the Piazza (1960), an American mother debates whether to allow her mentally-stunted daughter to marry an Italian suitor. Eventually she relents, disregarding the wishes of her absent husband and negotiating the dowry with the groom’s flirtatious father. In Knights and Dragons (1965), an American diplomatic attaché, Martha Ingram, lives in exile in Italy to avoid the presence and psychological influence of her ex-husband. In an attempt to put her past behind her, she has an affair with a married American economist and forges a friendship with another American, her boss at the American embassy. Many of Spencer’s stories are set in the South, and reflect the importance of place and memory in her work. “A Southern Landscape,” the first of her stories featuring the female protagonist Marilee Summerall, focuses on Marilee’s memories of her high-school romance with an older, alcoholic man. In “Sharon,” Marilee recalls a time in her youth when she discovered her white uncle’s long-term romance with his black housekeeper. The realization of her uncle’s hidden life forces her to reevaluate her familial relationships and life outside her sheltered world. The thirty-three short stories in The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer (1981) are arranged in the order in which they were written, thus tracing Spencer's artistic evolution and displaying some of her principal motifs. The publication of five more stories in Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories in 1988 reaffirmed judgments about her mastery of the form. Spencer's primary themes concern the tension between the individual and the group, and how family or community ties support but also bind the individual in search of identity. As several commentators have pointed out, this interest in community is a characteristically Southern concern, and it defines Spencer's work even when she sets her stories in Europe or Canada. Critics have further noted that two thematic patterns emerge in Spencer's short fiction. First, as Spencer has continued to explore the relationship between self and community in her work, she has come to focus increasingly on her characters' inner lives, specifically on how they are affected by the surrounding community. Second, Spencer's stories display an increasing technical sophistication in their use of structure and point of view to mirror the author's concerns. In fact, scholars note that readings of Spencer's corpus of short fiction suggests an organic connection between her increasing technical mastery of the form and a growing spiritual acceptance of the complexities of human relations.

Critical Reception

Spencer’s short fiction meets with varied critiques. Several critics discuss how her work fails to engage the reader, citing Spencer's craftsmanship as both a virtue and a fault. Some critics deride her short stories and novellas as overly precise and too finely crafted. Moreover, they find Spencer's characters remote. The complexity of her works—their shifting perspectives and open-ended plots—is also grounds for critical contention. Robert Scholes stated that the stories in Ship Island (1968) posed an interpretative quandary. Though he praised Spencer's craftsmanship and her careful use of words, he felt this quality to be sterile and found the stories lacking in significance. He further detected in Spencer's work a vague inconclusiveness and tentativeness, forcing one to search in vain for meaning. Yet, other critics note Spencer’s adept and evocative use of language and detailed description of place. After the publication of The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer in 1981, commentators demonstrated a greater appreciation of Spencer's work. Scholars offer feminist interpretation of her writing, and commend her exploration of moral and cultural issues. Critics also explore the major thematic concerns in Spencer's work, particularly the conflict between self and community, the function of memory, and the importance of gender and familial roles in society. Spencer's insight into human behavior and relationships is also a further topic for critical discussion. Scholars debate Spencer’s place within the tradition of Southern literature, and her writing is sometimes compared to other Southern fiction luminaries such as Eudora Welty and William Faulkner.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

The Light in the Piazza 1960; also published as The Light in the Piazza and Other Italian Tales, 1991

Knights and Dragons 1965

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

Fire in the Morning (novel) 1948

This Crooked Way (novel) 1952

The Voice at the Back Door (novel) 1956

No Place for an Angel (novel) 1967

The Snare (novel) 1972

The Salt Line (novel) 1984

The Night Travellers (novel) 1991

Landscapes of the Heart: A Memoir (memoir) 1997

Virgilia Peterson (review date 27 November 1960)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Peterson, Virgilia. Review of The Light in the Piazza, by Elizabeth Spencer. New York Herald Tribune Books (27 November 1960): 30.

[In the following review, Peterson asserts that The Light in the Piazza fails to engage the reader.]

Elizabeth Spencer is a writer of distinction and delicacy. Cradled in that South which is providing us with so much of the best in contemporary American literature, she has produced three novels and a number of short stories fine enough to place her well beyond the honorable but inconclusive category of women novelists as such. With her last book—The Voice at the Back Door—she emerged as a notable talent. It...

(The entire section is 707 words.)

Susan M. Black (essay date 5 December 1960)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Black, Susan M. “A Dream in Italy.” New Republic 143 (5 December 1960): 20.

[In the following excerpt, Black describes The Light in the Piazza as both beautiful and brief.]

Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara are in Italy for a holiday. As a child, Clara was kicked in the head by a pony. Her chronological age is 26; her mental age is 10. Clara meets and quickly falls in love with a Florentine youth, Fabrizio Naccarelli. She knows no Italian, so how is Fabrizio to know her dreary secret? Miss Spencer's novel dramatizes Margaret Johnson's dilemma. She knows that the right thing to do is to put an end to the romance by telling the Naccarelli family...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Max Cosman (review date 13 January 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Cosman, Max. “Notable Novelette.” Commonweal 73, no. 16 (13 January 1961): 417-18.

[In the following review, Cosman praises the controlled sentiment of The Light in the Piazza.]

If Elizabeth Spencer needs any proof of her right to the praise former efforts like Fire in the Morning and A Voice at the Back Door have gained her, she has it in The Light in the Piazza. Though this latest offering is hardly more than a novelette, it is still a notable piece of work.

What strikes one first is its delicate perception of emotion. A quality of this sort is perhaps to be expected. What is not, and is therefore the more...

(The entire section is 774 words.)

Reynolds Price (essay date 5 April 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Price, Reynolds. “New Novels.” Punch 240 (5 April 1961): 553-54.

[In the following excerpt, Price asserts that The Light in the Piazza might be more effective as a short story instead of a novella.]

This has been a disappointing week; by that I mean that I have never become excited while reading, never hurried back to a novel, never wanted to push any of the batch under my friends' eyes. I suppose there is an inevitable gap between the reviewer who says “I have read all this before,” and the reader who says “You may have but I haven't. Your job is to read novels; mine isn't.” Of course, the very good or very bad book is easy enough to deal...

(The entire section is 294 words.)

Patrick Cruttwell (essay date autumn 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Cruttwell, Patrick. “Fiction Chronicle.” Hudson Review 18, no. 3 (autumn 1965): 442-46.

[In the following excerpt, Cruttwell regards Knights and Dragons as “witty.”]

When I last wrote the “fiction chronicle” for this journal, I raised the war-cry of “Three cheers for the Puritans, and may they soon return to us!” One or two people, subsequently, asked if I really meant this absurd or shocking sentiment. At the time, it was not said with total seriousness; now, after another immersion in the ocean of contemporary fiction, I am not sure if I should not mean it very seriously indeed. It does seem to me that the liberation of literature—and...

(The entire section is 2153 words.)

Hilton Anderson (review date May 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Anderson, Hilton. Review of This Crooked Way, Fire in the Morning, and Ship Island and Other Stories, by Elizabeth Spencer. Journal of Mississippi History 31, no. 2 (May 1969): 139-41.

[In the following review, Anderson deems Spencer as one of the finest contemporary writers.]

Elizabeth Spencer is probably the finest Mississippi novelist writing today. Her first novel, Fire in the Morning, was one of the best novels of 1948; and her second, This Crooked Way (1952), was thought by some critics to be even better. Now both of these novels are back in print, along with her new collection of short stories, Ship Island and Other...

(The entire section is 586 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (essay date 17 July 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Polish and Pathos.” Times Literary Supplement (17 July 1969): 769.

[In the following excerpt, the critic provides a stylistic examination of Spencer's stories in Ship Island.]

Official patrons of the arts in Britain might give some thought to the state of the short story here and in the United States. Here it is virtually dead as a serious art form, sustained only by one or two literary magazines and the occasional willingness of publishers to produce the lesser works of their celebrated names. In America, the form thrives, kept very much alive by a variety of large middlebrow journals, prosperous campus quarterlies and periodical volumes like Best...

(The entire section is 352 words.)

Barbara A. Bannon (review date 19 December 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Bannon, Barbara. Review of The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, by Elizabeth Spencer. Publishers Weekly 218, no. 25 (19 December 1980): 40.

[In the following review, Bannon contends that Spencer is a stellar Southern author.]

The 33 stories in this impressive four-decade retrospective collection [The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer] make superb reading, and show why Elizabeth Spencer, author of Light in the Piazza, is considered an outstanding Southern writer. She belongs in the “rare company” of Katherine Mansfield, says Eudora Welty in her introduction. Each tale, be it concerned with shadow or with light, is a gem. Fine, powerful...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

Hilton Anderson (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Anderson, Hilton. “Elizabeth Spencer's Two Italian Novellas.” Notes on Mississippi Writers 13, no. 1 (1981): 18-35.

[In the following essay, Anderson contrasts Spencer's Italian novellas with the work of Henry James and surveys the critical reaction to Spencer's works.]

When Elizabeth Spencer arrived in Italy in 1953 after receiving a Guggenheim fellowship, she was already author of two successful novels and working on her third one. All three of these novels were set in the South and dealt with Southern characters and somewhat peculiarly Southern situations; however, her living in Italy and her marriage to an Englishman removed her more or less permanently...

(The entire section is 5978 words.)

Clara Claiborne Park (essay date winter 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Park, Clara Claiborne. “A Personal Road.” Hudson Review 34, no. 4 (winter 1981): 601-05.

[In the following essay, Park discusses the American South as a major theme in Spencer's fiction.]

“The good South, bestowing blessings at the cradle of storytellers, endowed her most tenderly with a sense of place.” It is next to impossible to write about the fiction of Southern writers without the phrase “a sense of place”—if Eudora Welty hadn't used it in her foreword to these collected stories of Elizabeth Spencer's,1 I would have had to. “The best of American fiction has always been regional,” wrote Flannery O'Connor in an essay on this...

(The entire section is 2460 words.)

Atlantic Monthly (review date March 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, by Elizabeth Spencer. Atlantic Monthly 247, no. 3 (March 1981): 90-1.

[In the following review, the critic explores stylistic aspects of Spencer's work, including her powers of observation and sensitivity.]

The thirty-three stories in this notable collection [The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer], representing an equal number of years of the author's interest in “how you take up residence in the world,” have a curiously literary quality. Assured, sympathetic, thoughtful, and utterly merciless in their revelation of individual foibles, they often seem highly observed, as though the narrator were a...

(The entire section is 295 words.)

Keith Maillard (review date March 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Maillard, Keith. Review of The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, by Elizabeth Spencer. Quill and Quire 47, no. 3 (March 1981): 59.

[In the following review of The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, Maillard discusses the notion of “secondary realities” in Spencer's stories and maintains that they show the mystery that exists beneath the surface of human existence.]

Elizabeth Spencer grew up in Mississippi, lived in Italy and settled in Montreal. Her collected stories, written between 1944 and 1979, spread across time and geography, moving, by the centre of the book, to a sophisticated urban present, but returning, by the end, to where they began: the...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Michael A. Haynes (review date 1 March 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Haynes, Michael A. Review of The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, by Elizabeth Spencer. Library Journal 106 (1 March 1981): 578.

[In the following review, Haynes notes that Spencer's stories have a strong sense of place and realistic characters.]

The 33 stories collected here [in The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer], representing nearly four decades of writing, are varied in tone, theme, and setting, but the best are those set in the South. Like Faulkner, a fellow Southerner, Spencer has a strong sense of place and a feeling that the past lives on in the present. And her characters—like a little boy who becomes an “instrument of destruction,” a...

(The entire section is 163 words.)

Anne Collins (essay date 6 April 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Collins, Anne. “The Enduring Privilege of Omission: A Crop of Short Stories—Magic, Little Lifesaving Wonderments of the Mind.” Maclean's 94, no. 14 (6 April 1981): 58-60.

[In the following excerpt, Collins surveys Spencer's short fiction.]

You have to be a bit of a sensationalist to like short stories, a junkie for literary thrills and chills. Short stories are where writers become immoderate, where they shed the clothes of their full-length intentions and parade stark naked as storytellers, crisis-mongers, whim-pedlars, poets. Reviewers lament the reputed death of the short story—readers, they say, don't read them, magazines have abandoned them. What...

(The entire section is 620 words.)

Sally A. Lodge (review date 26 June 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Lodge, Sally A. Review of Marilee, by Elizabeth Spencer. Publishers Weekly 219, no. 26 (26 June 1981): 58.

[In the following review, Lodge offers a favorable assessment of Marilee.]

Spencer's simple, sturdy prose makes this [Marilee] a memorable, if all too short, collection of stories. There are three tales here, told by Marilee, a young woman raised in a Mississippi town. Marilee's subjects are her family and close friends and their sleepy, Southern small-town lifestyle. Spencer depicts them all with clarity, humor and warmth, leaving the reader impatient to know more about these folk, their background and their lives. In the first story Marilee...

(The entire section is 151 words.)

Margaret Wimsatt (review date 4 July 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wimsatt, Margaret. Review of The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, by Elizabeth Spencer. America 145, no. 1 (4 July 1981): 19-20.

[In the following review, Wimsatt praises Spencer's powers of description and places her in the company of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, claiming that her stories convey a sense of lurking evil.]

One lasting ingredient of “Southern charm” is Southern conversation, read or spoken and heard. The conversation depends on learning: Certain bits of Cato and Seneca absorbed, Virgil too and Horace, by the grandfathers, passed on a bit diluted to the sons, picked up and remixed by the womenfolk. The ear is all-important, ear...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date winter 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, by Elizabeth Spencer. Virginia Quarterly Review 58, no. 1 (winter 1982): 18.

[In the below review, the critic praises Spencer's descriptive sense.]

The high quality of these stories [in The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer], which are presented in the order they were written, is uncommonly consistent. The first stories, written as early as 1944, are far from being apprentice-pieces; and the last, as late as 1977, do not betray any waning of the writer's abilities. From start to finish, this author knows exactly what story she wants to tell; her power over her characters, subjects, and scenes is unfaltering....

(The entire section is 174 words.)

Robert Buffington (essay date spring 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Buffington, Robert. “Ways Religious, Tedious, Fabulous, and Labyrinthine.” Sewanee Review 90, no. 2 (spring 1982): 264-73.

[In the following excerpt, Buffington describes the stories in The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer as unsettling.]

The distinguished authors of these four cumulative collections [The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon, The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, and The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty] were born between 1895 (Caroline Gordon) and 1921 (Elizabeth Spencer). Three are southerners. All are women. Artists all, they resist much further generalization. No...

(The entire section is 1030 words.)

Robert Phillips (essay date 25 March 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Phillips, Robert. “Missed Opportunities, Endless Possibilities.” Commonweal 110, no. 6 (25 March 1983): 188-89.

[In the following excerpt, Phillips claims that the collection Marilee proposes the interesting idea that Spencer might have been Marilee herself if she had stayed in the South.]

The road not taken: The theme occasionally gives rise to important art. I allude not to Robert Frost's famous poem (which merely posits the thesis but does not explore it). Rather, I mean works such as Henry James's The Jolly Corner, in which the protagonist—clearly James—returns from London where he has lived for decades to explore the New York house he...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

D. J. Enright (review date 15 July 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Enright, D. J. “The Landscape of the Heart.” Times Literary Supplement (15 July 1983): 745.

[In the following review, Enright offers a varied critique of The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer.]

Elizabeth Spencer was born in Mississippi (“‘the South’, our much perused literary land”, as Eudora Welty puts it in her amiable but brief foreword), was “indefinitely detained” in Italy, and now lives in Montreal. These are the terrains of her stories, not invented, but found or given.

The new reader of this generous selection of stories [The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer] drawn from the period 1944 to 1977—mind still virgin, apart...

(The entire section is 2082 words.)

Paul Bailey (essay date 14 August 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Bailey, Paul. “Finger-lickin' Good.” Observer (14 August 1983): 25.

[In the following excerpt, Bailey explores the theme of missed opportunities in Spencer's stories.]

Whilst reading Bobbie Ann Mason, I was sometimes reminded of another Southern celebrator of small-town life—the wonderful Eudora Welty, who also finds nothing too trivial for her consideration. Welty provides a typically generous Foreword to the serenely assured stories of her friend Elizabeth Spencer, which are now available in paperback. A lifetime's work is contained in this fat volume, from ‘The Little Brown Girl’ of 1944 to ‘The Girl Who Loved Horses’ of 1977. What is...

(The entire section is 303 words.)

Karen Evoy (essay date fall 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Evoy, Karen. “Marilee: ‘A Permanent Landscape of the Heart.’” Mississippi Quarterly 36, no. 4 (fall 1983): 569-78.

[In the following essay, Evoy analyzes the narrative voice in the stories comprising Marilee.]

Marilee, the recently published volume of three interrelated short stories by Elizabeth Spencer, centers around one of the author's most endearing and most Southern characters. Originally published in The New Yorker and The Southern Review, “A Southern Landscape” (1960), “Sharon” (1970) and “Indian Summer” (1978) were first brought together in The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, an impressive body of...

(The entire section is 3797 words.)

Brandon Russell (review date 9 December 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Russell, Brandon. Review of The Short Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, by Elizabeth Spencer. Times Educational Supplement, no. 3519 (9 December 1983): 25.

[In the following review, Russell regards Spencer as a representative Southern writer.]

Here is the voice of the American South: evocative, rich in imagery, mythic yet free from the sense of doomed history, tainted blood and lost innocence which so often pervades Southern literature. There is rarely guilt in these stories [The Short Stories of Elizabeth Spencer]: they are an affirmation of, and revelling in, the sheer pleasure of simply being. While the characters can recognize pain and doubt in...

(The entire section is 269 words.)

Neil Randall (review date March 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Randall, Neil. Review of The Light in the Piazza, by Elizabeth Spencer. Quill and Quire 52, no. 3 (March 1986): 71.

[In the following review of The Light in the Piazza, Randall praises Spencer for her understanding of the ties between character and setting.]

Elizabeth Spencer's The Light in the Piazza collects three stories about Americans living in Italy. In all three, Spencer demonstrates her remarkable understanding of how characters are intimately bound to their setting, whether they are alien or native to that setting. Of the three stories, only one fails to satisfy. Knights and Dragons, the least successful of the three, is...

(The entire section is 303 words.)

I. M. Owen (essay date May 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Owen, I. M. “Writers Out of Residence.” Books In Canada 15, no. 4 (May 1986): 48-9.

[In the following excerpt, Owen praises both the clarity and the ambiguity of The Light in the Piazza.]

I've always thought that the most expressive lines in the “Canadian Boat Song” published anonymously in 1829 are not the much-quoted ones about the lone shieling but the refrain:

Fair are these meads, these hoary woods
                                                                                                                        are grand,
But we are exiles from our fathers' land.

(Or words to that effect; there doesn't seem to...

(The entire section is 586 words.)

Publisher's Weekly (review date 3 June 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Jack of Diamonds, by Elizabeth Spencer. Publisher's Weekly 233, no. 22 (3 June 1988): 70.

[In the following review, the critic offers a laudable assessment of Jack of Diamonds.]

Of the five outstanding stories in this new collection [Jack of Diamonds] by a master of the genre, at least three qualify as classics. All are beautifully honed, animated by distinctive characters and deeply expressive of the mysterious forces that bring individuals together and of the secrets at the heart of people's lives. Ella Mason, the narrator of the beautifully paced, emotionally charged The Cousins, reminisces about a pivotal summer when she and...

(The entire section is 264 words.)

Marcia Tager (review date July 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Tager, Marcia. Review of Jack of Diamonds, by Elizabeth Spencer. Library Journal 113, no. 12 (July 1988): 96-7.

[In the following review, Tager provides a positive critique of Jack of Diamonds.]

Longer than average, Spencer's five stories [in Jack of Diamonds] are dense, richly layered, and a long distance away from the minimalist tales so pervasive in modern collections. Two stories deal with the members of a cohesive group: Cousins is about five young cousins from the same small town who travel to Europe together, while “Business Venture” examines the insularity of a group that shields its members from the changes the world has...

(The entire section is 148 words.)

Elizabeth Spencer and Amanda Smith (interview date 9 September 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Spencer, Elizabeth, and Amanda Smith. “Publisher's Weekly Interviews: Elizabeth Spencer.” Publishers Weekly 234, no. 11 (9 September 1988): 111-12.

[In the following interview, Spencer offers insight into her life and work.]

Elizabeth Spencer is part of the grand tradition of Southern writers. The distinguished novelist and short-story writer, author of such works as The Light in the Piazza and The Voice at the Back Door, Spencer has just published the latest work in her 40-year career, a masterly collection of short stories, Jack of Diamonds (Fiction Forecasts, June 5).

Spencer lives now in the South, after...

(The entire section is 2091 words.)

Robert Phillips (review date 1 October 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Phillips, Robert. Review of Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories, by Elizabeth Spencer. America 159, no. 8 (1 October 1988): 202-04.

[In the following review of Jack of Diamonds, Phillips provides a succinct overview of Spencer's literary output.]

Some fiction writers are equally skillful in the short story as in the novel. One thinks immediately of Hardy, Hemingway and Elizabeth Bowen. In our time John O'Hara, Bernard Malamud, Hortense Calisher, Eudora Welty, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates all have written stories that are at least as acclaimed as their best novels. This is no small feat, when one considers the totally different disciplines and...

(The entire section is 1178 words.)

Dan Pope (essay date autumn 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Pope, Dan. “The Centrality of Personal Memory.” Gettysburg Review 2 (autumn 1989): 694-702.

[In the following excerpt, Pope discusses how the past becomes an active force in Spencer's fiction.]

When I was young?—Ah, woful when!
Ah! for the change 'twixt Now and Then!

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In 1896 Marcel Proust wrote, in a letter to a friend: “It might be great, but it would not be natural, to live in our times as Tolstoy asks us to do. … At every moment of our life we are the descendants of ourselves, and the atavism which weighs on us is our past, preserved by habit.” The statement exactly characterizes Proust's...

(The entire section is 2241 words.)

Mark Royden Winchell (essay date October 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Winchell, Mark Royden. “A Golden Ball of Thread: The Achievement of Elizabeth Spencer.” Sewanee Review 97, no. 4 (October 1989): 580-86.

[In the following essay, Winchell offers an overview of Spencer's works.]

Running away from home may be the great theme of American literature. As Leslie Fiedler has been telling us for the past forty years, the novels we most honor embody the boy's dream of escaping what Irving called “petticoat government” for the freedom of an idealized masculine wilderness—whether it be the gothic forests of Cooper, the mythic oceans of Melville, the pastoral river of Twain, or the therapeutic fishing holes of Hemingway. When the...

(The entire section is 2810 words.)

Kliatt (review date January 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories, by Elizabeth Spencer. Kliatt 24, no. 1 (January 1990): 24.

[In the following review, the critic regards Jack of Diamonds as exemplary short fiction.]

In these five outstanding stories [in Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories], Spencer displays her talent for creating entire worlds within a few pages. Although known as a Southern writer, she evokes Italy, Montreal, and New York with flawless ease. Her focus, however, is on the critical moments that help define human relationships. In the title story, for example, a 17-year-old girl discovers that her parents' marriage was not all it seemed to be....

(The entire section is 172 words.)

Jessica Neely (essay date winter 1991-92)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Neely, Jessica. “Personal Allegiances.” Belles Lettres 7, no. 2 (winter 1991-92): 11-12.

[In the following essay, Neely elucidates the social and political issues found in The Night Travellers and Jack of Diamonds.]

Everything about Elizabeth Spencer's new novel, The Night Travellers, gives us cause for self-reflection. The red, white, and blue jacket cover appears from a distance to depict a wind-furled American flag. Reading the novel on the Washington, D.C. Metro, I caught people glancing curiously. Something patriotic? What new book is that? I immediately became self-conscious: This is not a hawkish book, I wanted to say. It's not an...

(The entire section is 1002 words.)

Terry Roberts (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Roberts, Terry. “Italy: Dream and Nightmare.” In Self and Community in the Fiction of Elizabeth Spencer, pp. 50-62. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Roberts delineates the differences between Spencer's Italian novellas.]

Nobody with a dream should come to Italy. No matter how dead and buried the dream is thought to be, in Italy it will rise and walk again.

The Light in the Piazza

Although its popularity has not lasted, The Light in the Piazza was even more immediately successful than The Voice at the Back Door. Peggy...

(The entire section is 5747 words.)

Terry Roberts (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Roberts, Terry. “A Certain Path, A Personal Road.” In Self and Community in the Fiction of Elizabeth Spencer, pp. 88-104. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Roberts traces the development of Spencer's short fiction.]

I think many of the stories are about liberation and the regret you have when you liberate yourself.

When I look back [at Jack of Diamonds] I see there is a related theme. Perhaps it is mystery in close relationships.

—Elizabeth Spencer, in interviews

The publication...

(The entire section is 7468 words.)

Kathryn Lee Seidel (essay date winter 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Seidel, Kathryn Lee. “Madonna of the Marketplace: Art and Economics in Elizabeth Spencer's The Light in the Piazza.Southern Quarterly 35, no. 2 (winter 1997): 16-22.

[In the following essay, Seidel offers a feminist and capitalist interpretation of The Light in the Piazza.]

In Elizabeth Spencer's The Light in the Piazza (1960) Margaret Johnson must decide whether to tell the Nacarelli family that her twenty-six-year-old daughter Clara has the mental age of a ten-year-old. The novella begins conventionally, with Margaret, a matron from Winston-Salem, playing well the role of a 1950s wife. Devoted to her daughter, she agonizes over the...

(The entire section is 4687 words.)

Terry Roberts (essay date winter 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Roberts, Terry. “Finding Gavin Anderson: Elizabeth Spencer's Portrait of the Artist.” Southern Quarterly 35, no. 2 (winter 1997): 23-7.

[In the following essay, Roberts examines the predominant themes of Spencer's story “The Finder.”]

Elizabeth Spencer's popular short story “The Finder” was first published in the New Yorker on 23 January 1971, having been written during a rich and troubled period of growth in her artistic life. This powerful story is a landmark in Spencer's career because of the number of new concerns that surface thematically—the intrusion of the supernatural into the natural, the fusion of the erotic and the spiritual,...

(The entire section is 2840 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Entzminger, Betina. “Emotional Distance as Narrative Strategy in Elizabeth Spencer's Fiction.”Mississippi Quarterly 49, no. 1 (winter 1995): 73-88.

Examines the role of detachment in Spencer's short stories.

Review of Jack of Diamonds, by Elizabeth Spencer. New York Times (8 April 1988): C15.

Review of Spencer's Jack of Diamonds.

Prenshaw, Peggy Whitman, ed. Conversations with Elizabeth Spencer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991, 238 p.

Collection of interviews and essays.

Price, Reynolds. “The Art of American...

(The entire section is 234 words.)