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.
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.
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.