(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Elizabeth Spencer’s short fiction is luminous in its depiction of time and place. This collection of her stories and the novella The Light in the Piazza is categorized according to these qualities. It is divided into four sections: The South, Italy, Up North, and New Stories. Although the Italian novella is perhaps her most widely read short fiction, the stories set in the southern United States stand out as the strongest of her works. It is clear that she knows this landscape intimately and instinctively, in the way that one can only know the world of one’s childhood years.

The southeastern United States of Elizabeth Spencer’s early years was a land of racial complexity, and in describing this she shines. For example, the first story of the collection, “The Little Brown Girl,” describes black/white relationships from the point of view of a young woman named Maybeth, who becomes intrigued by the description of his daughter by Jim Williams, a black employee of her father. Set in the days when the polite appellation for African Americans was Negro, this story gives a clear-eyed picture of the gap between the races, yet also describes their symbiosis.

In her portrayal of race in the South, Spencer reveals its workings as only an insider, black or white, can. She steers clear of the stereotypical depiction of the Southern racist as either a stupid “redneck” member of the Ku Klux Klan or an aristocrat with nothing but disdain for “those people.” She focuses instead on members of the middle or lower classes, black and white, who because of circumstances must interact in the world they inhabit, but do not always have to like it. Often her racists are obviously responding to something which has been bred in the bone and are unaware of the implications of their behavior; these are clear to the reader but not the character. Also, Spencer reveals that even those who are least racist cannot escape an awareness of race and the sense of the “Other.”

This is clearly displayed in one of her most anthologized stories, “Sharon,” which is one of those featuring Marilee, an intelligent and sensitive child who is the first-person narrator. “Sharon” tells the story of Uncle Hernan, whose full name was Hernando de Soto Wirth, and his relationship with Melissa, a young African American woman who had come to his home, called Sharon, with his young bride and had stayed on after she died. As is typical of the story narrated by a young person, the reader realizes before the narrator who the father of Melissa’s children is and why Marilee’s mother cannot stand her. Although it is clear that the main offense of this couple is their interracial bonding, a certain attempt at middle-class civility is maintained.

As is bound to occur for any Southern woman writer, comparisons have been made between Spencer and Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Katherine Anne Porter, but many of Spencer’s stories have more in common with William Faulkner and Edith Wharton, two writers not often mentioned in the same sentence. Certainly one of the finest of the stories in this collection, “First Dark,” not only has Faulknerian overtones, but seems in some way a response to that author’s “A Rose for Emily,” the classic story of Southern gentility degraded into Southern grotesque.

In “First Dark,” a woman in her thirties is courted by a man who has moved from Richton, their small hometown, to Jackson, Mississippi, but has started returning to get back in touch with his roots. Tom Beavers has had the experience of seeing a ghost at “first dark,” an old, light-skinned African American man who signals to cars to stop. Frances Harvey, a woman from a family laden with history, who has remained in Richton to care for her aging mother in their large old home, had also witnessed this phenomenon, a fact that draws the couple together. They begin to care for each other deeply, but it is clear that Frances will not marry until her mother passes on, although her mother herself seems delighted with the relationship between the two despite Tom’s lower-class background.

Her mother dies, but Frances is paralyzed, unable to decide what to do with her mother’s things in the house. She once again sees the ghost—but does not recognize it as such—when he speaks to her in the graveyard, asking that she move her car so he can carry a sick woman to the hospital in his cart. Frances does so, but then spends a restless night, feeling she should have done more for the man. She goes to look for sleeping pills that had been...

(The entire section is 1860 words.)