One on One: Another prize for Elizabeth Spencer

Published 12:45 pm Monday, June 14, 2021

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By D.G. Martin

Elizabeth Spencer, arguably one of our country’s greatest writers, died in December 2019 in Chapel Hill, where she had lived since 1986.

Due to the oncoming Covid epidemic, we did not do enough to celebrate and recognize her contributions.

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This month we have another chance to remember her. On June 1, her life and work were honored by publication of “Elizabeth Spencer: Novels & Stories” by the Library of America series. Into the 800-plus pages the editors have squeezed three novels, 19 stories and a wealth of reference material.

Spencer was best known for her 1960 novella, “The Light in the Piazza.”

“You’d think it was the only thing I’d ever written,” she once told me, reflecting her mixed feelings about having this one book overshadow some of her more important and better works.

The new volume includes “The Light in the Piazza” and a good selection of her other works.

In “The Light in the Piazza,” an upper-class American mother from Winston-Salem visits Italy with her mentally disabled adult daughter.

A charming Italian young man falls in love with the daughter, overlooking her mental disability, or mistaking it for a naïve charm.

The mother’s dilemma is whether to approve and facilitate the marriage or disclose her daughter’s condition and lose the opportunity for her happiness.

In 1960, I read an early version of it in “The New Yorker” and was entranced by the story and the connection to North Carolina.

Alas, the North Carolina connection was mythical. Spencer told me she was really thinking of Birmingham, where she had friends, but changed the city’s name to Winston-Salem so her friends in Birmingham would not try to see themselves in the story.

The story became the basis for a popular film in 1962. It starred Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux and Rossano Brazzi. In 2005, a musical based on the story was staged in New York and broadcast on public television.

Before moving to Chapel Hill, Spencer and her husband lived in Italy and Canada. Her roots, however, were in her birthplace, Carrollton, Miss., and her early work reflected the complicated racial caste systems of the South.

The headliner of the new collection is “The Voice at the Back Door,” Spencer’s 1956 novel. Michael Gorra, the new volume’s editor, writes that it is “widely considered Spencer’s masterpiece.”

Set in rural Mississippi in the early 1950s, complicated race relations and violence are at its center. Gorra writes that in 1886 there had been a massacre in Spencer’s hometown, where more than 20 blacks had been shot at the local courthouse. “The bullet holes remained visible until the 1990s, and as a child she always wondered about them, puzzled that she couldn’t get the grown-ups to tell her what had happened.”

Gorra continues, “The novel depicts the everyday racism of white society, ventriloquizing the spitting vehemence of her characters’ speech. And then Spencer does something more: she describes her own rising generation as one that in private might almost seem progressive, but that in public preached segregation. She names the conscious hypocrisy of the world to which she belonged, in which political expediency could excuse anything. Some white readers branded her a traitor, and her Vanderbilt teacher Donald Davidson, a Confederate apologist, refused ever to speak to her again.”

The judges for the Pulitzer Prize unanimously recommended “The Voice at the Back Door” for the award in fiction. According to the new book’s jacket, the Pulitzer board, however, decided to make no award and that decision has never been adequately explained. Perhaps, it “was for fear that Spencer’s racial subject matter was too incendiary for the national climate at the time.”

Too late for the Pulitzer, but the new volume of Spencer’s work gives us another chance to rejoice in her courage and great stories.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and other times.