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Gérald Préher
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Elizabeth Spencer
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“I started out scribbling out stories as soon as I learned how to write”
Spencer, “What it Means…” 91.

1Five-time O. Henry Award winner Elizabeth Spencer often said that the sole purpose of her writing is to create a fictional world her readers can relate to. In the short essay “On Writing Fiction,” she explains:

I look on myself as a story teller and on each story I tell . . . as a unique thing demanding my best efforts. I give to each with considerable trepidation and considerable joy. I have for each as it appears before the great indifferent world, the qualm of a parent who sees her child arise to perform publicly for the first time. I wonder if the commas are all in place and the hair of each metaphor is properly combed. I wish, not myself, but the story to do well, to rise and shine. (71)

2The most famous example of such a story is the celebrated “The Light in the Piazza” for it met instant success when it came out in The New Yorker in 1960 and is still regarded as emblematic of Spencer’s oeuvre. A film adaptation of the story was released in 1962 and, more recently, the story was transformed into a successful musical, ensuring Spencer’s lasting presence and popularity—which is soon to be confirmed by a volume of the Library of America.

3Elizabeth Spencer’s writing career started with the publication of a novel, Fire in the Morning, in 1948. However, as she once explained to Robert Phillips, everything began with short stories: “I had written and sent off a number of short stories, and had had encouragement but no results. I started a novel based on some of these stories” (“Elizabeth Spencer” 130). When looking at Spencer’s body of work, it appears that one thing led to another in a smooth way: one of the characters, Elinor Gerrard, who briefly appears in Fire in the Morning is also featured in Spencer’s second book, This Crooked Way, undoubtedly because for Spencer, “there’s a person in the story I see as central, from the start” (“Interview” 606)—a person whose story, because it is so intriguing, she feels the need to give shape to. Readers will therefore not be surprised to encounter characters like Marilee Summerall in three of Spencer’s stories (“A Southern Landscape,” “Sharon” and “Indian Summer”), or Edward Glenn who is not only central to another set of three stories (“The Runaways,” “The Master of Shongalo” and “Return Trip”) but also to Spencer’s 1989 play, For Lease or Sale.

4Spencer has said that she started writing short fiction on a regular basis at a time when her own life seemed “broken into pieces” (Preface x), and the fragmentary nature of the Marilee and Edward sequences mirror this idea as they revolve around the sense of mystery inherent to the short story. Yet fragmentation is not just an essential element of Spencer’s short fiction: as her career developed, she depicted characters like Julia Garrett in The Snare, her longest work, whose experience is defined by fragments that are pieced together. The Night Travellers, Spencer’s last published novel, somehow announced her ultimate move toward the short form as it is more distinctly fragmented and derives from several previously published short pieces—“The Search,” “Madonna,” and “Up the Gatineau.” It is not unusual for writers to publish parts of a longer work in the guise of stories but comparing the pre-texts and the final work shows that Spencer knew exactly how to zoom in or out of those narratives: the short pieces are obviously independent and exemplify the unity expected of a story; the episodes as integrated into the novel emphasize the fragmented nature of the characters while suggesting a broader frame. This issue of JSSE includes another kind of experiment as Spencer conjures up characters from her recently reprinted 1967 novel, No Place for an Angel, in “Transformation,” a story which proves that the final mark of punctuation in a text does not always signify that the story has come to a complete stop.

5After the publication of her first short story “Pilgrimage” in a 1950 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, Elizabeth Spencer wrote numerous stories that appeared in magazines, journals, collections, and major anthologies. “Pilgrimage,” as Spencer explains, “was requested after the first novel [Fire in the Morning] came out. I wrote it hastily. I thought of myself exclusively as a novelist back then” (Spencer, “all writing…” included in this issue of JSSE). Nevertheless, she adds that “I was always trying out stories with not much success, but switched to novels” (Spencer, “all writing…”). Two more novels were published before her second story, the semi-autobiographical “The Little Brown Girl,” saw the light in the pages of the New Yorker in 1957 and initiated a new trend in Spencer’s production—between that year and 1981, fourteen of her stories appeared in the magazine. Again, Spencer came to the editors’ attention after the publication of a novel, in this case The Voice at the Back Door, and she sent them the story, which they had previously turned down (see Spencer, “all writing…”). In the preface to The Ice-Cream Headache, James Jones suggests that this is a common enough situation for American writers: “In 1951 when From Here to Eternity was published I had five unpublished stories on hand. Within four months I sold four of the five, and sold them in every case to a magazine which had previously turned all five stories down at least twice” (x-xi). Once a writer’s work has been praised and recognized, magazine editors are more likely to accept or ask for stories, which means that quite often a writer’s fame is primarily based upon the success of longer works.

6Even if Spencer does not think much of “Pilgrimage,” the story is reprinted in Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine’s 1957 A New Southern Harvest and its title already foreshadows the direction of a career whose latest addition, Starting Over, includes a number of such journeys—the collection itself is significantly framed by “Return Trip” and “The Wedding Visitor.” Commenting upon The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, Sally Wolff points out that “[Spencer’s] characters reach Joycean moments of epiphany about the progress of their lives and sometimes their inability to progress. An unexpected visitor or unusual turn of events commonly precipitate these instances of heightened awareness, which often cause her characters to understand more clearly the consequences of their places in life, whether or not they then choose to change them” (109-10). In Spencer’s Starting Over also, such intrusions are decisive and they are often related to past events because, throughout her work, Spencer shows, as the narrator of her early story “First Dark” has it, that “the door to the past was always wide open, and what came in through it and went out of it had made people ‘different’” (39). The burden of the past, the importance of family ties and of the community have been thoroughly explored by early critics such as Peggy Whitman Prenshaw and Terry Roberts who set examples for more recent scholars (Michel Bandry, Sally Greene, Betina Entzminger, Catherine Seltzer, Marcel Arbeit and others) to approach Spencer’s work. Indeed, her characters’ travels in space or in time often lead to a realization as regards their southernness and origins, echoing Spencer’s own comments in her essay “The Home Voice in a Foreign Land”: “there must be something powerful [in the South] that won’t let us go and that we keep holding on to” (128).

7Spencer is evidently interested in places and in the way people interact with their environment. As a consequence of her many travels, she not only focuses on her native South in her stories but also on Italy and Canada. Her characters share with her “curiosity and vitality—most are searchers and wanderers,” as Peggy Whitman Prenshaw puts it in a discussion of The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer (149). The Southern Woman: New and Selected Fiction (2001) is, unlike The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer (1981), organized according to the setting of the stories and not according to their dates of publication. Readers can therefore travel with the characters to various places from “The South” to “Italy” to places “Up North.” More recently, Spencer published the critically-acclaimed collection Starting Over (2014), which earned her numerous prizes including a Rea Prize for Short Fiction. In this collection, she has her readers meet characters who are trying to start anew—as the title suggests—and very often find themselves revisiting the past.

8The characters in Starting Over stand on the threshold Wolff has noticed in earlier stories—they have to make choices so that they may start over. The question remains whether this new beginning introduces variation or repetition and Spencer leaves it up to her readers to decide. Bringing the South, her South, into the 21st century, Spencer thus shows new concerns though the old ones are still lurking in the back. The performance of southern manners which was showcased in the two long stories in Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories, “The Cousins” and “The Business Venture,” is not as outstanding in Starting Over, even if the nine stories do have a southern flavor. The changes that occurred in the South are best exemplified in a comment made by one of the characters in “Return Trip”: “‘they don’t have these big properties kept up by old ladies with lots of black help kowtowing and yesma’aming’” (29). The myth of the Southern plantation might be alive in some people’s minds but it has become outdated—the dream of an ordered society has faded away and the fragmented personalities Spencer depicts here mirror the overall situation. She seems to be asking: “What do you do when everything around you is falling apart?”—a question which has apocalyptic overtones and echoes her interest in Yeats’s poetry. The question of race, though hinted at in a few of the stories, has been replaced by a larger interrogation on the self and its survival in an ever-changing world. Spencer nonetheless remains rooted in her locale and her poetics illustrates the comments Warren and Erskine made in their introduction to A New Southern Harvest—which reprints Spencer’s very first short story—back in 1957. For Warren and Erskine, referring to the “Southern writer” is meaningful because the authors they selected

exhibit a certain varying complex of qualities that may be taken to mark Southern writing: an emphasis on the crankiness, peculiarities, secret depths and even grotesqueries of individual personality rather than on the broad patterns of society; an interest in violence; a tendency toward a broad somber humor; a sense of fiction as a tale told and not as drama rendered; a sense of “voice”; a concern with stylistic effects that at its best may give high or delicate poetry, and at its worst pompousness or preciosity. (viii)

9They add that “the good Southern writer is a writer before he is a Southerner, and a human being before he is either. He is still the complicated product of his world, his Southern world, even if he has left it; and often his deepest urgency springs from the conflicts which are aroused by the process of change itself, the change in him and in his world” (ix). This comment applies to Elizabeth Spencer quite well since she spent many years outside the South but kept writing about it; she often claimed her interest for the voice in her texts and shown attention to significant details—a bench, a tree or a house always play a special part in her work. In “The Home Voice in a Foreign Land,” she explains that, when away from the South, “memory . . . proved my great source. . . . Time is always passing life into memory whether we stay right where we are or not” (127). The interviews included in this issue of the Journal illustrate such a comment as Spencer traces back the sources of many a story to her own experience.

10Elizabeth Spencer kindly accepted to let the JSSE print two of her stories enabling us to showcase not only a critical assessment of her work but also her own art as a storyteller. There are still stories hanging around and we can only hope that one day, a volume of Spencer’s unpublished and uncollected stories will appear—for now, we are honored to present these two, and hope our readers will also look out for more. Because Elizabeth Spencer passed away at the time this issue was ready to go to print, its organization was slightly altered and thus postponed to include tributes from fellow writers who, like her, belong to the JSSE honorary board. We are thankful to them for their time and for accepting to share with us memories and anecdotes that keep Elizabeth Spencer’s spirit and wit alive.

11The scholarly essays presented here have been organized to chronologically follow the initial publication dates of the stories they focus on. The first one, Claude Maisonnat’s “From the Scopic Drive to Empowerment in Elizabeth Spencer’s ‘First Dark’” considers the story from a Lacanian point of view. In his close analysis of the text, Maisonnat points out the problem of the gaze that structures and gives rhythm to the narrative development. He shows with what art Spencer manages to transcend the Gothic problematic, very often emphasized by critics, in order to access the notion of the empowerment of the feminine in reaction to a stifling patriarchal domination. Marcel Arbeit, in his contribution “Are Emotions Contagious? Elizabeth Spencer’s ‘Judith Kane’” focuses on a lesser-known story which he does not read, unlike other scholars, as a study of an evil femme fatale. The text is presented through various lenses: as a reflection on the difficulties faced by Southern intellectuals; as an illustration of personality theories (particularly those of Shlomo Giora Shoham) that help him discuss the psychological transformation of the narrator. Also concerned with the voice in the text, Gérald Préher, in “(Re)visiting the Past: Elizabeth Spencer’s Marilee and the Short Story Composite,” demonstrates that when perusing interrelated stories, the readers’ knowledge of a set of characters makes it a participatory experience for s/he is aware of past events that are hinted at and s/he can get a broader picture of a given situation even though the stories may also function independently. Préher looks at the stories within and without the Marilee volume and makes a case for them to be seen as a short story composite, each text relying on echoes from the other two, and emphasizing the narrator’s nostalgia for lost times.

12Frédérique Spill, in “Elizabeth Spencer’s Other Southern Landscape: The Southern Woman in Italy, Or Voicing the Allure of Foreignness,” looks at the four Italian stories selected for The Southern Woman (“The White Azalea,” “The Visit,” “The Cousins,” and “The Light in the Piazza”). Spill analyzes the intertwining of representations of Italianness and Americanness by examining Spencer’s use of stereotypes, contrasts, mirror effects and counter-representations, in her depiction of female characters whose time abroad helps redefine the way they see themselves and the world around them. In “‘I just run off sometimes’: Runaway Women in Elizabeth Spencer’s Short Fiction,” Stéphanie Maerten also shows how Spencer’s female characters gain independence, this time by finding ways to escape their confining lives. As Maerten explains, some of them struggle to meet traditional family demands and they somehow suffocate as they try to fulfill the role that society imposes on them. Still, some manage to escape and become artists who are capable of creating their own representation of reality. Echoing such considerations on the process of artistic creation, Terry Roberts, in “Weaving Then and Now: The Artistry of ‘The Cousins’” presents Spencer’s story as one of her greatest achievements because in it, she most skillfully weaves the past into the present and the internal reality of her narrator into her external environment. Spencer’s characteristic preoccupations (individual evolution in an oppressive family environment, culture shock, painful mysteries of intimacy, the past within the present) are indeed all present in “The Cousins.” Analyzing a more recent work in “Elizabeth Spencer’s ‘Owl’: Building Psychological Tension through Ominous Portents,” Tanya Tromble looks at the way Spencer takes as a starting point the widely accepted myth of the disturbing nature of the owl’s call to then build tension, not through action, but through the use of allusion, juxtaposition and references to the character’s emotional domain. Tromble brings in other texts—Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name, Ron Rash’s “The Corpse Bird” and Joyce Carol Oates’s “Owl Eyes”—which also associate the notion of death with the call of the owl. To her, Spencer achieves the greatest gothic effect in the most economical manner, apparently illustrating the advice given by Oates in her essay “Building Tension in the Short Story.”

13The next three contributions are concerned with Starting Over. Sharon E. Colley, in “Active Response to the Past Imperfect: Elizabeth Spencer’s Starting Over,” focuses, as her title suggests, on characters who face the tenacious elements of their past. According to her, the short stories in the collection show that while it is good to make decisions that lead to relationships, it is also safe to end an unhealthy relationship or refuse conflict. Spencer’s short stories in Starting Over would thus imply that the characters have the opportunity to respond differently to conflicts within themselves or within their relationships. Emmeline Gros’ analysis confirms such ideas by focusing more specifically on two of the stories from Starting Over in her essay “Resisting the Traditional Construction of Fatherhood and Masculinity in Elizabeth Spencer’s ‘Sightings’ and ‘The Everlasting Light.’” Gros points out that many stories take an ambiguous approach to the figure of the mother or woman, who is often physically absent from the plot or remains invisible. To her, the marginalization of maternal figures betrays a certain concern for male identity. Girls, as Gros demonstrates, teach men and fathers about their vulnerability. In these two stories, Spencer thus revisits the role of fathers and questions the traditional representations of the patriarchal order. Questions or interrogations about the father figure are also blatant in “Return Trip,” which Amélie Moisy explores in “Return Trip with a Wolfean Spirit.” The story, set near Thomas Wolfe’s hometown, Asheville, North Carolina, evokes the novelist’s ghost. Spencer’s narrative, very much like Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, moves back and forth between humor and gravity, dialogue and introspection, alternating symbols and returning to the fantasy of the family novel by addressing the themes of family and loss. “Return Trip,” as Moisy points out, also calls for a reflection on another aspect of Spencer’s “Wolfean spirit” which relates to the return to literature and to authors from the past.

14Providing a transition between the scholarly essays and the tributes to Elizabeth Spencer, Amy Weldon, in “Elizabeth Spencer’s Spacious Escapes,” blends literary analysis with personal praise for the author. Weldon shows that by opening up spaces to readers, Spencer suggests more spacious ways of living intellectually and emotionally. References to doors, windows and accidental glances in Spencer’s short stories are perceived as clues for characters and readers to learn how to live—as if Spencer were actually presenting us with self-help manuals. The three texts that follow were generously sent by distinguished writers who knew Elizabeth Spencer, met her on several occasions, and who accepted to share their memories with us: Allan Gurganus’s “Remembering Elizabeth Spencer,” Lisa Alther’s “One Afternoon in Vermont,” and Bobbie Ann Mason’s “With Elizabeth and Her Cats,” help us see not only a great literary figure but also a woman who was devoted to her craft, her community, and her friends be they human or feline. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw then offers us an afterword that provides an overview of Elizabeth Spencer’s career and presents her legacy as a “Mississippi Literary Trail Marker.” This volume ends on a bibliography which will hopefully serve scholarly interests and trigger off new analyses of a work that deserve further explorations.


15This special issue owes much to three scholars who passed away in 2019 and who provided inspiration through their work and friendship: Danièle Pitavy-Souques, Claude Maisonnat and Michel Bandry. I am especially thankful to Michel Bandry who expertised several of the contributions included here and paved the way for much of the critical work that has been done in France since the publication of his monograph, Elizabeth Spencer: Du Sud au monde (Paris: Belin, “Voix américaines,” 2003).

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Jones, James. The Ice-Cream Headache and Other Stories. 1965. New York: Akashic Books, 2002. Print.

Prenshaw, Peggy Whitman. Elizabeth Spencer. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Print.

Spencer, Elizabeth. ‘all writing is taken from something known about or experienced as a base’: A Composite Interview with Elizabeth Spencer.” Elizabeth Spencer. Ed. Gérald Préher. Spec. issue of Journal of the Short Story in English 72 (2019): 35-48. Print.

---. “Elizabeth Spencer.” Interview with Robert Phillips. The Madness of Art: Interviews with Poets and Writers. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2003. 121-48. Print.

---. Fire in the Morning. 1948. New York: Avon, 1987. Print.

---. “The Home Voice in a Foreign Land.” The Southern Review and Modern Literature: 1935-1985. Eds. Lewis P. Simpson, James Olney and Jo Gulledge. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1988. 126-30. Print.

---. “An Interview with Elizabeth Spencer.” Interview with Betina Entzminger. The Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures 47.4 (Fall 1994): 599-618. Print.

---. Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories. 1988. New York: Viking, 1989. Print.

---. The Night Travellers. 1991. New York: Viking, 1992. Print.

---. No Place for an Angel. 1967. New York: Liveright, 2015. Print.

---. “On Writing Fiction.” Notes on Mississippi Writers 3 (Fall 1970): 71-72. Print.

---. Preface. The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer. By Elizabeth Spencer. 1981. New York: Penguin, 1983. ix-xi. Print.

---. The Snare. 1972. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1993. Print.

---. Starting Over: Stories. New York: Liveright, 2014. Print.

---. “What it Means to be a Southern Writer in the ’80s: A Panel Discussion with Beverley Lowry, Reynolds Price, Elizabeth Spencer and James Whitehead.” Interview with Austin Wilson. Southern Quarterly 26.4 (Summer 1988): 80-93. Print.

Warren, Robert Penn; and Albert Erskine, eds. A New Southern Harvest. New York: Bantam Books, 1957. Print.

Wolff, Sally. “Companion Collections: The Stories of Eudora Welty and Elizabeth Spencer.” Journal of the Short Story in English/Les Cahiers de la Nouvelle 5 (Autumn 1985): 101-10. Print.

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Gérald Préher

Lille Catholic University, CIRPaLL, JSSE Editor

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