Thursday, September 10, 2009

Elizabeth Spencer surprised me.

While I'm wandering outside the 19th century, how about I write a little about Elizabeth Spencer?

The story so far: A year ago, I read a story (PDF) in The Hudson Review by Mississippi writer Elizabeth Spencer. It was in the mode that short stories mostly come in now, nothing fancy, but it was sharp, insightful, good. Who is this unknown writer, I thought, this new talent? The discovery that she is 88 years old and the author of nine novels and a pile of stories fazed me a bit. And one of those novels has sold two million copies, and was made into a movie (in 1962) and a hit musical (in 2005!). Well, this is how we learn, isn't it?

The Modern Library has recently reissued its 2001 collection of 26 of her stories (plus that best selling novella). It's called The Southern Woman, narrow but accurate.* The stories are about Southern women of all ages and backgrounds, getting into trouble, wondering what to do next, worrying about their families, wandering around, settling down.

Spencer turns out to have many modes and a gently experimental side, so some of the stories have rough edges or perhaps don't quite work. On the other hand, the collection has a lot of variety, not just in the subjects of the stories, but in the ways they're told. I rarely read more than one story in a day, but a little bit in I was always eager to pick the book up again the next day - I was sure I would find something new.

"Ship Island" is a good example, subtitled "The Story of a Mermaid," about a restless young woman working out who she is, sexually, socially, intellectually. She's alive, scratchy, weird. It's not just the character, though, but Spencer's language, and the constant water and sea references, that turn the story into something out of the ordinary.

I think the best stories are as good as the best of Eudora Welty or Katharine Anne Porter or Big Bill Faulkner. Maybe not as good as the best of Flannery O'Connor. One thing Spencer has that they don't is Italy, where she lived for five years. In the stories, it becomes the alternative to the South. See "The White Azalea," about how Theresa Stubblefield's relatives in Tuxapoka, Alabama can't seem to leave her alone, even on her vacation in Rome. That best selling novella, The Light in the Piazza, is set in Italy, too, in Florence.

An Olivia de Havilland movie, a Broadway musical, two million copies, I mentioned all that? It's only about 50 pages, so it's included in The Southern Woman. I wasn't expecting much from it, certainly not that it would be the best thing in the book. I'll finish up with it tomorrow.

* Just reissued. I read the 2001 version.


  1. Ah, the South, the South. I've long wanted to read more of its literature, but what I really want to do is a whole thing--a longish vacation with roadtrip and reading list to go along with it. If only other life events didn't get in the way.

    This is good info though. I'd heard of The Light in the Piazza but not the author's name, and this "Ship Island" business sounds excellent.

  2. This line alone: " One thing Spencer has that they don't is Italy, where she lived for five years." makes me want to read more. Thanks for introducing me to a new (to me) writer. Your blog is very interesting in its focus, and I'll be back. Often.

  3. A trip, yes, yes. A roadtrip through Mississippi, combining Faulkner and Welty with the Tamale Trail. Then on into Louisiana along the Gumbo Trail, accompanied by Ernest Gaines and Walker Percy and Robert Penn Warren.

    Welcome, Dolce Bellezza. I think you'll like Spencer. I think most people would.

    A little back-pedaling: Katherine Anne Porter didn't have Italy, but she did have Mexico! Spencer's Italian stories are more about tourism, though, and how we respond to these places that will proably never be our own.

  4. In my most ambitious dreams it is a loop via Kentucky and western VA through the Carolinas, Georgia, etc, etc, LA and back via St. Louis. Don't know who the Appalachian lit would be but for some reason have an inclination toward it anyway.

    Walker Percy is the only thing that's ever made me want to go to LA. I hear it's really nice, and fun, of course, but Percy is the only thing that actually made it attract me at all.

  5. For Appalachian lit, try Chris Offutt. I read his novel The Good Brother (1997). Adventures among the hill people.