The Modern Library edition of Elizabeth Spencer’s short fiction that appeared this summer is in many ways the aftershock of an earlier quake in the literary world. This new volume, titled The Southern Woman, echoes the 1981 appearance of her collected stories, an event that changed the course of her career.
The 1981 publication of The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer precipitated a sudden and remarkable change in the Chapel Hill author’s fortunes. She had published only one collection of stories previously (1968’s Ship Island and Other Stories), and although she had published seven novels by 1981, her last two–No Place for an Angel (1967) and The Snare (1972)–had received insensitive and often unfavorable reviews. The Stories collected 33 works of short fiction, inviting readers to consider what had become a large and important body of work. Because she placed the stories in the order in which they were written, this book traced Spencer’s artistic evolution and captured her major themes. Critics were forced to regard Spencer as an important short-story writer, and reviewers, including James Dickey and Reynolds Price, lavished praise on the collection. In 1983, Spencer received the Award of Merit Medal for the Short Story from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the publication of five more stories in Jack of Diamonds in 1988 reaffirmed her acknowledged mastery of the form.
Literary fortune is notoriously fickle, however–especially for an author of short fiction–and in the 13 years since Jack of Diamonds, critics and scholars have not paid sufficient attention to Spencer’s craft. This book should help change that trend. Certainly, as a collection of beautifully crafted and evocative stories, it serves as an elegant introduction to Spencer’s world.
It’s interesting that the Modern Library editors divided the 27 stories contained in The Southern Woman into four sections: “The South,” “Italy,” “Up North,” and “New Stories” (the last containing previously uncollected work). In a way, this division suggests two of the three critical stereotypes that Spencer has been tagged with during her career, while the title, “the southern woman,” names the third. The first critical stereotype is that she is primarily a “Southern” writer (indeed, that section contains 14 of the 27 stories in the book) and as such is obsessed by the past and by family, with little notion of the modern–let alone the postmodern–world. In reviewing this book for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Diane Roberts fell prey to this stereotyping when she labeled Spencer a “ghostly voice.” The second stereotype is that she is primarily a student of “Americans abroad,” in a 19th-century sense (the “Italy” section contains her most popular work, the novella-length “The Light in the Piazza”) and as such, must have abandoned America for the Old World. The third stereotype is that she is a feminist writer, primarily interested in the dilemmas faced by women in our time (the majority of the stories in this book feature women as their protagonists) and as such, has little to say about that other gender.
So, with whom is Spencer to be compared? Her late friend Eudora Welty, the more distant Henry James, or some new feminist archetype? The answer is all and none of the above. Ultimately, she defies category altogether. Her primary stock in trade is the mystery of human relationships, and her best stories are deftly ambiguous.
As for the first stereotype–that Spencer is a daughter of the Southern renascence–both her life and career offer some support for the argument. Katherine Anne Porter was an influence, and Eudora Welty was a role model before she became a friend. While a student at Vanderbilt, Spencer came under the influence of Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren was aware of and praised her first novel. In addition to five novels, she has written numerous short stories set in the South, including such classics as “First Dark,” “The Finder,” and all three of the stories narrated by Marilee Summerall: “A Southern Landscape,” “Sharon,” and “Indian Summer.” A closer examination both of her career in general, and of The Southern Woman in particular, suggests that she has had a long love-hate relationship with the South, one that has only been resolved in the last 20 years.
It’s an oversimplification, however, to label Spencer a “Southern” writer. Much of her mature work is set not only outside the South but outside the United States. And she is much more concerned with the effect of alienation, despair, and even outright evil on the individual than this stereotype would suggest. When Reynolds Price wrote of her that she was “a kind of smiling Sybil, unafraid of her news,” he might have had in mind the probing, unsparing intellect that produced stories like “The Girl Who Loved Horses” and “I, Maureen.”
Is she, then, the American artist abroad, a late-20th century Henry James who has escaped the provinces in search of a larger, more cosmopolitan world? The writer who produced work like “The Visit” and “The Light in the Piazza” (both collected here) and “Knights and Dragons” (not included, though it should have been) is clearly interested in the tensions that emerge when the relatively naïve American finds himself or herself in a much more complex, more mysterious culture.
It might even be time to re-evaluate “The Light in the Piazza,” a novella (53 pages in this edition) that is more complex than traditionally assumed. The protagonist, Margaret Johnson, is traveling in Italy with her daughter, Clara, a fully mature woman with the mental age of a 10-year-old. Margaret completes a complex marriage negotiation for Clara that is both ethically and sexually ambiguous, and completes it without her overbearing husband, in itself an act of personal emancipation. Significantly, she had to go abroad to find a life for her daughter and for herself. The notion of Elizabeth Spencer as expatriate is compounded by the years she spent in Canada and the stories she set there. These “Up North” stories reflect the growing sense of mental and emotional displacement that Spencer examined in mid-career, searching, as she said in one interview, for “women who could sustain a weight of experience, both intellectual and emotional.” Yet again, Spencer as expatriate existentialist is an incomplete portrait; she and her work are too complex, and late in her career, her gaze returned to the South as she developed an increasing sense of reconciliation.
What then of Spencer as a feminist writer? Of the 27 stories in The Southern Woman, at least 18 could be said to have a female protagonist; and many of those are conscious of specifically feminine dilemmas. Some of these women face overt sexism from individual men or from the community: Nelle Townshend in “The Business Venture,” Margaret Johnson in “The Light in the Piazza,” and Maureen Partham in “I, Maureen.” And yet the isolated problems of women are not Spencer’s ultimate focus, but rather the individual woman or man who is suspended in a web of relationships. At first glance, “The Business Venture” seems to be about the compound prejudice faced by Nelle Townshend and her business partner, a black man, who open a dry-cleaning business in a small Southern town. The narrator of the story is a woman in Nelle’s group who at the very end of the story learns that her husband has had an affair with Nelle, and for that reason she resents the businesswoman’s ambiguous partnership with a black man. The narrator reflects:
I think we are all hanging on a golden thread, but who has got the other end? Dreaming or awake, I’m praying it will hold up all suspended. Yes, praying–for the first time in years.
Suddenly, the reader realizes that this story is not about the prejudice faced by a businesswoman in a small Southern town, but rather about this “golden thread,” the web of connections that hold all of these characters–men as well as women, black as well as white–suspended over a void.
Seen in this light, all of Spencer’s best work takes on a luminous quality. In the final analysis, it’s a mistake to reduce her work to one of its many facets–whether Southern, expatriate or feminist–because she is concerned with aspects of the human condition that are universal. She consistently reveals for our examination the densely woven ties of communion–ties that bind us all by binding up our wounds while simultaneously limiting who and what we may become. Many of her characters sever those ties in order to gain their freedom, but nearly all those who do, pay a very real price.
That attribute alone, however, doesn’t capture why some of these stories are destined to last. Jacques Barzun wrote some years ago that the first characteristic of a classic is “the density of its discourse: Much is being said in every line or paragraph.” Stories like “The Finder,” “Indian Summer,” “The Business Venture,” “The Light in the Piazza,” and “The Master of Shongalo” have precisely this quality. As accessible as they are to the average reader, they contain layers of meaning that open only to the light of repeated reading and discussion. They also contain a less celebrated but equally essential ingredient: They are ambiguous in the extreme. Nothing is as it first seems, either to the characters or to the reader, and in this way they are like life.
Finally, this volume reprints one story from Jack of Diamonds that may be Spencer’s greatest story and one that should become a classic of Southern and American literature. “The Cousins” is a long, entertaining first-person narrative told by 53-year-old Ella Mason, who recalls for the reader a trip she made to Europe 30 years before with two male cousins and several other friends. During the trip she had fallen in love with her second cousin, Eric. In the story’s present, Ella Mason is on her way to Italy for a long-postponed reunion with Eric, and it is within her mind and voice that the reader is skillfully shifted back and forth between past and present and between Italy and the South, as Ella seeks to recreate in the present the primary intimacy of her past. Ultimately, she can only understand the whole story by telling that story with Eric, their interwoven voices constructing meaning out of their separate past and shared present. Only story, Spencer seems to say, can heal the deepest wounds of time and distance.
The Southern Woman is a well-deserved salute to Elizabeth Spencer’s long and productive career. The editors’ selection of her short fiction rather than one of her novels may contribute to the mistaken notion that they are not of similar quality. Here, then, is a prescription for those readers who savor evocative fiction rich in ideas: Begin here and then go on to the equally rewarding world of Elizabeth Spencer’s novels.
Elizabeth Spencer will read from and discuss her new book, The Southern Woman, Saturday, Nov. 3 at 4 p.m., at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.