Even before its adaptation into a Tony-winning musical, The Light in the Piazza bore the same relation to the rest of Elizabeth Spencer’s work as “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” does to that of Robert Frost: a title known by those who know nothing else about her. Spencer’s 1960 novella about an American woman’s attempt to marry her daughter to a handsome young Italian is a deft comedy about the relations of America and Europe in which each has something to sell and the New World is in no way the dupe of the Old.
Its heroine, Margaret Johnson, is a woman with a burden: at the age of ten her beautiful daughter Clara was kicked in the head by a pony, and at that point her mental development stopped. Now in her twenties, Clara looks like a grown woman but has a child’s delight in any display of kindness; she seems not to know about sex but back home in Winston-Salem “had run out one day and flung her arms around the grocery boy.” Mrs. Johnson has learned how “to explain her daughter to young men,” and expects she’ll have to do the same with Fabrizio Naccarelli, a young Florentine, however uncertain his English. But the boy won’t go away, and though she tries to tell the truth to his formidable father, the elder Naccarelli chooses not to hear. The young people are clearly enchanted with each other, and Mrs. Johnson begins to dream that in Italy love itself might somehow grant her daughter a normal life.
Of course it will take discretion; and it will also take money. The Mississippi-born Spencer has said that the roots of the tale lie in Boccaccio rather than in Henry James, but I’m not sure that the Italian would have allowed himself to entertain the note of maternal hope with which the story ends. With the wedding over, Mrs. Johnson will say that “I did the right thing…I know I did.” And the reader believes her—we suspend our doubts, and believe for a moment that all will be well. For who’s to say she’s wrong? Fairy tales have their own truth, and to me the most remarkable thing about this almost perfect work is the way Spencer captures America’s midcentury moment of confidence: the confidence of people who thought, however briefly, that they could do anything.
The story was filmed in 1962, with Olivia de Havilland, and its sales number in the seven figures. Spencer has nevertheless called it an “albatross,” and spoken wistfully of the way its charm seems over the years to have occluded the rest of her oeuvre. So the title of her new book carries a note of defiance. It’s not the name of any of the nine stories here, and yet how can a writer who published her first book in 1948 and is now in her nineties be said to be starting over? A few of these stories do involve families who must begin again after a moment of crisis, but the title has little thematic bearing on the collection as a whole. Its force lies, perhaps, in Spencer’s own sense of resuming work after the 1998 death of her husband. Or perhaps that title is pointed at us: we are the ones starting over, starting over with her, with a collection that stands as a reintroduction to the work of an important American writer.
Most of the stories here are set in North Carolina, where she lives today. In “Return Trip,” the book’s exceptionally strong opening story, the middle-aged Patricia and Boyd are passing the summer in the mountains near Asheville when they receive a phone call from Patricia’s cousin Edward Glenn. He wants to visit “if at all welcome”: a phrase, she thinks, that “sounded more than slightly aware that he might not be.” Spencer has used Edward Glenn in a couple of earlier stories as well as her one play, For Sale or Lease (1989), presenting him as his family’s designated ne’er-do-well. The young Patricia was something like his co-conspirator, and what makes him unwelcome is a long-ago night at an aunt’s in Mississippi, when “Edward was drunk and turning in. Boyd was drunk and staying up. Patricia was drunk and had gone to bed.” But she and Boyd have been given a room that customarily belongs to Edward, and when she wakes an hour later it’s to find her husband shouting and her cousin lying next to her.
Ever since Patricia has “maintained he was fully clothed, though why she had to maintain it was the real question.” She believes it’s just “a joke of nature” that her son Mark looks so much like Edward, “unfortunate, but only extended family to blame.” Just as she’s about to pick up Edward at the airport, however, she hears the “hornet buzz of a motorcycle,” and when it pulls into their drive she recognizes her son “under the helmet and goggles.” A college student uncertain of his future, his visit is unexpected as well, but though his resemblance to Edward is confirmed, nothing else is.
The two guests spend the next morning working together on the motorcycle, and then take Patricia’s car down to Asheville for parts. They will pass a beer-filled afternoon together, and afterward Edward will take himself off, leaving Mark to drive back to the house alone. Sitting outside that night Patricia tells herself once more that it wasn’t possible the two of them could have “done anything…both drunk as coots.” Yet she doesn’t really know, and Spencer ends the story there, with our knowing no more than the characters; as Chekhov once said, it’s the writer’s job to state the problem, not solve it.
Still, it’s clear that nothing in Patricia’s married life seems as rich as her memories of a familial past, and as she sits on through the dark she begins to hear her relatives’ voices, recognizing “each one for who it was, though they had died years ago or hadn’t been seen for ages…. They talked on and on about unimportant things and she knew them all, each one.”
What makes that full-throated conclusion so effective is the near-invisibility of Spencer’s own style. She almost invariably allows her prose to take its shading from the characters themselves, so that in reading you see their thoughts and not her sentences.
Another story here offers an ending that seems even more enigmatic. Spencer has always been on good terms with the irrational, and some of her best work hovers on the edge of the ghost story. In “The Boy in the Tree” an insurance agent named Wallace Harkins spends his days shuttling between the demands of his mother and his wife, who calls the older woman a “meddlesome old bitch” and thinks she belongs in a nursing home. For Mrs. Harkins has started to see things out of her kitchen window, a “strange mule, strange dog,” or even that titular boy, for whom she has invented a history and a character.
Then Wallace spots him too. Or maybe he just spots his own earlier self, a boy wearing exactly the kind of outdated “knee britches” he used to wear and eating peanuts on a downtown corner. Soon other unnerving things begin to happen to him as well, dreams about tigers and an angry outburst in a business meeting that nobody else seems to hear, and at the end of the story his mother introduces him to the boy over a lunch of “chicken salad…and banana pudding.” Is that boy really there, or can senility be catching, her old age have driven him mad? But Wallace finds a strange serenity in surrendering to it all; these new oddities have made the world a more rewarding and mysterious place. “He was happy and he did not see why not,” and that last sentence seems at once taut and radiant and absurd.
For Patricia in the story “Return Trip,” the Mississippi of her childhood provides the mark of an irrecoverable past. Only one of these stories stands fully immersed in the world of Spencer’s origins, but it works instead to suggest that that landscape must indeed be left behind. In “The Wedding Visitor” Rob Ellis returns after many years to the house where his divorced father had “plopped him down with relatives.” The place is a large one, with “the original structure…almost lost among the many extensions,” and full of trapdoors into the past, of relatives he’s forgotten and rooms he’s never seen.
Now a congressional aide, he’s come back for his cousin Norma’s wedding, but his sprawling family can’t picture him as the worldly man he has become. They see only the undergrown boy he once was, as though he were forever fixed in place, and yet everyone Rob talks to feels trapped by that sense of an ongoing provincial life, with “rules all over the place,” most of them unspoken, and the constant need “to compliment everybody.” The bride in particular suffers. It’s Norma’s third engagement and she’s now past thirty, “with the fun gone from her face,” drinking hard and fighting with her mother over the dress. Her fiancé isn’t the kind of man her family would once have wanted, and has even embezzled the money for his wedding suit. Rob helps him replace the cash, but though he wonders about the marriage’s chances he puts a patch on his doubts and sees them through church. He loves his cousin, and in watching her has discovered the strength of her refusal to let the all-enveloping world of her birth define her.
That, I suppose, is the trajectory Spencer herself has followed. She was born in 1921 in Carrollton, Mississippi, about midway between Oxford and Jackson in the northern part of the state. Her father ran a string of businesses in town; her mother’s family owned a cotton plantation a dozen miles off. The land had been in the family since before the Civil War, and in her childhood the patriarch, her grandfather, was a man named John McCain; the Arizona senator is a cousin.
Spencer’s education took her first to Belhaven, a women’s college in Jackson; there she met and became friends with Eudora Welty, a dozen years her senior. She did graduate work at Vanderbilt and in 1948 she published her first novel, Fire in the Morning. The book got strong reviews, but her parents felt embarrassed by both its language and its account of small-town rivalries, and, as Spencer explains in her memoir Landscapes of the Heart (1998), the novel “made a rift” in their sense of her “that was never entirely mended.” For how had a young woman of her “strict Presbyterian” background come to learn those words, or to have those thoughts? But the thoughts were to get worse.
Spencer spent the novel’s proceeds on a long summer in Europe, and then used a Guggenheim fellowship to take herself back in 1953, where she found a community of other expatriates in Rome and eventually met the Englishman she would marry. By then she had two novels in print and plans for a third, a book called The Voice at the Back Door (1956)* that had its origins in a childhood memory of the frightened late-night knock of her family’s cook, Laura Henley, who had been beaten bloody by a gang of white men.
When Spencer used that memory in fiction she gave the voice asking for help to an ex-GI named Beckwith Dozer and brought into the scene Duncan Harper, a football star turned sheriff who is far more open-minded than anyone suspects. The novel’s plot depends on the intricacies of a county election, and it offers a taxonomy of a small-town world, with its bootleggers and lawyers and belles. It is a world in which everyone has always known everything about everybody else, including just who was involved in the local atrocity, a generation back, when a group of black men and women, Dozer’s father among them, were shot down in the courthouse itself.
The book was recommended for the 1957 Pulitzer Prize, a year in which no award for fiction was made; the judges’ letter presenting it to the board was grudging, and described that year as weak. It wasn’t, not when the competition included both Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Spencer’s published comments about the matter are gracious, and the southerners then on the Pulitzer board were liberals. Possibly the Emmett Till lynching in 1955 made the cautious, troubled stability of the Mississippi she had created in Italy seem outdated. But probably she had gone too far, and cut uncomfortably close in ventriloquizing the spitting vehemence of her white characters’ speech. Gimlet-eyed and entirely absorbing, The Voice at the Back Door stands as the finest novel by a white writer of its era to deal with the world of Jim Crow. And much of its strength grows from the fact that living abroad had allowed Spencer to take an unsparing look not only at her society but also at herself, at the things “I had accepted all my life” and now found “outrageous.”
The South no longer seemed a place in which she might live; but Europe had already given her a new subject, and a different life. Spencer married in 1958, and settled with her husband in Montreal, where he ran a language school. The tough-minded gentility of The Light in the Piazza belongs to this period, as does another Italian novella, Knights and Dragons (1965). Her major work of the next decade, however, was a book that looked again at the national confidence of which Margaret Johnson was an exemplar, and caught it at the moment when it all overreached itself.
The title of No Place for an Angel (1967) refers to America, and at first seems like a joke: something a flippant woman says in the book’s opening pages to a sculptor who wants to carve the old subjects in the old way. Yet the country Spencer describes in this cold war tale is indeed a soulless place. Set variously in Texas, Rome, and New York, its protagonist is a politician’s wife named Catherine Sasser who refuses to do the things her position requires, and whom in consequence everyone sees as mad. Oil fields and foreign aid, a priapic bagman and a dozen kinds of charlatan—the novel’s public concerns seem palpable, but so are its formal ones.
Spencer can be a difficult writer, in a way that recalls Elizabeth Bowen, and she often puts herself deep within the mind of a character who doesn’t fully understand what is happening to her. In her portrait of Catherine’s cracking marriage she fractures chronology and point of view with something approaching recklessness. No Place for an Angel is now out of print, but it remains Spencer’s most demanding novel, and her best.
In interviews Spencer has said that though her life in Montreal was happy, she felt at some remove from the material she knew best. The cosmopolitan impulse behind her Italian tales soon burned itself out, and her later and rather plot-heavy novels aren’t as strong as her early ones; the best of them is The Salt Line (1984), set in a Gulf Coast town after a hurricane.
In her memoir she writes that she now questions the idea of “Southern literature” as a category, and suggests that the region’s daily life has become so “thoroughly encoded by the whole of American experience” as to have lost its once-distinct identity. These new stories may all take place in the South, and yet none of them presents it as a world apart. None of them wants, in Faulkner’s words, to “tell about the South.” But there may be no escaping it. Spencer’s people remain marked by its speech and its mores, and even in the work she has set elsewhere, her characters are often displaced southerners themselves. She chose The Southern Woman as the title for a 2001 selection of her short fiction, and in 1986 a teaching position at Chapel Hill brought her back to the region for good.
Those early novels remain undervalued but, The Light in the Piazza excepted, her reputation has come to rest on the superb short fiction she has drawn from what she calls an “increasingly scattered-out experience.” One of my favorites is the title story of her 1988 collection Jack of Diamonds, in which a teenaged girl learns how quickly her widowed and now-remarried father will push her aside for the sake of his own new life. “The Cousins,” in the same volume, returns to Italy with a retrospective account of a summer when five young people from Alabama got themselves abroad for a while before they all spun off into their separate lives. Yet the story isn’t as cozy as it looks, and suggests that the whole function of memory is to rescue not the past but the future. Spencer concentrates on questions of sex and class and secrecy, and the emotional geography she charts is never an easy one. Elliptical and at times astringent, she knows exactly how ruthless a family can be, and how quickly the self may splinter.
The stories in Starting Over are late work. They are at once spare and dense, assured and yet also impatient, with their complicated dramatic situations quickly drawn. Not all of them succeed. I don’t trust the accent that Spencer gives to an Indian immigrant in “Rising Tide,” while the two stories that depend on Christmas memories seem slight.
But “Return Trip” and “The Wedding Visitor” stand among her best, and so does an understated bit of Gothic called “On the Hill,” a tale that both invites and resists explanation. “Regarding Barry and Jan Daugherty you first had to know that they lived out about two miles from town,” far enough so that they send out little maps along with the invitations to their parties. They give good parties, and lots of them, but “nobody could pin down any exact information about the Daughertys,” like just when they moved in and from where, or even if Barry is the father of the oldest child, “a blond little boy of about ten” called Riley. Certainly some things about the couple seem odd; they are, for example, entirely puzzled by such an ordinary creature as a possum.
Spencer at first employs the town itself as a kind of third-person narrator, a choral voice, and then arrows in on a woman named Eva, who is hoping, after a miscarriage, to get pregnant once more. She isn’t sure she likes the Daughertys, though she admires the way Jan wields “a silver candle snuffer.” Then one day she finds Riley standing at her front door. She has no idea how he got there, and when she drives him home her knock at the door goes unanswered; through a window she sees Jan and another woman sitting over a “half-empty whisky bottle.” She tells Riley that there’s nobody home, and only manages to deliver the boy a few hours later, when she spots Barry out on his lawn. But nobody is ever asked inside again. Riley will visit her twice more, and then seems to vanish; there’s never anyone home, and the house is eventually sold.
Eva suspects something sinister, and hears rumors of illness and death; one day she imagines that she has seen the boy alone in the woods. But the town never learns where the Daughertys have gone, no more than they ever knew where they came from. “A mystery,” Eva’s husband says, and not least because they can’t even be sure that there is one. Other children in this fine collection have a similarly anomalous existence, but Riley’s tale is by far the creepiest, a story in which Elizabeth Spencer suggests that the truly frightening thing about daily life is our inability to know just how much horror it contains.