Elizabeth Spencer has been called “a national treasure” (Richard Bausch) and “a writer one puts on the ‘permanent’ shelf” (James Dickey). Often linked with fellow Mississippians William Faulkner and Eudora Welty—the latter once remarked that “Spencer knows the small, Southern, backwoods hilltown down to the bone”—she also crafted nuanced portrayals of expatriate Americans in Europe that invite comparison to Henry James. This Library of America volume gathers the best writing from a career that spanned six decades: three novels and nineteen stories that reveal as never before the full range and stature of her accomplishments.
The Voice at the Back Door (1956) is a shrewd and sensitive look at racial politics in a quiet Mississippi town during the late Jim Crow era, a novel that anticipates Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The breakneck plot is set in motion when Duncan Harper, a shopkeeper and former football star more open-minded than anyone suspects, accepts the job of sheriff, pushing the town of Lacey toward crisis. The judges for the Pulitzer Prize unanimously recommended Spencer’s novel for the award in fiction, but the Pulitzer board declined to make an award that year, perhaps for fear that Spencer’s racial subject matter was too incendiary for the national climate at the time.
The two years that Spencer spent in Italy on a Guggenheim Fellowship inspired The Light in the Piazza (1960), her most famous work, adapted for the screen by Guy Green and into a Tony Award–winning musical by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas. Set in Florence and permeated by the city’s atmosphere and light, it is a comic, deft, and poignant novel about a wealthy American woman whose attempt to marry her beautiful daughter to a handsome young Florentine conceals a wrenching secret. It is joined here by Knights and Dragons (1965), described by Spencer as a “dark companion” to The Light in the Piazza, in which an American woman, haunted by the specter of her domineering ex-husband, travels to Rome in search of a new life.
Spencer was a prolific and prodigiously talented short story writer. The selection presented here demonstrates her mastery of the form, ranging from the early, ghostly “First Dark” (1959), a gothic tale about a history-haunted love affair in a small southern town, to the valedictory “The Wedding Visitor” (2013), about one man’s refusal to let the all-enveloping world of place, family, and childhood define his adult life.
Michael Gorra, editor, is the Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English at Smith College, where he has taught since 1985. He is the author of The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany; Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography; and The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War.