NEW YORK —
Elizabeth Spencer, a grande dame of Southern literature who bravely navigated between the Jim Crow past and open-ended present in her novels and stories including the celebrated novella “Light In the Piazza,” has died at 98.
Spencer, who sometimes went by her married name Elizabeth Rusher, died Sunday night in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, according to playwright Craig Lucas, who adapted “Light In the Piazza” for the stage.
Old enough to know ex-slaves and Civil War veterans, Spencer chronicled her complicated affection for her ties to tiny Carrollton, Mississippi — her determination to honor them and to leave them behind. Like her predecessor and fellow Mississippian, William Faulkner, she was an author praised by strangers and shunned by acquaintances.
“In a small town that’s been there for ages, some people look out and some look in,” she would write. “As for myself, I mainly just looked around me.”
Her most famous work, “Light In the Piazza,” is the story of a North Carolina woman in Florence who watches and worries as her mentally impaired daughter falls in love with an Italian. First published in The New Yorker and released in book form in 1960, it was an immediate critical favorite adapted into a 1962 movie that starred Olivia De Havilland and Yvette Mimieux and into a Broadway musical that in 2006 won six Tonys.
Admired by Eudora Welty and Alice Munro among others, Spencer wrote the novels “The Snare” and “The Salt Line” and dozens of short stories, most recently for the 2014 collection “Starting Over.” She also completed a play, “For Lease or Sale,” and the memoir “Landscapes of the Heart.” Her many honors included the Rea Award and PEN/Malamud prize for lifetime achievement in short fiction, five O’Henry prizes for short stories and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Spencer was a final link to the pre-World War II South and to an era when Welty and other writers from that region struggled for national recognition. Born in 1921, Spencer was descended from plantation owners and grew up in a community where girls were chastised for smoking, gossip was forbidden (but flourished anyway) and matrons lived in columned mansions. Life was eased and haunted by the subservient presence of blacks, “an ugly system, of course,” Spencer wrote in her memoir.
“But in that childhood time of enchantment and love, it never seemed to me anything but part of the eternal.”
Carrollton labeled her early, and unfavorably, as “smart.” Taunted by her classmates, “ostracized and mocked at,” she would sneak off to the woods to write, acts of defiance that left her with “pangs of feeling ‘different,’ evasiveness and secret anxieties.”
She was an undergraduate at Belhaven College (now Belhaven University) in Jackson, Mississippi, and received a master’s in literature from Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Her first novel, “Fire In the Morning,” was published in 1948, followed by “This Crooked Way” and “The Voice at the Back Door,” the story of a candidate for sheriff who supports racial justice in a small Mississippi community. “The Voice at the Back Door” was recommended by a Pulitzer committee for the 1957 fiction prize, but rejected by the board. No fiction award was given that year.
Meanwhile, after traveling in Europe and living in Tennessee and Oxford, Mississippi, she returned to Carrollton in 1956 and found that no one was interested in her books. Carrollton instead was preoccupied, and in denial, about the gruesome murder of black teen Emmett Till by whites.
She moved to New York, then London, then Montreal. Drawing upon her time in Italy years earlier, she needed just a month to complete the first draft of “Light In the Piazza.” It was a breakthrough for Spencer, who previously had focused on male characters, and a timeless tale of a Southerner who discovers that her one-track life has split into “a conscious duality of existence.”
“The Latin temperament may thrive on such subtleties and never find it necessary to conclude them, but to Mrs. Johnson the experience was strange and new,” Spencer wrote in the book.
Past regrets, troubled marriages and long-lost relatives were common themes. Spencer also confronted her generation’s anxiety over civil rights. In the novella “The Business Venture,” a circle of Mississippi friends is unable even to mention the savage beatings of Freedom Riders or the whites enraged over efforts to integrate the University of Mississippi.
“They (blacks) were all around us, had always been, living around us, waiting on us, sharing our lives, brought up with us, nursing us, cooking for us, mourning and rejoicing with us, making us laugh, stealing from us, digging our graves,” she wrote.
“But when all the troubles started coming in on us after the Freedom Riders and the Ole Miss riots, we decided not to talk about it.”
Spencer was married 42 years to the British-born John Rusher, who died in 1998. She taught at the University of Mississippi, Concordia University in Montreal, and most, recently, at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, allowing her to remain out of Carrollton, but not out of the South.
“There’s some argument for being able to stay in one region all your life, especially if your roots are there,” she told The Paris Review in 1989.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really cut the root; I never wanted to. But there’s a loss of immediacy in one’s experience. You have to count on memory more and daily rhythms less. But memory is a muse, after all, a girl with a vital life of her own.”