When she died last December at the age of ninety-eight, the novelist Elizabeth Spencer was described as “a national treasure.” The author of nine novels, eight story collections, a memoir, and a play, she had mastered every mode of literary fiction. Her first novel appeared in 1948 and her most recent book in 2014. On the page, Spencer makes what’s technically difficult seem unusually clear, then psychologically inevitable. From the start, her voice was praised for its tonal nuance, its stratospheric empathy. Spencer had the gift for infusing social situations with a bullfight’s fatality.
She was born in 1921 in the waning plantation culture of Carrollton, Mississippi. Senator John McCain was her second cousin. She grew up owning a horse and believing in ghosts. The subject of race was inescapable in the Jim Crow South and it figured strongly in her fiction.
At her career’s very start, Elizabeth Spencer won the admiration of wise older writers, fine judges of talent like Robert Penn Warren and Eudora Welty. They identified her depth of insight, her fellow feeling, and the warm richness of her character.
A Guggenheim Fellowship in 1953 allowed her to depart Mississippi for Italy. There she met and married John Rusher, an Englishman from Cornwall. The couple moved to Montreal in 1956. I first encountered Spencer when I published my first story at age twenty-six. She sent me a letter praising what I’d done. Beginner’s luck on all fronts. When Spencer became writer in residence at the University of North Carolina in 1986, she took up residence in Chapel Hill, where we became neighbors. Read More