Elizabeth Spencer (1921-2019) was a major figure of the Southern Renaissance, though today her many books and stories are scattered or out of print. This Library of America volume brings together the very best of her writing--three novels and nineteen stories--from a career spanning more than six decades.
The Voice at the Back Door (1957), greeted by The New Yorker as "a practically perfect novel," portrays small-town life in Mississippi during the late Jim Crow era and the self-interest and hatred that kept injustice firmly in place. Published two years after the Emmett Till lynching, it cuts uncomfortably close in ventriloquizing the spitting vehemence of its white characters' speech and may have been proven too potentially controversial for the Pulitzer board (which awarded no prize in 1957). Also included in this volume are The Light in the Piazza (1960), Spencer's most famous work, a deftly poignant comedy about Americans abroad that was adapted to the screen by Guy Green; and a second superb Italian novella, Knights and Dragons (1965), reminiscent of Henry James's novels in its atmosphere, interiority, and concern with transplanted Americans.
Spencer excelled in the short story form and this volume presents a career-spanning selection by editor Michael Gorra that ranges from the early "First Dark" (1959), a kind of ghost story about a spectral oversized house in a Southern town, to the valedictory "The Wedding Visitor" (2013), about the refusal to let the all-enveloping world of place, family, and childhood define one's adult life. Spencer's special focus was families, and few writers have so brilliantly plumbed the passions that unite them and the inner upheavals that can tear them apart.