Her story is that of quiet bravery, a Mississippi writer who couldn’t stand the stench of racism, an independent thinker who, because she traveled the world, gained a more critical view of her native Southern homestead.
“I felt an injustice was everywhere around me,” says the 91-year-old Elizabeth Spencer in the new documentary, “Landscapes of the Heart: The Elizabeth Spencer Story.”
The documentary screens May 5 at the Hanes Art Center Auditorium at UNC-Chapel Hill, where Spencer taught Morehead Scholars for several years in the late 1980s. On the same day, there’s also a fundraiser reception next door, at the Ackland Art Museum. The funds are needed to get the documentary to a wider audience, such as public television stations and on DVD.
Sharon Swanson, the executive producer, has been working on the documentary for 5 1/2 years. “When you look at her life, it is the story of the American South and this country,” Swanson says.
Most readers are familiar with Spencer’s novella set in Florence, Italy, “The Light in the Piazza,” which was made into a 1962 film and won six Tony Awards as a Broadway play in 2005. The award-winning author has also written eight novels, seven short story collections, a memoir and a play. Her writing career spans more than 60 years.
Spencer first went to Italy to write her third novel, “The Voice at the Back Door,” which explored racial tension in the 1940s South through the story of an Ole Miss football star whose views about equality for blacks come to the fore when he runs for county sheriff. Published in 1956, the book made Spencer an outsider to her family and her community, causing more strife between Spencer and her father, a Southern traditionalist who “felt the way life was shaped was the way to keep it,” she says by phone from her Chapel Hill home.
He was already having trouble with her chosen profession. “My father didn’t have in mind he was going to have a daughter that was going to be a writer,” she says. He especially objected to a daughter with opinions that differed from his own.
Once Spencer left Mississippi, she returned only for short visits. She met her Englishman husband, John Rusher, in Italy. She lived there off and on for five years, and 30 years in Canada, before moving to Chapel Hill. When Rusher died in 1998, she thought about leaving the area, but stayed, in part, because of her friendships with other writers and liberal-minded people, Swanson says. But the stories of a certain place and time remained, deep inside her being.
“She got her very being from the small-town South,” says Hillsborough author Lee Smith. “But she couldn’t be contained by it. She had to have a big horizon.” Smith says the distance achieved by traveling to Italy on a Guggenheim fellowship gave Spencer the perspective she needed to be a “brilliant dissector of small-town life.”
“All true artists become universal precisely by first being fiercely local,” says Hillsborough author Allan Gurganus in an email. “She knows her landscape and the name of every flower and weed. As a very young writer, Elizabeth was recognized and championed by Eudora Welty and Robert Penn Warren.… Her place in letters is assured. As a person, she is as clear as her prose is pure. Spencer knows as much about desire as mortality. She has an uncanny ability to let the human dilemmas play themselves out on a social plane. Elizabeth Spencer’s lightness of touch feels buttressed by an eagerness to grapple with the darkest struggles we all daily face.”
Spencer has a new collection of short stories, “Starting Over,” coming out in 2014. “Every one of them has to do with a dead-end situation where people need to move on,” she says.
Life marches on.