Celebrated Mississippi author Elizabeth Spencer died on Sunday, December 22nd at her home in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Spencer, who was 98 at the time of her death, is considered one of the foremost chroniclers of the American South, analyzing the topics of racism and class distinctions in many of her works.
Often compared to the likes of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Henry James, Spencer portrayed the ordinary course of man’s experience in novels such as Fire in the Morning, The Crooked Way, and The Voice at the Back Door.
Yet, her best-known piece is her novella The Light in the Piazza, which is the story of an upper-class American visiting the country of Italy with her mentally disabled daughter who falls in love with a young, Italian man. The mother, who desperately wants a life of normality for her daughter, consents to the marriage without revealing her daughter’s brain injury.
Originally published in The New Yorker and nominated as a National Book Award finalist, The Light in the Piazza was eventually adapted into a big-screen film in 1962. Then, in 2005, it was once again adapted but this time into a Broadway play.
Before the literary fame, Spencer found her love for writing while sitting in a tree in the 500-person town of Carrollton, Mississippi where she grew up.
There, she attended J.Z. George High School, where she was valedictorian before moving to Jackson in order to study at Belhaven University.
“Elizabeth Spencer—a fearless, astute, nuanced, and accomplished writer and observer of the human condition—is the gold standard for the values, craft, and, honest creative commitment we teach in our B.F.A. program,” Belhaven Chair of Creative Writing Dr. Randall Smith said.
After receiving her undergraduate degree from Belhaven in 1942, she went on to study literature at Vanderbilt University before accepting a teaching job at Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia.
She also taught classes at the University of Mississippi, Concordia University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill over the course of her career.
In all, Spencer produced nine novels, eight short story collections, one memoir, and one play.
She will forever be remembered as one of the most beautiful voices American literature ever had the pleasure of listening to.
Rest in peace, Elizabeth Spencer.