In the summer of 1954, a young writer from Mississippi sat at her typewriter in Florence, finishing a novel. Elizabeth Spencer had already brought out two well-regarded novels of Southern life, before being hospitalized for a nervous collapse; on a Guggenheim fellowship, she’d settled in Italy, where something came into focus about the world she’d left behind. “I could catch in my inner ear the precise intonation of someone saying all the phrases I was brought up hearing,” she later recalled, and those phrases sounded suddenly hollow. In “The Voice at the Back Door,” which opens the Library of America’s new collection of her novels and stories, Spencer broke with the world of her youth and sent herself into a decades-long exile.
Born in the tiny town of Carrollton, in 1921, Spencer grew up steeped in the mythologies of the white South. Her mother’s family, the McCains—Senator John McCain was a distant cousin—owned a plantation, and, in her memoir, “Landscapes of the Heart,” published in 1993, Spencer describes early memories that, to her, seem closer to Tolstoy’s Russia than to Dreiser’s America. This idyll was founded on an illusion of white gentility. “All the descendants of slave-holding families I have ever known believe in the benevolence of their forebears as masters,” she writes. In school, she recalls, the depiction of Confederate glory in the history textbooks brought the children to such a frenzy that a classmate turned to her and said, “It looks like we’re gonna win, dudn’t it?” The myths formed a mental horizon she couldn’t see beyond; the system of segregation, she writes, “never seemed to me anything but part of the eternal. Might as well question why the live oaks were there, or the flowers in Aunt Esther’s garden.”
Sustaining the illusion required a conspiracy of silence. “Everyone knows it, but don’t mention it” was the response to any part of the past that felt threatening, Spencer writes. Among such things in Carrollton was “the old crime, the one nobody ever talked about,” known as the Carrollton Courthouse massacre. In 1886, two Black men pressed charges of assault and attempted murder against a group of white men. At the ensuing trial, a white mob armed with shotguns and rifles opened fire on Black residents at the courthouse, killing more than twenty people. No investigation was initiated; no one was ever held accountable. As late as the nineteen-nineties, the bullet holes left by the mob remained visible in the walls of the courtroom.
Into early adulthood, Spencer abided by the local code of silence, even as her education drew her away from the world of her youth. At Belhaven College, in Jackson, an encounter with T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” seemed to usher her into modernity. “I had been living in it all the time, but no one had told me so,” she explains. She began writing fiction, found a lifelong friend in Eudora Welty, and pursued graduate studies at Vanderbilt, where she fell under the influence of the poet Donald Davidson. If she had any objection to Davidson’s racism—a strict segregationist, he regarded Black people as “just children, after all”—she didn’t mention it.
But in Italy Spencer gained the distance she needed to see and hear things more clearly, and to speak more directly. “The Voice at the Back Door” centers on the fictional town of Lacey, Mississippi, a small, dull place with a courthouse and church steeples and “the inevitable Confederate soldier’s statue.” The town’s longtime sheriff, just before dying, has appointed the local grocer, a former college football star named Duncan Harper, to serve as his successor. What the sheriff doesn’t know is that Harper plans to apply justice equally to Lacey’s white and Black citizens. Harper also wants to enforce the town’s prohibition law, and this makes him the enemy of Jimmy Tallant, a local bootlegger, who mounts a campaign against him. Tallant figures that, to the voters of Lacey, liberalism is worse than liquor, so he pays an enigmatic Black man named Beckwith Dozer to help him broadcast Harper’s intentions. In a staged conflict, Dozer pretends that Tallant wants to kill him and asks Harper to defend him. It’s a trap. Someone photographs Harper as he’s guarding Dozer from a white mob—a bit of damning publicity that is seized upon by his opponents. A Black newspaper in Chicago writes him up as “a champion of civil rights” and “a defender of the black race.” Back home, a local tells him: “In Chicago, friend, you are solid. In Winfield County you’ll probably be everybody’s least favorite grocer till the day you die.”
Dozer’s reasons for going along with Tallant’s scheme are not merely financial. We learn that Dozer’s father, a highly educated former slave, was massacred with twelve other Black men in the courthouse when Beckwith was a child. Tallant’s father led the racist mob that killed him, and this past has bound the two men together and warped each of them in very different ways. In one moving passage, Dozer contemplates the history of Lacey and sees “that everything most clear to him was sorrowful, full of Negro sorrow. He included himself in his sorrows, for he always suspected that, like his father, he was going out to deal with white people someday and never come home again.” Dozer is wary of white liberals like Harper; letting such a man lead, he says, is “like following along behind somebody on a tightrope. As he gets along towards the middle his problems are likely to increase, and soon he gots to turn loose of me to help himself.” Dozer is right to be suspicious; Harper is no Atticus Finch. But Spencer draws Harper and Dozer together: Tallant is murdered, and Dozer is framed for the crime, and he and Harper have to walk the tightrope together.
The critic Brendan Gill, writing in The New Yorker, called “The Voice at the Back Door” a “practically perfect novel.” He also called it “Southern without quotation marks,” but it might be more accurate to say that Spencer can see the quotation marks within which her characters live. She had come to believe that the South no longer existed as a distinct entity and that, when Southerners insisted upon the continued reality of that bygone world, “it all becomes a sort of put-on,” their personalities amounting to pretensions or even parodies. Many of the novel’s characters are types: the former All-American, the renegade bootlegger, the free spirit longing to split town. Playing old roles in a new South, they can’t understand—let alone prevent—the tragedy unfolding in front of them. At one point, early in the novel, Harper discusses a rumor that a lynching has been planned, with a local politician. “These things are supposed to happen in the middle of September after it hasn’t rained for forty weeks, after all the cattle have died of thirst and their stench rolls in from the country and there’s so much dust the sun looks bloody all day long,” the politician says. “Isn’t that right?” Harper says he doesn’t know, that he’s never witnessed a lynching. The politician says he hasn’t either, adding, “All I know is what I read in William Faulkner.”
Spencer had a complicated relationship with her native state’s most famous novelist. “I deliberately had to pull back if I found myself writing what sounded like Faulkner,” she told one interviewer. Her mature style, which she called “plainly-stated,” might be regarded as a deliberate swerve away from Faulkner’s more baroque prose. It also seems like the revenge of someone fed up with being told “Don’t mention it.”
“The Voice at the Back Door” was composed before, and published shortly after, the murder of Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was killed in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white woman. Unlike the more consoling “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with its white hero and its suggestion of progress toward racial justice, Spencer’s white protagonists are inert and hostile to change. She takes a dim view of their capacity for justice; all they can do is punish whoever deviates from their role, making the ultimately tragic ends of Harper and Dozer less disturbing than the tragedy of those who survive and will go on to perpetuate their destructive delusions. The book found admirers in Robert Penn Warren and Ralph Ellison; it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1957 and was rumored to be the front-runner, though, mysteriously, no prize for fiction was awarded that year. Meanwhile, the people back home recognized the novel as an indictment. It had a chilling effect on Spencer’s family—she received threatening letters, and Donald Davidson never spoke to her again. “I had jumped the fence,” she writes in her memoir.
Three decades would pass before she lived in the South again. Spencer settled in Montreal, where she taught creative writing at Concordia University. In 1960, she published “The Light in the Piazza,” a novella, in The New Yorker, the story of a woman named Margaret from Winston-Salem who travels to Florence with her twenty-six-year-old daughter, Clara. Owing to an accident, Clara has “the mental age of a child of ten,” but she bears no obvious traces of her disability—at least none apparent to Fabrizio, a Florentine who falls in love with her. Clara’s difference slips into the cultural and linguistic gaps between her and the Italian, and Margaret is faced with the question of whether to disabuse Fabrizio of his illusion or let it play out: “After all, she thought, why not?”
The novella is Spencer’s lightest, most accessible work and the one for which she’s best remembered. It has sold more than a million copies and been adapted into a movie and a Tony Award-winning play. But Spencer came to resent its success, calling it an “albatross.” She considered herself primarily a novelist, with “The Voice at the Back Door” her most important contribution. Comparing the works, one wonders whether she felt uneasy about how the novella indulges a fantasy of preserving silence and letting illusion flourish. She never wrote anything quite so light again, even though, over time, her reputation came to rest on similarly short works that she published in The New Yorker and elsewhere. Many of these pieces are set abroad, in the cities of Spencer’s exile, but the finest are tied to the South, extending her attack on white hypocrisy or depicting women seeking escape from local customs, at any cost. (“The Southern Woman,” a rich, career-spanning collection that includes “The Light in the Piazza,” has just been reissued by the Modern Library.)
When Spencer at last returned to the South, in 1986, settling with her husband in Chapel Hill, she admitted that she’d stayed away too long. Some of the later stories seem frozen mid-century, as if she’d lost touch with her homeland’s pulse, and perhaps that’s why she became increasingly convinced of the South’s extinction, rather than recognizing how the region had always been in flux, even when she was a child. Spencer died in 2019, having long outlived the world of her childhood, a place she looked back on as one of “enchantment and love,” a dream balanced on a sinkhole.