Sunday, May 2, 2021

A Southern Landscape

Elizabeth Spencer (1921–2019)
From Elizabeth Spencer: Novels & Stories

Ruins of the old Windsor house, Port Gibson, Mississippi, built in 1859 and destroyed by fire in 1890. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott (1910–1990) for the Farm Security Administration in August 1940. Library of Congress. Eudora Welty also captured the estate in several well-known photographs, including an image from 1935, in which you can see her shadow.
In 2009 Elizabeth Spencer recalled how her membership in a college literary society in 1941 launched a lifelong friendship with Eudora Welty:
I was attending a college called Belhaven in Jackson, Mississippi, when A Curtain of Green appeared. Some of us there, getting a bit weary of our relentless education in how to become ladies, had taken up with literature and were well along with our own notions about it. I myself had recently got back to where I had started in the ignorant dreams of childhood, and was now daring to say again that I was going to be a Writer, yes, indeed, which is one way to get yourself elected president of the literary society. . . . Our meetings were monthly; they lagged and got boring when nobody had a new story to read, and we used to sit there eating fudge squares and complaining about routine, which dulled our inspiration and blighted our native talent.

It gave us quite a pause to read in the paper that there was somebody right across the street (Belhaven is bordered on the South by Pinehurst Avenue) whose inspiration had not been dulled by routine and whose native talent was unblighted. . . .

How it happened I don’t recall—maybe we drew straws—but it fell my lot to invite her.
Welty came to the group’s next meeting and afterward enjoyed a long conversation with Spencer. As she recalled four decades later in her foreword to The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer (1983):
The main thing about her was blazingly clear—this girl was serious. She was indeed already a writer.

As a matter of fact, she was all but the first writer I’d ever met, and the first who was younger than I was. (The other was Katherine Anne Porter.) Elizabeth offered me my first chance to give literary advice. But my instinct protected us both. This free spirit, anybody could tell, would do what she intended to do about writing. What else, and what better could a writer know of another writer? It was all I was sure of about myself. I imagine she was glad not to get advice.

Instead of advising each other, we became friends.
Nevertheless, because Welty was twelve years older and because they both were Mississippi-born women writers, critics often believed that Welty served as a mentor to Spencer—a presumption that flabbergasted both authors—and their fiction was often compared. “I often think that Eudora is even more an individual writer than Faulkner,” Spencer told an interviewer in 1981. “I think you have to be Eudora to write one of her sentences. No, I don’t think her work, except for giving me great delight, has had any effect on my work.”

In 1960, Spencer published The Light in the Piazza, first in The New Yorker and then as a book. It would sell more than a million copies over the years and would spawn both a disappointingly received movie starring Olivia de Havilland and a spectacularly successful Broadway musical that won six Tony Awards. Spencer eventually regarded the novella as an “albatross,” telling interviewer Robert Phillips, “that to have people come up to me, as they do, and gush about The Light in the Piazza, and be totally ignorant that I ever turned a hand at anything else, is . . . upsetting. I suppose I should be grateful they’ve read that.”

The same year The Light in the Piazza appeared, Spencer published the story “A Southern Landscape” (also in The New Yorker), the first of three tales featuring the character Marilee that she would later bring together as a limited-edition book. “I have this strange identification with Marilee because it seems to me she’s sort of an alter ego,” Spencer later admitted. “If I had stayed in Mississippi I might have been that kind of person.” A pivotal scene in the story takes place among the ruins of the Windsor estate—which brings us back to her good friend Eudora Welty, whose photographs of the burned-out house are well known and whose comic story “Asphodel” takes place in a fictional version of the plantation. The Windsor estate was also the scene of a picnic Welty arranged in 1941 for the novelist Henry Miller when he came to visit her in Jackson, Mississippi, during a tour of America that formed the basis of his travel memoir The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Her mother refused to allow the notorious “pornographer” stay in the family home, and years later Welty remembered him as the “dullest man I ever saw in my life. He wasn't interested in anything outside himself.” She was forever thankful that neither she nor the picnic nor, in fact, much of anything about the city of Jackson made it into Miller’s book.

Notes: Spencer’s fictional setting of Port Claiborne is meant to evoke Port Gibson, in Claiborne County, Mississippi, including the famous golden hand with an index finger pointing skyward on the top of the steeple of the city’s First Presbyterian Church. “Strange As It Seems,” “This Curious World,” and “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” were illustrated newspaper features that presented odd and marvelous facts and that usually appeared on the comics page. “Benjy” is one of the three Compson brothers who narrate William Faulkner’s 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury, a man with a mental disability who can neither speak nor distinguish past from present but who has a total sensory recall of particular moments in his earlier life. During much of twentieth century, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in 1894, worked to ensure that the textbooks used in southern schools presented a pro-Confederate version of history, in which slavery was benign and the Civil War was fought over the issue of states’ rights. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) led to Mississippi’s passage of a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol in 1907. Although the law was not repealed until 1966; the state in reality was both legally dry and everywhere wet, with bootlegged liquor or locally distilled moonshine available in virtually every town.

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