Elizabeth Spencer, a celebrated author whose irony-laced novels and short stories explored family strife and buried histories, most indelibly with “The Light in the Piazza,” and who was regarded as one of the foremost chroniclers of the American South, died Dec. 22 at her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She was 98.

Craig Lucas, the playwright who adapted “Piazza” for the stage, confirmed her death and said he did not know the cause.

Spencer’s seven-decade career, beginning with the 1948 novel “Fire in the Morning,” was one of the longest in American letters. Outlasting her Southern peers Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, she continued publishing new work as recently as 2014, when – at 92 – she released a widely praised story collection titled “Starting Over.”

Contrary to its name, the book proved a continuation of her life’s work, with understated stories of eccentric neighbors, tumultuous weddings and old but not forgotten affairs, all set in communities that seemed drawn from Spencer’s upbringing in small-town Mississippi and her years as a creative-writing professor in Chapel Hill.

“Nothing much happens in these stories that hasn’t happened to any of us,” literary critic Malcolm Jones wrote in a review for The New York Times. “Spencer’s great gift is her ability to take ordinariness and turn it inside out, to find focus in a muddle. She constructs her stories out of gossip and old memories and anecdotes not so much for their own sakes but as a means of locating the mysteries about people, the things that don’t add up.”

Spencer wrote nine novels and novellas and dozens of stories, many of them published in The New Yorker and collected in her 2001 anthology “The Southern Woman.” She was a five-time winner of the O. Henry Award for short stories and in 2007 was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for short fiction, placing her in the company of writers such as Alice Munro, whom film critic Molly Haskell once described as Spencer’s “sister under the skin.”

While the South’s wilting heat and drawling dialects featured in much of Spencer’s work, it was only after she left the region – for Italy, on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and then for Montreal – that she produced her best-known books, including the 1960 novella “The Light in the Piazza.”

She often spent years crafting her novels, developing many of them from short stories and working her sentences into what she described as a “plainly-stated, hearty style – hospitable to sensitivity but not dependent on it.” But “Piazza” was written in a single, cabin-feverish month in Montreal.

As she watched the snow fall outside her window, Spencer later recalled, she was reminded of the peculiar quality of the light in Italy, which gave what she eventually described as “the sense that everything is clear and visible, that nothing is withheld.”

The resulting book was a kind of modern fairy tale, in which a wealthy Southern woman named Margaret Johnson travels to Italy with her beautiful daughter, Clara. A handsome Florentine strikes up a relationship with Clara, not realizing that she was once kicked in the head by a pony and has a mental age of 10 or 12.

“This little book is a gem,” wrote Times book critic Orville Prescott, comparing Spencer’s expatriate plot to the work of Henry James. “Her whole story is a fine example of what can be done in fiction by expert use of selection, compression and suggestion.”

It was also a hit. The novella sold about 2 million copies and was adapted into a 1962 film starring Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton. A musical version opened on Broadway in 2005, with Lucas drawing on parts of the novella for the dialogue and Adam Guettel composing the music and lyrics.

The show ran for 504 performances and received six Tony Awards, including best original score and best performance for actress Victoria Clark, playing Margaret.

Spencer expressed surprise at the book’s enduring popularity, telling Newsday in 2005 that the novella had an “out-of-the-ballpark plot” and that much of her work was “much better or equal to it.”

But she acknowledged that it played a crucial role in her development as a writer, marking the first time that she used a female protagonist and paving the way for decades of stories about women seeking independence.

“The way I was brought up,” Spencer once told Mississippi Quarterly, “it was considered that men did all the interesting things out in the world and women were pretty much reduced to a domestic pattern or minor careers. The whole idea of a woman in the arts must have horrified my family at first.”

Elizabeth DuPont Spencer was born in Carrollton, Mississippi, on July 19, 1921. Her father was a businessman and farmer whom she described as a strict Presbyterian. Her mother came from a more literary-minded family that encouraged her to supplement her readings from the Bible with novels by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Through her mother, she counted the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as a cousin.

Spencer studied English at Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi, where she befriended Welty after inviting the writer to address the school literary society. Welty later wrote the foreword to “The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer,” which helped establish Spencer’s reputation as a master of the form upon its publication in 1981.

She graduated from Belhaven in 1942 and one year later received a master’s degree in literature from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she studied under poet and critic Donald Davidson. It was there that she began reading William Faulkner, a fellow Mississippian whose sprawling novels and lyrical prose were at the center of the 1920s and ’30s movement known as the Southern Renaissance.

Spencer acknowledged imitating Faulkner’s ornate, comma-strewn style in her early work. But she turned to a more pared-down style in books such as “The Voice at the Back Door,” about race relations in a Mississippi town. The novel was recommended for the Pulitzer Prize in 1957, but in a sign of its divisive subject matter, no Pulitzer for fiction was awarded that year.

Described by New Yorker culture critic Brendan Gill as “a practically perfect novel,” the book features a lightly fictionalized account of a bloody 1886 incident in Spencer’s hometown. A white mob had stormed the county courthouse and killed about a dozen African Americans, unleashing their rage about a trial in which a pair of black and Native American brothers had accused a white man of attempted murder. The bullet holes in the courthouse weren’t plastered over until the 1990s.

“The Voice at the Back Door” was also inspired by the 1955 killing of Emmett Till, the black teenager who was lynched 20 miles from Spencer’s hometown.

His death, and what Spencer described as an apathetic reaction from white friends and family members, contributed to her decision to leave the South, ultimately for three decades.

During a five-year stint in Italy, she met John Rusher, an Englishman whom she married in 1956. They moved to Montreal, where Spencer taught creative writing at Concordia University. She also taught at the University of Mississippi and, beginning in 1986, at the University of North Carolina.

Rusher died in 1998, and Spencer had no immediate survivors.

Her later novels included “The Salt Line” (1984), about the destruction of the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Camille in 1969, and “The Night Travellers” (1991), a Vietnam War-era story about a Southern ballet dancer who travels to Canada. She also published a memoir, “Landscapes of the Heart” (1998), that reflected on the dissolution of a singular Southern identity.

“Everything changes, almost every day. You can’t even be sure the moon and stars are going to be the same the day after tomorrow night,” Spencer wrote in “A Southern Landscape,” one of several stories that featured a headstrong young woman named Marilee Summerall and one of many that suggested the importance that the South held for Spencer.

She continued: “There have got to be some things you can count on, would be an ordinary way to put it. I’d rather say that I feel the need of a land, of sure terrain, of a sort of permanent landscape of the heart.”


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