Elizabeth Spencer

Major Works

Elizabeth Spencer at MUW 2006, Photo by N. Jacobs

Elizabeth Spencer at MUW 2006, Photo by N. Jacobs

Novels and Short Story Collections

  • Starting Over:  Stories 2013 (Winner of the 2013 Rea Award for Short Story)
  • The Southern Woman: Selected Fiction 2001, 2012
  • No Place for an Angel 1967, 2015
  • This Crooked Way (Banner Books Series) 2012
  • The Night Travelers 1999
  • The Light in the Piazza and Other Italian Tales 1995, 2005
  • The Voice at the Back Door  1956, 1994
  • On the Gulf (Author and Artist Series)  1991
  • Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories 1988
  • The Salt Line: A Novel 1984, 1995
  • The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer 1983
  • Marilee: Three Stories 1981
  • The Snare A Novel 1972
  • Ship Island and Other Stories 1968
  • Knights and Dragons 1965
  • Fire in the Morning 1948, 2012


  • Landscapes of the Heart: A Memoir 1997


  • “For Lease or Sale” 1989

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Biography of Elizabeth Spencer

Eliazbeth Spencer.  Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Spencer

Eliazbeth Spencer. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Spencer

by Natasha Hunter (SHS)

Elizabeth Spencer was born in Carrollton, Mississippi, on July 19, 1921.   Her parents were Mary James McCain Spencer and James Luther Spencer.  When she graduated from  J. Z. George High School in North Carrollton, Mississippi, she had high grades and was valedictorian of her class.   In 1938 Spencer attended Belhaven College, in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1943 she attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and earned her  M.A. degree.   She taught English at Northwest Mississippi Junior College in Senatobia during the 1943-1944 school year  and at Ward-Belmont in Nashville during the 1944-1945 school year before she took a job as a reporter with the Nashville Tennessean (1945-1946).  After leaving her newspaper job, she  worked for the next few years as an instructor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi,  teaching traditional English courses and creative writing.

TheSouthern WomanIn 1953 Spencer was  awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and left Mississippi to live in Italy and pursue  writing full time. While there she met and married John Rusher of Cornwall, England, in 1956.  For a time Spencer and her husband lived in Canada after having lived in Italy for five years.  Then in  1986, they moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she still resides.  Her husband died in 1998. In Chapel Hill, Spencer began teaching writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, and  taught there for many years. She is now retired.

Spencer’s first novel, Fire in the Morning, was published in 1948. All together she has written nine novels, eight collections of short stories, a non-fiction memoir, and a play.

Elizabeth Spencer at MUW 2006 by N. Jacobs

Elizabeth Spencer at MUW 2006 by N. Jacobs

Elizabeth Spencer started writing down stories as soon as she learned to write,  and she loved reading and being read to. She has read a great many authors, especially the ones she admires. She admires many Mississippi and English authors. Some of them are Henry Green, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad. She also likes French writers such as Stendhal, Colette, Proust, and Camus. Spencer’s  book is The Southern Woman:  New and Selected Fiction was published in 2001.  She says that she is very pleased with the selection even though some stories and novellas had to be omitted.  Many reviewers also have taken a liking to the book. Since her husband’s death in 1998, she says it has been hard to find a steady focus for her to write about. She is hoping to begin writing again. (See interview below.) Spencer has a saying, “A writer who is not writing is like a useless piece of furniture, ready for the attic.”

Elizabeth Spencer has won many awards in her lifetime.   She is a five-time recipient of the O. Henry prizeThe Voice at the Back Door for short fiction. While considered a Southern writer, Spencer lived in Italy and Canada for many years and many of her stories take place in those countries, including her best-known work, Light in the Piazza.  In 1952 she got a recognition award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  In 1953 she received the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship Award.  In 1956-1957 she received the Kenyon Review Fiction Fellowship and the First Rosenthal Award.   In 1960 she received the McGraw-Hill Fiction Fellowship Award.  In 1962 she received the Donnelly Fellowship, Bryn Mawr College. In 1968 she received the Bellamann Award.  In 1983 she received the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the Award of Merit Medal for the Short Story.  In 1985 she was elected to the American Institute of Arts and Letters.  In 1988 she received the National Endowment for the Arts Senior Fellowship in Literature Grant.  Then in 1992 she received the Salem Award for Distinction in Letters from Salem College and the John Dos Passos Award for Literature. In 1994 she received the North Carolina Governor’s Award for Literature. She was the Vice-Chancellor for the Charter Member Fellowship of Southern Writers from 1993 to 1997.

More of her many awards include the J. William Corrington Award for fiction and the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award for fiction in 1997.  In 1998 she received the Fortner Award for Literature.  In 1999 she received the Mississippi State Library Award for non-fiction. In 2001 she received the Cleanth Brooks Medal for achievement awarded by the Fellowship of Southern Writers.  In 2002 she received the Thomas Wolfe Award for Literature given by UNC-Chapel Hill and the Morgan Foundation and was also inducted into the North Carolina Hall of Fame.

Katie Clark, star of Light in the Piazza at Mississippi University for Wormen and Elizabeth Spencer (2006). Photo by N. Jacobs

Katie Clark, star of Light in the Piazza at Mississippi University for Wormen and Elizabeth Spencer (2006). Photo by N. Jacobs

Her  book Light in the Piazza was published in 1960 and was made into a Hollywood movie in 1962. The movie starred Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux, George Hamilton, Rossano Brazzi and Barry Sullivan. More recently, Craig Lucas, playwright, wrote the script, and Adam Guettel wrote music and lyrics for a musical version of The Light in the Piazza, which was first produced in Seattle in 2003 and opened in New York in 2005 at the Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre to great reviews. The musical won six Tony Awards in 2006, including the award to Adam Guettel for his music and to Victoria Clark for her performance in the leading role. In 2007 the musical went on a national tour.

Elizabeth Spencer at the age of 93 became the winner of the $30,000 2013 Rea Award for the Short Story for her collection of short stories Starting Over. The award is given to encourage the writing of short fiction and is given annually to a living US or Canadian writer who has made a significant contribution to the discipline of the short story form. The award is sponsored by the Dungannon Foundation.

All Spenser’s novels and story collections are in print except No Place for An Angel (1967) which is now slated for reissue by Norton.  A documentary film based on Spencer’s memoir, titled Landscapes of the Heart: the Elizabeth Spencer Story has been produced by Sharon Swanson with production assistance from Rebecca Cerese and shown on PBS.

Today at the age of 94, Spencer still occasionally gives readings. Her book Starting Over was published in 2014.

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A Review of The Light in the Piazza

by Natasha Hunter, SHS

Natasha Hunter, SHS Researcher

Natasha Hunter, SHS Researcher

The Light in the Piazza is a romantic novella by Elizabeth Spencer. This book holds your attention with its multi-cultural love between two young adults. You won’t want to put it down.  An American woman and her daughter travel to Italy for a long vacation to get away from complications at home. The girl has some mental problems, but she falls in love with a young Italian boy. The book leads to a perfect ending with some difficulty in-between.

I liked the book because I enjoy reading abou  romantic happenings in young people’s lives. The book is full of detail and conflict between American and Italian lifestyles. Despite some confusion, everything comes out perfectly in the end.

The light in the  piazzaSpencer writes descriptively so that when reading the book,  the reader can easily picture the lovely sites of Rome and Italy. The detail in the description of places makes you wish you were there.

I think this is a great book for any age to read since there are no references to sex or profanity anywhere in the book. The plot is full of interesting historical facts throughout the novel. The girl’s mother isn’t sure that the girl should let herself fall in love with the Italian boy and doesn’t know what to do. She can either keep her daughter in Italy where she has found love or take her back to America and the torment she has to put up with. If you would like to know how it ends, then pick up a copy from your local library or bookstore.

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Interview with Elizabeth Spencer (2002)

by Natasha Hunter (SHS)

Elizabeth Spencer, photo by Nancy Jacobs

Elizabeth Spencer, photo by Nancy Jacobs

Where were you born?

I was born in Carrollton, Mississippi.

What are your parents’ names?

My parents were Mary James McCain Spencer and James Luther Spencer.

What high school did you attend?

I went to J. Z. George High School in North Carrollton, Mississippi.

What kind of student were you in high school?

I had high grades and was class valedictorian.

What college did you attend?

I attended Belhaven College in Jackson and graduated cum laude, then went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville where I received a Master’s Degree in Literature in 1943.

Is the book, even though fiction, based on your life or someone you know or knew?

The story, The Light In the Piazza, did not relate to my life in any way.

Who is your favorite author or authors?

I read and have read a great many authors, especially those I admire–the Mississippi writers, and the English too–such as Henry Green, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Elizabeth Bowen. I love French writers like Stendhal, Colette and Prost, also Camus.

When did you become interested in writing?

I began to write down stories as soon as I learned to write and loved reading and being read to.

Are you working on a new book right now? (2002)

My husband died in 1998, and I have not been writing much since, so though I work on different manuscripts I have no special project at the moment.

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 Related Websites

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  • “Elizabeth Spencer.”  Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2002.
  • Spencer, Elizabeth.  Elizabeth Spencer-Writer. Interview by Natasha Hunter on 13 December, 2002.
  • Spencer, Elizabeth.  The Light in the Piazza.  New York, London, Toronto.  McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.

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