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The Southern Woman
Cover of The Southern Woman
The Southern Woman
Selected Fiction
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Born in rural Carrollton, Mississippi, Elizabeth Spencer has been writing masterly stories and novellas about Southerners for more than half a century. The Southern Woman collects the best of Spencer’s shorter fiction and displays her range of place–the agrarian South, Italy in the decade after the Second World War, the gray-sky North, and the contemporary Sun Belt. In “The Little Brown Girl,” Maybeth discovers the limits of friendship in a racially divided world. In the elegiac “The Cousins,” a group of Southerners roams through Italy, brushing with love and regret and the grip of family. Also included is “The Light in the Piazza,” the novella about an American woman and her daughter in Florence that brought Spencer widespread acclaim and was adapted for both the screen and the Broadway stage. In this capstone collection, Elizabeth Spencer firmly claims her place in the distinguished heritage of the Southern short story.
Born in rural Carrollton, Mississippi, Elizabeth Spencer has been writing masterly stories and novellas about Southerners for more than half a century. The Southern Woman collects the best of Spencer’s shorter fiction and displays her range of place–the agrarian South, Italy in the decade after the Second World War, the gray-sky North, and the contemporary Sun Belt. In “The Little Brown Girl,” Maybeth discovers the limits of friendship in a racially divided world. In the elegiac “The Cousins,” a group of Southerners roams through Italy, brushing with love and regret and the grip of family. Also included is “The Light in the Piazza,” the novella about an American woman and her daughter in Florence that brought Spencer widespread acclaim and was adapted for both the screen and the Broadway stage. In this capstone collection, Elizabeth Spencer firmly claims her place in the distinguished heritage of the Southern short story.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book the little brown girl

    Maybeth’s father had a business in the town, which was about a mile from where they lived, but he had about forty acres of land below the house that he planted in cotton and corn. The land was down the hill from the house and it was on two levels of ground: twenty acres, then a bluff covered with oak sprouts and vines, then a lower level, which stretched to the property line at the small creek. You could see it all from the house—the two fields and the creek, and other fields beyond the creek—but from the upper field you could just see as far as the willows along the creek bank.

    For nine months of the year, Maybeth’s father hired a Negro named Jim Williams to make the crop. Jim would work uptown in the mornings and come in the afternoons around two o’clock—a black, strapping Negro in blue overalls, stepping light and free and powerful on the road from town. He would go around the house to the back to hitch up the black mule in spring, or file on the hoe blade in summer, or drag a great dirty-white cotton sack to the field in the fall. Spring, summer, and fall they saw him come, until he became as much a part of the household as Maybeth or Brother or Lester Junior or Snookums, the cook; then, after the last pound of cotton was weighed in the cold fall twilight, the Jim they knew would vanish. In winter, they sometimes spoke to a town Negro as Jim, and he would answer back, pleasant as you please, but it was no use pretending he was the same. The cotton stalks stood black and sodden in the field, and the cornstalks broke from the top, and there was nothing for a little girl to do in the afternoons but grow all hot and stuffy by the fire or pester Mother for things to eat or study schoolbooks sometimes. There wasn’t anybody much to play with out where they lived.

    At last, the spring day would come when Maybeth could leap away from the school bus and the ugly children in the bus, and run up the drive to the house, then down the hill, under the maple trees, to the field. Jim would be in the field, plowing with the middlebuster, and she would get to follow behind him for the first time in the year. Jim did a lot of funny things out there in the field. Up ahead, where the rows ended at the top of the bluff, Jim sometimes stopped when he had pulled the plow out of the ground, and while the black mule circled in the trace chains he would fling up his head and sing out, rich and full, as loud as he could sing, “Ama-a-zi-in’ grace—” The air would quiver for the next line to come, but Jim would be well into the field by then, driving the plow down the furrow with a long, swinging stride.

    Once, Maybeth tried to tell him the next line. “It goes ‘How sweet the sound,’ Jim,” she said, trying to put her little shoes in Jim’s broad tracks.

    But all Jim Williams said was, “Git up, Jimson Weed!” Other times, he called the mule Daisy Bell, and that was funny, too, because the mule’s name was Dick, and Dick was a man mule, Maybeth was sure. But when she told Jim that, he only said, “Lawd, Lawd,” as though she had told him something he had never heard before, or something he had only half heard when she said it. You couldn’t tell which.

    But most of the time Maybeth was asking Jim questions. When she got like that with Mother, Mother would finally say, “Now, what on earth made you think of that?” Daddy would laugh at her questions and say, “I don’t know, honey.” But Jim knew the answer to everything. He knew why the jaybird bounced on the air when he flew and why the mule swept...
About the Author-
  • Elizabeth Spencer (1921–2019) was the author of nine novels and novellas and three other short-story collections. She was raised in Mississippi, where tales of the Civil War lingered and segregation seemed permanent, during the Great Depression. Spencer’s wanderings took her to Italy in 1953, to Montreal in 1958, and back to the South in 1986.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from July 23, 2001
    Every good Southern writer interprets the essence of existence in that region in a distinctive way, and Spencer, whose career has spanned 60 years, is one of the most distinguished of a group that includes Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor. Her fiction is as much a record of 20th-century American life as it is particularly "Southern" in cast. The largest section of this new collection of her work is devoted to her stories set in the South, and the social themes are finely wrought. In "Ship Island," a young woman feels increasingly off-kilter when she spends a summer dating a boy from the established "In Crowd," who represent a genial but sheltered world of tennis whites and rush parties. The three Marilee stories explore a complicated family history against the backdrop of small-town rural Mississippi (the landscape of Spencer's childhood) in the 1930s and 1940s. Included in the group of Italian stories is Spencer's best-known work, the novella "The Light in the Piazza"—a mother-daughter tale and love story that was made into a 1962 movie. Spencer is especially adept at seamlessly anchoring family histories and coming-of-age narratives in a particular time and place. Later stories (some set in Canada and New York) include "Jack of Diamonds," which nails the relationship between 18-year-old Rosalind and her father, three years following the tragic death of her mother, and the poignant "The Legacy" (one of six new stories), wherein a crippled young woman comes into some money and embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Spencer's world-view—even in the shorter vignettes—is broad, and her keen eye and ear for domestic detail will interest those with a penchant for John Cheever or Alice Munro. This career-spanning collection should firmly secure her place in the canon of American short story masters.

  • Kirkus Reviews, starred review "A retrospective collection of twenty-seven stories, written over a period of more than half a century, by a Southern writer whose best fiction merits comparison with the work of Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty."
  • Alice Munro "Spencer is a spellbinding storyteller. Her stories . . . are dense and rich as novels, as light as air; they hover in the mind like hummingbirds."
  • James Dickey "What [Spencer's] stories do wonderfully, for me, is explore the ties that bind–in families, friendships, communities, marriages–how mysterious, twisted, chafing, inescapable, and life-supporting such ties are."
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Selected Fiction
Elizabeth Spencer
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