“Landscapes of the Heart” by Elizabeth Spencer (Random House, $24)
Elizabeth Spencer is not a famous writer. Her adherents, who include most literary critics, would correctly note that “famous” is not the same as “talented,” or even remotely equivalent to it. In novels such as “Light in the Piazza, This Crooked Way, The Salt Line” and several collections of short stories, Spencer has proved her ability without gaining notoriety.
That makes Random House’s publication of Spencer’s memoir, “Landscapes of the Heart,” a questionable marketing decision. In a literary era in which Tom Clancy and Anne Rice dominate bestseller lists, we can assume that “Landscapes of the Heart” may be overlooked.
It shouldn’t be. The best memoirs accomplish a dual purpose. They must, of course, tell about the lives of their authors. But often their greatest achievement is in illuminating some greater portion of the past: a segment of society, with the writer embodying a greater whole.
“Landscapes of the Heart” does exactly that. Elizabeth Spencer was a child of the genteel South, raised in a small Mississippi town during the 1920s and ‘30s, when African-Americans were one or two generations removed from slavery and men such as Luther Spencer, the author’s daddy, wanted a world for the South’s white sons to dominate and its daughters to charm. Good manners, church and a sense of where you stood in the societal pecking order mattered most.
The proper female upbringing mandated by Luther Spencer didn’t prevent his only daughter from venturing beyond paternal boundaries. Love of literature encouraged Elizabeth to pursue graduate work at Vanderbilt University. Exposure to the challenging faculty there inspired her to try her hand at writing. She would become friend and protege of such world-class authors as Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren and Katherine Anne Porter. In “Landscapes of the Heart,” she even crosses paths with the perplexing William Faulkner.
Spencer’s career finds her on a series of college faculties, also subsisting in Europe on grants. Her struggle to write well is painstakingly documented. She reminisces about failed love affairs, eventually finding long-term love in the person of an expatriate Englishman. As a married woman, the onetime Southern belle relocates to snowy Montreal. It is there that Spencer breaks off her memoir, noting that the story of the rest of her life “will have to await another time for the telling.”
We have to hope it won’t take too long. “Landscapes of the Heart” is an absolute triumph. It succeeds precisely because Elizabeth Spencer has a unique ability to celebrate her past without denying its problems. Spencer’s parents are put out by her first published writings; since those are set in small Mississippi towns, they assume that all their friends will be scandalized.
Elizabeth later breaks with her father over the latter’s indifference to the notorious murder of Emmett Till, the teenage African-American youth found mutilated and sunk in a pond not long after he whistled at a married white woman. Luther Spencer, she writes, “reacted to the crime the way a stone wall might if hit with a BB gun.”
“Landscapes of the Heart” is crammed with such delicate, illuminary wordplay. Read it to learn more about Elizabeth Spencer or the Old South or just to study exceptional writing. The author learned from the best and gained a rightful place among them. Her memoir is a love letter to all those who made it possible.