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Elizabeth Spencer
Elizabeth Spencer (writer).jpg
Born 19 July 1921 Edit this on Wikidata
Carrollton Edit this on Wikidata
Died 22 December 2019 Edit this on Wikidata (aged 98)
Chapel Hill Edit this on Wikidata
Alma mater
Occupation Writer, novelist, short story writer Edit this on Wikidata
  • Guggenheim Fellowship (1953)
  • North Carolina Award for Literature (1994) Edit this on Wikidata
Website Edit this on Wikidata

Elizabeth Spencer (July 19, 1921 – December 22, 2019) was an American writer. Spencer's first novel, Fire in the Morning, was published in 1948. She wrote a total of nine novels, seven collections of short stories, a memoir (Landscapes of the Heart, 1998), and a play (For Lease or Sale, 1989). Her novella The Light in the Piazza (1960) was adapted for the screen in 1962 and transformed into a Broadway musical of the same name in 2005. She was a five-time recipient of the O. Henry Award for short fiction.

Spencer's themes relate to tension between the individual and the group, and deal with how family or community ties support but also bind the individual's identity. She writes about this as it concerns the inner lives of her female characters, many of whom struggle to establish a fruitful life independent of society's narrow restrictions.

Early life and career

Born in Carrollton, Mississippi, Spencer was valedictorian of her graduating class at J. Z. George High School. She earned her BA at Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi and a master's in literature at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1943. At Vanderbilt, Spencer studied with Donald Davidson.

Spencer taught at the junior college level at Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia, Mississippi for two years, then accepted a job with the Nashville Tennessean, but she soon returned to teaching, this time at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. In 1953, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and left Mississippi to live in Italy and pursue writing full-time.

Her third novel, begun in Florence, Italy, The Voice at the Back Door, was the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1957. The prize ultimately wasn't awarded that year.

After her first three novels set in Mississippi, Spencer's career foundered for a while, for she was seen as a "Southern woman" writer, and not a literary figure. In 1981 Spencer published her collected Stories, with a foreword by Eudora Welty, and her standing was reestablished among critics, who took another look at her contributions.

Personal life

While in Italy, she met and married John Rusher of Cornwall, England. The couple moved to Montreal, Quebec in 1956, where they remained until moving to Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1986. She taught creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal, and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill until her retirement. Rusher died in 1998, and Spencer continued to live in her Chapel Hill home until her death on 22 December 2019.

Spencer, through her mother's family, was a cousin of United States senator John McCain.

Awards and honors

  • Sidney Lanier Prize for Southern Literature, awarded by Mercer University, 2014
  • Lifetime Achievement Award of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, 2009
  • PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction, 2007
  • Governor's Award for Achievement in Literature from the Mississippi Arts Commission, 2006
  • The William Faulkner Medal for Literary Excellence, awarded by The Faulkner House Society, New Orleans, 2002
  • Inducted into the North Carolina Hall of Fame, 2002
  • Thomas Wolfe Award for Literature given by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Morgan Foundation, 2002
  • Cleanth Brooks Medal for achievement awarded by the Fellowship of Southern Writers, 2001
  • Mississippi State Library Association Award for non-fiction, 1999
  • Fortner Award for Literature, St. Andrews Presbyterian College, Laurinburg, North Carolina, 1998
  • Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award for fiction, 1997
  • J. William Corrington Award for fiction, Centenary College, Shreveport, Louisiana, 1997
  • Charter Member Fellowship of Southern Writers, 1987; Vice-Chancellor, 1993–1997
  • North Carolina Governor's Award for Literature, 1994
  • John Dos Passos Award for Literature, 1992
  • Salem Award for Distinction in Letters, Salem College, 1992
  • National Endowment for the Arts Senior Fellowship in Literature Grant, 1988
  • Election to the American Institute (now American Academy) of Arts and Letters, 1985
  • Award of Merit Medal for the Short Story, American Academy, 1983
  • National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, 1983
  • Bellaman Award, 1968
  • Donnelly Fellowship, Bryn Mawr College, 1962
  • McGraw-Hill Fiction Fellowship, 1960
  • First Rosenthal Award, American Academy, 1957
  • Kenyon Review Fiction Fellowship, 1956–57
  • Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, 1953
  • Recognition Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1952
  • Mississippi Writers Trail historical marker, 2019



  • Fire in the Morning (1948, Dodd, Mead / 2012, University Press of Mississippi; ISBN: 978-1-61703-618-7)
  • This Crooked Way (1952, Dodd, Mead / 2012, University Press of Mississippi; ISBN: 978-1-61703-218-9)
  • The Voice at the Back Door (1956, McGraw-Hill / 1994, Louisiana State University Press; ISBN: 978-0-8071-1927-3)
  • Knights and Dragons (1965, McGraw-Hill; ISBN: 978-0-07-060145-1)
  • No Place for an Angel (1967, McGraw-Hill / 2020, Liveright; ISBN: 978-1-63149-063-7)
  • The Snare (1972, McGraw-Hill; ISBN: 978-0-07-060178-9 / 2012, University Press of Mississippi; ISBN: 978-1-61703-686-6)
  • The Salt Line (1984, Doubleday; ISBN: 978-0-385-15698-1 / 1995, Louisiana State University Press; ISBN: 978-0-8071-2029-3)
  • The Night Travellers (1991, Viking Press; ISBN: 978-0-670-83915-5 / 2012, University Press of Mississippi; ISBN: 978-1-61703-240-0)

Short story collections

  • Ship Island and Other Stories (1968, McGraw-Hill; ISBN: 978-0-07-060182-6)
  • The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer (1981, Doubleday; ISBN: 978-0-385-15697-4 / 1983, Penquin Books; ISBN: 978-0-14-006436-0)
  • Marilee: Three Stories (1981, University Press of Mississippi; ISBN: 978-0-87805-141-0)
  • Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories (1988, Viking Press; ISBN: 978-0-670-82261-4 / 1989, Penquin Books; ISBN: 978-0-14-012252-7)
  • On the Gulf (1991, University Press of Mississippi; ISBN: 978-0-87805-507-4)
  • The Light in the Piazza and Other Italian Tales (1960, McGraw-Hill / 1996, University Press of Mississippi; ISBN: 978-0-87805-837-2)
  • The Southern Woman (2001, The Modern Library; ISBN: 978-0-679-64218-3 / 2009, The Modern Library; ISBN: 978-0-8129-8076-9 / 2021, The Modern Library; ISBN: 978-0-5932-4118-9)
  • Starting Over (2014, Liveright; ISBN: 978-0-87140-681-1 / 2020, Liveright; ISBN: 978-0-87140-298-1)


  • Landscapes of the Heart: A Memoir (1997, Random House; ISBN: 978-0-679-45739-8 / 2003, Louisiana State University Press; ISBN: 978-0-8071-2916-6)


  • For Lease or Sale (1989; produced by Playmakers, UNC Chapel Hill, 1989)


  • Elizabeth Spencer: Novels & Stories: The Voice at the Back Door / The Light in the Piazza / Knights and Dragons / Stories (Library of America, June 1, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-598-53686-7)
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