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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

by Eileen Frost

In this issue:



In The Southern Woman: New and Selected Fiction by Elizabeth Spencer, the stories are like having the ultimate insider, living in a big old house on a quiet shady street, reveal to you precisely what makes the place tick.

And Consider This

Vantage Points, a first novel by Ken Libbey, is a compelling love story in which a member of Roosevelt's personal staff falls for a WAF pilot.



The Southern Woman: New and Selected Fiction
by Elizabeth Spencer
Modern Library. $23.95

If you want to know about southern society-the South of the white upper middle class, the South that became the stage for the civil rights movement and upon which the New South was superimposed, read Elizabeth Spencer. If you are thinking about relocating to the South and want someone to decode its mysteries, read Elizabeth Spencer. If you believe there is nothing more you can learn about yourself, read Elizabeth Spencer. Arguably among the very finest American writers, she has been lately overlooked, and that is a great mistake, for her stories are as fine as Faulkner's and more interesting than Welty's.

The Southern Woman is a retrospective bundle of 27 stories, written over a period of more than 50 years. Many were originally published in The New Yorker or Atlantic or other magazines noted for excellence in fiction. A few of the stories take place in Italy where Spencer lived for several years, but most are set in the author's native Mississippi. However, hers is not the deranged South of Flannery O'Connor, nor the trailer-park world of Bobbie Ann Mason. Rather, it is a place like Dalton, Mississippi, a small city where everyone has lived for generations.

Reading Spencer's stories is like having the ultimate insider, living in a big old house on a quiet shady street, reveal to you precisely what makes the place tick. In A Christian Education, a little girl finds out that she doesn't have to go to Sunday School. She has been left in the care of her grandfather while her parents attend a funeral out of town. Within her family, it was "an absolute that the whole world was meant to be part of the church." Her parents always take her to Sunday School. They look askance on anybody who goes to the drugstore or even reads for amusement on Sunday.

But her grandfather has never been a churchgoer. So, she reaches up for his hand and they go out for an unaccustomed and wonderful walk downtown ("it occurred to me that we were terribly excited, that the familiar way looked new and different, as though a haze which had hung over everything had been whipped away all at once, like a scarf"). They stop at the barbershop where she has her hair brushed, then go on to the drugstore. She learns that the proprietors of each are friends of her grandfather's. Grandfather buys her a strawberry ice-cream cone, "and the world of which it was the center expanded …"

When her parents return, however, she becomes full of foreboding, sure that some awful punishment will result from her daring transgression. Her parents "believed that awful punishments were meted out to those who did not remember the Sabbath was holy. They believed about a million other things." But when her grandfather calmly acknowledges his taking her to town for ice cream, her mother just turns away. "A certain immunity of spirit my grandfather possessed was passed on to me…After this, though all went on as before, there was nothing much my parents could finally do about the church and me.

First Dark is a love story, in which lovers are drawn together by their common experience of a local ghost at twilight. Tom Beavers is an attractive young businessman who returns to his hometown every weekend, apparently "looking for something." As a boy he was poor, outside polite society, and eventually viewed as "smart." The author explains: "By 'smart,' Southerners mean intellectual, and they say it is an almost condescending way, smart being what you are when you can't be anything else." Frances Harvey is a shy girl, "sometimes" a beauty, who lives in "a family home laden with history," dominated by her widowed mother. When Tom was a boy, Frances' mother had even shooed him out off their lawn. Mrs Harvey is a "witty tyrant with the infallible memory for the right detail…though almost all her other faculties were seriously impaired, in ear and tongue [she] was as sound as a young beagle." Tom emancipates Frances from her constricted life, the way unexpectedly paved by a dramatic gesture of her mother's.

In Sharon, a young girl learns the reason why her mother doesn't want her to visit her Uncle Herman's farm without an invitation. As usual, Elizabeth Spencer seems to have the details about a place exactly right. At the farm, "the dogs that were sprawled around dozing under the trees would look up and grin at me, giving a thump or two with their tails in the dust, too lazy to get up and speak." Her uncle's office in his house had a desk by the window: "The Negroes had worn a path to the window, coming there to ask him things."

Often the houses themselves seem alive. About Uncle Herman's farmhouse called Sharon, built before the Civil War: "This was a house that expected behavior." After Tom and Frances (First Dark) have left town, the Harvey house, "all unconscious of its rejection by so mere a person as Tom Beavers…seemed, instead, to have got rid of what did not suit it, to be free, at last, to enter with abandon the land of mourning and shadows and memory." If our own homes could speak, what would they say about us? How would they describe themselves?

In The Master at Shongalo a bright teenager invites her English teacher to spend the weekend at Shongalo, her opulent home. It has enough acreage to encompass sunken gardens and a herd of cattle kept sufficiently far away from the house that not "so much as a moo" was ever heard. The teacher has the chance to observe this family up close: the father, "whose regard was for his property," and the mother with her "inward air…content in her place as Robert Stratton's wife at Shongalo, not needing to seek anything to fill her time." The parents are superficially cordial. "Among the rooms at Shongalo trivial conversations could spin on forever." Ultimately, however, the teacher recognizes that, for the parents, "I'm nobody really. A teacher from the town," someone to serve a purpose as their daughter's chaperone and then dismissed.

The heroine in The Light in the Piazza is from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the town where I live. Wife of a cigarette-industry executive, she has taken her beautiful but brain-damaged daughter on an extended trip to Italy. When her child-like daughter and a young Italian fall in love, she sees clearly that their marriage is exactly what her daughter needs to remain happy and secure. She manages to conceal from groom's family, in part via the distraction of a healthy dowry, that her daughter is anything but perfect.

Normally I find short stories not very satisfying. But I found the stories in The Southern Woman impossible to put down. Each of these stories felt so real that I temporarily inhabited their world. I frequently was tempted to slow down just to savor the justice of Spencer's observations. Now I'm going to try to track down one of her novels...

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Daughter of an army surgeon, Eileen Frost grew up in libraries on military bases from coast to coast and beyond. A Senate staff member for five years after college, she spent many rewarding hours in the Library of Congress. She then spent a year in Europe, and after an interlude enjoying her small children, Eileen ran a catering business, became a librarian, and has worked at an independent school in North Carolina since 1984. Ms. Frost has two daughters, both avid readers. For questions, comments and suggestions, email Eileen Frost.


©2001Eileen Frost for SeniorWomenWeb

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