One of two epigraphs with which Elizabeth Spencer introduces her memoir of growing up in northern Mississippi is taken from the closing sentence of her story, “A Southern Landscape.” The narrator, looking back on her hometown from a far remove in place and time, acknowledges her need “of a land, of a sure terrain, of a sort of permanent landscape of the heart,” those “things you can count on” like the “gilded hand on the Presbyterian Church in Port Claiborne . . . still pointing to heaven and not to outer space.” Miss Spencer’s “terrain” is distinctly Southern in flavor. In speaking of what it means to be “Southern,” she reminds us that, while a matter of chance rather than choice, it is an identity that marks one for life, no matter where one later resides. In the memoir as in the story, however, “sure terrain” is not only those landmarks or modes of behavior that remain as predictable and unchanging as compass points on the globe; it is the art of writing itself. As Spencer makes clear, writing is the act of making connections between the inner and outer worlds of experience, between the past and the present, between the transitory and the permanent. Writing is the constant, the link, by which experience can be made whole. Of her own childhood discovery of the wonder of writing, Spencer recalls, “I stumbled on an amazing truth, which came as a total surprise. A word, one or two or three or more, actually connects inner to outer. It joins what is seen to what is there within that sees it. It fixes what is felt.”

Elizabeth Spencer’s life is her journey from the sheltered world of Teoc, the working plantation of her mother’s family, and her home in the tiny hamlet of Carrollton into ever-broadening paths and branching by-ways. Her “circled world” of family and community, which in her early years offers stability and protection, becomes in her adulthood a constricting and entrapping one. Returning home after a two-year sojourn in Italy with the intention of settling in the South for good, Spencer is greeted by the stony silence of parents who can tolerate neither her career as a writer nor her life as a single and independent woman. Although tensions are further heightened by conflicting reactions to the murder of Emmett Till, this family disagreement seems more excuse than reason for Spencer’s dictatorial father to sever his tie completely with the daughter he cannot dominate. Devastated by rejection and by the sudden death of her “favored” Uncle Joe, owner of Teoc, Miss Spencer, though gravely ill and at five-foot-eight weighing only 98 pounds, takes ship once again for Rome, this time with no thought of return.

The initial break, the first taste of exile from the “circled world,” comes surprisingly early, with her entrance into first grade:

From then on, life changed in a certain way I could not define, and at home in the afternoons and on weekends I did not feel the same. I missed something but did not know what it was. . . . You can go somewhere, anywhere you want— any day now you’ll be able to go to the moon—but you can’t ever quite come back. Having gone up a road and entered a building at an appointed hour, I could find no way to come back out of it and feel the same way about my grandfather, ginger cakes, or a new book satchel.

Though Miss Spencer offers a number of such trenchant reflections, perhaps even more effective are her descriptions of the individuals who populate the various milieux she has inhabited. These portraits are often no more than brief tableaux, but Miss Spencer’s selection of detail is so acute that the essence, if not the whole, is conveyed, as in this cameo from Spencer’s graduate school days at Vanderbilt:

I came into [Donald Davidson’s] office one day, a shy, frail, dark haired student, to ask timidly if I could request his direction for a thesis on William Butler Yeats. As we were talking, a slim, sensitive looking man entered from the hallway through the open door of the office. He was wearing a checkered vest and a black velvet jacket. He had an extraordinary face, not at all handsome but arresting, his brow being so high that his features seemed rather minimal beneath it. Mr. Davidson introduced us: “Miss Spencer, this is Allen Tate.”

The rest of the encounter is equally dramatic in its rendering of Tate’s “sensual, softly slurred” voice and the subtle give-and-take between Tate and Davidson over Miss Spencer and her thesis project. Elizabeth Spencer had been drawn to Vanderbilt by her interest in the Fugitives and the Agrarians—Donald Davidson, in particular. While her profound admiration for the scope of Davidson’s intellect and the excellence of his instruction never wavered, their disagreement on racial issues finally proved too deep to be ignored. It was Davidson who set Spencer up with David Clay, the editor responsible for the publication of her first book. Yet, after the publication of her third novel, based on a racial incident from her childhood, Spencer never heard from Davidson again.

Spencer was befriended by, or at least acquainted with, a host of other writers and intellectuals, including Caroline Gordon, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Eleanor Clark, John Cheever, Walker Percy, William Faulkner, her cousin Stark Young, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Anne Porter, Ralph Ellison, and Alberto Moravia. Her most important and enduring friendship, however, continues to be with Eudora Welty, whom she met during her college days at Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi. Spencer’s comments on such individuals, while deft and illuminating, are often tinged with the melancholy of the loss of some of them to divergent beliefs, to circumstances, and to death.

Indeed, a bittersweet sense of loss pervades (and perhaps justifies) the entire volume. Miss Spencer displays her narrative skills to great advantage as, time and again, she recreates dramatic historical backgrounds as contexts for intimate descriptions of the old families and their old homes in and around Carrollton, often concluding with news of the death or dispersement of the members of those families and the destruction of their homes. The loss through arson of Malmaison, the grand plantation house near Carrollton that very likely served as Faulkner’s model for Contalmaison in his story “Mountain Victory,” is particularly painful, for author and reader alike. Thus Carrollton, though on the national historic register, is today but a specter of its former self; one resident’s musings that “Carrollton is not so much a place as a state of mind” is born out in devastating detail by Spencer. Even so, these narratives sometimes end with ironic twists that are decidedly comic, as in the case of “Miss Beaurie,” Carrollton’s grand inquisitor in matters of abstinence and propriety, after whose death it was discovered that she had unwittingly allowed her car (while she was in it!) to be used for bootlegging and that she was herself secretly addicted to opium, as an entire closet of empty bottles of paregoric (a derivative of opium) revealed. Landscapes of the Heart, in presenting an historical record of a particular community, shows it to have been a microcosm of a region as well as, in a larger sense, of an entire era.

Recalling Thomas Wolfe’s title You Can’t Go Home Again, Spencer comments; “It’s not that you can’t go home. Rather, there isn’t any home to go to.” Nevertheless, after 33 years away, Elizabeth Spencer does in fact return to the South. Though Teoc has been lost, her family home in Carrollton sold and cut up into apartments and the furnishings dispersed to cousins. Miss Spencer’s odyssey comes full circle when, in 1986, she and her husband John Rusher leave their home in Quebec and move to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where they continue to make their home today.


[Landscapes of the Heart: A Memoir, by Elizabeth Spencer (New York: Random House) 346 pages, $24.00]