Spencer, Elizabeth

Elizabeth Spencer was born in Carrollton, Mississippi on July 19, 1921. In 1953, Spencer went to Italy on a Guggenheim Fellowship. She wrote The Voice at the Back Door while there. Summarizing her novel, Elizabeth Spencer says, “It takes place in a small Mississippi county seat around the late ’40’s and concerns a race for county sheriff in which the hero, Duncan Harper, a one-time Ole Miss football star, is persuaded to enter. His fine but somewhat simplistic character leads him to believe that a new approach to race can be introduced in this traditional society.”

The book also deals with events that occurred in the generation before. Years earlier a white mob killed a group of African-Americans at the courthouse seeking a hearing. In her memoir, Elizabeth Spencer writes about the old crime that no one would ever talk about. The old crime was the Carrollton Courthouse Massacre of 1886. Spencer recalls seeing the bullet holes in the courtroom but never really understanding exactly what happened March 17, 1886. Spencer remembers that when it came time to write The Voice at the Back Door, she just made up a story about the massacre. She says, “But the fact that it happened in the courthouse, the center of a Southern town, the symbol of justice; and the fact that county politics centered there too—these two things gave me my tale.”

Spencer came back to Mississippi with her unpublished novel to find that things had changed while she was away. In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education. Shortly after, in 1955, Emmett Till was murdered in the nearby Mississippi Delta. Spencer writes:

“I realized to my horror that in my absence from the state a precipitate moment had come and gone, and that the local scene which in my manuscript I had hopefully allowed to contain the action—with its many ramifications in love and blessing—had already as good as vanished.”

Though Spencer’s character, Duncan Harper, seemed “hopelessly idealistic”in the changing climate of the South, Spencer ultimately decided to publish the book as she had written it.

Sources:

ELIZABETH SPENCER, THE VOICE AT THE BACK DOOR xviii (McGraw-Hill Book, Co. 1965) (1956).

Elizabethspencerwriter.com, Elizabeth Spencer Works, http://www.elizabethspencerwriter.com/works/voiceatthebackdoor.htm (last visited April 15, 2007).

Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, Elizabeth Spencer, in DICTIONARY OF LITERARY BIOGRAPHY, VOLUME 6: AMERICAN NOVELISTS SINCE WORLD WAR II, SECOND SERIES (James E. Kibler Jr. ed., 1980)

347 U.S. 483 (1954).