Speaking over the phone from her home in Chapel Hill, N. C., last week, Elizabeth Spencer said she wasn’t familiar with fellow Carroll Countians Willie Narmour and Shell Smith, tunesmiths whose legacies were memorialized a couple of years ago with a Country Music Trail marker near the Merrill Museum across from the 1877 courthouse at Carrollton. Her own marker, on the Mississippi Writers Trail, will be unveiled Saturday, Oct. 5, near Narmour and Smith’s.
Having her own marker placed near theirs, then, the 98-year-old teacher, novelist, short story and memoir writer, said, “It’s an honor, isn’t it?”
Housebound now, Spencer, a widow, won’t be able to witness the dedication, which is set for 10 a.m. and will feature remarks by at least three noted speakers, Dr. Stuart Rockoff of the Mississippi Humanities Council, Dr. Donald Shaffer, who’s with the Department of English at Mississippi State University and director of African-American Studies; and Dr. Peggy Prenshaw, a friend of the writer and author of Conversations With Elizabeth Spencer.
Spencer grew up in Carrollton; she and her brother, the late Jim Spencer, were the children of Luther and Jimmie McCain Spencer. Her mother was of the famous McCains of Teoc, where as a youngster, Spencer frequently traveled to visit those relatives on horseback. Her grandfather, John Sidney McCain, was a county official who also served as sheriff of Carroll County, succeeded by a leading member of another well-known local family James Somerville. Somerville was sheriff from 1896 to 1900.
Spencer excelled in classes at J. Z. George School and later at Belhaven, to which at times, she caught rides with the late Harry Holt Lott, Sr., she recalled. Her first novel, Fire in the Morning, was published in 1948, but it was The Voice at the Back Door that was more inflammatory in the minds of some locals, dealing with race relations in small town Mississippi of those times.
The Voice at the Back Door was one of the first of her writings to be picked up by the Library of America, a nonprofit book publisher that Spencer believes, she said, will ensure that her works won’t go out of print. The announcement of the inclusion was made earlier this year.
It is her memoir, Landscapes of the Heart, published in 1998, Spencer said, that is her favorite among her many published books.
“I had great fun writing it; it brought back so many memories,” she said.
She last came to her hometown several years ago, when she was in the area to sign copies of her final (thus far) new collection of short stories, Starting Over, when she was 92.
Spencer commented back then that everything seemed quiet when she came through, as if everyone had “died and gone to heaven.” In Landscapes, she comments on a time when she and her mother came home to find all the mules had gotten out of their enclosure; eventually, they got in the car and followed the herd to downtown and around without any success in aiming them back home. No one showed himself or herself during their trials, until eventually, a retainer, Charlie White, showed up with a rope and the acumen to catch the lead mule, and all the others calmly followed it back to the Spencers’.
The Spencers’ house, long the residence of the Alton and Betty Turnipseed family, was down College Street on a hill, past other sites featured in Spencer’s works, including The Oaks, where her childhood friend and poet Lawrence Olson then lived. Spencer recalled having met the Turnipseeds some years ago. They are “nice people,'' she said. Told that Betty’s mother was the late Mary Ida Lee Stevens, Spencer said that her brother had once dated her.
Those who haven’t explored the special world of Spencer’s stories of other times and places, including This Crooked Way, The Light in the Piazza, Ship Island and Other Stories, and those tales of the Southern experience of her day and views, are depriving themselves, and the richness of the varying memories she shares in Landscapes of the Heart is wondrous. She has written of many mysteries, and not just of old Carrollton.
One of this writer’s favorite nuggets features the late Beauregard “Beaurie” Somerville, whose house near Carroll Academy is now owned by the Grones family.
More research showed that this society matron had once had a husband, C. W. Somerville, one of those from the one-time Sheriff Somerville, and that her maiden name was Liddell. She was the daughter of Moses Liddell, and she’d been nicknamed for the famous Confederate general. Her real name, as shown on her tombstone in Evergreen Cemetery, was Marion Mosella. After her death in 1933, Luther Spencer administered her estate.