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 Memoir Review   

 

 

Landscapes of the Heart: A Memoir
(Voices of the South Series)
By Elizabeth Spencer
LSU Press, 2003
Paperback, $19.95 (346 pages)
ISBN: 0-8071-2916-X
 
 

Five years after her autobiography appeared, LSU’s Voices of the South series re-released Elizabeth Spencer’s captivating and stylistically brilliant memoir Landscapes of the Heart.  Before publishing her latest book in a lifetime of writing, Spencer had planned to title her memoir “How It All Was,” but “Landscapes of the Heart” more aptly envelopes the poignant, loved, and lost scenery from Spencer’s homeplace of Carrollton, Mississippi to her years at Vanderbilt University with Agrarian literary luminaries to travels abroad in Italy and finally to a life and career of writing in New York and Canada with many, many stops in between.   

It is with a broad sense of the meaning of the word “landscapes” that readers should approach Spencer’s guided tour through her life, for the writing is not so much about places but about the constellation of people and thoughts, ideas and books that filter through Spencer’s experiences of the places of her life.  Landscapes of the Heart occasionally sounds a note of nostalgia, particularly over the vanishing places of Mississippi, but the harmony of the book is in an affirmation of life: Spencer’s is a life lived well.  The message with which readers leave Landscapes of the Heart is the message that Spencer imbues in her fiction: “I sought for the human and the humane, the decency that struggles against the indecent, the values of love, fairness, and justice that cannot live unless they are lived.”   

Landscapes of the Heart will find an eager audience in readers who not only enjoy Spencer’s other work, but also in readers who love the object of the book.  Some of the earliest, profound memories of her Mississippi childhood center on books: Spencer recalls of grandfather “the precise way he put his book down on his lap to answer.” As she remembers her first “real school” teacher, Mrs. Keenan, Spencer remembers relationships with the litany of poets and poems her teacher introduced her to.  If Poe, Shelley, Bryant, and Kipling seem like childhood friends in Landscapes, then the ties between letters and life grow as the memoir unfolds.  Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, and other shapers of American literature glide in and out of the landscapes, sometimes as friends and colleagues and sometimes as a kind of literary kin that Spencer uses as touchstones throughout her story.  And it is with this intimate knowledge of literature that Spencer makes pronouncements on the “last distinctly and thoroughly Southern novels” and on labels “like ‘Southern novelist,’” utterances that are sure to spark debate amongst fans, readers, book clubs, and critics.   

Elizabeth Spencer is an author of novels, short stories, drama, and nonfiction that include the renowned The Voice at the Back Door, The Light in the Piazza, Ship Island and Other Stories, and The Salt Line.  Her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies.  Spencer has won awards that include National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships, and she is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. 

 

Sean Wells
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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