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Elizabeth Spencer, RIP

(L to R) Reynolds Price, Elizabeth Spencer, and James Applewhite in 2002, at the NC Literary Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities, Southern Pines

News can travel slowly around the holidays, so we wanted to belatedly share that beloved novelist Elizabeth Spencer passed away shortly before Christmas. She was 98.

A 2002 inductee of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, Ms. Spencer’s most famous work was the novella The Light in the Piazza, a finalist for the National Book Award, which was adapted for the stage by Craig Lucas and composer Adam Guettel, winning six Tony Awards. The 1962 film version starred Olivia de Havilland.

According to her obituary in The New York Times:

Ms. Spencer’s 1956 novel, The Voice at the Back Door, uses a campaign for sheriff in a fictional Mississippi county to examine racial conflicts, corruption and the lives of men fulfilling violent traditions, elderly women living in the past and people overwhelmed by life’s complexities. The book was unanimously chosen by a Pulitzer Prize jury, but the governing committee chose to give no prize for fiction in 1957. Some critics have said that Ms. Spencer’s candor about virulent segregationist racism was the reason.

Ms. Spencer wrote nine novels, seven story collections, a memoir, and a play. She was a Guggenheim Fellow and was awarded the Cleanth Brooks Medal by the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and the North Carolina Award for Literature, the state’s highest civilian honor.

Next year the non-profit Library of America, responsible for preserving essential national texts by the likes of Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, will add Elizabeth Spencer to its pantheon.

Her last book, the collection of short stories Starting Over, was published in 2014. One of the stories in this book, “On the Hill,” was called “one of the best stories I’ve ever read” by Malcolm Jones in The New York Times Book Review.

Born in Carrrolton, Mississippi, in 1921, Ms. Spencer moved to Chapel Hill in 1986, where she served as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Writer-in-Residence.

Funeral services are set for Saturday, Februrary 1, at Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill.