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Rebel's Spirit Grows on Plantation

LANDSCAPES OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Spencer; Random House $23, 320 pages


Attempting a memoir has something in common with the United Nations effort to inspect Iraq's chemical and bacteriological arsenal. Placing too much territory off-limits frustrates the exercise.

No memoir tells everything, nor should, nor could. To follow Elizabeth Spencer, though, as she recounts growing up in the plantation South and going on to become a novelist, is to sense as many doors nudged shut as flung open.

There is a clue, perhaps, in a memory from her childhood, the richest and most interesting part of "Landscapes of the Heart." Her idol was her grandfather, John S. McCain, or "Gan." Erect and elegant in his 70s, retired from running his 2,000-acre plantation in the Mississippi Delta and living in town with Elizabeth's family, this courtly man was devoted to his little granddaughter.

Gan would sneak her out for treats, despite the disapproval of his Presbyterian and Sabbath-keeping daughter and son-in-law. Spencer recalls her mother storming into his room one Sunday to demand whether he had taken Elizabeth for an ice-cream soda.

"At first he seemed not to hear; at last, he put his book face down in his lap and looked up. 'I did,' he said lightly."

Spencer continues: "That certain immunity of spirit my grandfather possessed was passed on to me. It came, I think, out of the precise way in which he put his book down on his lap to answer. There was a lifetime in the gesture, distilled. . . ."

"Immunity of spirit" is a warrior's armor. Spencer, who was a child-princess to the McCain side of the family and would ride 13 steamy horseback miles to stay at their plantation, was subject to small-town constraints and judgments back home in Carrolltown.

Her father, James Luther Spencer, was an up-by-the-bootstraps businessman who dominated his better-born wife. Their daughter was a writer and rebel from early on. The armor of "immunity" that fortified her seems also to have blocked off some of the explorations a memoir might make.

James Spencer is portrayed mainly in terms of avid moneymaking (his delight in serving out 40-pound watermelons is a single exception), his hardening racial attitudes, his contempt for his daughter's writing career and his stingy support. Her mother is only vaguely configured, though Spencer finally came to regard her as sympathetic. The author seems to have detested her brother without specifying, other than to call him "one of the strangest people I have known anywhere."


Such gaps aside, there is vivid evocation of small-town Mississippi life in the 1920s and of the family plantation, managed by a McCain uncle and worked by dozens of black field hands. At the time, Spencer took at face value her uncle's paternalistic care of them and their apparent devotion. She refuses to qualify the delight she remembers.

"Enlightened as to its ills, as one would come to be, I could never deny that I loved it. . . . I still claim joy as a good portion of its quality."

At the same time, she refuses to qualify the ills. She tells of a family cook, brutally beaten by white men after one of their wives accused her of sassiness. She recounts the Carrolltown Massacre of the 1880s, when a gang burst into the courthouse where a white man was on trial for assault on two blacks and gunned down 10 black spectators. Only in the 1950s were the bullet holes plastered over, ending 70 years of visual intimidation on behalf of the ruling race.

Spencer gives an interestingly prickly account of her graduate work at Vanderbilt University with Donald Davidson, a member of the Southern literary revival that included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. There is an odd, unexplained grievance against Tate and his wife, Caroline Gordon. Spencer was particularly irritated by their "almost hysterical" championship of her fellow Southerner Flannery O'Connor, whose stories, she writes "frequently puzzle me." In contrast, there is a warm and graceful remembrance of Eudora Welty, a lifelong friend.

She writes of her struggling and then successful literary career, with such novels as "Fire in the Morning," "The Voice at the Back Door" and "Light in the Piazza." The latter, made into a movie, was drawn from the years she spent happily in Italy, where she met and married Robert Cusker, a Cornishman.

The adult portions of the memoir are curiously lacking in memory's heat or desire. She describes encounters with Faulkner, John Cheever, Alberto Moravia and others, but none have much substance. There are references to a nervous breakdown, to a long miserable affair with a man she describes as a schizophrenic, and bits about other more or less unhappy romances. Her account of her marriage is much brighter but with only a little that is specific or vivid.

"Immunity of spirit" allowed Spencer to survive to write distinguished fiction drawn from the same past that serves as the subject of her memoir. It serves the memoir less well.

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