There comes a time in summer when it is too hot to go to Shakespeare in the Park and I have already been to all the bookstores and museums. So I sit in my Adirondack chair in the back yard and look at my new trees (there was a bird in the linden yesterday). And then I pick up a copy of Elizabeth Spencer’s The Voice at the Back Door and that is the last you will see of me for days.
This superb novel, set in Mississippi in the 1940s, is a gorgeously-written story of Southern politics, race, and romantic love triangles. Although the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury recommended it for the prize in 1957, the board of directors chose not to grant the award that year. (Anyone who has read this astonishing novel knows how fatuous that decision was.)
The novel begins (literally and figuratively) with a sheriff’s race. In the small town of Lacey, Mississippi, Sheriff Travis Brevard races his car from his African-American mistress’s house on the outskirts of town to the grocery store in town owned by Duncan Harper, a former college football star. Travis is dying, but doesn’t want to die at his wife’s house.
To Duncan, Travis looks drunk.
The dialogue is pitch-perfect.
Duncan,” he said hoarsely, “I’m hot as a fox. Cut out that damn gas and give me a cold Coke.”
“Sure,” said the grocer, thinking that if it were whisky he would surely have smelled it by now. He pried the cap from the bottle and offered it doubtfully. “Travis, you don’t look good. Let me just ring and see if the Doc’s in his office.”
Travis says he wants Duncan to take over as sheriff when he dies because Duncan is too good to “sell Wheaties.” He adds that the chief competition will be Jimmy Tallant, a war hero who is now a bootlegger. He recalls how Duncan’s football stardom used to bring the town “up.”
I used to go all the way up to the university on weekends to see you play. I went over to Baton Rouge too and down to New Orleans more than once. We would all go to see you play. Then we would come home and read about it in the paper. They called you the fastest running back of the year. They named you ‘Happy’ Harper.”
Spencer’s bold characterizations of Travis, Duncan, and Jimmy are stunning. Travis is a” good ol’ boy” who turns to Duncan, shrewdly realizing that Duncan will protect the old values of the South (except perhaps on the “Negro Question,” but Travis may have also been thinking of his “Negro” mistress). Travis dies in the store after asking Duncan to take his job.
Duncan, appointed temporary sheriff and intending to run for office, is an ethical man of letters as well as a former football star: when there is a question after a fight about the safety of Beck Dozer, a brilliant African-American veteran of World War II whose teacher father was shot in the courthouse in 1919, Duncan claps Dozer in jail and sits beside him to make sure there isn’t another shooting. Dozer said he had cut up Grantham, Jimmy’s bootlegging partner, with a razor after Grantham refused to sell him drink. Jimmy and some friends show up at the jail, toting guns, but they just take a snapshot: the whole scene was cooked up between Jimmy and Dozer (who was paid hundreds of dollars) so that Jimmy could take a picture and send it to the paper saying Duncan is “a nigger lover.”
What many don’t understand is that Jimmy is bound to Beck Dozer, because Jimmy’s father killed his father. The two have a strange understanding of each other.
This is the kind of back-door politics that Spencer so exuberantly describes. The back door is a literal symbol: Dozer goes to the back door of Duncan’s house when he needs help; women go in and out the back door of Jimmy’s place when their husbands don’t know they’re there; and drinkers also go out the back door.
When Spencer wants to shut down Jimmy’s bootlegging operations, Mr. Trewolla, the jailer, tells him it won’t happen. “Don’t think you’ve cramped their style. There’s just as much going out the back door as ever went out the front.”
The women, both at the front and back doors, are memorable. Tinker, Duncan’s tiny, beautiful, popular wife, hates politics but loves him desperately. Duncan married Tinker because he was jilted by his lover, Marcia Mae, but half the town is in love with Tinker. Jimmy has always loved Tinker, though he is married to Bella, his business partner’s sluttish daughter. Marcia Mae, Duncan’s ex-fiancee, has recently come back to Lacey, a widow of a partying soldier. She loves Duncan, but she cannot stay in Lacey: she hates the small town; she hates the way Duncan won’t openly come back to her. Bella, Jimmy’s wife, who has had affairs, is surprised when her baby doesn’t quite look like anybody. Lucy, Dozer’s wife, is terrified when Dozer is accused of shooting Jimmy.
This novel is a classic: I urge you to read it. It reminds me very, very slightly of William Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, only it is better-written and much more interesting. At the Southern Festival of Books in 2001, I heard Spencer read from her collection of short stories, The Southern Woman. I liked her very much, and I liked her cat totebag (a totebag with a cat design).
This is why we go to book festivals: to discover writers we do not know.
And if you can recommend any good book festivals, let me know. It’s time I attended one again.
Elizabeth Spencer is one writer I’ve not yet read. I assume “The Voice at the Back Door” is her best novel?
She is best known for “A Light in the Piazza,” also a very worthwhile read and a good movie.
Thanks–I’ll look for it!
Tony, it’s the only novel I’ve read by her, This Voices of the South series has published both her and Caroline Gordon, and I look forward to reading more Spencer.
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The Voice at the Backdoor preceded To Kill a Mockingbird by four years. The plots are surprisingly similar. Mockingbird was awarded the Pulitzer, while the Committee had voted to award the Pulitzer to Voice, but the Board opted to not give the award for fiction that year. In 1957, the subject of race relations was apparently too controversial. What a difference a few years makes. Spencer was robbed.
Thank you for the information! Spencer deserved the Pulitzer and that definitely went awry. A few years ago the committee also refused to give the Pulitzer for fiction. Journalists!