"The Gulf Coast" by Elizabeth Spencer - an analysis

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 13 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of content

1. Introduction

2. Biography
2.1 Family and Background
2.2 Education
2.3 Work
2.4 Awards
2.5 Professional Life
2.6 Personal Life

3. Sociocultural Background
3.1 Conservative South
3.2 Religion
3.3 Personal Honor
3.4 Gender Roles
3.5 Family
3.6 Race
3.7 Community and Philosophy

4. The Gulf Coast – Analysis
4.1 Plot
4.2 Major Themes
4.3 Presentation of Characters
4.4 Presentation of Setting
4.5 Narrative Technique
4.6 Cultural Signifiers

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Elizabeth Spencer's lifelong love for the south almost drips from the pages of her novels and short stories. Even though she spent most of her life away from her native grounds, Spencer continued to write about the places that marked her youth in Novels such as “The Salt Line” and short stories as “The Gulf Coast.” In the latter of the two, she describes the world of South Mississippi with its tranquil way of life that was disrupted by the violent Hurricane Camille in 1969. Spencer uses vivid imagery to place the reader into her shoes, experiencing the drama of seeing the drastic and swift change the hurricane made to the place she loved so much, which seemed timeless and unchangeable before.

2. Biography

2.1 Family and Background:

Elizabeth was born on July 19, 1921 in Carrollton, Mississippi. Her father was a conservative Presbyterian businessman in Carrollton. Her mother was a McCain (and great aunt to 2008 US presidential candidate Arizona Senator John McCain).

2.2 Education:

The writer attended J.Z. George High School from which she graduated valedictorian (top student in her graduating class). Although her father did not agree with her wish to become a writer, she pursued her dream and earned a Bachelor's of Arts degree from Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi and a Master´s in Literature from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

2.3 Work:

Her novels include Fire in the Morning in 1848, This Crooked Way '52, The Voice at the Back door '56 - title alluding to the southern custom which allowed colored people to knock only at the back door, not at the front, The Light in the Piazza '60 – which was also adapted to film and a Broadway Musical of the same name, Knights and Dragons '65, No Place for an Angel '67, The Snare '72, The Salt Line '84 – whose theme is based on resurrection after the disaster of Hurricane Camille in 1969 in her native Mississippi Gulf, and the Night Travelers '91.

Some of her short stories include Ship Island and Other Stories in 1968, The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer '81, Marilee '81, Jack and Diamonds and Other Stories '88, On the gulf '91, The Light in the Piazza and Other Italian Tales '96 and The Southern Woman in 2001. She also published an autobiography entitled Landscapes of the Heart and a play For Lease or Sale.

2.4 Awards:

Elizabeth received 25 awards between 1952 and 2007, the most important of which was a Guggenheim fellowship – a prestigious award which funds exceptionally talented professionals to take time away from their day jobs to give them “as much creative freedom as possible.”

2.5 Professional life:

Elizabeth thought at a junior college for two years after which she accepted a position at the Nashville Tennessean – the principle newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee. She later returned to teaching at University of Mississippi in Oxford. Following her Guggenheim award, Spencer moved to Italy to pursue her writing career. She continued teaching in Montreal and later in Chapel Hill where she though Creative Writing at the university of North Carolina until retirement.

2.6 Personal life:

While in Italy, Spencer met John Rusher of Cornwall, England, which she later married. They moved to Montreal, Canada, five years later in 1961. The lived there for nearly thirty years before moving to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her husband passed away in 1998 in Chapel Hill where Spencer still lives to this day.

3. Sociocultural Background

3.1 Conservative South:

In the 1930s-40s (and in many respects still today) the south was dominated by a conservative mindse and strong grip on their religion, values and beliefs. Southerners believed that their form of society is the “correct” form and the rest of the country has gone away from their what God intended. People believed in a small set of laws to leave room for the strong unwritten social code in place. Southern conservatives differentiated themselves from the rest of the democrat/liberal country through their

belief in a small government. They believed that laws can never be effective 100% without risking more serious side effects than he initial problem the legislation was trying to fix. They therefore purposely made laws to be effective 75-80% of the time, taking the rest as an unfortunate fact of life.

During Franklin D. Roosevelt's (a Democrat) administration between 1933 and 1945 government became a very large entity. To combat the effect this large government would have on their lives, southern states had very small state and local governments. This allowed them to continue to lead their simple lives as before.

3.2 Religion:

During this period the South and particularly the “Small Town South” lived under the rule of Conservative Protestant Christianity every day of the week. Christian beliefs were publicly embraced in every part of society from government, to schools, to mainstream newspapers and radio. On Sundays all members of the community were expected to be in church/Bible school and all businesses were closed to remind everyone that Sundays were Lord's days. There were constant reminders of Christianity in everyday life – public prayers at public gatherings, ball games, schools etc, and in media. For example, radio personality Roy Rogers would close his half

hour weekly show by saying "Goodbye, good luck, and may the Good Lord take a likin' to you." Religion and its participants created a strong sense of community and was the basis for the society's unwritten social code. Atheists were rejected from the community and were looked upon in an unfavorable light.

3.3 Personal Honor:

Southerners believed a man should be honest above all with others and has the responsibility to protect his family, property and his name. People regularly did business using handshakes as their bond and lawsuits were uncommon. People did not do business with “outsiders” or other untrustworthy persons.

Also disputes were handled privately, rarely involving the police. Southerners trusted their fellows, as everyone lived by the same code.



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Title: "The Gulf Coast" by Elizabeth Spencer - an analysis