By Mary L. Kirby
The Edward Tales
compiled by Sally Greene
Gilmer native Sally Greene is a lady of many talents. She is a practicing lawyer who works with the Innocents Project and a county commissioner for Orange County, North Carolina. She resides in Chapel Hill and has taught at the University of North Carolina and has become friends with many of the professors and other fascinating personalities in this university community.
Among her friends there until recently was a well reknowned author with a six decade career, Elizabeth Spencer, (1921-2019) a native of Mississippi. Spencer published every type of literary fiction including a novella, The Light in the Piazza, which was made into a movie, a play, For Lease or Sale (1989), and numerous short stories for which she is best remembered.
In the play and in three of her short stories, Edward Glenn, is a mercurial male character which Sally Greene brings together under one cover with an explanatory introduction. Reading the introduction makes this reader wish she could have attended one of her English Lit classes at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The play was first written in Montreal and then was refined by David Hammond for production in Chapel Hill by PlayMakers Repertory Company at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in January and February 1989.
Edward would not let Spencer go so he reappeared in three short stories: “The Runaways” (1994), The Master of Shongalo (1996), and Return Trip (2009). Edward is a man of few words but with an electrifying presence which captures the imagination of the females he encounters.
What this writer found fascinating is how in the turn of a phrase, Spencer can evoke an era, an atmosphere, an entire mood of place and time. For example, in “The Master of Shongalo” as the house guest wanders while others are napping, she writes “the wood having swollen after many rains, and the screen sticks at the bottom, so that a sharp kick is needed to help it along,” painting a mental picture of a humid summer afternoon in a old and well loved home where screed doors are still used. It is an image all to common in the Mississippi of Spencer’s youth.
In the play, For Lease or Sale, Mrs. Glenn, Edward’s mother does not want to leave her beloved home though the encroachment of suburbs has made the property prime for the auction block.
“What’s happened in a place goes on happening forever,” she reflects. It is a feeling understood by many who have spent a lifetime in a place. Edward however wants forget the pain of his dissolved marriage and thinks it is time to move on. It is only at the end of the play, after his mother’s funeral, he understands the pull the home has on him, even as his mother tried to explain.
The Edward which flees the pain of his divorce and lives quietly in a Mexican village in “The Runaways” is the most developed of the man and his almost wordless relationships with women. In quiet communications, he and Jocelyn, his neighbor who is dying of cancer, develop a deep yet quiet understanding of each other.
“The Master of Shongalo” is told in reflection from perhaps forty years after the events and yet is the most sexually charged in an almost wordless way. The house guest finds a man wandering in the old house, seeking something.
“The pull of kissing had come to both of us at once. It was what we did,” Milly Weldon recalls. Then Edward disappears again as quietly as he came, leaving her with memories.
The third short story finds Edward joining his cousin Patricia and her husband Boyd at their summer vacation home in Asheville. The two cousins visit the boyhood home of Thomas Wolfe which was being rebuilt after a fire. Echoes of the home in For Lease or Sale sound in the passages where Edward muses on the hard life of Wolfe’s youth as view in his book, Look Homeward Angel.
After Edward drifts away again, Patricia, as she cools her feet in the river, finds herself hearing “the Mississippi voices for the first time… She sat and listened, and let the water curls around her feet. She knew she would hear them always, from now on.”
Without the introduction by Greene, the four pieces would have had little meaning for this writer. Few of the works of American literature of the last half century have enlightened me.
While it will not become a best seller, The Edward Tales may well become part of the required reading in some course on Women in Letters or American Literature. It is an enjoyable read and thought provoking in a quiet way. When next I am at Lake Gilmer, perhaps I will take off my shoes and hear their voices as I cool my feet.
The book, published by the University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, is called The Edward Tales, by Elizabeth Spencer, Compiled and with an introduction by Sally Greene. It has been available through Amazon since April 15.