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Honorary degree citation - Elizabeth Spencer

By: Robert K. Martin, June 1988

Mr. Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you Elizabeth Spencer, novelist, short story writer, and teacher, whose literary works have provided an important voice for women's experience in places as different as the American South, Italy, and Quebec.

Elizabeth Spencer began her career as a novelist in 1948, with the publication of Fire in the Morning. Since that time, she has published seven further novels and numerous short stories. Her work has been translated into 18 languages and read around the world. She has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Donnelly Fellow at Bryn Mawr College, a fellow in fiction at Kenyon College, a four-time 0. Henry Award winner and a gold medal winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Her work has regularly addressed important issues of our time in prose that is remarkable for its clarity, vision, and resonance. She has not hesitated to deal with questions of sexuality or of race relations. She has been able to draw remarkable portraits of women that enlighten the lives of all of us. She is an extraordinary observer of manners and morals, with a strikingly accurate ear for speech and what it reveals of character. Her moral acumen makes her a worthy successor of such masters as Henry James, and a model for several generations of young writers.

Elizabeth Spencer is perhaps best known for her novel of blacks and whites, The Voice at the Back Door (1956), and for her rendition of an American womaif'i dilemma in Italy, The Light in the Piazza (1960). Her 1984 novel, The Salt Line, employs the devastation of a hurricane in her native Mississippi in 1969 as a means to the exploration of the possibility of sustaining a critical spirit and hope in the face of apparent despair.

Elizabeth Spencer has perhaps achieved even greater renown as a short story writer, whose works have appeared in journals such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Her collected volume, The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, was greeted with acclaim. Reviewers noted not only that Elizabeth Spencer had become one of the leading practitioners of the great tradition of Southern writing, but that she had also become an acknowledged world master of subtlety and grace.

A journalist in her early years, a splendid story teller not only in print but also at the dinner table, Elizabeth Spencer has given generously of her time and experience as a teacher of writing to dozens of young writers. Kind, thoughtful, and yet demanding, she has helped many of them learn to treat their talent as a potential that cannot be realized without hard work and attention to detail. She has provided important reassurance that the apparently ordinary events of a life can be turned, when seen in the right light, into evocative material of fiction. And she has provided a place for the recording of the lives of countless young women, whose experience might otherwise have been seen as lacking sufficient moment.

By honouring Elizabeth Spencer we pay tribute to the profession of writing, and to the world of affectionate reflection through language; we acknowledge that a culture without self-examination will soon die.

Mr. Chancellor, on behalf of the Senate, and by the authority of the Board of Governors, I present to you Elizabeth Spencer that you may confer on her the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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