Mercer University to Award Sidney Lanier Prize for Southern Literature to Elizabeth Spencer


MACON, Ga. – Mercer University's Southern Studies Program will award the 2014 Sidney Lanier Prize for Southern Literature to fiction writer Elizabeth Spencer. The prize honors significant career contributions to Southern writing in drama, fiction or poetry. The prize presentation will take place on Saturday, April 12, 1 p.m., in the Presidents Dining Room of the University Center on the Macon campus.

“The Lanier Prize Committee selected Elizabeth Spencer not only because of her masterful technique, but also because of her fearlessness. She writes with exquisite nuance and detail to expose the obstacles that challenge human decency in the South's rigid culture. In her career, she has simultaneously challenged social conventions and elevated artistic standards,” said Dr. David A. Davis, chair of the committee and professor of English at Mercer.

Spencer was born in Carrollton, Miss., in 1921. She earned a bachelor's degree from Belhaven College in Jackson, Miss., and a master's degree in literature from Vanderbilt University, before publishing her first of nine novels, “Fire Morning,” in 1948. Her fourth novel, “The Light in the Piazza” (1960), was adapted into a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film of the same name in 1962, as well as a musical that ran on Broadway from April 2005-July 2007 and won six Tony Awards. Her eighth collection of short stories, “Starting Over,” is set to be released on Jan. 14, 2013. She has also written one play, “For Lease or Sale” (1989), and one non-fiction memoir, “Landscapes of the Heart” (1998). Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other magazines.

After obtaining her master's degree, Spencer taught for a year at Northwest Mississippi Junior College and for a year at Ward-Belmont College in Nashville, before taking a job as a reporter at The Tennessean in Nashville from 1945-46. She moved on to a job as an instructor at the University of Mississippi, and in 1953, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and moved to Italy to pursue writing full time. There, she met her husband, John Rusher, of Cornwall, England. The two lived together in Italy and Canada, before moving to Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1986, where she was a visiting professor of creative writing for six years. A five-time recipient of the O. Henry Prize for short fiction, Spencer has won numerous other awards over the past six decades.

The Sidney Lanier Prize for Southern Literature, first awarded in 2012, is named for the 19th-century Southern poet born in Macon. Lanier wrote “The Song of the Chattahoochee” and “The Marshes of Glynn.” Using his name recognizes Middle Georgia's literary heritage and long, often complicated, tradition of writing about the South. The prize is awarded to writers who have engaged and extended that tradition. Past winners include Ernest Gaines (2012) and Lee Smith (2013). For more on the prize, click here.

The selection committee for the Lanier Prize includes Mercer professors, eminent scholars of Southern literature and members of the Macon community. In addition to Dr. Davis, the committee members include: Trudier Harris, professor of English at the University of Alabama; Michael Kreyling, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University; Minrose Gwin, Kenan Professor of English at the University of North Carolina; Matt Martin, Knox Professor of Humanities at Wesleyan College; Pam Thomasson, past president of Historic Macon; Sharon Colley, associate professor of English at Middle Georgia State College; Sarah Gardner, professor of history at Mercer University; and Gordon Johnston, professor of creative writing at Mercer University.

Mercer will also award Sidney Lanier Creative Writing Scholarships on April 12. High school juniors with high aptitude for writing may compete for the scholarships, and winners will receive up to $5,000 per year toward the cost of tuition at Mercer. To be eligible, students must complete an application and submit either a work of short fiction of no more than 700 words or two poems totaling no more than 700 words. For more information, contact the Office of Admissions at

Kyle Sears
Kyle is the director of media relations at Mercer. In addition to being the primary media contact for most academic and administrative units of the university, he coordinates hometown and university news releases and serves as editor of the News@Mercer e-newsletter and Reach magazine.​