Spencer was, at least, equally affected by William Alexander Percy, the well-known poet, who lived much closer in Greenville, Mississippi, situated right on the Big Muddy. Even though Percy remained associated with the Fugitives, he, as a result of the geographic distance from Nashville and his slightly older age, represented more of an outlying god-father or mentor to them. In turn, it would therefore not be surprising that Percy also took a liking to and spoke well of Spencer’s verse, including, as Percy put it, the quality of Spencer’s ear and “subtle reaction to the impressions of beauty.” I find it intriguing to speculate whether Spencer in the title of the Yale prize volume, Half-Light and Overtones, consciously expressed homage to Percy whose poem, “Overtones,” is one of Percy’s most widely anthologized pieces of verse. Perhaps of consequence is the fact that during the years, 1925-32, William Alexander Percy edited the Yale Series of Younger Poets.
I also cannot evade a sneaking suspicion that Spencer, as a young man, read the Arkansas poet, John Gould Fletcher. By the 1920s, Fletcher had attained a crest of fame, though almost two decades would thereafter pass before he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry – becoming the first Southern poet to receive the award. While living in Europe, Fletcher joined Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell in the Imagist poetry movement, but his Imagist period seems to have expired by the early 1920s. Still, enthusiastic flares and gyres of imagery in nature and the combination of nature and various musical allusions and intimations, so present in Fletcher’s Imagist verse, find venue in Spencer’s Half-Light and Overtones.
Unfortunately, the years Spencer dedicated his energies and efforts to the interests of Drew County proved to be laden with adversity and trauma. Race relations in southeast Arkansas after World War I faced a momentum of increasing violence and tragedy. Introducing the 1920s was the Elaine Race Massacre, which occurred in the fall of 1919 in nearby Phillips County, Arkansas, resulting in an untold number – some knowledgeable experts say “hundreds” – of African Americans being killed in a conflict that may have been the worst racial conflagration or pogrom in our nation’s history. Numerous other killings of African Americans transpired in southeast Arkansas around that time. In 1921, for instance, a notorious lynching actually took place right in the center of Monticello, Drew County seat, with a reported 1,000 (a sizeable portion of the town’s population) whites transformed into a deadly and truculent mob. Only a few miles north in Star City, the burning alive of a black man and a separate shooting and lynching of an African American veteran occurred. In neighboring communities and throughout eastern and southeast Arkansas, these bloody racial convulsions, in those years, were not uncommon. Indeed, at the time, some national leaders and spokespersons often relied on the title of the Joseph Conrad novel in portraying that part of Arkansas as the “heart of darkness.”
The decade of the 1920s was indeed a wrenching time for southeast Arkansas. Beyond the feral racism that gripped the region, a series of other events battered those living there and undoubtedly made governing in Drew County a constant Gordian knot. After World War I, prices of agricultural products, including cotton, the region’s white gold, fell precipitously, leaving many farmers deeply in debt with bankruptcy their only option. Then, the Great Flood of 1927 swallowed much of the State with areas closest to the Mississippi River being especially devastated. Next came the Depression of 1929, followed almost immediately by the debilitating drought years that ushered in the 1930s.
to be continued . . .