IN 1953 A YOUNG WOMAN born and bred in the Mississippi Delta went to live and write in Rome. Enclosed by ancient walls and isolated by a language she could not speak, she found herself in a kind of echo chamber. "All the home voices kept coming back," wrote Elizabeth Spencer, "I could hear them talking among all those voices." The most persistent was the voice at the back door, the one heard "for certain all the time, for no telling how long, for it is part of the consciousness of a Southern household that a Negro is calling at the back door in the night." That voice was her donn,ee--the whimper that becomes an assertion, the glimpse that widens into a vision, the phrase that gives this plain-spoken novel its only overt symbolism.

I first read The Voice at the Back Door when it appeared in 1956. In the decade or so to follow, the years of marchings and murders and, for onlookers at a distance, the years of bewildered shame, the steadying voice at my own back door was Elizabeth Spencer's. No other voice so clearly reminded me of a way of life obscured by outrage and oversimplified by headlines. No other work of literature or any exercise in polemics made me better understand that the term "civil rights movement" was but a paltry designation for a vast shift in awareness that had already occurred and awaited only the sacrifices of martyrs, black and white, to cause it to be written into law. It seemed to me that, like other realists before her, Elizabeth Spencer had written of the life she knew with the kind of bare documentary exactitude which time lifts into metaphor--as though, from the mythological murk of Faulkner territory, she had emerged holding up a crisp photograph negative on which black is visible only in relation to white, and vice versa.

Her story opens with a man hurrying home to die. He is the sheriff of the county and is suffering a heart attack. As he races his old car down country roads, through red clay gullies "deep enough to throw the church in," he realizes that home for him is neither the house where his wife "would spread me out on a pink bedspread," nor the "nigger town" shanty of his black mistress of 15 years where he "could go out quiet as a match," but "HARPER & BRO. GRO.," the general store across from the courthouse where, after downing two bottles of Coca-Cola, he will die with his boots on.

Economical as a scenario, this is but the nominal beginning--a minor episode in a story that has in actuality been unfolding for three generations. Its true beginning occurs when a retired senator decides he will devote the rest of his days to educating the children of his former slaves. Among these is the boy whose learning, setting him apart, will lead to his being shot to death along with 11 other "uppity" blacks in the chambers of the county courthouse.

The son who survives him is the story's black protagonist. Its white protagonist is the man to whose store the sheriff came to die, the man who, the sheriff hoped, would succeed him in office. He is a former All-American football player at Ole Miss who "could bring off a tackle with a kind of politeness," and is still the celebrated local hero who has brought the town fame, pride and a sense of identity--none of which he claims for himself.

These two have their first encounter hours after the sheriff's death. The black man has come to the store to apologize for his son, a delivery boy who, frightened by the afternoon's events, had run away. The white man is on his way over to the courthouse with unregistered tax receipts the dying sheriff had put into his hands. The black man follows him, a dogging presence that causes the preoccupied white man to say what white men have always said--"On your way, boy." But, this time, to no avail:

"The Negro withdrew from the shadow of the big white man, but he was still erect when he stopped in the door and said, 'My name is Beckwith Dozer, Mister Harper. When I was a small child, my father was shot to death upstairs in this courthouse. I never been inside here before tonight.'

" 'Oh, I see.' Their eyes met and though they were alone in an empty building, and no one knew they were there, it seemed that the world listened, that a new way of speaking was about to form in an old place. They were a little helpless, too, like children waiting to be prompted. What should the words be? 'There aren't many people you ought to talk this way to,' Duncan said.

"The Negro almost smiled. 'I know that.'

" 'It would help to say, "Sir." '

" 'I realize that.'

" 'On your way,' said Duncan.

" 'I wish you luck, Mister Harper,' said Beckwith Dozer, and passed into the quiet dark hall. Duncan heard the words in his head for some time, and savored them there like the taste of something new, trying to decide if they mocked him, or spoke sincerely, but he could not."

At the end of the story, Duncan Harper still cannot-- not even when he meets his death in the act of saving the same black man from a mob gathering to mete out its one idea of justice.

Between these events, a narrative plotted with mosaic precision reveals itself without so much as a hint of premeditation. Short on symbolism, it is long on irony, none of it comic except at a remove far enough to make politics, miscegenation, social rigidity, conscience and the life of the mind seem as funny as baby doll petulance and as hilarious as the blithe idiocy of red-necks with shotguns. Ambition is Miss Spencer's overt theme, and it is pursued by everyone save her hero. Her unstated and more important theme is detected only when one catches the fleeting images of her peripheral vision.

That theme is decency--decency on the part of blacks who have little reason to maintain self-respect or probity beyond the confines of their ramshackle country ghettos; decency on the part of whites for whom an innate sense of caring makes consideration of color, labels, factions secondary, if not remote. Miss Spencer puts herself in jeopardy here. Sentimentality and special pleading are always ready to soften or distort her clear broad picture and to erode its credibility. She saves herself from these dangers by an unflinching examination of violence--the shared memory of it, the muttering threat of it, its presence in minds some of which are calculating votes, others of which are aiming pot shots at phantom targets. For the most part, this hidden theme is articulated in a hundred instances in which individuals, black and white, unaware of "what's going on" nevertheless see what is happening before their eyes and react to events with a natural charity they would be surprised to find named for what it is. These are her blind witnesses--men and women, neither good nor evil, who rely on the continuity of the way things are to exempt them from the trials of conscience. In the sympathy with which she speaks for them, Miss Spencer identifies herself.

When she came back to Mississippi, desegregation had received the imprimatur of the Supreme Court and, a few miles from her childhood home, Emmett Till had been murdered. "I realized," she says, "that in my absence . . . a precipitate moment had come and gone, and that the local scene which in my manuscript I had hopefully allowed to contain the action--with its many ramifications in love and blessing--had already as good as vanished." Faced with the task of revising the manuscript, of updating it to make it conform to a new reality, she decided that "It was up to the story itself to instruct me how." That instruction was not forthcoming. Since she "had had no motive but to place things there in their truest and clearest light," the manuscript declared itself inviolate. Wisely resisting revisions that would have been no more than a kind of exigent tampering, Miss Spencer decided to stick to her story and so confirm what exigence obscures: Ars longa, vita brevis.

NOTE ON AVAILABILITY: A paperback edition of "The Voice at the Back Door," with an introduction by the author, was reprinted in 1982 by Time-Life Books