Mildred Spurrier Topp, a Mississippi legislator and popular memoirist, was born on 5 January 1897 on a farm near Forest City, Illinois, to Lillian White Spurrier and Frank Spurrier, who abandoned his wife before Mildred’s birth. With her mother; older sister, Velma; and maternal grandparents, Spurrier moved to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, as a young child. When she was nine, her mother opened the first photography studio in Greenwood, Mississippi. After graduating from Greenwood High School, Spurrier earned a bachelor’s degree from the Industrial Institute and College (now Mississippi University for Women) in 1917. That year, she married Robert Graham Topp, a cotton farmer.
From 1918 to 1922 Mildred Topp taught English at Greenwood High. After giving birth to a daughter in 1922 and a son two years later, she became one of the few women serving in the Mississippi legislature, representing Leflore County in the State House of Representatives between 1932 and 1936. She took a special interest in laws relating to marriage, families, and education. During World War II she served on the staff of Greenwood’s USO, which provided support services to troops, before becoming a local journalist. At age fifty Topp began to record her early memories of Greenwood. She attended a summer writing workshop at the University of Colorado, where her instructor was Mississippi native Ben Ames Williams, a best-selling novelist. Houghton Mifflin subsequently published Topp’s Smile Please on Williams’s recommendation—he had “laughed for three hours” after reading the manuscript, which included scenes set in her mother’s photography studio. In a review for the New York Herald Tribune, humorist Emily Kimbrough praised this “lively book” about “a sturdy, independent, courageous child—her mother’s own daughter.”
Although most reviewers of Smile Please and its sequel, In the Pink, stressed Topp’s comic, sometimes satiric flair, a few noted the presence of cruelty and even tragedy. Lillian Spurrier is not the only struggling single mother in Topp’s portrayals of early twentieth-century Greenwood, and the memoirs also feature suffering children, handicapped adults, and lecherous businessmen. An abridgment of the second volume appeared in the December 1950 Omnibook: Best-Seller Magazine, a Christmas issue that reprinted cartoons by Charles Addams and a selection from Robert Penn Warren’s World Enough and Time.
Despite the success of her two volumes, Topp never published another book. Instead, she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where she completed a master’s thesis on “Chaucer, a Forerunner of the English Renaissance.” She emphasized the poet’s unique humor, the “truth and vitality” of his work, the concreteness of his details, and his “power to delight and charm the human heart”—qualities that are also apparent in Topp’s autobiographical accounts. She died in Greenwood on 15 August 1963.
- Pamela Taylor, Saturday Review (11 September 1948)
- Melanie Topp, “The Life and Writings of Mildred Spurrier Topp” (master’s thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1981)
- Ovid Vickers, Neshoba Democrat (9 May 2007)