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Special Collections

The Odyssey of Elsie Dunn



by James B. Lloyd
Special Collections Librarian

I am probably going to be accused of making up most of what I am about to relate, and I can’t blame anyone for doing so. After all, who could believe a yarn about a country girl from Tennessee who ran off with a married university Dean twice her age in 1915, at which point both changed their names, went homesteading in Brazil, found diamonds, and published novels written during the experience. Nevertheless, it is true, and furthermore, it is only the beginning.

The lady in question was Evelyn Scott, nee Elsie Dunn from Clarksville, Tennessee, daughter of Seely and Maude Thomas Dunn, born January 17, 1893, into a family of modestly successful tobacco traders. The founder of the clan, Captain Joseph Thomas, had arrived in Clarksville in 1829 and done well until later life, when he was forced to support himself, with his wife, by opening a school. His son, Edwin Thomas, fared better, but tobacco trading is iffy at best, and he too faced poverty at the end of his career. Seely Dunn probably appeared to be a good match and to be in a fair way to recoup the family fortunes, since he was the son of a railroad executive and appeared to be on the road of becoming one himself. This, however, did not happen, and about 1903 the family moved to New Orleans to be near Dunn’s parents.

The Dunns were not penniless, however, and for a time Elsie attended Sophie Newcomb. Seely continued to work on railroads, and while he was building one in Honduras met Frederick Creighton Wellman, who was at the time inspecting hospitals there for the United Fruit Company. Wellman, originally from Missouri, had been trained as a doctor, married, had four children, and gone as a medical missionary to Africa, where he developed a reputation as a specialist in tropical medicine. He was, at this point, divorced, and would be shortly on his way to Tulane to take up a position as Dean of the School of Tropical Medicine.

Wellman was a remarkable man. His son, Paul, himself a successful novelist and screenwriter, described him in the preface to Wellman’s autobiography, Life is too Short, as an explorer, linguist, anthropologist, bacteriologist, journalist, economist, and latter-day Renaissance man. And it was all true, though his main careers during the time we will be concerned with him were as day laborer, art school owner, and art museum executive. He has the distinction of making Who’s Who under both his names.

No wonder Elsie was charmed. She had already shown her rebellious colors at fifteen by writing to theNew Orleans Times-Picayune suggesting that prostitution be legalized in order to control venereal disease. An attractive girl of twenty when she meet Wellman, she was chafing under the restrictions of structured education and her family. After a short courtship, Wellman told his current wife, concert pianist Edna Willis, that he was going on a fishing trip, and he and Elsie caught a freighter for London where they changed their names in an attempt to conceal their whereabouts from Mrs. Wellman, who was threatening her husband with prosecution for violation of the Mann Act, and from Seely Dunn, who publicly threatened to horsewhip them both, should he ever have the opportunity. Wellman became Cyril Kay Scott, and Elsie, Evelyn Scott. Thus they broke with conventional life and, so far as can be determined, never looked back.

You may be wondering at this point what all this has to do with the Special Collections Library of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The answer is that Evelyn Scott, nee Elsie Dunn, went on to become one of the leading literary lights of the twenties and thirties, publishing thirteen novels (depending on how you count); an autobiography, two volumes of imagist poetry, and four children’s books. When William Faulkner published The Sound and the Fury in 1929, the best thing that could be said about it was that Evelyn Scott thought it was good. Faulkner returned the favor a number of years later when, upon being asked by an interviewer if he could name any good women writers he said, “Well, Evelyn Scott was pretty good, for a woman….”

Cyril made some sort of deal with the British Museum whereby he would collect entomological samples for them in Brazil, and he and Evelyn set off with few clothes and very little money. The collecting business never worked out, however, and Cyril, who fortunately could speak Portuguese, was forced to support himself and his now pregnant companion by day labor in Rio. He finally landed a job as an auditor, which paid a subsistence wage, and on October 26, 1914, Evelyn’s only child was born, a son, Creighton. The birth was not an easy one and the complications kept Evelyn an invalid the rest of her stay in Brazil. And, as if this was not enough for the couple to handle, Maude Dunn, whom Evelyn had written, arrived unexpectedly, having been provided with a one-way ticket by Seely, who soon divorced her. Maude, it turned out, was having emotional problems, and her behavior was erratic, as it was to remain through the rest of her life.

At this point Cyril, whose idea of a Brazilian adventure was evidently not fulfilled by bookkeeping, decided to become a rancher, which one could do at that time by merely declaring a homestead on undeveloped land and moving in. One, of course, had to have something to move into, so the women waited while Cyril constructed a mud hut, to which he moved his growing family via pack train. After this unpromising start, the experiment was successful for several years, until Cyril decided to raise sheep, which was a disaster. The family was reduced to near starvation, which Cyril narrowly avoided by hiking sixty kilometers and landing a job with a manganese prospecting venture. He returned several weeks later and moved his family to Villa Nova, where they were to live for another two years.

It was while in Villa Nova that Evelyn began submitting poetry to such avant garde magazines as Poetry,Others, and The Egoist. She became known in these literary circles as the mystery woman from Brazil. She was not to remain a mystery for long, however, because she required medical attention not available in Brazil. So in 1919 Cyril, Evelyn, Maude, and Creighton set sail for New York, where Cyril promptly sent Maude back to Clarksville to become the permanent guest of her relatives there.

The rest of the family moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village. Cyril, ever resourceful, found a job as a reporter for a women’s wear magazine, and Evelyn threw herself into the literary life of the Village, which at that time included such luminaries as Alfred Steiglitz, William Carlos Williams, Lola Ridge, Waldo Frank, Sinclair Lewis, Mark Van Doren, Marianne Moore, Sherwood Anderson, and John Dos Passos. Evelyn moved easily in these circles and began contributing poetry to The Dial, to which she also contributed several insightful reviews, notably of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and James Joyce’sUlysses.

Cyril, though literary, did not share her enthusiasm for Village life, and their relationship began to falter. In 1920, the couple decided to separate, thought they lived in the same house for another five years. Cyril went his own way; Evelyn developed a lasting friendship with Lola Ridge and became involved with Williams Carlos Williams and Waldo Frank. In 1920, she published her first book, a slim volume of poetry,Perceptions, which was favorably reviewed, especially by H.L. Mencken.

Then in 1921, Cyril and Evelyn found a patron. Marie Hale offered Cyril a post as manager of the estate she shared with her husband, Swinburne, at Buzzard’s Bay and provided each with an allowance of twenty-five dollars a week, an arrangement which more or less supported both for the next decade. Cyril’s novel Blind Mice, which he had written in Brazil, was published and critically acclaimed, though not so highly as Evelyn’s The Narrow House, which appeared the same year. This naturalistic description of a dysfunctional southern family was too much even for Theodore Dreisser, who called it the “grimmest” he had ever read. Sinclair Lewis in the New York Times Book Review hailed Scott as a rising literary light and said its publication was “an event.”

In 1922 the Hales’ marriage failed, and Cyril and Evelyn, still supported by Marie, followed Swinburne to his new estate in Bermuda where Cyril was to be the manager. Evelyn busied herself as usual, and soon formed a lasting attachment to an unlikely companion, Owen Merton, a talented painter and father of Thomas, who was living with him in Bermuda while he painted and recovered from the death of his wife, Ruth. Owen and Tom soon moved in with the Scotts. Tom shared a bed with Creighton, Owen with Evelyn, and Cyril, with Owen’s encouragement, took up painting, showing promise as a watercolorist. Tom developed an enmity for Evelyn which deepened over time.

During this time Evelyn published Narcissus, a sequel to The Narrow House which was the first appearance in print of what came to be called by some as the Evelyn Scott woman, a female who demands to express her sexuality on an even footing with men and with no regard for the bonds of matrimony. She also completed The Golden Door, a fictionalized account of a utopian experiment carried out by some of her acquaintances at the Buzzard’s Bay Hale estate, and began work on Escapade. Cyril published Sinbad: A Romance, a satire also based on the antics at the estate.

In 1923, Owen Merton returned to New York where his Bermuda watercolors sold well. Evelyn got an advance on Escapade, and he, Evelyn, Cyril, Cyril’s friend Ellen Kennan, and Creighton sailed for Europe. They stopped briefly at Collioure in the south of France, where Ellen Kennan decamped just before the happy group moved on to Bou Sadda, Algeria. In the spring they went back to the south of France. Then Merton went briefly to London to sell some paintings and Cyril, with Creighton, moved to Paris and set up as an artist, where he was a success. Meanwhile, Evelyn’s autobiographical, stream-of-consciousness, naturalistic account of her Brazilian adventure, Escapade, published that year in New York, created a literary sensation (I hope I’m not going too fast for anyone).

In early 1925, Owen Merton returned to America to visit his family, and stayed. Evelyn moved to London where she had friends. Here she met John Metcalf, whose very English supernatural stories had just been published as The Smoking Leg. Cyril’s new novel, Siren, came out at the same time, as did Evelyn’sThe Golden Door. In June of 1926, John and Evelyn met Cyril, his current friend, Elsa, and Creighton in Marseilles, and they all rented a flat in Cassis sur Mar, where Evelyn began an important friendship with Emma Goldman, sometimes known as “Red Emma”, who was in exile because she disagreed with the current direction the communist revolution in Russia was taking. Evelyn at this time was finishingMigrations, the first volume of her trilogy on the development of America between 1820 and 1900, and beginning The Wave, which was to cover the Civil War.

The years 1926 and 1927 Evelyn and John spent traveling, sometimes with Cyril and Creighton. In 1927, Evelyn finally published Ideals, a volume of nouvellas which she had written at Bou Sadda, and Migrations, which loosely covers the settling of California. Then in 1928, Cyril, after a bout of heart trouble, took Creighton and returned to America, settling in Santa Fe, where he opened an art school, married Phyllis Crawford, a sometime writer for the New Yorker, and began hyphenating his name as Cyril Kay-Scott.

Evelyn returned to New York in 1929 to see her most critically acclaimed novel, The Wave, into print. While there she also tossed off a children’s book, Witch Perkins, and began another, Blue Rum. Her publisher, Harrison Smith, gave her a manuscript to read by an unknown southern writer named William Faulkner, and thought her comments so perceptive that he published them in pamphlet form in the hopes of increasing the sales of The Sound and the Fury. In spite of its 625 pages and more than a hundred characters, The Wave sold well, and, in fact spawned a number of big books about the Civil War, culminating in Gone with the Wind (which Evelyn disliked).

Needless to say, Cyril’s art school was a success, and after the publication of The Wave, Evelyn and John joined him in Santa Fe. The climate did not, however, agree with John, and he shipped out on a cargo boat to Columbia. Evelyn completed A Calendar of Sin, which continued development in America through Reconstruction and the turn of the century. In the summer of 1930, she visited her mother briefly in Clarksville, then went to New York to meet John for a brief stay in England. Evelyn was by this time at work on Eva Gay, which she completed as the couple bounced back and forth between England and New York.

A Calendar of Sin appeared in 1931. John decided to go back to England, and Evelyn went west. Cyril had become the director of the new Denver Art Museum and was mounting a retrospective show of the work of Owen Merton, who had died in January of a brain tumor. He was also again a Dean, this time of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Denver. Creighton, sixteen by this time and able to get into mischief of his own, was secretly married to Cyril’s twenty-three year old secretary.

All this, apparently was enough even for Evelyn, and in 1932 she left Cyril for good and returned to England and John Metcalf. Eva Gay, with characters not too loosely based on Evelyn, Cyril, and Owen Merton, was published the next year. Evelyn and John returned to New York, and in 1934 Evelyn published Breathe upon These Slain, which chronicled the decline of a middle class English family. Cyril, meanwhile, announced his retirement due to health problems, and began to work on his autobiography.

Evelyn and John moved back to England, and she began work on Bread and a Sword and a novel about the French Revolution which she would never publish. John fell ill, and in February of 1936, Evelyn returned to New York, where she visited Cyril and Creighton, who by this time had given up his unfortunate marriage. She signed a contract to do a book on Tennessee and began work on it. Bread and a Sword came out the next year. The main character was based on Owen Merton and the theme was the struggle of the artist against economic necessity.

By the time Evelyn published Background in Tennessee in 1937, she was one of the most important American authors of the past two decades. Her star had begun to set, however, and from now on we can slow down. She managed one more novel, Shadow of the Hawk, in 1941, but its print run was minuscule and it was not well reviewed. Evelyn was beginning to experience a mental problem which manifested itself in increasing paranoia. She began to see communist plots everywhere and to explain all setbacks in this manner.

John was drafted in 1941, and in 1944 she joined him in London. After the war, John spent his inheritance on rental property, but the venture failed and in 1953, the penniless couple were rescued by the Huntingdon Hartford Foundation in California, where they were cared for for a year until, barely able to live on John’s writing income, they finally moved for the last time and took up residence in the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in a not very good part of New York close to Columbia. Here on August 3, 1963, Evelyn Scott died in her sleep, thus ending one of the most astonishing literary careers ever. John Metcalf, distraught, turned, where else, to drink. He went back to England and, after a fall on July 28, 1965, died three days later without ever regaining consciousness.

He was not, however, drinking alone in London on that fateful night of July 28. With him was a young graduate student from Vanderbilt named Robert Welker, whom he had summoned in order to give to him the rest of Evelyn Scott’s manuscripts and correspondence. Welker, also from Clarksville, Tennessee, was writing a dissertation on Scott, had befriended the couple, and Metcalf had given him the bulk of the papers earlier. This next transfer, however, did not occur, since Metcalf never regained consciousness, and, for Welker, the contents of the trunk in question floated off, eventually to come to rest in the Ransom Humanities Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

That first gift, however, remained in Robert Welker’s possession until spring of this year, when he most kindly presented it to The Libraries of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Welker by this time had retired as the head of the Department of English at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and decided that the literary remains of Evelyn Scott deserved a better home than his carriage house.

My association with this story began with a phone call from the Dean’s secretary to schedule a meeting with Dean Kaufman, and two faculty from English, Dorothy Scura and Joe Trahern. Dorothy was, and is, the foremost critic of Scott’s work, and had just published an edition of Escapade. Joe, also from Clarksville, was an old friend of professor Welker, and it quickly developed that a truly amazing manuscript collection might be ours for the asking. Carolyn Maun, one of Dorothy’s graduate students who was interested in Scott, had written to Welker; he had responded, and both she and Dorothy had been to Huntsville several times to make use of the papers. They had, of course, also laid the groundwork for my visit, which occurred as shortly thereafter as I could manage. And it was all downhill from there. Professor Welker had the collection appraised, and Caroline and I went down in a university van to pick it up.

As usual, since it is not processed, my knowledge of the collection’s contents is limited. I can, however, report that it spans the years 1920-1963, with by far the bulk of the material falling in the period after 1943. There are approximately 5,000 letters received, with annotated copies of Scott’s answers as well as correspondence to and from John Metcalf. It contains several feet of poetry manuscripts, numerous versions of her unpublished novel about the French Revolution, “Before Cock Crow,” numerous versions of “Escape into Living,” which was to bring the American experience up to WWI, and numerous versions of what appears to be an autobiography. And the rest is made up of scrapbooks, photographs, books and pamphlets, and memorabilia, all amounting to more than twenty cubic feet and representing the last half of the literary career of Evelyn Scott, sometimes in excruciating detail.

Thus ends the odyssey of Elsie Dunn, but plenty of questions remain to be answered. One which particularly intrigues me has to do with the accident of birth. I had not usually thought of Clarksville as a literary center and have trouble doing so now. Yet Evelyn Scott was born there in 1893; Caroline Gordon, no slouch in her own right, two years later. Then in 1905, from the Clarksville suburb of Gutherie, just across the line in Kentucky, we get Robert Penn Warren, who went to school in Clarksville. Perhaps one of these new studies we are expecting from this collection will explain how this congregation came to be. I certainly cannot.


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