The Southern Years: 1893-1913
Elsie Dunn was born in January, 1893 to Maud Thomas and Seely Dunn of Clarksville, Tennessee. Her father worked for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad as a railroad superintendent, moved on to work as a train dispatcher, and later became involved in building railroads. Her mother’s family had been established in Clarksville since 1829, when Elsie’s great-grandfather, Captain Joseph Thomas, settled in the vicinity. His son, Maud’s father Edwin Thomas, freed his own slaves and was a non-combatant in the Civil War. For a time the Dunn family lived in Russelville, Kentucky, then St. Louis Missouri. Finally they settled, when Elsie Dunn was 14, in New Orleans to be near her paternal grandparents.
From a very young age, Elsie displayed interest in creative production and writing. When still a teenager in New Orleans she displayed her independent bent of mind by working as secretary for the Women’s Suffrage Party of Louisiana. She attended the Sophie Newcombe Preparatory School, the Sophie Newcombe Art School, and then Tulane University for a brief period.
This period is given special attention by the author in her autobiography Background in Tennessee (1937). She credits her Southern upbringing with providing her with much of her artistic material and in fostering her sensibility as a writer.
Brazilian Escapade: 1913-1919
Lacking just under a month of her twenty-first birthday, Elsie Dunn left New Orleans the day after Christmas, 1913 with Frederick Creighton Wellman, then Dean of the School of Tropical Medicine at Tulane University. Wellman had been an acquaintance of her father’s, whom he met in Honduras when Seely Dunn was working on railroad projects. They quit New Orleans, took a train to Biloxi, Mississippi, then traveled to New York, London, then Rio de Janeiro. On the way out of the States the couple shed their identities and became Cyril Kay-Scott and Evelyn Scott. Although never completely out of touch with her family, the couple’s act was considered extreme. They went about setting up a marriage in “Common Law” as Cyril’s wife, a musician, would not grant him a divorce. Escapade (1923) covers the first three years of their six year stay in Brazil. Crucial events which took place during that time included their being joined by Evelyn’s mother Maud Thomas Dunn (Nannette in Escapade), the birth of their son Creighton on October 26, 1914 in Recife, Brazil, Seely Dunn’s divorce of Maud Thomas Dunn, and the beginnings of Evelyn’s career as a writer.
Escapade describes the extreme poverty, isolation, and hardship of the narrator, Evelina, and her relationships to her “husband,” John, her son, Jackie and her “aunt,” Nannette. The true identities of the characters described are veiled because of the potentially volatile nature of the narrative. Maud Thomas Dunn was in fact divorced for desertion when her husband purposefully failed to provide her a means to get back to New Orleans from Brazil. From these events Evelyn suffered a breach from her family that was never fully recuperated, although she was close to her mother until Maud’s death in April, 1940. She became estranged to her grandparents and her father, a situation that caused her pain, but never regret, for the actions she had taken.
Besides the experiences that informed Escapade, Scott began to compose her play Love (produced in New York in 1921) , and send poems to American and British “Little Magazines”, like Harriet Monroe’s Poetry. Her first poems caused excitement in the literary community and were followed up in 1920 with the publication of Precipitations.
Literary Achievement: 1920-1941
Evelyn Scott published books between 1920 and 1941. She began with the sharp, imagist poetry ofPrecipitations, followed by the naturalistic novels The Narrow House (1921) , Narcissus (1922) and The Golden Door (1925). Escapade (1923) stood alone as an autobiography of her first three years in Brazil. The 1921-25 trilogy explored dysfunctional power structures in the family and was informed by psychological probing and stream of consciousness writing. Evelyn Scott explains the transition she made from this early trilogy to her second, panoramic and historical trilogy composed of Migrations (1927), The Wave (1929) and Calendar of Sin (1931) in an article in Contempo magazine. She characterizes her first investigations as “romantic,” focused on the individual and the self, if darkly so. In her historical trilogy Scott expands to canvass a century of change and development between the antebellum period in the South to 1914. Some of the characters in these novels are based on Scott’s family, and many important scenes take place in Tennessee. The Wave on its own became Scott’s most critically acclaimed and recognized production and remains important in literary history in part because of its tremendously ambitious structure. Composed of many short-story length vignettes, the novel focuses on the Civil War as an event that takes place in nearly a hundred individual lives. Non-partisan with regard to the North or the South, the novel reflected Scott’s own mixed cultural heritage from that time period. Scott’s paternal grandparents, before settling in New Orleans, were from Indiana, so she attempted in the novel to view the war as objectively as possible.
In her personal life, Evelyn Scott and Cyril Kay-Scott dissolved their common-law marriage by divorce in 1928 and Evelyn Scott married British novelist John Metcalfe in 1930.
The Final Years: 1941-1963
In 1941 Scott’s final published novel, The Shadow of the Hawk, appeared. It had a very limited publication following dismal sales of Scott’s novels subsequent to the near commercial success of The Wave. Scott composed two more novels, Escape into Living and Before Cock Crow, and a collection of poetry,The Gravestones Wept,which remain unpublished. University of Tennessee Special Collections Library has multiple copies of all of Scott’s unpublished manuscripts from this period.
Scott’s later years are characterized by the need for money, separations and breaches of contact with many of her family members, and an increasing paranoia about the intertwining of political events during the Second World War and the productivity of artists. John Metcalfe survived her until 1968 and turned over control of the papers, now housed at the University of Tennessee Special Collections Library, to Robert L. Welker. Dr. Welker had completed for his dissertation the first full length study of Scott’s work and had become friends with the writer during the research and composition of his project. The papers eventually settled, with Welker, in Huntsville, Alabama, where they stayed for thirty years, until Welker donated them to us in 1996. This collection comprises one of the two major collections of Scott’s papers, the second being housed at The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas.