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Peggy Bach: Evelyn Scott’s Biographer

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by David Madden
United States Civil War Center
Louisiana State University

Evelyn Scott was buried in obscurity until Peggy Bach resurrected her. When I suggested eighteen years ago that Peggy read Scott’s memoir Escapade, only two of Scott’s twenty books were in print, but in little-known, high-priced reprints. Reading Escapade was a major event–Scott’s life and work overwhelmed, joyously, Peggy’s own. Armed with only a high school education, Peggy launched upon a two decade task of getting Scott’s works reprinted, preparing the first bibliography, writing twelve essays on her books, and researching the authorized biography. Other women critics followed her lead in that rediscovery effort. Her death at sixty-seven from cancer in June of this year left Peggy’s work unfinished, but Scott’s place in American literature is secure, and interest in her work is growing at a vigorous pace.

“I find her extremely interesting, much ahead of her time,” Peggy wrote in 1983. “She possessed the rare combination of personal intuitiveness, literary conception, and an artistic genius for style and technique. And I am especially impressed by her early sensitivity to the needs of all kinds of people on an individual level. This work has exposed me to the ideas of other artists associated with Scott and given me a broader base from which to continue my writing in other genres.” Peggy saw Scott as “an extraordinary, tough-minded, southern intellectual woman” whose creative energy reached out to embrace a wide variety of themes and subjects, expressed in every literary genre: novel, autobiography, poetry, short story, children’s books, drama, history, book reviews, and essays on a wide range of subjects–a Renaissance woman.

Her own tough-mindedness and independent spirit enabled Peggy to accept the challenge of starting a writing career from scratch, with little knowledge of the complex literary background a critic must necessarily master. In her confident searching, she developed a sense of profound sisterhood with Scott and with other women writers worldwide. She was a fine example of that rare breed, the late starter. At forty-seven Peggy took off with great vigor, but was plagued almost from the start with illness.

Working as editorial assistant to me on several nonfiction and fiction projects, Peggy revealed certain qualities of mind that inclined me to imagine that she would discover a kindred soul in Evelyn Scott. Her response to Escapade was “A Melancholy Necessity: Evelyn Scott, Novelist,” published in The New Orleans Review. It was in the process of creating a rediscovery of Scott’s work that Peggy discovered the range of her own talent for writing. In criticism, she published essays on Djuana Barnes, Simone de Beauvoir, and Nadine Gordimer, all women of temperaments similar to Scott’s. She made an impressive contribution to our understanding of Mary Lee Settle’s complex quintet of novels. She did not ignore male writers; she reviewed the memoirs of Joel Agee and Hilary Masters, the novels of Wright Morris, and one of my own novels. And, of course, she published many more essays on Scott, including “Evelyn Scott: The Woman in the Foreground.” For that essay on Background in Tennessee, she was cited in the 1983 Pushcart Prize Annual as an “Outstanding Writer.”

As a creative writer, Peggy wrote short stories, the first draft of a novel, and a ballet scenario, featuring Tennessee William’s heroines. A prominent composer set one of her poems to music and it has had many performances.

While Peggy had to overcome a background that in no way prepared her to pursue her newfound interests, people who did have that background took her seriously. Many critics, editors, and novelists supported her efforts: George Core, Lewis Simpson, James Olney, Louis Rubin, Daniel Aaron, Paul Mariani, Michael Mott, Fred Hobson, Allen Drury, and Robie Macauley. Her youthful enthusiasm and her determination, the high standards she set for herself, a native talent long quiescent, and sheer force of character took Peggy Bach far in a few years. For me as a teacher of creative writing, no other writer’s development was more impressive to watch, more fascinating in its special circumstances, its struggles, than Peggy’s. It was exhilarating to watch the rapid changes, in clear stages, in Peggy’s life.

Peggy began to assist me with my own fiction and criticism. When we shared meals or rode in the car together, she often came up with lightning flash insights and concepts that affected work in progress, especially The Suicide’s WifeOn the Big Wind, and the Civil War novel Sharpshooter. My informal student gradually became my serious colleague and often my teacher. Together we edited three books:Rediscoveries: II (fiction), Rediscoveries: Nonfiction (forthcoming), and Classics of Civil War Fiction.

More than the disadvantage of having only a high school education, her job and her illness made progress on her writing fitful and slow. “Time and energy are crucial problems for me. It is very frustrating to have progressed this far and to be stymied by such obstacles.” After working as the secretary of the philosophy department at Louisiana State University five days a week and raising a teenage son, Peggy had little energy for writing. In 1985, she became ill with lupus, the disease known to have plagued Flannery O’Conner. Stress and worry are major enemies of lupus victims.

An ideal example of the concept of the independent scholar, Peggy was awarded three grants: one from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities in 1984 for a series of public radio programs called “Evelyn Scott: A Rediscovery”; one from the Kentucky Foundation for Women in 1987; and one from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1990. These grants enabled her to take leaves of absence and still meet her financial obligations. She published everything she finished, more than some scholars in the philosophy and the English departments, where she was strongly supported and well respected. Seldom free of financial worries, she was delighted that she got paid for everything she wrote.

Peggy took on cancer with the same positive attitude and determination to emerge victorious from the struggle that she brought to her literary tasks. During the year and a half after her cancer surgery, she wrote two articles on Scott, kept up the Scott reprint campaign, evaluated the work of young Scott scholars, and planned other major projects.

Her powerfully empathetic identification with Scott made Peggy the perfect biographer. “I will show,” she said, “how a young southern woman became an intellectual whose humanistic concerns transcended the southern themes in literature and addressed universal ideas and problems, especially those of the artist and the individual.” Her conception was to involve the reader as much as possible in Scott’s own sense of her life and work. Peggy also had a dedication to scholarly thoroughness and accuracy that was never in danger of pedantry. Her demanding intellect did not approach the biographical form in predictable ways. The two hundred and twenty pages she completed reveal that her imaginative conception of the biography and its unique structure would have extended the genre itself beyond conventional expectations.

Robert Welker, the Scott scholar of the late fifties, was generous in his assistance and advice to Peggy in her ambitious endeavors on Scott’s behalf. As another way of creating greater access to Scott’s achievements, she often urged Professor Welker to donate the Scott papers in his possession to a university, Tennessee being most appropriate. Although Professor Welker made his donation to the University of Tennessee a month before Peggy died, she did not, unfortunately, know about that gift.

Peggy would have been pleased to know that her own papers repose with Scott’s and, in due course, with my own, at my alma mater, the University of Tennessee, in my hometown. Along with versions of Peggy’s Scott essays and the biography and her research materials, which include many copies of letters to and from Scott and photographs, one may find versions of Peggy’s other works: essays on ten male and female writers; unfinished essays on Scott; and correspondence with many publishers and writers. Versions of Peggy’s own creative writings are included: short stories; personal essays; poems published in special issues of Kentucky Poetry Review and The Chattahoochee Review; and the autobiographical novel, “Episodes: Light and Dark,” based on her childhood experiences and imaginative ventures in rural Indiana and Kentucky. Annotated copies of Scott’s books and of publications in which Peggy’s work appeared and books she co-edited are also part of her family’s gift.

While pursuing my own writing, I intend to continue Peggy’s work. Publication of a collection of her essays is my first goal. I will, of course, finish the work we were doing together. I am most eager to get back to our play about young Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers writing plays at the same table. I will continue to promote reprints of Scott’s novels and the first publication of collections of her short stories, essays, and correspondence. Although I have always shared her high regard for Evelyn Scott, I will not attempt to finish Peggy’s biography of Scott. I can well imagine that her archive will excite, intrigue, and aid the Scott biographers who follow her.

 

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