Tennessee’s Prodigal Daughter: Evelyn Scott


by Caroline Maun

Novelist Evelyn Scott, born Elsie Dunn in 1893, found it necessary, as a very young woman, to break with the values and mores of the traditional, upper class, southern ethos under which she was brought up in Clarksville, Tennessee, subsequently positioning herself as a rebel against and critic of these same values. In her early writings, for example, she makes her position on the “southern belle” especially clear, exposing this role as a damaging and unrealistic model to which young southern women are compelled to aspire. Her first novel, The Narrow House (1921), depicts a family stifled by its adherence to social conventions, which are kept for the sake of appearances. The women of the family are trained by convention to expect and desire a brand of unrealistic, romantic love and idealization unsustainable by the men in the novel in return for submissive deference and domestic duty. Scott’s first autobiography,Escapade (1923), tells of her experience of running away (with her lover Cyril Kay Scott) from America in general, but the American South in particular, where a woman’s public virtue is perceived as the brace of upright society. During the six years they spent in Brazil, she experienced extreme poverty, a difficult childbirth, and failing health, all accompanied by intense artistic inspiration, which she chronicles inEscapade. Cyril Kay Scott developed career interests while in Brazil which forced him to travel, leaving Evelyn Scott to spend much of her time idle and alone, trying to cope as a foreign woman under the dual pressures of a socially unstable role and a strong commitment to an unorthodox sexual freedom. The Narrow House and Escapade are naturalistic works which convey Scott’s vehement rejection of the social abstractions governing the roles of women as she experienced them in her native Tennessee. In this rejection, we may also discern the painful and laborious birth of her artistic self.

In view of Scott’s expatriation from her southern upbringing, it is interesting to find among her works the autobiography Background in Tennessee, first published in 1937, which places her in the context both of her childhood experiences of the South and her understanding of the broader history of her family. She returns to the South as a successful author to reestablish, with qualification, a vital connection with the region and to conduct a reassessment of her artistic self. Years earlier, when Elsie Dunn rebaptized herself Evelyn Scott, she was not only protecting herself in her flight from possible pursuit and discovery, she was also beginning to recreate herself psychologically and aesthetically in significant ways, feats which her autobiography Escapade helped her to accomplish. This self-fashioning continues in Background in Tennessee with a new focus. In this book the past, a specifically southern past, is foregrounded in order that Scott might isolate the genesis of her own artistic sensibility. The “background” is reconstructed to accommodate the revised identity. [Dr. Robert Welker points out in his introduction to the 1980 facsimile reprint of Background in Tennessee that at the time Scott wrote her book there was every indication that she would be addressing a wide future audience who admired her work (xi).] We may thus say that the background portrayed in Background in Tennessee is not simply the factual or even embellished past of Elsie Dunn, but rather the aesthetically reconstructed background of Evelyn Scott, the aesthetically constructed and artistic persona into which Elsie Dunn transformed herself.

The major line of inquiry in Background in Tennessee is how, in an environment which did not appear to foster artists, was Scott able to emerge with a heightened aesthetic sense and deeply romantic convictions? To what degree, she asks, does she remain in debt to all that she relinquished by leaving the South? To what extent does she remain in debt to the act of relinquishment itself for her artistic impulses and accomplishments? Or to put it more simply, what does Evelyn Scott owe to Elsie Dunn, and what to Evelyn Scott? To answer these questions Scott employs a dual method. Background in Tennesseeis a historical treatment of Middle and East Tennessee, filled with Scott’s research and knowledge of the pioneer and aristocratic histories of the state. But interwoven with Scott’s historical reflections is a keen psychological examination, as historical narrative is constantly explored in the light of personal and particular consequences. Historical consideration is never merely this, but is at the same time leavened with a liberal measure of personal reflection. Scott often dwells on factual occurences, but always in the service of psychological probing, and many of the facts she relates have no interest in themselves, but only with respect to their psychological impact on Scott. Most remarkably, perhaps, this psychological probing is always conducted via an intertwining of two disparate contexts: southern history and her personal history as a novelist.

Several important factors conjoined which enabled Scott to assume a critical and analytical distance from the values and practices of her culture. She reacted skeptically to the elaborate worship of the antebellum past because her role within that structure was liminal; since her father’s family was from the North she could not fully participate in the southern mythmaking which had become de rigueur regarding the Civil War. The maternal side of the family was, for its part, without war heroes on the Confederate side, although otherwise the pedigree was good; her grandfather had been a non-combatant and took a stand against slavery, a role she could not easily reconcile to orthodox southern attitudes in her self- representation to other southerners. The distance that her suspect family background in the Civil War afforded provides Scott with a vantage to speculate about Tennessee’s status in the antebellum tradition as a whole; Scott emphasizes that the pioneer history in which her family participated could not logically be far removed from the genteel veneer put on concurrently with the wealth that was generated through the tobacco and locomotive industries. A third important factor was that this same wealth declined a few years after Evelyn was born, forcing the family to vacate their mansion in Clarksville, finally to settle in New Orleans. The compromises the family had to make in straitened circumstances reduced the romance of the role Scott inherited significantly. For the role of social critic she was clearly well prepared through personal and family circumstance.

Scott focuses on her concern that the South was not fertile for artists, perhaps even directly hostile to artistic endeavor. Scott maintains that for her family and for most Tennesseeans pioneer activity was too close in time to the Civil War to allow for culture to develop independently from the pursuit of culture generated from motives antagonistic to the production and appreciation of art, such as investment and the appearance of prestige. Apart from her theory, the environment did, in fact, produce great artists, perhaps because of the very tensions and paradoxes Scott identifies, but few artists were established which she could look to for inspiration at the time of her childhood. In a candid moment early in Background in Tennessee she reveals a spiritual kinship with another American author who created a successful and authentic artistic self in the face of an adversarial cultural matrix: Mark Twain. As a young girl wintering in St. Louis, she caught a glimpse of Twain as he entered the Saint Louis Club to join a gathering in his honor across the street from the boarding house where her family was staying at the time. He appeared through the window “as I had expected him to be,” dressed in white with his “satiric, kindly, hawklike face in its rampant aureole of snow-white hair” (56). She recognized later that he was “the only man who might have explained to me what I really inherited in being American! What it was that had come to me through the lives lived by my grandparents in the yet cruder days of early Tennessee! The one vital American who had preserved art, in his own person, in the environment least friendly to the artist” (57). She sought in him a symbol of an artist who managed to exist in spite of social paradoxes and who actually drew from the cultural contradictions of the South to strengthen his fiction.

Scott reveals that the racial matrix of the South contributed to a great extent to her awakening as an artist because it was a major source of social paradox. In chapter six she recalls that recently she returned through Kansas toward the east by train and saw crowds of blacks who were descended from Tennessee and Kentucky migrators after the Civil War. This sight leads her to speculate on her experience as a white in a society where peonage has supplanted slavery. She characterizes the black in the drama of American racial interaction as, in an aesthetic sense, a “sympathetic and engaging victim,” though she allows that “such aesthetic compensation may not be a substitute for economic advantage . . .” (138). She contrasts the black’s position to the fate of the white who has played his role: “[The Black] at least has escaped the traumas which make the distorted psychology of the Southern white lyncher” (138-39). The violence that existed without social interpretation presented a severe and blatant paradox for her childhood sensibility. One of the major images in Background in Tennessee is a memory of three cedars in a graveyard which her father singles out to her as the cite of a triple lynching. This image is introduced in chapter six and then is recalled to close the book. What is remarkable about these trees (aside from the Biblical parallel) is that they are no different in appearance from other trees, in other states and even other regions– except for three sinister knotholes in the trunks near the roots (145). Her dilemma became how to reconcile those she loved best and trusted and the activity of lynching, in which the whole community was implicated. The community participates in mob violence yet extends kindness to little girls such as her (144-5). In all of the anecdotes surrounding her early impressions of blacks she is faced with the ultimate ambiguity between good and evil. She is left “Wondering, wondering, what was to be done, and why even the very nice people I knew seemed to care so little!” (166). These feelings and reflections engendered a permanent unease which fostered her deep skepticism about the South. Her trust in goodness was shattered when she recognized the duplicity at the foundation of her culture.

Chapter seven begins and ends with the injunction: “Everything had to go!” meaning that Scott jettisoned her prejudices, to the degree that she could, and conducted, to the extent that she could, a “reassessment of cultural values” (210) as a teenage girl. This allowed her to develop a method of seeing beyond the beliefs of southerners to the structure of the system of belief which she fundamentally distrusted. In so doing, she turns defeat into a spiritual victory. She expresses it: ” . . .my faith in Tennessee–which was the world–suffered the first of a series of shocks which, cumulatively, would have caused rifts and cracks in the foundations of Rome” (167). The actual relations of blacks and whites were, as she witnessed them, fundamentally different from their public representations. Indeed, her characteristic habit as an observer of racial injustice was to recognize a fundamental humanity where the tactic of the culture was to attempt to occlude common ground between the races. This tendency resulted in contradictions that she could not dovetail and that directly implicated her. In fact, she states that such conflicts informed her aesthetically: the struggles of the South provided her with a sense of tragedy, even though intellectually she rejected the received representations of its history. She explains this contribution in the following way: “I think that what had happened to the south filled me, in my impressionable childhood, with a precocious half awareness of men’s perishable ambitions” (122).

Strangely enough, blows to her vanity severed her last thread of loyalty to the tradition of the southern belle. As a young child she was a vision of porcelain blonde beauty (a stunning picture of her at age seven can be found as the frontispiece of Background in Tennessee), until a bout of near-fatal malaria caused her to break out in boils. Her mother cut Scott’s hair short and as compensation during a vacation she dressed Evelyn in a particularly frilly outfit with a wide sash, in an effort to try to recoup some of the child’s lost self confidence in her appearance. Approaching the creek to play with other children she was dared by a boy to “show myself worthy of his contemptuous notice by crossing the creek after him” on slippery stepping stones (173). The irony of her situation is made clear as Scott reminds us how pathetically inept for this activity her slippers are; nevertheless she attempts it and falls in halfway across the creek. In the aftermath of her plunge she runs to the woods, describing the frippery of her dress as transformed into a “sort of suppurating, blistering epidermis” by the water, an irrefutable symbol of her shame and anger at not having a fair chance to succeed when matched in physical endeavors with a boy (175). This experience, coupled with a love disappointment in her teens which cured her idealization of romance, solidified her resolve against melding placidly with the expectations of society regarding her proper sphere. Prescribed female roles comprise perhaps the major target of Scott’s rebellion and she supplies the most vivid aesthetic memories regarding this subject.

Scott’s development of her aesthetic sense is as important to Background in Tennessee as her outrage at social injustice because it explains a powerful mediating force in her social criticism. After her position as a rebel was established, one must look to the aesthetic sensibility as the cause of her development as an artist and not as an activist. An unusual example of this type of formative experience occurs when she sees a flag at half-mast for the first time. It was lowered at the schoolhouse after President McKinley’s death. She characterized the sight as a transforming revelation, not especially because of the president’s death but because the flag, a symbol she had heretofore known as a “dance of unquenchable colour and gaiety in the sky itself” had been transformed into a sagging symbol of vacancy. She specifies: “What stunned me was the abrupt realization that there was a language of things . . .” (195). In this event she isolates her first understanding of the reach of symbolism.

Significant aesthetic episodes occurred in cave explorations she undertook with childhood friends. At Dunbar Cave, near Clarksville, Scott and her friends find themselves separated from adults, deep within the cave that they discover has a river running in it. Despite the darkness, the group is impelled to go further until they are blind and lose balance, slipping down a decline “to we knew not what end” (204). They slid to a place “more treacherous than any bottom of a pit” because in a pit “you can, if you will, discover what encloses you–your confinement has investigable limits!” (204-05). As they climb out of the unknown slowly, she says that even as children they felt “the evil receptivity of the abyss” next to them, which is how Scott frequently characterizes death-consciousness–as an undramatic and sinisterly peaceful relinquishing of life force rather than a violent battle. Escape from the cave is described as a significant rebirth out of the womb of death. The second cave experience occurred at Porter’s Bluff, where she and friends explored a cave where they were startled to hear human voices. Approaching stealthily, she witnessed “five or six Negro men squatted in a circle, shooting craps,” the dice becoming in her mind a symbol for Chance itself. The two experiences combined to allegorize an unconscious desire impelling her toward the contemplation of death. “It was not until years later I realized we had been where, whether or no, we must go again” (207).

A reader of Scott is drawn to the importance and specificity of the themes of both imprisonment and escape in her writing, the cave experiences being one notable example. Escape is never merely leaving reality behind; in her case it is a fresh and more authentic apprehension of reality. With Scott, there is always a return and a sense of deep responsibility. Background in Tennessee itself represents a return from the experiences represented in her first autobiography, Escapade. Drawing on the theme of imprisonment, the final chapter of Background in Tennessee closes with a remarkable set of paired images. On a trip through the midwest Scott’s family stopped to tour a state penitentiary. Scott, as a young girl, recognizes the individual human qualities of the prisoners before their visit ended, and it is her hand the warden guides to throw the lever that locks the men in their cells. This is profoundly troubling to Evelyn because once again she is confronted without clear answers. Her grandfather then takes her hand and guides her in waving goodbye to the prisoners who have gathered at the windows when it seemed as if all the prisoners crowded the windows and waved with “kind jocularity.” She describes it as, “for all the world, like the suddenly spontaneous proclamation of good will on earth! Like the enactment of a beatitude!” (299). Leaving the area later she sees a convent for the first time, and her mother explains that the nuns are not prisoners, but are tremendously good, with the exception of those who have joined to “escape some disastrous love affair” (301). This exception is no minor one for the young girl. Both nuns and convicts, separated by gender and intent, have isolation and humanity in common and therefore their similarities and differences raised ethical questions for a young sensibility.

In characterizing her aesthetic, romantic sensibility in the center of Background in Tennessee, Scott explains that the conflicts she experienced with the South were characterized by anxiety and exuberance. She stated that in a quest to apprehend the beautiful, “we begin to cling to whatever offers hope of that permanence we ourselves continually threaten by the overintensity with which we welcome or abhor the passing hour; and, in aesthetics, seek feverishly for the classical antidote–the simulacrum of what may last! . . . It is perhaps, by this time, almost beyond the point to add I never found it in Clarksville or in Tennessee” (196). At the close of Background in Tennessee, however, one wonders if Scott didn’t reassess her position on even this point. She closes with what amounts to a prayer for peace- -not for a reconciliation or a refabrication of the paradoxes of her southern past, but rather for a peace that will allow her to “bless the failures which conclude our efforts–raptures of ending” (302). This is the most complete return. She shows, through the act of writing about her apprehension of her past, that she may reconstitute it. The conflicts that fueled a novelist, she indicates, can be transcended in this ultimate act of aesthetic will.

Works Consulted

Bach, Peggy. “Evelyn Scott: 1920-1988.” Bulletin of Bibliography 46.2 (1989): 76-91.

Callard, D. A. “Pretty Good for a Woman”: The Enigmas of Evelyn Scott. New York: Norton, 1985.

Scott, Evelyn. Escapade. New York: Seltzer, 1923.

———-. The Narrow House. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1921.

———-. Background in Tennessee. New York: McBride, 1937; rpt. Knoxville: U of Tennessee Press, 1980.

Welker, Robert L. “Evelyn Scott: A Literary Biography.” Diss. Vanderbilt U, 1958.