3. The story begins

Evelyn Scott was born Elsie Dunn (her change of name is explained later) on 17th January 1893 in Clarksville, Tennessee to Maude Thomas, from an established Southern family, and Seely Dunn, a Yankee railwayman.  Her earliest years were spent in the home of her mother’s Gracey cousins:  the photo shows it at its height in the 1870s.

In 1956, she prepared a long document, addressed to her son, stipulating that it be preserved with her will and handed to him at her death.  It is presented here as it summarises, in Evelyn’s own words, the years which precede the earliest of the letters which have been preserved.

* * * * *

“I was born Elsie Dunn and so baptised at Trinity Episcopal Church, Clarksville, Tennessee, where the parish registry contains both the record of my baptism when an infant, and of the marriage of my father and mother, Maud Thomas and Seely Dunn, then of Clarksville.  The date of my birth was Jan 17th, 1893.  The date of the marriage of my parents was Feb 4th, 1892.  My father was then twenty-one and was division superintendent of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, his headquarters Clarksville.  He was written up at the time in the Railway Age as the youngest division superintendent of any railroad in the world.

” When I was 3 years old, my father was promoted and became division superintendent of the L and NRR at Russellville, Kentucky.  I lived in Russellville with my parents until I was nearly 7.  We then moved to Evansville, Indiana, where I first attended School, a public school, and my father there, also, was Division Superintendent of the L and N, the job larger than his two previous ones, as Evansville was the office for a larger division. Not long after McKinley’s assassination, my father resigned in high standing from his position with the L and N, and we moved to St Louis, Missouri, where my mother and I resided while he went to Oklahoma and supervised the building of a new railroad, the Blackwell, Enid and Southwestern, of which, on its completion, he became Vice-President for the short time before it was sold, as had been originally hoped, to the Frisco System.

“He had become interested in railway building and promotion, and from Saint Louis, where we were between three and four years, and where I attended the Marquette Public School, earlier the home of my grandparents, Mr and Mrs Oliver Milo Dunn; my grandfather having been Superintendent of the L and N R R in my father’s earlier days.  My father, while in Memphis in this period, was interested, with several men of greater wealth than he himself had amassed, in building a railroad to be a link between Memphis and Pensacola.  I cannot remember whether it was to be called the Memphis, Pensacola and Gulf, or whether it was to rival that road, which may have already been built.  A Colonel Pond was one of the promoters and my father and he quarrelled and the promotion scheme fell through; though my father, a few years later, took up a segment of the same general idea in connection with the promotion of a small road between New Orleans and Grand Isle, an island in the Gulf once famous as a summer resort.

“I, with my parents, were in Memphis more than a year, and I went to the Public School there, too, and completed the eighth grade.  The school was near a Miss Sally Gentry’s where we boarded most of the time, but we were, also, briefly, boarding with a Mrs King.  I did not like Memphis and I cannot remember even the name of the street in which we lived.

“From Memphis, I moved with my parents to New Orleans, then back to Memphis for a short period, and back to New Orleans, again.  My father, I should add, was of Yankee birth, born in Toledo, Ohio, but his parents had come South for the L and N R R when my father was a child, and had lived successively in Pulaski, Tennessee, Mobile, Alabama, Memphis; my father having attended, in Mobile, the Mobile Military Academy.

“My grandfather Dunn—Oliver Milo Dunn—was, when we first moved to New Orleans, General Superintendent of the Southern Lines of the Illinois Central Railway; a position his for many, many years—about thirty-five years, as I remember it.  He was born in Terre Haut, Indiana; his mother was English.  Elizabeth Troubridge was her name.  The Dunns had come to the USA somewhat earlier, and were from Manchester—I now speak of my great-grandparents on the Dunn side.  My grandmother, on the paternal side, had been Harriet Seely, commonly called Hattie.  She was born near New York City, in New Jersey.  I think the place may be the one still known as Seely’s Mills, a hamlet.  My grandmother Hattie Seely Dunn was of older American stock.  Her mother was Harriet Marcy before her marriage, and when, in Evansville, my father belonged to the Sons of the American Revolution, the near kinship of the Marcy of the various forts, who had been minister to Spain for the USA and a Cabinet Minister under President Buchanan, was often referred to.  My grandmother’s family on the Seely side was one well-known in New York and Massachusetts, many of the Seelys wealthy in the era of my childhood.  However, I cannot remember, and have always lacked the money to have the family-tree re-traced, whether the Hutchinson killed at Bunker Hill from whom she was directly descended was a Marcy or a Seely.  I do recollect, nonetheless, that he was a near relative—nephew?  Younger brother?  Of the last British Governor of Massachusetts.

“I lived in New Orleans with my parents continuously, with the exception of the few months of return to Memphis, from the time I was 12 years old until I lacked three weeks of 21.  In New Orleans, my father held several positions connected with railroads and railroad building.  He was, for a time, General Manager of the International Car Company; founded by a millionaire and his son, to manufacture railway cars.  Doubtless several had invested in it, and I am sure my grandfather must have, though perhaps to a limited extent.  It did well at the outset, and my father added to its possibilities by inventing and patenting a new sort of self-closing freight-car door.  But my father fell out with the chief investor’s son, whom he thought too inexperienced to be as autocratic as he was as either President or Vice-President—he was much younger than my father—and the Car Company, after a couple of years, failed.

“My father, while my mother and I stayed in New Orleans, also went to Spanish Honduras to supervise the building of the railroad from Porto Bello into the interior.  I think this was actually after he had been State Head of the Interstate Commerce Commission his office in New Orleans.  The Honduras road was a success, like the Blackwell, Enid and Southwestern.

“It was when my father was living temporarily at Porto Bello that Dr Fredrick Creighton Wellman, then the Dean of the College of Tropical Diseases and Preventative Medicine of Tulane University—the first college of Preventative Medicine in the USA—went, during a vacation to Honduras to diagnose a plant disease that had attacked banana, and met my father.  My grandfather Dunn, at that time, was a Director of the United Fruit Company, and as it shipped many bananas, this led to the introduction.  My father admired him, and had reason to.

“In New Orleans, in my adolescence, my grandfather Dunn was reckoned a millionaire.  He had made his own way, having begun, like a maternal great-uncle, as a printer’s devil on a country newspaper, and from that progressed to railway telegrapher, I think, though as my father was a train-despatcher at Paris, Tennessee, as his first job, I may be inexact about my grand-father’s railway beginnings.  My father attended Tulane University, but he and his mother had never gotten on well, and he left the University before his graduation because he preferred to be entirely on his own, and in New Orleans this was not possible, as my grandfather disapproved of his impatience with my grandmother; who was, indeed, a “difficult” woman.

“In New Orleans I attended Newcomb Preparatory School, Newcomb Art School, and Newcomb College.  I was the youngest student ever to matriculate at the college, having then been fifteen.  My father did his best to try to persuade me to be inducted into the formal society of the day, but I developed very early, the typical society misses bored me and aroused a contempt that may have been in part defensive.  I could not take everything lightly, as they seemed to.  My parents were an ill-matched pair, and I had become aware of their incompatibility when I was seven years old.  They did not admit it to me, but it was obvious.  My grandfather belonged to the Pickwick Club, and my father to the Louisiana Club.  I was sometimes, in my teens, taken to Mardi Gras balls at the French Opera House, but my mother had entirely retreated from that social life among the wealthy and would-be wealthy and I soon hated what I saw.  I had been writing at intervals since I was 7 and was the winner of a prize given by Little Folks’ Magazine for a story entitled “Helen’s Wonderful Dream”. In New Orleans, after one unhappy infatuation in Clarksville on visits during my fifteenth and sixteenth years, I put aside even boys for books, paintings, Saturdays and Sundays at the French Opera House, Philharmonic Concerts and every concert I could hear

“I write this as if in the third person because I am trying to document a few facts, but the first creeps in, and probably doesn’t matter.  Anyhow I am attempting factual explicitness intended as the record of why myself, when Elsie Dunn, eloped with Fredrick Creighton Wellman.  I did not attempt this in Escapade [her fictionalised account of the years in Brazil and the birth of her only son].

“I was restless in an unhappy household.  My father, when compelled to realize it, tended, I think, to blame my mother altogether.  I was the Secretary of the Woman Suffrage Party, already, at seventeen.  I had written a number of immature stories, had sold two—under the pseudonym Hiram Hagenbeck, the name given by my father to my fox-terrier, and one had appeared—or maybe two—in the New Orleans Picayune.  I had also sold a story about Creoles to the John TrotwoodMoore Magazine but before its publication the magazine failed.  My father was bewildered by my views, which then included some on philosophy, and an inclination to become a socialist stemming from reading Shaw and seeing Shaw first played, and a general conviction that the world’s ways were wrong—as of course they often are and always will be.

“My parents were, I thought, wretched; and my grandfather Dunn, who had always been a voluntary martyr to an adored and compassionated wife, was, also, I could see, not happy, after having voluntarily resigned his position with the Illinois Central in consequence of a quarrel between my grandmother and Mrs Stuyvesant Fish, during one of Mrs Fish’s visits to New Orleans.  My grandmother could be outrageously arrogant, and she mistook something Mrs Fish said as insulting.  And at this point, my grandfather, after some years of entirely amiable relations with the Fishes, took my grandmother’s “side” and decided to retire.

“My father, thinking me about to be victimized by my grandfather’s devotion to his mother—my grandmother had essayed to have me at her beck and call—offered to allow me to attend the Sergeant Dramatic Academy in New York; and I was on the verge of doing so—as I had stopped college in disgust at the limitations of the Victorian view of literature—when my father invited Dr Fredrick Creighton Wellman and his second wife to dinner.”

* * * * *

Next week, Evelyn’s own account of that first meeting, and what it led to.

Save

1. Prologue

gracey-mansion-1.jpg

I found the fuzzy photo in a drawer. It was a house that could have come out of Gone With the Wind: classical proportions, a white columned portico rising the height of the house, large trees framing the whole. “That”, my father said, “is the Gracey mansion, the house in Tennessee where your grandmother grew up”.  I was perhaps seven or eight years old. and transfixed by the idea of a grandmother floating around in hoop skirts sipping mint juleps.

Later, when I was pestering my parents for more independence, my father gave me the talk that most parents must give their children at around that time.  There were the usual cautions about road safety and not taking sweets from strangers, and eventually he came to personal safety and what to do if I were lost or felt threatened by anyone.  “Don’t go to a policeman”, he said, “find a nice lady with white hair and tell her where you live and ask her to take you home”.  It was many years before I understood my father’s reasons for this advice.

I remember, too, the distinctive typed envelopes that arrived, sometimes several times a week.  My mother would go tense, my father would storm out of the room, and the envelopes would be put to one side.  “Why don’t you ever open them?”  I would ask.  “Who are they from?”  My mother would murmur something indistinguishable and change the subject.  I eventually realised they were from my “Southern” grandmother.

Other children I knew had grandparents who were a part of their lives; I had very little contact with mine.  I knew my grandfathers were still alive:  we had visited one in North Carolina and the other in upstate New York.  I wrote regular childish letters to my maternal grandmother in far-away New Mexico.  But my father refused to talk about his mother.  He did, however, tell us some things that were part of his own story:  that his mother had eloped to Brazil with my grandfather who was 20 years her senior and married with four grown children; that to avoid scandal they had changed their names from Elsie Dunn and Frederick Wellman to Evelyn Scott and Cyril Kay Scott; that my father was born in Brazil where they lived until returning to the United States when he was five; that after their return his parents had had a number of affairs and that he had lived sometimes with one, sometimes the other; that he had spent much of his childhood in Bermuda, the south of France and North Africa; that in his teens, after his parents parted, he spent most of his time with his father in Santa Fe and Denver; that she had later married a British writer named Jack Metcalfe, of whom my father was quite fond..  But nothing specifically about his mother.

I also knew that my grandmother had published a number of books which had, at the time, attracted both controversy and admiration.  Her “autobiographical” novel, Escapade, was a barely-fictionalised account of the years in Brazil when my father was born.  But I had not read anything she had written, anything that would tell me who she was..

I needed to find out more.

The posts that follow chronicle my voyage to discover my grandmother. They also tell her own account of her life, in her own words.

The Story in Brief

ES age 14Evelyn Scott was a ground-breaking American author of the 1920s and 30s whose novels sparked controversy and elicited admiration in equal measure.  By the time her first novel was published in 1921 when she was 27, she had published 12 poems in the so-called “little magazines”, a volume of poetry, eight pieces of criticism, again in the little magazines, and had a play performed.  In the following 15 years she published a further 12 novels and an autobiography, as well as three “juveniles”;  her last published novel appeared in 1941.  Throughout this period and until 1951, she was also publishing numerous poems and critical articles and the occasional short story.  She worked on two further novels into the late 1950s, but they were never published.

Scott’s writing is described as modernist and she is considered one of America’s pioneer feminist writers. Her novels sold relatively well at the time of publication, but also attracted a certain hostility because of their themes of  female sexuality and ideas that would now be called feminist.  Biographers have summarised her life by describing Scott as  a “gifted and original poet, novelist and critic, an important though under-rated figure in American literature, who sadly declined into mental illness in her latter years and died in poverty”.

I culled this information from a number of sources:  Google, biographies and the very sparse details my father shared with me.  It is, however, little more than a skeleton much in need of fleshing out.  The woman who seemed to haunt my family is hard to discern from  these details.

I had no idea at the time where this search would lead me, nor what I would discover.

 

Discovering my grandmother

Years passed. . . .

One day in 1985, my husband pointed out a book review in The Sunday Times.  It was for a volume entitled Pretty Good For A Woman, by a journalist and second-hand book dealer from Yorkshire named David Arthur Callard, and the dust-jacket bore a photo of my grandmother aged about 25.  It was the first photo I had ever seen of her.

I bought the book and devoured it,  By this time my father was 20 years dead and I was estranged from my mother, who was in any case showing the first signs of the dementia which eventually killed her.  Callard’s book contained the same photo of the Gracey mansion I had seen all those years years ago. He told the story of a gifted young woman, a writer whose work was widely acclaimed, who had numerous lovers and loyal friends, who was frustrated by her inability to find the son and grandchildren whom she so wanted to see, and who died in obscure poverty in a shabby residential hotel in New York’s upper West Side.  I was beginning to understand some of the events of my childhood.

More years passed . . .

I picked Callard’s book up again, and realised that there was no real reason not to go to Clarksville to see what I could learn there.  I contacted the local museum to say I was thinking of coming to see my grandmother’s birthplace, and did they have any information about the Gracey mansion?  They did and I would be very welcome.

I flew into Newark.  I knew from Callard’s book that Evelyn was buried in a cemetery very near the airport, and as soon as I had collected my bags and hire car I headed there.  The cemetery office was very helpful.  “Just follow this man on the little tractor.  He will show you where the grave is.”  The tractor wound round to the far side of the cemetery, and the man unhooked a shovel from the back.  For a horrified moment I wondered if he was going to dig Evelyn up, but he used the shovel to clear grass away from the little metal plaque identifying the plot.  Evelyn was buried in an unmarked grave.

The museum at Clarksville made me very welcome and rolled out the red carpet.  I was given access to all the information they had on Evelyn Scott, I met people who had studied her life and her work, I was taken to see the Evelyn Scott “sights”.  For me, the saddest of these was the site of the Gracey mansion:  long since torn down as derelict, it had been replaced by two very shabby-looking apartment blocks.  The maple trees that had graced the front of the house were still there, however, and I picked up some maple wings to bring home and propagate.  They never sprouted.

While in Clarksville I was told that a large quantity of Evelyn’s personal papers, including letters, were in the library of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where they had been deposited by Robert Welker, a former resident of Clarksville who had written his PhD on Evelyn’s work.  It was suggested that I would find it interesting to visit Welker and hear his account of both his friendship with Evelyn and how he came to have so many of her papers, and I was soon on the Interstate heading for his home in Alabama.  Welker, the personification of a Southern gentleman, made me welcome, gave me lunch and told me about meeting Evelyn, about his friendship with her and about her last days.  And about how he came to have her papers. It was clear he had been devoted to her as a writer and as a friend, and she to him.

After that, I really could not leave Tennessee without looking at these papers, and two days later I was in the library of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, surrounded by piles of boxes and feeling more than a little overwhelmed.  I had no real idea what I was looking for, so decided to limit my perusal of the letters to those which mentioned any member of my immediate family by name.  I only had a few days before heading back to the UK, and I raced through these boxes, stopping from time to time to read a letter that caught my eye.  There was one  “a-ha” moment after another as I understood for the first time the reasons for so many events of my childhood.

It was a very emotional experience.  The collection was mainly carbon copies of letters written during the 1940s and 50s which were unlike any letters I had ever seen before.  By far their most striking feature was their appearance.  Her typing was erratic (the result of an over-used and worn-out typewriter) and she made maximum use of the paper, filling each sheet to the right edge and the very bottom, then turning it 90 degrees and typing or writing across the wide left-hand margin.  In addition, many letters contained insertions or annotations in her spidery angular handwriting, the anger and agitation clear in a visual frenzy.  I could feel the emotional energy she transferred to the page.

These annotations often recorded the fact that a letter had not been answered.  She beseeched my parents to let her know how they and her grandchildren were.  She wrote lengthy age-inappropriate letters to me and my two brothers (we were all under six), urging us to urge our parents to write to her.  Needless to say, we never saw these.  Letters to friends begging them to call on us and report on her family were went unanswered.  Reading these, I imagined a grieving grandmother craving contact with her grandchildren:  as a new grandmother myself, I could share her distress at not seeing them.

I fed piles of dollar bills into the photocopier as I copied what I thought interesting and relevant to bring home to study at leisure.

Back home I studied my harvest and began to understand the woman who was my grandmother.  I felt, in turn and in varying degrees, sympathy, sadness, anger, irritation and disbelief.  My grandmother was clearly unhappy, frustrated because no one would answer her letters, agitated, obsessive, paranoid.  I began to understand, too, why the arrival of a letter from her would create the response it did in my parents.

This was the first time, ever, that I had been so close to information about my grandmother. Callard’s biography was a portrait of a strong-willed, gifted woman and an account of an unconventional life, but I hadn’t been able relate to it.  During my childhood my parents had rarely spoken of her.  What they did communicate was an almost subliminal sense that my grandmother was a force for evil.  These letters revealed a complex and desperately unhappy woman who was at a loss to know how to connect with her son and her grandchildren.

Because of family and personal pressures, I did nothing more with these letters for several years, but during that time I had at the back of my mind a remark that had been made on my last day in Knoxville:  “You know, we have had a number of people here, looking at her papers and writing about her literary development.  But nobody has done anything with her family story.  It’s a fascinating one, and you are the ideal person to tell it.  You should consider doing it.”

Then, in the summer of 2007, my mother died.  I had been estranged from her for some years and I went to her home in Nova Scotia with very mixed and intense emotions.  As I went through her papers, I discovered a large collection relating to Evelyn.  There were numerous letters from her to my parents (some unopened!) and a lengthy document Evelyn wrote in 1951 explaining their desperate financial straits in London which I read with horrid fascination.  There was also a collection of letters from my father, written a few years before he died in 1965, begging, begging former friends for help in finding employment as he was destitute and unable to get any work, even as the local  milkman.  It was this last collection which was completely new to me, and it shocked me.  It was clear from her earlier letters that Evelyn’s constant harassing of her son’s employers for information about his whereabouts had affected his reputation to the extent that he had become unemployable.  My father’s letters were the catalyst to my decision to collect and edit her letters.  I was motivated at first, I admit, by a filial impulse to revenge.  Revenge is not a pretty emotion, nor a constructive one, but it was the spur I needed to start this project.  As I worked I began to rise above the “family-ness” of their content and to become absorbed in the documentation of the disintegration of a once-gifted mind.

I knew that I was missing letters from the first half of her life, the years spent in Bermuda and France and North Africa.  The story would not be complete without them, and so I spent a month at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin, working my way through collections of her papers and those of her husband Jack Metcalfe and of Cyril, my grandfather.  The next year I returned to Knoxville and spent a fortnight in the basement of the university library, photocopying at break-neck speed the large number of  letters I had skimmed on my earlier visit.  The following year I did the same at Smith College in Massachusetts and at Yale University.  Scholars who were interested in Evelyn’s work forwarded more letters to me, and my collection grew and became more comprehensive.

The early letters could not have been more different from those I had first seen.  During those years she and Cyril had had very little money.  Their poverty led them to seek cheap rooms in warm climes where they would not have heating bills, and they ended up in a number of small towns in the south of France and north Africa.  Evelyn wrote numerous lengthy letters to her friends back home, describing these places in astonishingly beautiful language.  The letters were lyrical and full of detail.  Two words could evoke a landscape in vivid colour.  She was hugely intolerant of of the people amongst whom they found themselves, but that did not prevent her from describing them in  vivid, if negative, terms.

These letters were warm and affectionate and full of concern for her friends and their circumstances.  She valued artistic integrity above all else, so it was perhaps not surprising that her closest friends were writers.  Nor was it surprising that they, like her, struggled to find publishers and earn a living from their work.  Letters were filled with commiseration, with practical advice, with serious critiques of work in progress.  Few of the letters from these friends have survived, but it is clear from hers to them that these friendships were affectionate and deep, so much so that they survived her gradual deterioration into obsessiveness and paranoia.

None of this matched the impression of her conveyed by my parents.  And I would have learned none of this but for the chance spotting of a review in The Sunday Times.

I knew what I had to do.

 

 

 

Save

Save