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