Elsie Dunn, better known as Evelyn Scott, is a prime example of a lost Modernist. A simple Google search renders few websites holding biographical information about her, and not much else. Synopses of her work are scant, as well. While the Evelyn Scott Society exists, her name is essentially unmentioned among many critics and readers. However, H.L. Mencken is credited with bringing Scott’s name to the forefronts of interwar literature.
A trilogy of Scott’s work caught Mencken’s attention: The Narrow House, Narcissus, and The Golden Door. Today, these novels are incredibly difficult to come by. (Copies of The Golden Door aren’t for sale anywhere online, but it can be read on Google Books.) Before her time as a writer, Scott’s life was hectic, according to a biographical write-up of her on the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center’s website:
[Scott and Frederick Creighton Wellman] left secretly in December 1913 and by a circuitous route arrived at their destination in February 1914. It was at the beginning of this trip that both Elsie and Wellman changed their names to Scott to protect their identity, with Elsie becaming Evelyn Scott and Wellman changing his to Cyril Kay Scott. She had become pregnant with her only child, Creighton Scott, before they landed. Evelyn later wrote about their poverty and hardships in Brazil in her autobiography, Escapade, published in 1923. They remained in Brazil for six years.
Though Scott eventually remarried, she is most-known for her novel The Wave (1929), written 4 years after her relationship with John Metcalf began. The Wave was praised in its time, and was brought to the attention of readers again in 1986. In that year, D.A. Ballard wrote Pretty Good for a Woman: the Enigmas of Evelyn Scott. Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times reviewed this work, which holds a “reissuing” of The Waves. G. Jennifer Wilson discusses, in the Los Angeles Times, the multitude of Scott’s literary genius:
In its genre, “The Wave” is certainly a rare and strange book. Civil War novels written during the Southern Renaissance of the 1930s and ‘40s have a predictable formula: The private conflicts and tragedies of a decaying family become a microcosm for the public conflicts of a decadent society; final personal confrontation is imaged in the general apocalypse. This may be said as much of popular romance, such as “Gone With the Wind,” as of subtle and remarkable works like Faulkner’s “Absalom! Absalom!” and Allen Tate’s “The Fathers.” “The Wave,” however, in a manner that by now should be anticipated, refuses to conform. Here there is no central family to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, indeed no central character at all. Instead, for 625 pages, we are witness to a series of brief vignettes, all promising a short story in themselves. Everything is here, from the confusion of a Tennessee hill farmer to the disillusionment of a prostitute in New Orleans. This is the literature of democracy. All classes, races and sexes have their say; all points of view are equal and considered. Historical figures speak their piece just as fictional ones do, and the petty are co-equal with the great. Wittingly or not, the novel is an appeal to social science, and has its intellectual fascination.
Both reviews mention the source for the title of Ballard’s book, which originated from something Faulkner said about Scott. Margo Jefferson, for the New York Times, said that “a very successful Faulkner was asked whether there were any good female writers. ‘Well,’ he answered, ‘Evelyn Scott was pretty good, for a woman.’” While Faulkner was well-known at the time of answering this question, Scott was the writer that was popular first. Both authors shared the same publisher, Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith.
Cape and Smith’s company implored Scott to write an essay on Faulkner’s latest novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929), to help bolster sales of this book. A line from the preface of Scott’s essay, On William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” corroborates this; it’s written that “‘The Sound and the Fury’ should place William Faulkner in company with Evelyn Scott.”
Scott’s essay opens a new perspective to Faulkner’s canonical work, as her writing reveals a detailed response to one of the most defining books of the Modernist period. She lauds the tragedy of the novel, noting that Faulkner’s “pessimism as to fact, and his acceptance of all the morally inimical possibilities of human nature, is unwavering. The result is, nonetheless, the reassertion of humanity in defeat that is, in the subjective sense, a triumph.”
Later in her essay, she reveals that she finds the Quentin section inferior to the Benjy section. She, then, speaks of Dilsey, the only character to have witnessed the rise and fall of the Compson’s, as she proclaims in the last section of the novel that she “‘seed de beginnin, en now I sees de ending.'” Speaking to the portrayal of Dilsey in the fourth and final section of the novel, Scott brilliantly and accurately writes that “Dilsey isn’t searching for a soul. She is the soul. She is the conscious human accepting the limitations of herself, the iron boundaries of circumstance, and still, to the best of her ability, achieving a holy compromise for aspiration.”