Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Another forgotten writer: Evelyn Scott

Forgotten or neglected writers abound. In March, I blogged about Olive Moore, who it seems was so little known she wasn't even forgotten. And not too long ago, at ABC of Reading, I learned of Evelyn Scott. Scott, Thomas McGonigle tells us in another post, was published in The Little Review, alongside a slew of still-famous names: Eliot, Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, Hart Crane, Djuana Barnes, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens. She introduced Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and, McGonigle says, "received for her troubles his back-handed compliment, as being pretty good for a woman". I sense a glimmer of recognition at this remark; I must have read previously of Faulkner saying such a thing, though I obviously never looked into it.

Well, I'm interested. Most of Scott's books appear to be out-of-print. I check the library, and it has several, ranging from 1923 to 1941; the library provides no further information online. I somewhat arbitrarily put a hold on the earliest, Escapade (which, it turns out, is itself not out-of-print, available in a University of Virginia Press edition), which I subsequently check out. The volume is old, though clearly not a first edition. It's not covered in any kind of protective sleeve; there are signs of mildew. For all that, the book is in decent condition; it was obviously well made. It was last checked out in 1991. After beginning the book on my commute in yesterday, I'm more than ever curious how such a writer can fall through the cracks, so I look Scott up on Wikipedia: virtually nothing, though I do learn that she was born in 1893 and died in 1963, and links are provided to a bibliography and a short biographical sketch ("Tennessee's Prodigal Daughter: Evelyn Scott" by Caroline Maun), the latter being part of a modest website devoted to celebrating Scott and her work. I skim the bibliography, but I don't find Escapade. I read the opening of the biographical sketch (where I learn that "Evelyn Scott" was a pseudonym for Elsie Dunn), and midway through the first paragraph I read of "Scott's first autobiography, Escapade (1923)", and I go back to the bibliography and sure enough, there it is, listed not under "Novels" but "Autobiography". If I hadn't looked up this information, I'm sure I would have read the entire book without having any inkling it was autobiography.

Anyway, I'm now more than halfway through Escapade, and friends, it's good. It was immediately evident that I was in the presence of a writer. (Says the description at the website: "It explores female subjectivity and breaks new ground in literary modernism." Whatever that means.)

Interestingly, there are other similarities with Olive Moore's Spleen, beyond simply being forgotten. Here, the narrator has escaped the States with her married lover; it's a major scandal back home; she is twenty, pregnant. They are in Brazil. She resents the life she left that looks down on her actions; she is confident, assured, modern. Independent-minded. She writes about the locals, with sympathy, if not always with warmth, and about her opinion on the scandal and her ideas about life and existence ("Death is like the unknown lover to whom the child, in infancy, is already dedicated.")--there are many references to being; remember, the book was published in 1923. And she writes about her pregnancy and about the birth itself and about being a mother. It strikes me that, with Moore's novel, we have perhaps the earliest literary writing about pregnancy (though I strain to come up with any more at all; for one, there's Carole Maso's diary about pregnancy and depression, A Room Full of Roses; no doubt in my ignorance I am missing many). In the great 19th century novels, this kind of thing happened offstage. But here we also have writing about being a mother, about the work, and the weariness:
It was always dark in the bedroom. I lived in the long contemplation of a blank wall, of a pale violet light that fell across me as it penetrated the blinds of the sala window which was opposite my door. The baby lay beside me. He seemed fragile. I was heavy with response to the new indescribable smell he gave out. I had been close to babies before but I did not recognize the odor as anything familiar. I had found something which I had needed for a long time. I knew now what I had needed.

When he drank of my milk, all of me was arrested in the sensation of his soft clinging touch. I was mindless, beautiful. I wanted to be like that forever and ever. I let him drink too much. His head fell back and the white milk trickled warmly from between his parted lips. His mouth was loose and red. He half closed his eyes and I could see the delicate pinkish veins in the thin lids. He looked drunken with himself, and I was drunk also. We were in a relaxation that was almost a debauch.

Once a bat came into the room while we were alone. I was terrified of bats, but I got up and put a mosquito net over the baby. I had a sharp painful pleasure in my fright, in my sense of bondage to my child. I would always belong to him. I would always think of him first. My abandon to him was humiliating and sweet like abandon to a lover. I thought, It is my body I give to him. And I was surprised in recognizing this. I had imagined maternity as something thin and ideal.
And a bit later:
I am exhausted. The housework and the care of a heavy child are too much for me so soon after leaving my bed. My nerves are too vivid, exhausted by responsiveness. I feel as if I were dying already of too much life. I am in terror of my fatigue which is strong and impersonal--stronger than I am. I pray to something or other, beg myself to go on, beg the baby to sleep, to give me a little rest.

When the baby cries in the night I get up in the dim relaxation of despair and talk to him. "Oh, baby, I can't bear it any longer. Please go to sleep. Please go to sleep."
And: "My back aches. And the baby is merciless. Yes, sometimes I am so tired that I long for the irresponsibility of insanity in order to escape."

It's not all about being a mother, but it's all writing. Occasionally Scott's lyrical descriptions lose me in their piled up metaphors, but even these are often marvelously vivid and well-chosen. I'm already prepared to rank this with the great literary memoirs: Thomas Bernhard's relentless Gathering Evidence; Edward Dahlberg's Because I was Flesh; Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (and, no, I still haven't read Nabokov's Speak, Memory). I'm excited to know that there are several other Evelyn Scott books quietly awaiting my attention at the library. Many thanks to Thomas McGonigle.

Labels: ,


OpenID tpfkazrs said...

What was Olive Moore's political leanings?

June 23, 2009 7:29 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I have no idea.

June 23, 2009 9:08 PM  
Blogger Clavdia said...

I just wanted to thank you for posting on Scott -- who was otherwise entirely unknown to me. I've begun Escapade myself and I've also tracked Narcissus -- wonderful stuff so far!

--Lauren (Letters from a Librarian)

June 29, 2009 6:48 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Ah, excellent! I'm so happy to hear that, Lauren. I have some more things planned on her work, and I'll be interested to hear more from you on it, too.

June 29, 2009 7:21 PM  
Blogger Antonia said...

oh i read that ten years ago and recently again. it;s a hreat book still after reading it for the second time and with so many years inbetween. i think some of her poetry (the red cross poems) links closley to some passages in Escapade.
wasn't sure though what to make of the last chapter.

July 02, 2009 3:12 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi Antonia. Thanks for the comment.

I hope to write another post soon about Scott and Escapade. The final chapter was indeed baffling. So much so that I tried to find something out about it. I thus came across a fascinating document which both discusses the general form of Escapade (and its formal antecedents) and explains the final chapter to my satisfaction. Stay tuned!

July 07, 2009 11:57 AM  
Blogger waggish said...

Oops, a bit late to the party here. But Moore was a fascist of the Ezra Pound/Wyndham Lewis variety, and a pretty unpleasant person in general. Still an interesting writer though. I have Scott's Escapade on my to-read table, and just saw the TLS review of her biography (and the taking-exception letter in the new issue).

August 24, 2009 2:04 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Thanks, Waggish. It's interesting, at least from Spleen, I would not have guessed that about Moore.

When did the TLS review (and letter) appear?

August 24, 2009 2:16 PM  
Blogger waggish said...

The review was Aug 7, the letter was in either Aug 21 or 28.

For some reason I've always thought of her as vaguely resembling the later Ann Quin, whose work is similarly detached from whatever movement it's supposedly associated with.

August 24, 2009 2:54 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi Waggish - as far as I can tell, it appears to have been Evelyn Sharp who was the subject of the recent TLS review & letter...

but I'll be interested to know what you think of Scott's Escapade; I still have some more to say about it, which I hope I'll be able to post before too long.

August 25, 2009 11:42 AM  
Blogger waggish said...

Eek, I must be losing my mind. The complicated amatory situations made me lump them together....

August 25, 2009 3:42 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home