PRETTY GOOD FOR A WOMAN: The Enigmas of Evelyn Scott by D.A. Callard

PRETTY GOOD FOR A WOMAN: The Enigmas of Evelyn Scott

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The title is taken from Faulkner, who, asked in 1940 whether there were any good women writers, answered: ""Well, Evelyn Scott was pretty good, for a woman. . ."" Born Elsie Dunn in a Tennessee mansion, in 1893, she grew up to lead the kind of highly-colored, dramatic life that Oscar Wilde once declared was the hallmark of the really bad artist. She assumed the name Evelyn Scott several weeks before her 21 st birthday as part of a scheme to avoid prosecution (under the Mann Act) of her lover--a much older, twice-married dean of tropical medicine at Tulane. He carried her off to London and then to a hovel in Brazil, where they lived in great hardship for five years. They were soon joined by Evelyn's mother, sent on a oneway ticket by her father for a conciliatory visit; he never sent a return portion, however, and soon filed for divorce on the grounds of ""desertion."" This left a household composed of a new baby, an ailing Evelyn (complications from her only pregnancy ruined her health), Evelyn's hysterical mother (who never recovered from the shock of her husband's mid-life prank); and the enigmatic ""Cyril Scott"" (he changed his name, too), a bossy, brilliant man, given to suicidal schemes like establishing a sheep-ranch in the middle of a flood-plain. After their Brazilian adventure, the Scotts moved on to France, to Africa, to Greenwich Village. They went everywhere and knew everyone during the 1920's: their escapades make for lively reading now, but they must have been hell to live through. Evelyn wrote highly intelligent essays, awful poetry and well-received novels (The Wave, reissued in tandem with this biography, is reviewed in this issue). She was the first outside reader of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury--and she bravely championed its unknown author, contributing an influential Preface to its first edition. This lucid, sympathetic biography is more intent on putting Scott back into the general picture of American literature during the 1920's than in reclaiming any of her writings as classics. Originally published in Britain and blessedly free of American biography's tendency to ponderous padding, this is a thoughtful, well-digested account of a literary life--from privileged childhood through celebrity-studded adulthood to a miserable twilight in a dingy hotel on the Upper West Side (Scott died, forgotten, in 1963). Throughout, Callard amply demonstrates a poignant thesis: ""American literature is hard on its failures.

Pub Date: Jan. 27th, 1985
Publisher: Norton