Novelist and essayist Evelyn Scott was born Elsie Dunn in Clarksville on January 17, 1893, the only child of Seely and Maude Thomas Dunn. After living in Clarksville as a young child, she moved to New Orleans and enrolled in the Sophie Newcombe Preparatory School and later briefly at Sophie Newcombe College and Tulane University. Elsie Dunn rebelled early against the limitations of her class and times, writing at fifteen a controversial letter to the New Orleans Times Picayune advocating the legalization of prostitution as a way to control venereal disease. In 1913 she ran away to Brazil with a married man, Frederick Creighton Wellman, the dean of the School of Tropical Medicine at Tulane. To conceal their identities, they called themselves Cyril and Evelyn Scott.
During the five years she spent in Brazil, where she gave birth to a son named Creighton in 1914, Evelyn Scott emerged as a writer. At first she produced poems and critical essays published in Poetry, the Dial, and other periodicals. But publication of The Narrow House (1921), the first of a trilogy of novels including Narcissus (1922) and The Golden Door (1923), brought her critical recognition from H. L. Mencken and launched a career that made her a significant American writer in the decades between the two world wars. This first trilogy was followed by a second–Migrations (1927), The Wave (1929), and A Calendar of Sin (1931). The Wave, Scott’s best novel, deals with the Civil War in an experimental narrative style attempting both epic sweep and accurate psychological analysis. Due to the success of this work, Scott’s publisher asked her to write an essay about relative newcomer William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
While the Scotts returned to the United States in 1919, they did not settle permanently but spent time in Bermuda, France, North Africa, and England. Evelyn left Cyril for Owen Merton, father of the future Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and ended their common law marriage by divorce in 1928. She married British novelist John Metcalfe in 1930 and lived in Canada and England until the end of World War II. Scott continued to write, producing in Eva Gay (1932), a fictionalized version of her relationships with Merton and Scott. Her later work did not enjoy the commercial and critical successes of her earlier novels. Scott’s critical analysis of Soviet communism in Breathe Upon These Slain (1934) and Bread and a Sword (1937) appealed neither to readers nor to a literary establishment flirting with Marxism. Her last novel, The Shadow of the Hawk (1941), returned to her earlier focus on family relationships.
Scott’s reputation derives from the two trilogies, in particular the individual books The Narrow House and The Wave, and from her memoir Background in Tennessee (1937), a study of her early years. While Scott continued to write after returning to the United States in 1952, she did not find publishers. In ill health, Scott and John Metcalfe lived in a residential hotel in New York City, where she died August 3, 1963. Evelyn Scott is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Linden, New Jersey.