|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 7 (1989)|
Edwin George, a character modeled after Evelyn Scott's Grandfather
Thomas, is a major link in her historical trilogy -- Migrations
(1927), The Wave (1929), and A Calendar of Sin (1931).
His attitude towards Mimms, a fictionalization of Clarksville,
is expressed in A Calendar of Sin: "He said it was
a distinction to affront Mimms. Opprobrium in Mimms was an inverted
compliment. You always earned it some time or other in your life,
if you were intelligent" (II, 302). Evelyn Scott, born Elsie
Dunn, certainly shared with Edwin George a willingness to affront
Clarksville. During the 1920s she scandalized her hometown not
only by running off with a married man, but by having the audacity
to expose her sin in her finest book, Escapade (1923).
She became synonymous with the bohemian, globe-hopping, free living
and loving of the lost generation.
A Calendar of Sin is Scott's most ambitious novel and her
last successful novel. Scott was ill-suited for the 1930s. Her
youthful energy was subdued and the 1920s rebel searching for
new artistic forms to oppose Victorian deception was oddly transformed
into the middle-aged Southerner seeking shelter from the militant
left and its strident demand for sociological rather than psychological
interpretation. In her best works -- The Narrow House,
Escapade, The Wave, and A Calendar of Sin
-- Scott is a writer of daring psychic exploration. A Calendar
of Sin is her attempt tot come to terms with the 1930s. She
would not yield to economic interpretation, but she did attempt
an expansive investigation of social structure while retaining
her 1920s preoccupation with Freudian insights. In his biography
D. A. Callard explains the influence of Freud on Scott's life
and time: "Shadowing almost all of Evelyn's published writings
and the whole intellectual atmosphere of the twenties was the
figure of Freud. Her letters are dotted with phrases such as 'Freudianly
explicable,' and 'Freudianly understandable'" (135). As Carl
Van Doren wrote in his review of A Calendar of Sin, it
might well have been called A Calendar of Sex (16). Although
Scott is not concerned with phallic symbolism, dream interpretation,
or the Oedipus complex, she does emphasize the distortions and
neuroses that derive from sexual repression. Her novel is more
dependent upon late Freud with its universal interpretations of
cultural illusions and the cyclical movements from repression
to violent upheaval.
Her subtitle for A Calendar of Sin is American Melodramas.
Robert Penn Warren considered this subtitle "peculiarly accurate,
if the term means that the violence and sensational action is
not adequately based on examined motive and realized character"
(158). Warren was critical of an approach in which the violence
was "founded on instinct," and he argued that "behaviorism
does not provide a workable basis for literature: a multiplicity
of cases proves nothing" (159). Warren, whose later fiction
is an ironic secret sharer with the melodramatic sensationalism
and sprawling "history" of A Calendar of Sin,
did admire some of the characterization in this novel. Having
lived in Clarksville, he certainly knew the social milieu of the
novel. Scott started with actual lives and events and progressed
to sensational secrets or violent revelations which refute the
calm exterior of ordinary lives. The novel begins with the raids
of the KKK in Clarksville and continues through two volumes and
1367 pages to the raids of the Night Riders forty years later.
In 1867 the blacks suffer the brunt of mob violence, and in 1907
Scott portrays vigilantes preparing to lynch a black for the rape
and murder of a white girl. It is not progression of history but
rather the appalling sameness which disturbed Warren and which
is indeed most striking in the novel. Scott dramatizes such factual
material as the actual raid against the freedman's school, which
occurred in Clarksville after the war, and her youthful memory
of the hanging tree in Russellville, Kentucky. She relies upon
historically-based but grotesquely-imagined characters whose feigned
responsibility merely perverts their sexual impulses. A prime
example is Clarksville's Judge Tyler, one of "the original
Ku Kluxers" (Background 180), who becomes the mad mob leader,
Judge Tyler, in A Calendar of Sin.
Scott's technique results in a shocking use of family history.
Beginning with The Narrow House, she had been preoccupied
with the secret hatred and lust within the family structure. In
A Calendar of Sin, the Dunns, the paternal and Yankee side
of Scott's family, become the Dolans; the Thomases, the southern
maternal side, become the Georges (Welker 36-54); and the Graceys,
Scott's relatives by the marriage of her mother's sister, become
the Cowleys. Scott also had stalwart Clarksville relatives from
another of her mother's sisters who had married Dr. Drane; these
relatives became the Poole family. Scott's memories of Clarksville
revolve around the Thomas-Gracey mansion -- the antebellum home
owned by her grandfather Thomas, then purchased by her Aunt Minnie
and Uncle Julian Gracey, son of the Civil War hero, Captain Frank
P. Gracey. Scott's mother was brought up in this mansion and always
assumed that she belonged there, although as an adult her long
visits were as her sister's guest. One pattern in A Calendar
of Sin is the older man's lust for a young woman. This lust
is never fully admitted but is disguised as polite affection or
family concern. When Linda George marries into the Cowley family,
she and her husband are forced to struggle for survival until
Linda George Cowley goes with her child to visit her recalcitrant
father-in-law, Major Cowley, a clear fictionalization of Captain
Gracey. Major Cowley despises his own son but is won over by his
daughter-in-law, a reaction derived from her sexual vitality and
his sexual frustration.
The pattern is repeated more explicitly in the next generation
as the Major's son, Eugene Cowley, becomes obsessed with his sister-in-law,
Laura Josephine. His attentions take the form of semi-controlled
kissing and fondling. He horsewhips youths who court Lolly until
she finally breaks away and marries Montgomery Dolan. Lolly is
based on Scott's mother, and Eugene Cowley is based on Julian
Gracey, the admired Clarksville citizen who until his death in
1929 controlled the Gracey fortune which was used to support Scott's
mother. The connection of Eugene Cowley's lust to Julien Gracey's
character is not confirmed in Scott's other words. In Background
in Tennessee, Julien is treated kindly as an "impeccable"
gentleman (276). When he is again fictionalized as Uncle George
in Eva Gay, he appears as a rather pleasant though dull,
small-town patriarch. Scott's mother was difficult and hypersensitive;
she was not at ease with her demotion to poor relative within
the mansion in which she had once been the spoiled child. Her
insecurity resulted in a preoccupation with the real and imagined
weaknesses of others. As a child Evelyn Scott closely identified
with her mother. In A Calendar of Sin Scott intensified
a childhood reality, relying upon a Freudian emphasis on sexual
motivation, to dramatize the hidden tensions beneath Victorian
The sexual pattern recurs after Lolly George and Montgomery Dolan
move to St. Louis with their only child, Edith. Lolly's niece,
Patience Poole, comes to live with them, and Montgomery is enchanted
by her. Edith, the alter ego of Evelyn Scott, is aware of the
tension in the house: "Edith, in bed, heard Patience's name,
then Father saying something, her replying; and, at last, Father
going out. She lay there. No sound came from Mother's room. Edith,
the gloom so queer, the banging of the front door worse than all,
wondered if Mother had committed suicide" (II, 561). Later,
Edith speaks to her cousin about her father's desire; once the
secret has been expressed, Patience flees to Mimms. Montgomery
is shocked and angered by his daughter's honesty and retreats
even farther from his wife and child. Edith begins to mother her
over-sensitive, immature mother. This mother-daughter reversal
is central to understanding Scott as the product of a bad marriage.
We may doubt whether an infatuation with a Clarksville cousin
contributed to the deterioration of the relationship. Scott may
have created or exaggerated a sexual situation to give dramatic
expression to her mother's insecurity and her own sense of rejection.
The characters in A Calendar of Sin participate in a melodrama
which externalizes the trauma of Evelyn Scott's childhood and
which she explained through a Freudian emphasis on sexual drives.
Scott was aware of the infidelity of her father and the frigidity
of her mother; these elements are reintroduced in Eva Gay.
She was caught between a mother absorbed in hypersensitive fears
and a father who withdrew his love when he saw his wife's sensibility
reflected in his daughter. Given this scenario, it is not surprising
that the father, as recounted in Escapade, abandoned his
wife by dumping her on the doorstep of his impoverished daughter.
Nor is it surprising that the daughter felt suffocated by her
mother, returned her to the Clarksville relatives, and sought
to express both her love and guilt in her fiction.
While much of Evelyn Scott's psychic intensity derives from her
relationship with her mother, A Calendar of Sin reveals
the extent to which her aunt, Minnie Gracey, provided a model
for Scott's struggle to attain autonomy and artistic ability and
the trap of small-town Victorian values. Minnie Gracey's paintings
are still preserved within the Gracey family. She was educated
in a Cincinnati art academy. Several paintings were produced during
her mid and late teens, but the obligations to a very large family
ended her development as an artist. In A Calendar of Sin,
Linda George is first characterized by Eugene Cowley, her future
husband, as "The Woman's Rights, emancipated, painting-nonsense
one" (II, 558). Linda and Eugene become secret lovers despite
his irritation with her individualism and her realization that
his dull-witted conformity will inevitably confine her. Later,
as Linda's family grows, she attempts to transform her sexual
role into artistic expression by portraying the pure, natural
act of suckling her child. In preparation, she carefully studies
Madonnas, but the actual painting requires isolation. Scott expands
the irony as the mother literally fights off her children. The
disparately antithetical roles of Madonna and artist cannot be
reconciled. Linda George is left with her private matriarchal
power, including the surreptitious writing of public speeches
for her unimaginative husband. The actual Aunt Minnie mothered
Evelyn Scott along with her own large family and exemplified a
forceful femininity far removed from Scott's mother's nervous
manipulation. Aunt Minnie revealed the extent to which Victorian
motherhood confined a woman, but more importantly the inevitable
conflicts of love, freedom, and art. Whether with mate or with
child, Scott demands that we recognize the biological nature of
love and presents the sexual responses as inevitable within human
Scott seems to see her mother's hypersensitivity as more typical
of the feminine manifestation of sexual repression. Madness abounds
in this novel and varies between raging masculine aggression and
hysterical feminine repression. The extreme of frigidity is Fanny
Sydney Dolan, a character modeled after Scott's paternal grandmother.
One of the finest Freudian ironies of A Calendar of Sin
is that Montgomery Dolan, modeled after Scott's father, detests
his mother and recoils from her madness only to marry a woman
with a similar disposition. Both are repelled by natural fecundity,
which they associate with desire, dirt, and decay. Fanny recoils
from her husband, "so horrible when he came close -- that
little growth. All was decay!" (I, 399). Her only peace is
the momentary creation of a sterile domain: "For her, in
perfect order there was perfect peace. Her trouble was that order
wouldn't stay. . . . The chairs were moved. The curtains slackened
from their crisp rigidity. A smear appeared upon the dusky mirror
of a table" (II, 460). In the beginning of their relationship,
John Dolan saves Fanny from suicidal drowning; in the end John
and Fanny die of asphyxiation. This suicide is based on the actual
death of Evelyn Scott's grandparents (Callard 3). Scott begins
with the woman she knew as a child and completes the portrait
by imaging such scenes as John finding his wife in a stupor, nude
in her immaculate kitchen, after a frenzy of cleaning. The image
offers a stark enactment faithful to the tension Scott felt as
a child and the Freudian interpretations she accepted as an adult.
The masculine counterpart of the sexually repressed Fanny is James
Dolan. James may be based on a great-uncle, but in this case he
is almost completely a nightmarish invention. Like Fanny, he is
repelled by bestial nature but identifies women as the source
of impurity. His misogyny is an ironic echo of Fanny's quest for
purity: "He'd always hated the diseased and dirty sluts.
His life was clean!" (I, 158). In a mad rage he beats a young
lover to death with a stone and drops her down a well. Later,
tortured by the memory, he becomes fanatically religious and castrates
himself: "And there shall be a bloody sacrifice unto the
God of Hosts!" (II, 35). The depiction of James Dolan is
consistent with Scott's vision of life destroyed through repression,
but it is too clinical and thus partially justifies Warren's complaint
that the novel is a collection of case studies. Here Scott lacks
an emotional referent. While the depiction of Fanny is powerfully
moving, the depiction of James is mechanically sensational. The
Freudian influence is no imposition when Scott relies upon the
memories and emotions of her youth, but the prose loses its power
when Scott creates characters to conform to Freudian expectations.
Freudian theory provided Scott a way of perceiving her early traumas.
Her extension of reality is most apparent in the climax as she
focuses on Edith Dolan. Like Scott, Edith is born in the mansion
in 1893, a breech birth with the umbilical cord around her neck.
She becomes the golden-haired only child of a father who fears
madness and a mother who courts madness. Scott dramatizes the
child's life within a marriage maintained for the sake of convention.
She firmly believed that the social world is mostly illusion and
that the artist's task is to rip away at all cost. In A Calendar
of Sin this preoccupation with illusion is expressed by Maurice
George: "There's nobody, from top to bottom of this land,
who ever stopped to find out anything that was fundamental truth.
They've covered several thousand years of outward progress in
a century; but what American is grown-up in another sense?"
(II, 581). While America remains a land of innocence, Edith is
appalled by deception and longs for maturity. As a result of her
father's deceptions and her mother's arrested development, Edith
is forced into early maturation -- essentially, innocent America
robs Edith of her childhood.
In 1907 Edith returns to Mimms in the heat of the night rider
controversy and attends a subscription dance at the court house.
In her initiation, she is first pawed by an aging gallant, then
introduced tot he confusion of sexual awakening by a young night
rider. Dr. Barton nearly forces Edith from the court house dance
to the public square, yet Edith is also testing as "she wanted
to feel awful things" (II, 628). The Freudian influence becomes
clear as Dr. Barton "touched her breast. The contact was
a loathly pain. . . . I know, she thought .that's how men act.
I'm finding out. Nobody told me what men did, but now I know just
what they're like! "You make me feel so fatherly,' he said"
(II, 628). When Edith flees from Dr. Barton, it is into the arms
of Frank Keeler, a character derived from Scott's first love,
an adolescent love so overwhelming that its failure sent her into
a severe depression. In Background in Tennessee she describes
falling in love at age fourteen and the pain of the aftermath
(260). The event affected her so profoundly that she tells virtually
the same story in both A Calendar of Sin and Eva Gay.
In A Calendar of Sin they ride down River Road and hide
on Cowley's wharf. In her moment of indecision, Edith "felt
as if she sank, sank under him; as if some awful spell were holding
her, and he and she would drown" (II, 634). When she begins
to cry, Frank relents and they return through the Clarksvillian
setting from River Road, up Railroad Street to the town square
and the court house with the "blank and fiery clock"
The unique form of A Calendar of Sin is apparent as Scott
begins with this rather typical, autobiographical moment and extends
it into a nightmare sequence in which Edith is raped and murdered.
Unlike Scott, Edith does not recover from her initiation. In her
quest for stark truth, Edith dreams of becoming a social outcast:
"It might be just an accident that she was not a prostitute.
She almost wanted to sink down and down. To go to jail. (From
outcasts, nothing horrible was hid.)" (II, 644). The sinking
is associated with the sexual drive and human equality beneath
social stratification. In her rebellion she rides alone too far
out on River Road. Edith knows that she may see "that foreign-looking
man" (II, 645) who always stares at her, but she is determined
to return his stare. This man on the edge is Sam Turnley, the
rejected mulatto son of John Furness, another aging degenerate
of respectable society. When Edith falls from her horse, Sam Turnley
takes her to his cabin. The decisive moment occurs as she stands
before his mirror: "With a trembling and oppressive sense
of wicked vanity, which she, out of a defiant necessity, was compelled
to evade, she picked the sidecombs from her hair. A sheet like
silver water fell upon her neck. . . . She suspected he was spying
on her from the porch. . . . The horrid glamour of the moment
held her still, as she prepared for something she could not prevent
-- for the predetermined, dark fatality" (II, 654). As Edith
sees Sam in the mirror, Scott presents both characters as helpless
within a fixed moment of finality: "Her fingers went on combing
her hair mechanically. . . . Repulsion was in every atom of her
flesh; and yet she couldn't move. She couldn't even leave off
staring at the man, who stood with his back to the outer door"
(II, 655). Both characters are victims of a repressive culture,
cast out to experience what the culture refuses to admit. What
t hey confront is by no means redemptive. The only human nobility
is in the act of confrontation. A blood force and an irrevocable
fate paradoxically free the individual by precluding rational
will. Robert Welker has explained at length the Liebestod theme
of love and death in Evelyn Scott, but in this case Scott's Liebestod
comes very close to the Freudian id and death wish.
Evelyn Scott is foremost a novelist of human psychology. The influence
of Freud was profound -- much more than the fashionable panacea
of the 1920s. Her immediate family and early Victorian milieu
provided her with experiences for which Freud's interpretations
were most apt. At times A Calendar of Sin loses its power
as the Freudian scheme demands sensational action too far removed
from Scott's experience, but generally Scott relies upon the emotional
trauma of her early development. This permits her to begin with
Clarksville and autobiography, but build toward cathartic, Freudian
images which remain true to her psychic reality.
Callard, D. A. "Pretty Good for a Woman": The Enigmas
of Evelyn Scott. New York: Norton, 1985.
Scott, Evelyn. Background in Tennessee. New York: McBride,
---. A Calendar of Sin: American Melodramas. 2 vols. New
York: Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith, 1931.
Van Doren, Carl. Rev. Of A Calendar of Sin, by Evelyn Scott.
Wings January 1932: 16-17.
Warren, Robert Penn. "Not Local Color." Virginia
Quarterly Review 8 (1932): 153-60.
Welker, Robert L. "Evelyn Scott: A Literary Biography."
Diss. Vanderbilt University, 1958.
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400 East College Street, Georgetown, KY 40324, (502) 863-8075