Hell Comes to Arcady: Racial History and Gothic Memory in Evelyn Scott's Background in Tennessee
Edwards, Tim, The Mississippi Quarterly
BACKGROUND IN TENNESSEE, EVELYN SCOTT'S 1937 MEMOIR, SEEKS TO unpack the complicated baggage of the author's Southern childhood in Clarksville, Tennessee. While following the expatriate tack of so many American modernists, Evelyn Scott nevertheless admits in Background in Tennessee that her native state, as well as her Southernness, is so deeply ingrained in her being as to be inescapable: "All I possessed which might be regarded as Tennessee documenta to be presented to a public, seemed to be myself" (1). That Scott describes herself in terms of texts and writing--"documenta"--is not surprising. As with any autobiography, her enterprise in Background in Tennessee centers on the effort to write a self--to define the self in writing, in language. But what she further reveals in the passage just cited is how that text of self is written not only by her but upon her by place and history and culture--written upon her, that is, by the South.
Ostensibly a memoir, Background in Tennessee, like Scott's previous autobiography, Escapade (1923), defied the genre expectations of Scott's contemporaries. As Mary Wheeling White observes in her biography of Scott, "The parts of the book devoted to Tennessee history are not systematically balanced with the sections of Scott's personal history. Subsequently, the narrative often resembles two twisting paths that double back and cross over themselves and each other; occasionally, they even share a common route" (186). Bewildering as the work seemed to many of her contemporaries, Background in Tennessee seems to be aimed squarely at demonstrating Scott's claim that the only Tennessee documenta available for public presentation is herself. So the text of self is written on by region and history--by Tennessee and by the South. This text, this self, and the history of this region--all are written in the language of race. It is a gothic language, too, and Background in Tennessee, in part, is a gothic text, a work haunted by the memories--often racial memories--of Evelyn Scott's Tennessee childhood. I am not suggesting that the memoir is without genuine warmth and fond nostalgia, for those elements are present. But there are moments--especially moments oriented around the axis of race--that accent Scott's text with a gothic voice, a haunted voice, a voice haunted by history.
It seems strange perhaps to see Scott's autobiography as gothic. After all, Scott biographer D. A. Callard says of Scott's second memoir, "Almost alone among her books, Background in Tennessee lacks pessimism and morbidity" (154). There is also a genuine sense of a re-discovery of Scott's Southern identity in this work, as Martha E. Cook has noted. But the trappings of the gothic are not unknown to Scott's canon. Her first novel, The Narrow House (1921), certainly contains some strong gothic elements--the foreboding architecture, the sense of entrapment and doom, the troubling sexual peril of some of the characters. Escapade has its gothic moments, to be sure. But on the whole, few critics have remarked in depth on Scott's gothicism.
The unlikely notion that Background in Tennessee is somehow a gothic text--or at least in part a gothic text--is suggested to me by Teresa A. Goddu's Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation. Goddu argues that America and its literature are haunted by history. Goddu's claims radiate from Leslie Fiedler's famous observation that our literature is essentially gothic, "a literature of darkness and the grotesque in a land of light and affirmation'" (xxiv). Extending this claim in fascinating directions, Goddu reads the gothic into American literature of all varieties: "gothic," she writes, "seeps into other [nonfiction] genres and appears in unlikely places.... [T]he gothic," she continues, "infiltrates and informs the canon of American literature: male and female, high and low, supernatural stories and actual histories" (8).
Essentially, Goddu calls for a re-reading of American literature through a gothic lens, a re-reading attuned to gothic moments in texts that seem otherwise to fall outside received categories of gothic fiction. …