The Charlotte News



The Lovely Evelyn Scott:

Iconoclast of Charm

--By W. J. Cash

The redoubtable Evelyn Scott has been for the last several years residing in Suffolk. But in far England she has been remembering the land of her birth and looking at it through the sharp but entirely dispassionate eyes of a cosmopolitan lady of forty-four summers. Yes, the lovely Evelyn (I've never seen her but I've always fancied her as being somehow pleasant to look at) is actually forty-four years of age. It really doesn't seem possible. For it seems only yesterday that she was first coming into notice and the critics were referring to her as a very young woman down in Tennessee. But the implacable "Who's Who" records the fact, and so it must be accepted.

Well, but as I was saying, the lovely lady of the sharp eyes has been looking at her country and thinking about it. And now she has turned loose a book called "Background in Tennessee" in which she gravely sets forth her memories about it.

I haven't read it yet and yet I venture to tell you several things about what it is like. In the first place, if you are a professional Southerner, if you insist on believing that the old South was a land of rose-gardens and duelling grounds wherein gentlemen incessantly died for the immaculate perfection of their plumes and lovely ladies never for any second lost that exquisite remoteness which has been the dream of all men and the possession of none,--yea and above all, if you insist on believing that Southern plantation owners were feudal lords out of Walter Scott, most noble persons tracing their puissant line straight back to the barons and the kings of the earth--if you insist on believing that kind of nonsense, you had better stay away from Evelyn's book. For she laughs at it quite ribaldly as--well, quite as ribaldly as I myself have sometime laughed at it in print. And if you have any doubt that that was pretty blamed ribaldly, try taking up the files of the "American Mercury" during the Mencken reign.

How do I know this, if I haven't read "Background in Tennessee?" Why, quite simply because the beauteous Evelyn has been making faces at the Southern legend ever since she was a little girl just breaking into print. Her first novel, as long ago as 1921 at any rate, was poison ivy to the excessive patriots. And all of them since have grown steadily more poison. A woman of the soberest sense, she knows very well that there was never any such South as Thomas Nelson Page and his successor in the tradition, Mr. Stark Young, have so assiduously portrayed. The lordly line of Southerners, she knows and has never hesitated to say, was spawned in Cloud-Cuckoo land and is just as real and no more real than the lordly line of the new automobile millionaires in Detroit. The whole thing, she knows and has always forthrightly declared, is a defense-mechanism, invented almost purely out of whole cloth by way of soothing the South's uneasy ego and conscience, first before slavery and the Yankee's assault on slavery, and afterwards, before the poverty and defeat of the postbellum period.

Southern culture? She discovered long ago and pointed out the fact that culture consisted very largely in oratory and rhetoric, surely the least substantial thing on which any culture was ever built.

Southern charm? It has never appeared in her books, save by way of acidulous burlesque.

However, don't let me lead you astray. I haven't the slightest doubt myself that Evelyn Scott's heart is ultimately with the South. So much appears indubitably in "The Wave" and various others of her novels.

I ought not, indeed, to have to say as much. But I do. For it is an unfortunate part of the Southern heritage--springing not from any fundamental difference in the Southern brand of humanity but from perfectly obvious historical causes, that whoever dares criticize the land in any aspect is ipso facto a traitor and an enemy. Nothing, of course, could be farther from the fact. It is written somewhere, I believe, in a very old little red book, that whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth. And the sentence might very well be taken as a maxim for the guidance of their conduct by all intelligent patriots.

Is it treason to think it undesirable that one's own people shall spend their days worshipping a brummagem legend compounded out of hurt feelings and tinsel romancing? Is it treason to insist on pointing out that it is compounded to the end of trying to wean them away from worshipping it into turning their energies to ends more worthy of a people as able as any on earth? I don't think so. On the contrary, I believe it to be the highest form of patriotic devotion. And under that rule Evelyn Scott is a very fine Southern patriot indeed.

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