Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell by Steve Paul; University of Missouri Press, 412 pp., $45
What are the definitive midcentury novels of suburban repression? One might point to John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Yet these stories are less about repression than about the dark or comic consequences of rebellion: Rabbit runs off with a sex worker, Yates’s Wheelers have affairs and secret abortions, and Portnoy—well, you get the point. A far truer (and less sexist) portrait of the stifling complacency of suburban life can be found instead in a pair of little-remembered novels by Evan S. Connell: Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969).
The basis of both books is Connell’s suspicion that, in life as it is really lived, repression rarely ruptures. “I believe it was Chekhov who observed that people do not go to the North Pole, or whatever,” he once said. “They eat cabbage soup and fall off stepladders. I think he was right, which is why there is no extraordinary event in the life of Mrs. Bridge.” Through brief vignettes, Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge gradually expose a marriage smothered by convention, immersing us in the humdrum lives of two people whose minds are like gated communities, politely closed off from each other and from themselves. The eponymous protagonists are well-worn archetypes in the history of American prosperity: a bored housewife, a workaholic lawyer husband. They live in Kansas City, Missouri, belong to a country club, and have three children. They are courteous, outwardly kind, and well-regarded by their peers. They are also politely—always politely—bigoted (Mr. Bridge expresses hope that the British won’t “stop Hitler too soon”).
It might seem that little, if anything, happens in these novels. Mr. Bridge does not have an affair with his secretary, despite her obvious advances. Instead, he and his wife attend dreary dinner parties, go on a disappointing trip to Europe, and regulate their children’s lives with vigilant disinterest. But things do happen, both to the Bridges and to the people around them. The brilliance of Connell’s depiction resides in his understanding of how strenuously people strive to preserve their fragile serenity and ignorance. In one memorable scene, Mr. Bridge ignores the warnings of an impending tornado while eating at the country club, insisting that he will finish his meal even as the power goes out and the rest of the diners evacuate. Mr. Bridge may be too proper for an affair, but he is also constantly forced to confront and bury his feelings of incestuous attraction to his own daughter. Mrs. Bridge, upon hearing that a relative’s new bride has given birth to a baby just three months after her wedding—at which she was visibly pregnant—remarks that “first babies are so often premature.” When her closest friend commits suicide, she tells herself and those around her that she died eating contaminated tuna fish.
As these fragments build, Connell’s social satire accretes into a tale of quiet horror. Connell toes an elegant line between humor and dread, as in this passage, in which Mrs. Bridge—on her way to dinner with her husband and another couple—barely suppresses a psychological breakdown:
On they went, two by two, down the long corridor. Small tables of various shapes had been set against the wall at intervals in a desperate attempt to conceal the length of the corridor. On one of the tables was a wreath, on another was an unlighted candle, on another was a silver bowl, another held a telephone book in a gray leather binding. There were half a dozen mirrors along the wall. Mrs. Bridge did not dare look into any of the mirrors, and as the four of them marched along she wondered if she was about to lose control of herself. Where are we going? she thought. Why are we here?
“What lovely tables,” she said.
The Bridges live as if underwater, surfacing only for brief, disturbing gasps of self-awareness. But for these moments, their serenity—like their loneliness—is absolute.
In Literary Alchemist, the first full-scale biography of Connell, Steve Paul, a former editor and columnist of the Kansas City Star, traces the parallels between the Bridge novels and the writer’s childhood, revealing the extent to which the loneliness of Connell’s characters was also his own. Connell was born in Kansas City in 1924, to prosperous but distant parents. His father, a successful surgeon, was so stern that Connell never saw him laugh; his mother, like Mrs. Bridge, Connell wrote, “felt threatened by allusions to sex” and “was concerned mostly that nothing outrageous should happen.”
Connell, who planned to follow his father into medicine, spent two years at Dartmouth but left in 1943 to join the Naval Air Corps, hoping to become a fighter pilot. He never saw action, but his military experience provided the background for his first attempt at a novel, The Patriot, not published until 1960. He credited World War II with rescuing him from an ordinary life, once suggesting to his brother-in-law that, but for his time in the military, he “would have gotten a job as a banker, and got married.” The dangerous and seductive pull of conventionality became an abiding fixation in his work, and his resistance to it was a powerful motivation in leaving the Midwest to chase a career in print.
Although amiable and well-liked, Connell was by nature a solitary man who, according to Paul, discovered early on that writing could protect him “from the intimacy that real relationships require, an intimacy he never saw in his own family and that he very well knew he did not possess.” After the war, he finished his undergraduate degree at the University of Kansas and spent the remainder of his 20s studying to become a writer. In 1947, he enrolled in a creative writing workshop led by Wallace Stegner at Stanford, followed by a year at Columbia University. He then tried (and failed at) screenwriting in Hollywood before departing for Europe, where he spent two years, as he later put it, “loitering,” first in Barcelona and then in Paris. There he fell in with George Plimpton, editor of the newly founded Paris Review, which published several of Connell’s early stories. Even in Paris, though, he could not escape the ascetic disposition he had inherited from his parents. “I was enjoying life on the Left Bank so much that I felt obligated to leave,” he later wrote. “Those nurtured in the Protestant Midwest of America will understand this, otherwise it cannot possibly be explained because it makes no sense.” He returned to the United States in 1953, settling in San Francisco, and three years later, published his first book, a collection of short stories. Mrs. Bridge, a finalist for the National Book Award, followed in 1959.
By the time he died in 2013 at age 88, Connell had published some 20 books of fiction, essays, and history. In Literary Alchemist, Paul rather tediously summarizes contemporary reviews of these books, time he might better have spent developing his own analyses. (He also can’t help but parade the depth of his research by including pointless details; at one writers’ event, we’re dutifully informed, Connell ate “a meal of chicken, peas, and raspberry sherbet.”) Nevertheless, Paul provides a convincing psychological portrait of Connell as a writerly hermit, unmarried and with few close friends, who devoted himself to what he called his “quaint mania.” Connell dove deep into whatever happened to interest him. His books include—to cite a few—a history of the crusades (Deus lo Volt!), a biography of the painter Francisco Goya, novels based on a famous 1955 case of sexual assault (The Diary of a Rapist) and the collecting of pre-Columbian artifacts (The Connoisseur), and two obscure but masterly works of philosophical poetry on the decline of Western civilization (Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel and Points for a Compass Rose). By far his greatest commercial success was Son of the Morning Star (1984), a gritty recounting of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which shed a cold light on the myth of George Armstrong Custer as an untarnished hero and martyr.
Connell’s esoteric range likely has much to do with why he is now so little read. Unlike many of his more famous peers, he had no taste for the pretensions of the New York literary scene, and he was exceptionally ill-suited to the relentless self-promotion and calculated careerism necessary for securing a lasting legacy. An insistence on following the whims of his heterogenous passions gave him a particular genius for frustrating agents and publishers: he followed up his enormous success in Son of the Morning Star with a plunge into the arcane mysteries of 16th-century alchemy, in the brilliant but spectacularly unsellable Alchymist’s Journal. Paul’s book is, in part, an attempt to find the through line in Connell’s diverse oeuvre. By the end, it’s clear that such a task may well be impossible, as it seems to have been for Connell himself, who frequently demurred when asked to summarize his work. Paul ultimately falls back on the vague alchemical metaphor of the book’s title, but what great writer wouldn’t fit that description? For my part, I see a different unifying quality to Connell’s work: the persistent turn of his mind toward tales of waste and folly, a fixation that blossomed from the muted psychological miniatures of the repressed Bridges to his grand, death-haunted portrait of Custer’s recklessness, to his final sweeping forays through the ruins of history.
Paul nonetheless manages to weave the details of his subject’s life into a surprisingly gripping story—no small feat considering that Connell once claimed to have had “the dullest life of any writer ever.” His biography offers a valuable and commendably thorough reintroduction to an underappreciated American writer, whose vast and eclectic body of work deserves renewed attention.
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