Arion Lyre

85. Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell

Evan Connell has long been considered the overlooked master of the American novel. Following a number of novels, including the Bridge books, The Patriot,and The Diary of a Rapist, that he set in contemporary America, Connell turned increasingly to his wide-ranging scholarly interests and to historical subjects, which he explored in fiction, essays, prose poems, and biographies.

Evan S. Connell

The reputation of Evan Connell has been a puzzle to his legions of admirers, who have ranged from Dorothy Parker to Paul Newman. A writer of unmistakable talent and dedication who has published twenty books, he is nevertheless absent from the literary pantheon of his generation. As Mark Oppenheimer explains in the introduction to the Arion Press edition: “The three decades after World War II were the time of the American Jewish writer. Saul Bellow was writing the long, ebullient novels that would win him the Nobel Prize; Bernard Malamud was writing short stories that are now classics of the genre; and Philip Roth, the boy wonder, was embarked on a career that would marry longevity to consistent brilliance. With a tide of praise for Jewish writers, there was less water to buoy up their Gentile peers. One last bit of unfinished business, then, is to recognize Connell, a chronicler of American Protestant suffering, whose masterpiece, Mrs. Bridge, was published in 1959. That was the year of Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus and Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. It is not hard to see why Mrs. Bridge was overlooked. But it is time to make amends.”

THE NOVEL

Before Betty Friedan identified the plight of the suburban housewife and the “problem that knows no name”, Evan Connell created Mrs. Bridge, “probably the great feminist novel written by a man”, according to Oppenheimer. “Few American writers have been as promiscuous with their sympathy as Evan S. Connell. He has written prolifically, in fiction, essays, and unclassifiable prose poems, about the Protestants he grew up around but also about Jews, homosexuals, Spaniards during the Inquisition, New York City bohemians, and, in his 1984 best-seller Son of the Morning Star, General Custer. At times, he has deployed his imagination with almost willful perversity, as in his first-person account of criminality, The Diary of a Rapist. Yet the greatest of all his imaginative adventures is not in the Wild West, nor in pre-modern Europe, but in the middle-class Kansas City domus inhabited by India Bridge and her husband, Walter.

“India and Walter seem to have been born just before the turn of the century; they are raising children during Prohibition, and it’s those children who are the author’s peers: wild, illicit Ruth; frustrated, willful Carolyn; and eccentric, gentle Douglas.

“I can’t think of another novel in which a male author describes so generously an older woman; what has roused the author’s compassion is not a sister figure, or a daughter, but a mother. And we sympathize in equal measure with the impatient children and their mom, whom the children know could be so much more, and whose limitations they hope they have not inherited.”

THE AUTHOR

Evan Shelby Connell, Jr. was born in 1924 in Kansas City, Missouri, into the social milieu he immortalizes in Mrs. Bridge. His father, born in 1890, was a doctor, and his mother, Emily Fitch, born in 1899, was a society leader and the daughter of a prominent judge. His parents were of the same generation as the hero and heroine in the novel. Like the Bridges’ son Douglas, Connell had his schooling interrupted at the time of World War II. After he graduated from Southwest High School in Kansas City, he entered Dartmouth College in 1941, then served as a pilot in the U. S. Navy, and finished at the University of Kansas in 1947. He later studied creative writing at Columbia University and Stanford University, lived in Europe in the early 1950s, then settled in California.

For thirty-five years, Connell’s career was associated with San Francisco, where he was a founder of the literary magazine Contact and an elusive yet prominent figure in the city’s literary culture. A 1969 Life magazine feature about Connell shows the photogenic author in a variety of stylishly bohemian San Francisco settings. Prior to the commercial success of Son of the Morning Star, which was the basis of a television series, Connell held a day job as an interviewer in the municipal unemployment office. Beginning in the 1980s, he became one of the chief authors of the distinguished Northern California literary publishing house North Point Press. His Bridge novels were the basis of a 1990 film, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, starring his fans Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Since 1989, Connell has lived and worked in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Laurie Simmons

THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Laurie Simmons was born in Long Island, New York, in 1949. She received a B.F.A. degree from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia in 1971. She has won a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Widely exhibited and collected, her work is represented by the Sperone Westwater Gallery in New York. Simmons is married to the painter Carroll Dunham, who created prints for the Arion Press edition of The Alienist by Machado de Assis, published in 1998.

THE INTRODUCTION

Mark Oppenheimer is an author, editor, literary critic, and a Lecturer in English and Political Science at Yale University, where he is also director of the Yale Journalism Initiative. His books include Thirteen and a Day: the Bar Mitzvah Across America, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Religion in the Age of Counterculture, and the forthcoming Wisenheimer: Memories of an Articulate Childhood. An earlier critical essay on Evan Connell, “An Era of Awkward Repression”, appeared in The Believer.

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