Appreciating the Literary Alchemy of Evan Connell: He Wrote Novels, Short Stories, History Books, Reviews and Essays

From a Wall Street Journal book review by Marc Weingarten headlined “Finding Gold Everywhere”:

There has never been a more beautifully modulated book about the deep-freeze of a human soul than “Mrs. Bridge.” Evan S. Connell’s novel is a masterpiece of understatement, its story culled from glimpses of the title character’s drearily parochial existence as a lawyer’s wife and country-club matron in Kansas City, Mo., between the wars. India Bridge passes through the rapidly changing American scene in a kind of self-willed trance: “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?”

“Mrs. Bridge,” as it turned out, was prelude to a long and varied career in which Evan Connell produced novels, dozens of short stories, popular history books, reviews and essays. Despite his aversion to publicity and a life-long contempt for New York publishers, he wrote enduring words of fiction and nonfiction. The novels “Mrs. Bridge” and “Mr. Bridge” are still in print, as is “Son of the Morning Star,” Connell’s highly idiosyncratic account of Gen. Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

These few books notwithstanding, Connell’s large ouevre is mostly forgotten, his fiction (aside from the Bridge novels) rarely invoked by younger writers….Veteran journalist Steve Paul has made a valiant effort to resuscitate Connell’s status with “Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell,” the first full-length biography of the writer. For the most part, he has succeeded: Mr. Paul’s biography had me rifling second-hand stores in search of Connell rarities.

Connell’s childhood was conventional. His parents, Evan Sr. and Elton, were members in good standing of the stolid upper middle class, active in community affairs, anti-intellectual and unbookish. Determined to forge a life worth setting down on paper, Connell tore away from his family’s Midwestern life and its dull pieties to join the Naval Air Corps at the tail end of World War II, an experience he later mined for his fiction. If not for the war, Connell once claimed, “I would have graduated (from college) and gotten a job as a banker, and got married.”

It took years for Connell to find traction for his writing, yet he kept at it, collecting rejection letters as he traveled across the U.S. and Europe….According to Mr. Paul, the vital turn in Connell’s fortunes came over lunch in a Left Bank cafe with George Plimpton in 1954. Plimpton “got” Connell immediately; he would become his earliest and most important literary ally, publishing a handful of his short stories in the Paris Review, as well as a lengthy excerpt from the novel that would become “Mrs. Bridge.”

Despite Plimpton’s running start, publishers didn’t know what to make of “Mrs. Bridge,” in which Connell plumbed the memories of his repressed Missouri childhood and his mother, the eye surgeon’s wife for whom nothing of note ever happened. When Viking took a chance with the book in 1959, it made Connell’s career. “[Connell] tells her story, less in sketches than in paragraphs, and how it is done I only wish I knew,” Dorothy Parker wrote in her Esquire review. “He makes Mrs. Bridge, her husband and her children . . . moving, in a few taut words.”

After years of grinding it out, Connell could have cashed in on the success of the novel but he didn’t revisit the Bridge family for another decade. It seems Connell was interested in just about everything: “A thought,” Mr. Paul writes, “a seed of a story idea, stopped him in his tracks and sent him on an intellectual journey, a quest for revelation.” His life was a constant process of contraction and expansion, “a penchant for long-distance travel” coupled with “quests for meditative and sensory experiences” that fed into his work. So there were LSD trips in San Francisco, but also field trips to Central America and Cyprus….

He tried his hand at all sorts of writing. “Notes From a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel” (1963) is a hybrid of poetry, history and philosophy in which Connell reckons with 2,000 years of Western civilization and its discontents. “Diary of a Rapist,” a quietly violent novel based on the real story of a sexual assault in California, was outshone by that other true-crime book of 1966, “In Cold Blood.” Connell was convinced his work was superior. “Under certain conditions, an artist can become as powerless as a dead snake,” Connell wrote in a scathing review of Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel.”

Connell would have his blockbuster nearly two decades later, when “Son of the Morning Star” (1984) became his most commercially successful book. By that time, he was 30 years and 14 books into his career, a veteran who had managed to keep his outsider status while enjoying the fruits of his labor in the form of Hollywood money. “Morning Star” was adapted into a TV miniseries, while his dual portrait of marriage became the 1990 film “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Mr. Paul dilates on this period of Connell’s life…. Still, “Literary Alchemist” has pinned down a hard-to-pin-down character. If it draws more readers to Connell’s astonishing body of work, then Mr. Paul has done his job.


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