Evan S. Connell. Mrs. Bridge, 1959.
Evan S. Connell. The Connoisseur, 1974.
Evan S. Connell. Son of the Morning Star, 1984.
Available from Powell’s, a unionized bookstore.
There’s a memorable vignette in Evan S. Connell’s novel, Mrs. Bridge. Mrs. Bridge’s daughter Ruth has moved out from Kansas City and gotten a job in publishing, and now she’s in New York, thinking about her mother while getting screwed by some guy from the office. The scene is a pendant to a previous passage in which Mrs. Bridge, newly married, discovers that sex offers no outlet for her feelings. Unrepressed, Sex-in-the-City sex and repressed Kansas City-style sex are pretty much alike in Connell's America; but only the earlier passage is quoted in a callous New York Times obituary for Connell, who died last week.
Connell was not a successful writer, says the Times; and goes on to enumerate the ways in which he wasn’t, while not enumerating the ways in which he was: a finalist for the National Book Award, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a finalist for the International Man Booker Award for Lifetime Achievement, etc. As in a Henry James short story, the question is left floating, whether the Times’ idea of success is not in itself a moral failure. One reviewer (quoted in the same obituary) called another collection of Connell’s "an unsettled glimpse of its author, with whom we can't quite come to terms," adding: “It’s a vivid metaphor for Connell’s career.” Or, in Rollingstoneese, “What’s confusing you is the nature of his game.”
Let me help. Imagine a couple of journalists from the New York Times, in bed, say for instance Judy Miller and "Pinch" Sulzberger; imagine either one confronted with the vignettes from Mrs. Bridge. Now imagine either one coming out with the reaction that I've heard, time and again, from women readers: “My God! It’s my mother!” and beyond that: “This could be me!” The clueless are first and foremost clueless about themselves, and that's your clue to Connell.
Mrs. Bridge has been a cult classic for the past fifty-four years, which disqualifies it from the Times' definition of a best-seller: the publishing-industrial complex has a deep dislike for books that sell consistently over decades because their own operating model requires a huge influx of capital to build up a quickie cash flow. If that influx of capital weren’t necessary, why anyone could compete with Harper, or Hachette, or the New York Times! The one certifiable bestseller Connell wrote, Son of the Morning Star, is a biography of George Armstrong Custer that shows him to be a pompous, sadistic, and clueless boss-man. My God! It could be.... Never mind.
Son of the Morning Star was published in 1984 by a mid-level press. One indicator of Connells’s so-called unsuccess is the number of publishers he had, not the number of readers: it's not so much that he didn't sell, it's that Clueless-Americans don't like to be reminded of how clueless they are unless it's couched in masturbation jokes and involves a talking dog to establish credibility. Here’s the Times’ clueless quote of Connell explaining why he wrote the Custer book:
Just about all the kids in this country grew up on cowboys and Indians….When I grew up in Kansas City, you could send in box tops — from Quaker Oats, I think — and get something like a color picture of Sitting Bull.
A connoisseur of Connell will recognize the allusion to another passage in Mrs. Bridge, in which the wife of a Kansas City banker gets drunk at a party and denounces the treatment of American Indians:
—and the Modocs and the Nez Percé! And the Mimbreno Apache, the Teton Sioux, and Custer’s deliberate violation of the treaty of eighteen-sixty-eight and—
Shortly thereafter, her son is harassed and her husband starts to lose clients; eventually she commits suicide. My God! This could be me! If I don't watch my step it might well yet...
In the literature of the European Middle Ages there is no clear distinction between History and Fiction; both are heuristic: that is, both serve a practical and moral purpose. Connell wrote fiction as well as History, which could only cause confusion among those who pretend to tell the two apart. The purpose of much medieval literature was to guide the reader through a series of progressive steps: “My God! This could be me!” And beyond that: “My God! These events must have some meaning for me!”
Connell's a Jamesian without the Jamesian touch. His non-white, non middle-class characters are often sketchy; he has a poor ear for dialogue, and like James he tends to avoid the direct quotation. Often there are no quote marks at all: as in James, the moral perception is not so much a perception from a single confident ego, it’s a shared moral and epistemological dimension. In the Connoisseur a middle-aged executive is drawn into the evanescent, shifting world of his own subjectivity as he focuses on the authentification of Mayan Art. The hero's sense of self, his doubts and guilt and suspicion amidst his emerging love of art, are not the product and property of an individual ego, they're shared across a wide social spectrum. That’s not the kind of Art Appreciation you’re going to get from Holland Cotter.
In another gloating swipe the Times implies that Connell worked at a series of menial jobs. Perhaps he did; so did Spinoza, who continued to work as a glass polisher after turning down a prestigious teaching post. Did Connell work these jobs because he couldn’t get a legitimate middle-class job as a teacher, or a journalist, or a reviewer, maybe? Or is it that he preferred not to? Or is it a combination of the two, where the one could not, would not be sacrificed for the other? As Jean Cocteau put it, “It’s not enough to turn down the Legion of Honor; the main thing is, to never have deserved it.”
[1/14/2013; last revised 1/27/2013.]
- Paul Werner
with a contribution by Beth Gersh-Nesic.
The pattern in his shag.