Evan Connell has died, “of old age,” according to a relative. He was 88 at the time of his death last week in Santa Fe.
I didn’t know Evan Connell’s work, except from Ken Fields, who recently mentioned Mrs. Bridge as a masterpiece. Apparently Wallace Stegner thought so, too. He called it “a hell of a portrait…She’s as real and as pathetic and as sad as any character I have read in a long time.”
Connell, the author of 18 books, was a student of Stegner’s during his time at Stanford in the 1940s. And Stegner was his first publisher: Stanford Short Stories: Nineteen Forty-Nine (Stanford University Press), edited by Stegner from submissions by Stanford students, contains the first book appearance of a work by Connell.
The road to Stanford was not an easy one. Connell was the son and grandson of physicians, and his father did not take easily to the idea that his only son would not follow in his footsteps. According to the Los Angeles Times:
He was a pre-med student at Dartmouth, which he attended from 1941 to 1943, but ultimately decided against following in his elders’ footsteps. This did not please his father, whom Connell described as “a rather severe man.”
“He was concerned that I would never be able to make a living at this kind of thing,” Connell, in a 2000 interview with the Associated Press, said of writing. “It was a justifiable concern, I think. I grew up in a home where there was no music, no interest in any of the arts.”
He dropped out of Dartmouth and joined the Navy, training as an aviator at a base near Albuquerque, where he fell in love with the vastness of the West. After completing his military service, he studied painting on the GI Bill and traveled, living in France during the 1950s and writing for the Paris Review.
Usually, Connell’s first published work is credited as the critically acclaimed The Anatomy Lesson and Other Stories (1957). His first novel, Mrs. Bridge (1959), according to the Man Booker Prize website, “dissects the life of a conventional upper-middle-class Kansas City matron who lacks a sense of purpose and conforms blindly to what is expected of her.” Connell published Mr. Bridge a decade later, retelling the same story from the husband’s p.o.v.
According to the Los Angeles Times obituary:
He initially wrote Mrs. Bridge rather conventionally, with about 15 chapters, but it was rejected by numerous publishers in part because it lacked a climax. That was his intention, Connell said, because “our lives do not reach a dramatic climax in the way that books usually do. Most of us just go on day to day through major and minor trials and defeats. And finally time runs out.”
He restructured the novel as a series of 117 vignettes, which paint a devastating portrait of a woman puzzled by the emptiness of the small world she inhabits. The novel was “one of the very few written since World War II that clearly deserves to be called, as it has been, a masterpiece,” William H. Nolte wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.
Connell followed the same theme and structure a decade later in the companion novel, Mr. Bridge. Some critics found it darker and more satirical than the first novel because the main character, Mrs. Bridge’s joyless lawyer husband, was far less likable than his wife.
Both novels became the 1990 film Mr. and Mrs. Bridge with the husband-and-wife team of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Success didn’t spoil him. Again according to the L.A. Times: “Despite the success of the Bridge novels, Connell held a number of odd jobs to get by. He delivered mail, read gas meters and was a counselor at an unemployment office. In his exceedingly dark 1966 novel The Diary of a Rapist, the main character is working in an unemployment office when he goes crazy.”
Connell’s bestselling 1984 biography of Custer, Son of the Morning Star also earned praise and became a 1991 mini-series. Larry McMurtry, writing in the New York Review of Books, said the book was “one of the few masterpieces to concern itself with the American West” and particularly noteworthy for its portrayals of the Native Americans. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times also called it a masterpiece with a “lasting visceral resonance.”
Connell told the New York Times: “‘ There are two explanations for writing the book. Just about all the kids in this country grew up on cowboys and Indians. Maybe now it’s ‘Star Wars,’ but 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.
“As far as this project goes,” he continued, “a few years ago I was sitting in a saloon wondering what to write next. I didn’t have any ideas for a novel, and for years whenever I couldn’t manufacture something successful, I simply worked on a subject that interested me. And the Old West came to mind.”
Connell won the $100,000 Lannan Literary Award in 2000 and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2010. He was nominated for a Man Booker lifetime achievement award in 2009. But I can find nothing else online about his time at Stanford.
Postscript on 1/16: D.G. Myers has an excellent piece on Evan Connell’s oeuvre over at The Commonplace Blog. “Connell’s message is that superficial lives are superficial not by accident but by intention…” Check it out here.