Issue 43 |
Fall 1987

Evan S. Connell: A Profile

"My own experience [as a writer] indicates that it is mostly a career of rejection and lost illusions," Evan Connell wrote in a letter to me three years ago. Considering the critical acclaim he's enjoyed over the past forty years (nominations for the National Book Award in both fiction and poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a nomination for the National Book Critics' Circle Award for non-fiction, among other honors), it's an oddly melancholy statement. But despite the respect with which his work has been received, Connell's career has been conducted largely in obscurity, without much in the way of popular success or public awareness. Even now, in the wake of his most recent (and most successful) book, Son of the Morning Star, which was a surprising hit a couple of years ago, Connell is still not widely known, and although a handful of his books have come back into print, and are selling respectably, his name still draws a blank at many bookstores.

In other words, his complaint about "rejection and lost illusions" isn't exactly groundless. I sympathize with him, and although a part of me wants to keep Connell to myself, as though he were an attractive neighborhood that had somehow managed to avoid greedy real estate developers, I'm continually puzzled by the fact that he remains largely undiscovered by the reading public.

I'd like to be able to say that my fascination with Evan Connell and his work stems strictly from my assessment of him as a writer, but in fact the original reason for my interest was that I went to his alma mater, Southwest High School in Kansas City, Missouri. I first saw Evan S. Connell in 1966, in the Hall of Fame photo display in the lobby; he stared out at me balefully over his typewriter, giving me the impression that he thought writing was serious business. That was how I felt about it, too, even though I hadn't really written anything yet. Connell's picture-his very existence-told me that writing and writers were real, that I could be a writer, too, that it could happen to someone from Southwest High School in Kansas City. I needed to be told that, because in the back of my mind lurked the suspicion that all good writers were from the Lower East Side of New York.

While I was still in high school, I read Mrs. Bridge. It was Connell's first novel, still his most famous, and probably the one work against which his subsequent books have been measured. I remember the exhilaration of confronting his prose for the first time in that novel; it was the most precise use of language, the cleverest collection of ironies I had ever encountered. My reaction was - and continues to be - shared by readers and critics alike. A bestseller when it was first published in 1959, Mrs. Bridge continues to sell well in its new North Point Press edition, and is regularly listed among the greatest American novels ever written.

The output - and the range - of his work have been impressive: six novels; three collections of short stories; two book-length poems; two collections of essays on arcane historical subjects; and Son of the Morning Star, a long historical work combining an account of the Plains Indian wars with a study of Custer and the battle of Little Bighorn. Through it all, he has remained essentially a writer's writer - careful, conscientious, word-obsessed, never sensational, meticulous in his craft. Not all of his books are great, but not one of them is dishonest or slipshod or showy. Several are, in fact, great: the Bridge novels, the poems, and the Custer epic; two more novels, Diary of a Rapist and The Connoisseur, fall just below these. Taken together, Evan Connell's fourteen books show a consistent quality, a quiet excellence few authors of his generation can match.

A few years ago, when I was living in San Francisco, I called Evan Connell at his home in Sausalito and asked him out for a beer. Over the phone he sounded weary, suspicious, but willing to talk. I used my Southwest High School connection as a sort of foot in the door, but as it turned out, it wasn't necessary. In fact, he didn't seem very interested in school ties, except for the fact that I'd had the same French teacher he'd had, even though we attended Southwest some twenty-six years apart.

For most of the afternoon, we sat and talked and drank beer in Paterson's, a bar on Sausalito's main street. The barmaids seemed to regard him as a regular - just another middle-aged guy who came in every week or so to hoist a few. He struck me as one of the most tight-lipped men I'd ever met. Words slipped out of his mouth surreptitiously, one by one, like a succession of convicts going over the wall. I asked him a lot of questions, and considering the fact that he'd probably heard most of them before, his answers were gracious and respectful. No, he had no advice for a younger writer, other than to stop writing unless writing was something I felt I really had to do. Yes, he'd look at a story or two if I'd send them to him. No, he couldn't recommend magazines to me. His own stories, he said, had always had a hard time finding their way into print. Some were still floating around, from literary magazine to literary magazine, having been searching for a home for years.

Over the next couple of years we kept in touch; it was during this period that Son of the Morning Star was published, and Connell's fortunes took a dramatic turn for the better. The book turned into a bestseller for North Point Press, a small publishing house in Berkeley. More than just a successful book, Son of the Morning Star became a kind of oddity: a serious historical study by an author unknown to the general public, which somehow appeared on the New York Times bestseller list - and stayed there. Articles began to appear on Connell and North Point Press, and for a time it seemed possible that the celebrity which had always eluded him might finally be coming his way. It was around that time that I called Connell and suggested we get together again, this time to do a proper interview. I was a bit afraid he'd say no, weary of all the recent publicity. But he was as gracious as ever, and readily agreed to answer my questions.

Evan S. Connell was born in 1924, in Kansas City, where his father was a prominent physician, his mother a judge's daughter, well-known as a figure in Kansas City society. This genteel, wealthy background is portrayed - and subtly satirized - in Mrs. Bridge (1959) and its companion novel, Mr. Bridge (1969), which together form a brilliantly realistic portrait of upper-middle-class America. Judging from these novels, which Connell admits are autobiographical in origin if not in detail, as a boy he was quiet, by turns attentive and dreamy, and, in general, slightly out of place among the maids and gardeners and lawn parties of his parents' social set. Life as the heir to one of Kansas City's most illustrious names must have been difficult for this shy boy - Connell still speaks of the city, and of his upbringing, with some bitterness.

At Dartmouth, where he'd started out as a pre-med student, Connell began writing short stories, eventually sending them out and receiving rejection letters in return. "My father of course wanted me to become a doctor and take over his office," Connell recalled, "but he was not adamant." Whatever disappointment the family may have felt in Connell's change of interests was put on hold in 1943, when he left school and enlisted in the Navy. His stint in the service proved a turning point, providing not only the chance to return to college later on the G.I. Bill, but also supplying him with the material for what would become his second novel, The Patriot (1960), a book about the adventures of a young man as he tries to become a naval aviator during World War II.

After the war Connell came home ready to return to school - but not to Dartmouth. Instead, he chose the University of Kansas, where he got his B.A. in English in 1947. It remains his only academic degree, though he went on to study both creative writing and art at Stanford, then at Columbia. At Stanford he worked with Wallace Stegner, won Stanford's $500 Edith Mirrielees Award for fiction, and began to publish his stories. From the very beginning, Connell's work was noticed; his stories won additional prizes, appeared in small but respected magazines, and were reprinted in O. Henry Prize Stories annual anthologies.

While still at Columbia, Connell got a letter from literary agent Elizabeth McKee, who had read his work in magazines. That letter began a business relationship - and a friendship - that have continued, unabated, for nearly forty years. "I don't think we've had much disagreement about my work," he told me. "A long time ago I attempted to write what I thought were saleable 'commercial' stories. [Elizabeth] thought they were pretty bad and was reluctant to send them around. No doubt she was right. Eventually I understood that for better or worse I should write about what truly interested me."

After Columbia, Connell went to Europe, seeing a dozen countries in two years. More than half that time was spent in Paris, where he arrived at a propitious time. He fell in with a crowd of young American expatriates, most of them trying their hands at writing, painting, sculpture, or music. Among them, George Plimpton was to become one of the more important, in large part because he started, with a couple of friends, The Paris Review, which in the first few years of its publishing life featured early short stories by little-known writers such as Philip Roth, Terry Southern, Samuel Beckett - and Evan S. Connell.

The cafe society of his fellow expatriates didn't hold much attraction for Connell, however, and by 1955 he was back in the United States, living in San Francisco, doing odd jobs such as clerking in a shipyard to help make ends meet. Over the next few years, as the Beat generation made San Francisco its spiritual home, and North Beach erupted into the center of America's underground culture, Evan Connell worked quietly on his stories and his first two novels. He lived in the city, but just as in Paris, he felt no sense of community with the other writers and artists living there. "I used to visit City Lights Bookshop," he remembered, "[and] would go to North Beach for dinner. Never saw Kerouac. I've met Ginsberg two or three times since then, have been acquainted with Ferlinghetti for some years. But I'm not a part of any group, belong to no organizations."

His insistence on not being part of the Beat scene is borne out by the writing in "The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge," a collection of twelve vignettes about a Kansas City matron, published in The Paris Review in 1955. In contrast to Kerouac's free and sprawling prose, Connell's language is tight and pristine. His concerns may well have been similar to those of the Beat writers-the moral emptiness of American values, the bankruptcy of middle-class dreams and mores-but his technique reflects a deeper aesthetic concern, a mistrust of the Beats' characteristic lack of discipline and unbridled enthusiasm.

This need for concreteness, and for the clarity of language that supported it, had been a part of Connell's fiction from the beginning, but in "The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge," and another, related story, "Mademoiselle from Kansas City," published in the San Francisco literary magazine, Contact, in 1958, his use of small fragments elevated the effectiveness of his prose to a new level. He had found a voice in these vignettes, a cool, sharp, detached, deadpan delivery. Reading the tiny chapters is like seeing a succession of matches being struck in the dark, each one illuminating a scene with its brief flare.

In 1957, Viking published The Anatomy Lesson and Other Stories to generally favorable reviews. Webster Schott's fullpage essay in The New Republic was representative in its careful praise: "[Connell] knows how to make plots and what service to expect of them. He is committed to the idea that the business of the short story is to define human character." Connell had been writing with persistence and growing skill for well over ten years at this point, and now, with the publication of The Anatomy Lesson, he was being talked about as one of his generation's most promising young writers.

The following year marked the debut of Contact, now largely forgotten, but in its day one of the most exciting literary magazines in the United States. The first issue contained "Mademoiselle from Kansas City"; it was the beginning of the fullest, most participatory relationship Connell ever established with a magazine. Contact's pages, during the almost seven years of its life, featured some of the best writers of the day: Donald Barthelme, John Updike, Wallace Stegner, William Stafford, R. V. Cassill, and Kenneth Rexroth were among early contributors. Its masthead was just as impressive: Nelson Algren, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, S. I. Hayakawa, Wallace Stegner, and William Carlos Williams were among the advisory editors.

In 1959 Evan Connell joined this group. Becoming a member of the staff must have been hard for him; it is the only instance of sustained communal activity in his entire career. Perhaps he felt an obligation to support a local outlet for literary talent, an alternative to the New York-based literary establishment for which his feelings had always been ambivalent. It was a momentous year in Connell's life; his first novel, Mrs. Bridge, had come out to excited reviews, and had become a bestseller for Viking. The Patriot, Connell's second novel, was finished and being readied for publication the following year. It was a year of surplus-the kind of year in which even the most solitary of men might think of lending himself to an effort larger than his own life.

Connell's association with Contact was generally an agreeable one; the six years he put in at the magazine were among the most fruitful and productive of his career, and one distinct advantage of the arrangement was that Contact offered him a place to publish his new work- Notes From a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel. It appeared first in Contact 3, in 1959, as a short piece labeled "fiction"; three years later, now much expanded, it took over nearly an entire issue of the magazine.

Fiction or not, it looked like poetry. The ragged right margin certainly said "poem" to most readers, and the language of the piece, in addition to its fragmentary structure, certainly helped strengthen that impression. "I've never referred to them as poetry," Connell told me, "them" meaning both Notes From a Bottle and its sequel, Points for a Compass Rose, "but they end up in the poetry section. I've never made any claims to being a poet."

Not knowing how to categorize Notes, or how to market it, Viking had been, in Connell's words, "terrified of it." Publication in Contact provided him with the leverage he needed to convince Viking to bring it out in book form, and in 1963, Viking's edition of Notes From a Bottle was published. It was not widely reviewed, and although the attention it did manage to attract was almost unanimously respectful, the book did not sell well, and Notes From a Bottle was the last of his work to be published by Viking.

Contact, which had been sinking for some time under the increasing weight of debt, folded after its twenty-first issue, in 1965. In an interview four years later, Connell was still bitter about the magazine's demise. "We'd hear from everyone about how important the magazine was, how beautiful it looked and so on," he recalled. "And then we'd have to beg in order to insure survival. We'd write to foundations, but most of them wouldn't even answer."

Nineteen sixty-five also saw the publication of Connell's second volume of short stories, At the Crossroads, brought out by Simon and Schuster. As with his previous books, the reviews were thoughtful and serious-but there was an unhappy pattern emerging in Evan Connell's career. The Virginia Quarterly Review that Autumn noted that

Despite the success of his novel, Mrs. Bridge, and the growing underground reputation of his brilliant long poem, Notes From a Bottle . . . Evan S. Connell Jr., has yet to get the popular reputation which his work merits. The reason may lie perhaps in the curiously indefinable quality of his fiction, which is in many respects ordinarily if sensitively realistic, but also partakes of a nearly surreal fancy.

Poor Evan Connell-such a good writer and nobody reads him. It became a refrain echoed in review after review. Just past forty, working then as an interviewer for the California State Unemployment Office, he must have felt a growing sense of gloom, heightened by the demise of Contact, perhaps also by his daily interaction with unemployed laborers.

It was at just about this time that I first encountered Evan Connell's picture in the Hall of Fame in Southwest High School's lobby. His own dreams of literary success must have been wearing a bit thin, just as mine, thanks in part to him, or my image of him, were starting to flower.

Out of this period of discouragement and isolation came Connell's third novel, The Diary of a Rapist (1966). It is the story of a year in the life of Earl Summerfield, who works, as Connell himself did, as an interviewer in the California State Unemployment Office in San Francisco. Obsessed by violence, sexual violence in particular, Summerfield snips lurid news stories from the local paper and records them in his diary, amidst his own increasingly paranoid observations on women and sex. The diary entries, much like the vignettes of Mrs. Bridge and the fragments of Notes From a Bottle, work like pieces of a mosaic; they accumulate slowly, setting up patterns and echoes, building tension, so that eventually each day, each entry, becomes far more harrowing than its own brief bit of material could be in isolation. The effect is so powerful that when the rape actually occurs, the utter silence-for there is no entry for that date-sounds like a scream.

Some reviewers, impressed with the book's seriousness and the frightening realism with which it portrayed the protagonist's psychological decay, likened Diary of a Rapist to Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. Literary quarterlies paid respectful attention to the novel-but reviews in quarterlies were not enough to turn Diary of a Rapist into a success.

However small his earnings from his writing and the variety of jobs he held, Connell did manage to save enough money to take a long trip; he was gone for over a year, travelling around the world. Something about the trip - perhaps the distance he'd put between himself and his life back home - allowed him to return in his imagination to the material of his own boyhood in Kansas City. The result was Mr. Bridge (1969), a companion to the earlier book, but a much darker, more brooding novel. Here Connell's memory of his upbringing is informed more by bitterness than gentle irony. The result is a novel more deeply felt, more complex, more eloquently sad than its predecessor. Taken together, Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge form a curious double exposure, like a photograph taken once in shadow, once in light. The two of them transcend the fragility of their structure; they're sturdy novels, they hold up, they pass the test of enduring readability. As much as any work by a writer of Connell's generation, these two novels are likely to live on as classics in our literature.

In the years following the considerable critical and financial success of Mr. Bridge, Evan Connell turned his attention to a sequel to Notes From a Bottle, eventually published in 1973 as Points for a Compass Rose. In March of the next year, the book was nominated for a National Book Award for Poetry. The most overtly political of Connell's books, the most strident of his voices, Points for a Compass Rose remains his favorite among all his books - the one for which he'd most like to be remembered.

Connell's growing interest in pre-Columbian art led him to a return to conventional fiction in his next book, The Connoisseur, a novel published by Knopf in 1974. It is a story about obsession and lust - specifically the protagonist's obsession with pre-Columbian artifacts, and his lust for "the real thing" - genuine art as opposed to faked reproductions. Two years later came a companion piece, Double Honeymoon, again the story of obsession, this time an exploration of a destructive May-December love affair. It is a less successful novel than The Connoisseur, though still full of wit, its characters sharply drawn, some of its scenes as good as anything he'd written. Double Honeymoon remains the last novel - the last conventional fiction of any length - that Evan Connell has written.

His energies have been unflagging, however. In the eleven years since the publication of Double Honeymoon, he has produced a literary duet of sorts, A Long Desire and The White Lantern, two volumes of essays on diverse historical subjects, plus Son of the Morning Star. During this time, North Point Press has brought out a volume of Connell's short stories, Saint Augustine's Pigeon (some of the contents reprinted from the two earlier story collections), plus handsome new editions of Mrs. Bridge, Mr. Bridge, Notes From a Bottle, Points for a Compass Rose, and The Connoisseur. The Custer book, of course, has earned a readership far beyond the usual bounds of Connell's literary audience. It is, however, a book very much like his novels and his poems, in its meandering narrative, its dry wit, its obsessive concern with the relation between myth and truth, and most of all, its sheer storytelling mastery. "Now we have the story of Gen. George Armstrong Custer as Flaubert would have written it," Thomas D'Evelyn wrote in The Christian Science Monitor. And that assessment strikes at the heart of what makes Son of the Morning Star so much more than just another book about the Old West. The novelist's fascination with the unknowable, his insider's understanding of the machinery by which we construct the fiction of our lives, comes face to face with the mystery of what really happened at the Little Bighorn, and, more importantly, what those events, and the larger sweep of the Plains Indian wars, had to do with the construction of our national myth, the image of ourselves that found its way into our history books. It is that complexity which makes Son of the Morning Star so readable - in fact, fascinating - even for those who know and care very little about Custer.

*     *      *

Nearly sixty-three now, Evan Connell is an imposing figure; he's an inch or so over six feet tall, and seems a bit taller because of his lean build. His matinee idol good looks have aged and weathered gracefully - he is still handsome, but there is now an austerity in the rugged seams of his face, a hooded, disappointed cast to his eyes. His physical appearance is tidy and trim, his moustache and minimalist goatee clipped with professional precision, his clothing, though not stylish at all, still apparently picked with care.

Connell speaks in a deep mutter, each sentence seeming to come out at the end of a long breath, with very little force behind it, so that his words don't carry very far, and listeners tend to lean in to catch what he's saying. His manner is reserved and laconic but never absent; there's an intensity in that silence. More than anything, his manner is marked by a dogged honesty, an unwillingness to romanticize anything about his life or his work. That unwillingness itself could become a stance, a false front, but Connell seems genuinely uninterested in portraying himself in that role, or any other. Aside from his occasional reluctance to remember specific details about his life, he was, or appeared to be, scrupulously honest throughout our talks - never self-deprecating, never self-aggrandizing, in fact most often talking of his own life and career as though it had all happened to someone else.

For over ten years now, Connell has lived in Sausalito, just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge. His apartment is in a modern building perched atop a hill overlooking a seedy low-income housing development and a weekend flea market. The apartment itself, were it not for the spectacular view it commands of Sausalito and the bay, could be in any of a thousand similar stucco and cement complexes scattered everywhere across suburban America. Its small, square, white-walled rooms are characterless and unremarkable. In fact, except for the dozen or so pieces of pre-Columbian pottery carefully displayed in his living room and the arrangement of his writing desk and books in the study, everything in Connell's tidy apartment looks as though it might have been rented last week from one of those furniture stores catering to young singles.

In the study, a worn wooden table holds his Olympia portable typewriter, a manual he's lugged with him on many travels. A couple of small bookshelves, made of bricks and painted boards, hold works by Connell's good friends Don Carpenter, Herbert Gold, and Kay Boyle, along with books by Melville, Lawrence, Mann, and other classics. A copy of the Boy Scout Handbook is in there, too. His own books take over another bookcase - a whole shelf of them, some in French, Dutch, Spanish, and Italian versions. (He took out the Italian edition of Diary of a Rapist to show me its cover, which has a picture of him - as the rapist. "The publisher kept looking for a suitable picture," Connell told me, "and finally decided that I looked right for the part.") Leaning against the wall atop one of the bookcases is a memento of The Connoisseur, a fake Olmec mask made of jade, which he'd been duped into thinking was genuine. "I was going to get rid of it when I found out," he said, "but I'd gotten sort of attached to it."

In a profession noted for its flamboyant characters, Evan Connell stands only for his quiet unwillingness to stand out; he is, in fact, eccentric (although I imagine he would hate the term being used in connection with him), but it is an eccentricity totally lacking in dramatic potential. Of his generation, there are those writers who will talk about anything - Norman Mailer, for instance - and those who will talk about nothing - like J. D. Salinger. As much as anything, Connell's refusal to join either of these camps might account for the fact that he has never caught the imagination of a broad segment of the reading public. Of course, his unwillingness to give readings or lectures, or to participate at all in the New York-based literary establishment, have also greatly affected his career, cutting him off from public awareness that might have translated into earlier and more enduring commercial success.

Beyond his personality and lifestyle, Connell's work itself is problematic. Writers such as John Updike and Philip Roth have staked out a readily identifiable fictional territory for themselves, providing critics and readers with a convenient label to hang on them and their work. Connell has not established any such territory, and as a result, readers, reviewers, and literary scholars as well, have simply not known quite what to do with him. Not accessible enough to appeal to a mass audience, not obscure enough to provide scholars with sufficient grist for their mill, Connell's writing has consistently fallen into cracks in the system.

The years of neglect have left him with a remarkably placid attitude toward life. Now that his reputation, thanks to Son of the Morning Star; is somewhat wider and higher than it was when I first met him, I was curious to know if he hoped readers would go back and rediscover his earlier books. "Sure, I hope so," he said quietly. "But after you've been doing this for a number of years, you get philosophical about it. You finish one thing and go on to the next, and whatever happens, happens."

He is hard at work on his next book, tentatively titled The Alchemist's Journal. "It's in more or less the same form as Points for a Compass Rose and Notes From a Bottle," he told me, "but it's about a fictitious alchemist in the fifteenth and sixteenth century." As with each of his previous books, he's writing The Alchemist's Journal without a contract, without an advance, strictly on speculation. No one looking over his shoulder that way, he told me, no feeling of obligation to a particular publishing house, beyond the fulfillment of a first-refusal option. The years of financial uncertainty, the drudgery of odd jobs just to make ends meet, all of that is past him now. Frugal habits, careful investments and the whopping royalties from Son of the Morning Star, plus book club and paperback sales, have combined to make him financially secure. Has it changed his everyday life at all? "No, not in any way I can think of," he told me. I waited for him to go on a bit, but of course that was the end of his answer. Short, laconic, totally lacking in self-dramatization - a vintage Connell reply.

After the interview was over and my tape recorder was turned off, Connell showed me a few of his pre-Columbian pieces and pulled an old oil painting he'd done years before out of the closet. I asked if I might take a few pictures of him, and he reluctantly agreed, posing with a dour, lifeless stare that reminded me of the picture of him hanging in the lobby of Southwest High School. Trying to get him to loosen up a bit, I said, "I saw a picture of you recently - on the back of the paperback edition of Son of the Morning Star - and you were actually almost smiling in it!"

"I don't like that picture very much," he said.

Just before I left he called me over to the sliding glass doors in the living room. They led out to a tiny balcony which overlooked the hillside below. It was a rainy December day, and a cold mist hung in the air. "It's hard to believe," he said, "but deer still come around the hills up here every now and then."

I stared down at the gully and thought that it did, indeed, sound improbable. The empty parking lot of the flea market was off to the left, the stream of traffic on Highway 101 in the distance. But as if they'd been waiting for Connell's cue, three deer appeared down below his apartment, nosing among the brambles in the ravine there, looking fragile and absurdly out of place against the suburban sprawl of Sausalito.