Connell, Evan S(helby), Jr.
CONNELL, Evan S(helby), Jr.
(b. 17 August 1924 in Kansas City, Missouri), author of fact and fiction who successfully experimented in documentary-style novels, building stories out of short vignettes in collage or mosaic style; his novels Mrs. Bridge, Mr. Bridge, and Diary of a Rapist are among his most acclaimed works.
Connell was born into a genteel and wealthy Kansas City family; his mother was the daughter of a judge, and his father was a prominent physician. He was a premedical student at Dartmouth College from 1941 to 1943, where he began writing short stories. In 1943 he joined the U.S. Navy and became a pilot and flight instructor. In 1947 he entered the University of Kansas on the GI Bill, attained his B.A. in English, and then enrolled in graduate studies in art and creative writing at Stanford and Columbia Universities. Connell, the author of twenty-one books by the year 2000, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, the California Literature silver medal, and the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement award, among many other citations. Even so, he remains relatively obscure among the general public. "My own experience indicates that [writing] is mostly a career of rejection and lost illusions," Connell wrote in a letter to Gerald Shapiro, who published a profile of the author in Ploughshares.
In the early 1950s Connell traveled extensively throughout Europe, spending much time in Paris, where he associated with other young Americans pursuing interests in the arts. A relative loner, however, Connell found little satisfaction in mingling with this set, and in 1955 he settled in San Francisco, working various jobs to eke out a living. As the city became the hub of the underground Beat culture, Connell remained detached. "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," he commented to Shapiro. He committed his spare time to writing short stories and his first two novels, Mrs. Bridge (1958) and The Patriot (1960).
Mrs. Bridge became an immediate best-seller and is considered by many critics the benchmark against which his subsequent books are assessed. India Bridge, wife of a successful lawyer and mother of three in the post–World War II era, is bored, dominated by materialism, and hung up on the social graces. This documentary fiction depicts Mrs. Bridge's life through a series of 117 short vignettes, "each one carefully shaped into an epiphany—on the theme of Mrs. Bridge's existential imprisonment," commented Donovan Hohn in Harper's Magazine. He quoted Connell from an interview: "[F]or most of us, our lives do not reach a dramatic climax.… Most of us just go on … through major and minor trials and defeats. And finally time runs out."
That year Connell joined the staff, and ultimately became the editor, of Contact, a new San Francisco literary magazine and one of the most progressive in the country. He remained with the magazine for six years, the only major collaborative effort in his otherwise solitary career. The magazine permitted a forum for his new work, Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel, fictional prose that many called poetry. First published as a short piece in 1959, a much-expanded version published again in 1962 filled almost the entire magazine. Difficulty defining the work—fiction, as Connell claimed, or poetry, as others saw it—stalled its publication in book form until 1963. The book received scant but positive critical attention and sold poorly. Notes is a mosaic-style novel in which the protagonist is a mythic note-taker who, according to Hohn, accumulates "a jumble of textual fragments as … intricately patterned as the shards of a kaleidoscope.… Connell is at heart a deeply moral writer, a clear-eyed humanist grievously disappointed with his species."
By this time Connell was forty. His writing style, viewed as contrary and inaccessible, made publication of his works difficult. When they were published, they were neither widely reviewed nor read. Contact magazine failed financially in 1965, the year in which his second volume of short stories, At the Crossroads, was published. As with his previous works, it received few, albeit positive, reviews, and gained but a small readership. This was a period of isolation and discouragement for Connell, who still had to earn a living interviewing the unemployed at the California State Unemployment Office. He was also, however, working on his extraordinary novel, Diary of a Rapist, published in 1966. The novel documents the daily entries into a scrap-book by twenty-six-year-old Earl Summerfield who, like Connell, was an interviewer at the California State Unemployment Office. Discontented with his job and rejected by his ambitious ex-wife, Summerfield becomes obsessed with violence and clips sordid newspaper stories of violent crimes, daily writing his own feelings toward women and sex in his journal. Shapiro described the tension built by the accumulation of entries thus: "[E]ach day … becomes … more harrowing.… The effect is so powerful that when the rape actually occurs, the utter silence—there is no entry for that date—sounds like a scream." Shapiro also noted that because of the psychological decay experienced by the protagonist, Diary of a Rapist has been likened to Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground.
With the 1969 publication of Mr. Bridge, the companion novel to Mrs. Bridge, Connell again personified his perception of the idle rich. Shapiro called Mr. Bridge a "darker, more brooding novel. Here Connell's memory of his up-bringing is informed more by bitterness than gentle irony." A critic for Playboy described it as "a brilliant dissection of the quintessential small-town WASP—performed under the light of high art, with irony, insight, and bleak pity." Hohn commented that the two Bridge books, which in 1990 were made into a movie starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, express Connell's "desire, at once radical and old-fashioned, to represent human existence as accurately and as fully as possible."
While continuing to write fiction, Connell captured widespread notoriety and achieved financial success (paper-back rights were sold for $200,000) with his 1984 nonfictional best-seller, Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn. Called by Greg Bottoms "possibly the most unique historical essay ever published," the book was initially rejected by several publishers. Connell followed his 1991 novel, The Alchymist's Journal, considered particularly inaccessible, with Deus Lo Volt!: A Chronicle of the Crusades, published in 2000. Bottoms declared this historic work "like no other novel written…its remarkable and subtle intelligence is awe-inspiring."
In 2001, while conducting an interview for Bookforum with the reclusive Connell via letters, Bottoms commented to the author that several critics have called him "a bit of a liberal crank, someone out to debunk or subvert what we've come to view as our history, our origins." Connell replied: "'Liberal crank' isn't much of an epithet. Anyway, I've never decided to debunk or subvert, not unless that means pointing out lies and hypocrisy."
Hohn noted that "Connell aspires to see all, the most disturbing expressions of human nature as well as the beautiful and marvelous." In this respect, he compared Connell to Proust, noting that one of the final vignettes in Mrs. Bridge is called "Remembrance of Things Past." Hohn commented that while Proust explored deeply, Connell explores more widely. "It is humanity's past, and not merely his own, that Connell wishes to recover," wrote Hohn.
A critique of Connell's major works, along with his personal perspectives, can be found in his interviews with Gerald Shapiro for Ploughshares (fall 1987) and with Greg Bottoms for Bookforum (winter 2001). Donovan Hohn, in Harper's Magazine (Dec. 2001), wrote an insightful essay on Connell and his works.
Marie L. Thompson