“Imaging . . . is properly the work of a poet; the
[rest] he borrows horn the historian.”
Here is an unAmerican story. A young man writes a successful novel. Thousands of Americans, in the oddest places, esteem it highly. So do the most reputable publishers in New York. When he attempts the sequel of that novel it fails. This happens during a decade when everything in American culture turns against his grain. He is shy and withdrawn. He is interested in writing, not in writership. His very style is “outdated.” He writes prose poems, short stories, and essays. Twenty-five years after his first novel he tries his hand at something of a new genre. It is printed by a small press in California. Its fame spreads by word of mouth. It is eminently successful. He is now 61 years old, with money in the bank.
This is the capsule story of the work of Evan Connell, to whom Fame and Fortune have come late and Truth early, a sequence that is much preferable to the other way around. (Fame and Fortune coming too early soon amount to disaster, as does Truthwhen it comes too late.) So there are Second Acts for American writers, after all.
My purpose is not to record but to describe his achievement. The contents of Son of the Morning Star are well-known. It is a summing-up of the mystery—if mystery it is—of why and how General Custer led his troop into a valley of death. It is a story which has been retold and argued by Western historians a hundred times. But Connell’s achievement is not only that he knows much about it and tells it well. There are three important elements in this achievement. One is Connell’s clear, sinewy, manly American prose—yet without traces of that assertive (assertive, because self-conscious) Americanism that bristles in the prose of Mark Twain or Hemingway. It is American English at its best, in part because—because and not in spite of—the condition that its writer is aware of the connectedness of the New World to the Old (a historical sense which abounds, too, in his prose poems and essays).
The second important element is this writer’s tactic. He is telling and retelling a complex story from the perspective of its different participants, in which way the history of the Little Bighorn becomes revealed through the compounding of the stories of Custer, Captain Benteen, Major Reno, Mrs. Custer, Sitting Bull, et al. Lawrence Durrell tried something like this in his Alexandria Quartet, and Paul Scott in his Raj Quartet. But Son of the Morning Star is a military history. Connell’s tactic and approach are somewhat similar to that of the English military historian John Keegan in Six Faces of Battle; but that book compares to Son of the Morning Star in the way Scrabble compares to a crossword puzzle, hi reading Connell we are in the presence of a master.
So we come to the most important matter. Son of the Morning Star is a history. It is a history not written by a professional historian, and it is a history mostly based on secondary sources. This no longer matters, because the once serious and categorical distinctions between “professional” and “amateur” historians, and between “primary” and “secondary” sources are largely outdated. What matters is something else: that Son of the Morning Star is not, as some critics praised it, “history by a novelist,” nor is it a “nonfiction novel.” Yes, the instrument is Connell’s descriptive, and imaginative, prose: but the material is history and not something invented either by the author’s mind or something that he puts into the minds and the mouths of his protagonists. There is no trace of “psychohistory” in this reconstruction, save in the sense in which every historian worth his salt is a walking psychologist, that is, a knower of human nature. And there is no invention in it either: no artifacts a la Gore Vidal or movie-script confections a la E.L. Doctorow or fake-historical reportages in the manner of Norman Mailer or Herman Wouk or Irwin Shaw or William Styron.
In the “nonfiction novel,” the “documentary,” the “docudrama” scenes are invented, people are invented, conversations are invented, what went on in people’s conscious and subconscious minds are invented. But these inventions are not the products of a superior imagination. They are the easy way out. The route which Connell has followed (Ortega: “Genius is the ability to invent one’s own occupation”) is the more difficult and, in reality, the more imaginative one. It is the reconstruction of a story (in many Latin languages “story” and “history” are the same words) which consists entirely of people who really lived, from the residual evidence of what they really did and said and thought. It is a special gift of intelligence (again: “intelligence” means literally the ability to read between lines) and of a kind of historical imagination that can vitalize those residues.
Connell and many other writers now have one thing in common. They are more and more interested in history. All of the superficial evidence and accepted ideas to the contrary, there exists now a large appetite for history, unprecedented in many places, but perhaps especially in the United States. This appetite, faute de mieux, is being fed by all kinds of junk food. Most academic historians are blissfully unaware of it. Other people (including popular writers such as James Michener), certain publishers, television producers, et al., sense it but do not know what it means. What it means is that the historical form of thought is one of the few things now that can give us a mental connection with reality. The great historian Johan Huizinga recognized this odd compound of an atmosphere of consummate lies together with the congealment of a widespread consciousness of history. Already 50 years ago he wrote that “like smoke and petrol fumes over the cities, there hangs over the world a haze of empty words”; but he also wrote then that “historical thinking has entered our very blood.” It is a consequence of this that 50 years later meaningful prose has become more and more historical.
The essential difference between Connell and the above-mentioned writers is that, unlike the latter, Connell seems to know this. He probably knows that it is possible to write a story in which every “fact” may be accurate and yet the general impression of which is false. This is because a fact does not exist in our minds except through its associations; because it has no meaning except through its statement; and because the statement of every fact depends on its purpose. Therefore, the purpose of writing a piece of history could not be really the final, fixed, definite establishment of “factual truth” but—as Thucydides intimated—the reduction of untruth. And what is the purpose of that purpose itself, of the reduction of untruth? It is not principally that of enlightenment or entertainment or even of instruction. It is one of reminder. We have to remind people of some things that they, in one way or another, already know. Yes, every novel is a historical novel; yes, fact and fiction overlap. But an evolution has occurred.
A century ago Thomas Hardy wrote that “conscientious fiction alone it is which can excite a reflecting and abiding interest in the minds of thoughtful readers of mature age, who are weary of puerile inventions and famishing for accuracy; who consider that in representations of the world, the passions ought to be proportioned as in the world itself This is the interest which was excited in the minds of the Athenians by their immortal tragedies, and in the minds of Londoners at the first performances of the finer plays three hundred years ago.” I am convinced that conscientious history is now replacing that desideratum which Hardy stated as conscientious fiction. It is history which can excite a reflecting and abiding interest in the minds of thoughtful readers of mature age, who are weary (and how weary we are!) of “puerile inventions” while they are “famishing for accuracy”—or, should I say, for reality and truth.
History, like the novel, does not have a language of its own. It is thought, imagined, taught, spoken, and written in our everyday languages. Those academic historians who proceed from the assumption that there are documents and historical documents, sources and historical sources, reconstructions and historical reconstructions, are only self-serving: they think that the writing of history should be reserved to professional historians writing for other professional historians. Those novelists who, during the last 25 years, have been mixing “fact” and “fiction,” by including bigger and bigger—and usually undigested—chunks of history in their books, are no good either. None of them has, as yet, succeeded in creating a fine example of a new genre. The mixing of fact and fiction in their books has been usually indiscriminating and illegitimate to the extents of sloppiness and dishonesty—as indeed on television and in the movies.
Now Son of the Morning Star may not be a great, classic work. But it is more than a minor masterpiece. What Connell achieved is a kind of breakthrough—a minor breakthrough, to be sure, but a breakthrough nonetheless—through the border country overlapping not only the more modern realms of “professionals” and “amateurs” but the more ancient realms of History and Biography and Novel. This border country is not a jungle and no longer a no-man’s-land, because the once rigid and fixed delineations of those frontiers no longer serve.
Connell found his way through the border country. But then this is where and how and why he had started more than 25 years ago. There is a curious epigraph by Walt Whitman on the inside title page of Mrs. Bridge (1959), Evan Connell’s first novel. It reads: “But where is what I started for so long ago? And why is it yet unfound?” There is a direct connection between this cryptic motto and Mrs. Bridge and what Connell achieved in Son of the Morning Star. Like every serious writer, Connell has been plagued by the elusive character of historical truth—more precisely, by the difficult task of its pursuit. His pursuit, already evident in the two Bridge books, followed the tactic of approach whereby the same story, or at least much of the story, is redescribed (that is, not merely retold) from the perspectives of the different protagonists. I said that in Son of the Morning Star this has “worked” very well. But there is more to that.
Mrs. Bridge, for example, ought to be required reading in classes of American history as well as in classes of American literature, because it describes not so much how certain Americans looked and what they did and how they talked, but what they thought and what they felt in a certain time and in a certain place. These people, unlike the people described by such different writers as John P. Marquand or Sinclair Lewis or John O’Hara, are not stereotypes. Mrs. Bridge consists of 117 short chapters or vignettes, written in an extraordinary spare and succinct prose (how different from the logorrhea of the 1960’s!). Mrs. Bridge and her family are Americans in Kansas City. At least 115 of these 117 vignettes take place between, say, 1928 and 1942. Mrs. Bridge is not really about the Depression and the New Deal and the Second World War, nor is it—contrary to many of its reviewers’ notions—really about upper-middle-class life in Kansas City.
The habits of the Bridges’ class and the great events of the winding world intrude in their lives and in their conversations. Yet the main scope of this book is the description of certain American sensitivities of a race and of a generation. I am using this dangerously unfashionable word “race” because the Bridges are Anglo-Saxon Americans. We know nothing about Mrs. Bridge’s ancestors; she is wholly absorbed by her family; she shows no interest in genealogy; she is a desultory book reader and does not seem to have much interest in history. Yet when her husband takes her to England on their only trip abroad, Connell describes her in a passage of beautiful depth which, in my opinion, is unequaled in American literature because of its scope, and which rings, at least in my mind, like a bourdon bell of a great sunken vision of a time now past:
They landed at Southampton long before dawn and took the train to London. It was a rainy morning and most of the passengers dozed, but Mrs. Bridge stayed awake and stared out of the train window, a trifle groggily, at the silent, stately, fogbound farmland. And as this train carried her across the English countryside, past cottages she had never seen and would never see again, where great birds nested in the chimney crook, and from the hedgerows smaller birds came fluttering in sheer desperation to circle twice, and then, finding nothing, to settle as before, and where the cattle in the mist grazed unperturbed by the train which rolled on and on beneath the somnolent English sky, as though there were no destination, past the rain-drenched, redolent fields, and the trees which cast no shadow, she thought to herself how familiar it was and that once this must have been her home. Yes, she said to herself slowly, yes, I was here before.
This is one-half of those vignettes and typical of Evan Connell at his best. The few vignette-chapters about Europe that follow, the Bridges in Paris, Monte Carlo, Rome, are not among his best: Innocents Abroad. And yet they fit with the tone of the book. India and Walter Bridge are innocents. But they are not like Babbitt or Dodsworth. Yes, Kansas City is the center of their universe, just as Zenith was the center of the universe for Sinclair Lewis’ antiheroes; but the Bridges do not think that their Kansas City is the center of the world. The center of their center is their family. What the Bridges represent is the bourgeois interlude in the history of the United States, a phase that lasted, at the most, from about 1890 to 1950, the only time in the 300-year history of an ever-changing people when their culture was mostly bourgeois and urban.
Mrs. Bridge is a gentle, honest, and thoroughly kind woman. She is obsessed with respectability—at the expense of her mind but not of her heart. Her story is consequently a sad one: but not only because of the perennial human condition whereby gentleness and kindness seldom flower for long in this world. Her story is sad because her kind of gentility and probity and kindness are woefully thin and impractical, and not only because of those changing customs and mores to which, like so many other kind and gentle Americans, she feels that she ought to adjust her opinions, if not her heart. Critics who praised Mrs. Bridge praised Evan Connell’s satirical talents, describing his portraiture as “sly.” They were wrong. Connell is full of respect for Mrs. Bridge; and while Connell’s mind and prose are often ironic, there is a world of difference between the profound understanding of human nature latent within irony and the necessarily sharp and brilliant artifices of satire.
Ten years after Mrs. Bridge came Mr. Bridge (1968). Connell was enough of a novelist to realize that characters are more complicated than plots; and it was perhaps his historical sense that made him realize, too, that plots are, by necessity, one-dimensional, and that therefore they must be seen and retold from different human angles. He tried this in Mr. Bridge, where he failed. He failed for the reason that Mr. Bridge, more than Mrs. Bridge, is a portrait of a man, rather than a description of a certain time. In Mrs. Bridge the portrait and the atmosphere have their equivalences; in Mr. Bridge they do not. Mr. Bridge fails because of the success of Walter Bridge’s portraiture within Mrs. Bridge. Reading Mrs. Bridge one does not only come to know her husband intimately and in detail: the very picture of Walter Bridge—that tall, angular, thinly red-haired, spare and slightly paunchy Kansas City lawyer; and this in the prose of a writer who usually does not care to describe the physical appearances of his characters in great detail—is complete.
Of course Mr. Bridge may be read and enjoyed separately from its predecessor: but because of Mrs. Bridge, Mr. Bridge became an unnecessary book. It has, however, its high points. In one of its vignettes, Connell describes the uneasy evening when Walter Bridge is made aware—forcefully, crampedly made aware—by his faithful secretary Julia that she has been in love with him. Julia is on the way to old-maidenhood. She lives with her older sister. She fails to seduce Walter Bridge to their apartment.
He had never inquired how she felt about this. It was easy to imagine, just as it was easy to imagine the interior of their apartment. [There follows a description of its genteel clutter.] . . . all the junk two unmarried sisters would collect to prevent themselves from admitting the truth. No doubt the place smelled of medicine. Tokens of poor health littering the rooms like a bird’s nest sprinkled with broken eggshells.
Walter Bridge may be a stuffy old bird but he is not a fool; and Evan Connell is a fine writer, not the least because he knows how to use his eye and his nose, too.
And now 15 years pass before the Morning Star appears. Much water has flown under the Bridges, and by the nature of things, much that Evan Connell wrote was overlooked and soon forgotten. Perhaps Saint Augustine’s Pigeon (1980) is the best selection of his short stories. But Evan Connell is not a short-story writer. He creates characters rather than plots; what is more important, his vision is too large for the short story. This is especially so in his two long short stories and his two short novels about a recurrent character named Muhlbach living near or in the Waste Land of New York, where Muhlbach would like to but really can’t eat the proverbial peach.
Perhaps the best of his stories are the two successive ones (“The Walls of Avila” and “The Palace of Moorish Kings”) about the recounting of foreign travels by one J.D. among a group of his former friends in Kansas City who are respectful and rueful and, in the end, resentful of him because he has returned to them in the end, without a cent to his name, to settle down to a humdrum married life. There are splendid sentences (“Through the picture window we could see a maple loaded like a treasure galleon with red gold”) and very good passages in it (“Our childhood came and went before we were ready to grasp it. Things were different now. The winged seeds that gyrate down from the trees now mean nothing else but that we must sweep them from the automobile hood because stains on the finish lower the trade-in value. Now, in short, it was impractical to live as we used to live with the abandon of a mule rolling in the dust”).
The odd thing is that Connell’s two book-length prose poems, Notes From a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel (1962) and Points for a Compass Rose (1973), are less poetic than some of these passages. Save for their typographical arrangement and their cryptic intensity, they are not really poems. They have something in common with Pound’s Cantos, but they are infinitely more coherent than the Cantos. They have something in common, too, with the dark Far Western pessimism of Robinson Jeffers. They have the qualities of an incomplete mosaic, suffused with historical knowledge and speculation. They may be read with profit at random. Evan Connell is a master of historical and poetic prose rather than of prosaic and historical verse.
Whether he is aware of that we cannot tell. But there is evidence that he is aware of how all prose belongs now within the Kingdom of History—even though we must recognize that the latter is not a centralized sovereignty but a governing confederation. Therein, in these dreamy times of ours, lies a great promise. And outrider of that promise is Son of the Morning Star.
[Son of the Morning Star, by Evan S. Connell (New York: Harper & Row) $8.95]