The death of Evan S. Connell last month prompts reflection on an American original who, over a lifetime of steady work—many volumes of novels, stories, biography, essayistic speculations—left as his permanent contribution to letters one brilliant, memorable book: the novel Mrs. Bridge, published in 1959.

To be sure, Connell’s other work notably contained an imaginative biography of General Custer (Son of the Morning Star), an account of the Crusades (Deus lo Volt!), many readable short fictions, and Mr. Bridge, his revisiting of the Bridge family, this time from the husband and father’s point of view. But nothing he subsequently wrote can match the exquisite humor and sadness of Mrs. Bridge. (Even Mr. Bridge is not quite in its class.) Cyril Connolly once declared that the only function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece. This Connell did, and he never came close again.

The novel sold well, even made the bestseller list for a respectable number of weeks, and has stayed in print ever since. Looked at historically, and thinking of other end-of-the-fifties, urban, family-oriented works that have survived, there is Philip Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), John Updike’s first novel in the Rabbit series, Rabbit, Run (1960), Richard Yates’s dark hymn to suburbia in his first novel, Revolutionary Road (1961), and John Cheever’s stories from the period. But all of them are set in the American midcentury present; Connell’s novel is firmly anchored in the 1930s and early ’40s, with World War II as a terminus.

Nor are the other books constructed in the special way Connell made up for himself: 200 and some pages broken up into 117 “chapters,” each titled in a terse, usually humorous way. In an afterword to a recent reprint, James Salter tells us that Mrs. Bridge was turned down by nine publishers before Viking accepted it, and surely its unconventional form must have roused doubts—as did, perhaps, the less-than-heroic location of the action in Kansas City, where Connell himself grew up.

Mrs. Bridge, whose odd first name is India (“It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her”), is married to Walter Bridge, an overworking lawyer. Their three children, Ruth, Carolyn, and Douglas, are evenly spaced apart in age and, over the course of the book, grow up and leave the nest, with Mrs. Bridge desperate to fill up the days. The novel’s epigraph is from Whitman’s “Facing West from California’s Shores”: But where is what I started for so long ago? And why is it yet unfound? Mrs. Bridge’s increasing preoccupation with the question reminds us that Connell’s novel predates the second wave of feminism (Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique appeared in 1963). The novel could be viewed as evidence of the plight of married American women, whether in the 1930s or 1950s, who hadn’t much life outside a kitchen full of the latest appliances. It might also be thought of as documenting the repressed, compliant spouse, dependent for her opinions on her husband’s authority, and subservient to his will.

Yet to speak in this knowing way takes away the charm of Connell’s presentation. For example, at one point Mrs. Bridge decides that what she needs is psychoanalysis, and one night near bedtime she tremulously announces this to her husband as he is reading about the stock market. “Australian wool is firm,” he mutters, then looks “inquisitively” at her: “ ‘What?’ he demanded. ‘Nonsense,’ he said absently, and he struck the paper into submission and continued reading.”

There is a cool touch in the novelist’s treatment of a potentially poignant confrontation that tilts things toward the aesthetic, if ever so slightly.

John Updike once denied that his relation to his characters was a satirical one; since he created them, why should he laugh at their follies? An overstatement, but useful in suggesting why it’s a mistake to treat Connell’s relation to his heroine as a satirical one—putting “the literary scalpel to the suburban skin,” as one of his critics described it. In the first place, it would not be much of a feat to score points off so unprotected and uncertain a figure as India Bridge; in the second, closely connected place, the book is simply too rich in its inventions to be so reduced.

When Mrs. Bridge and her lady friends attend a stage performance of Tobacco Road, a once-reputed “earthy” novel by Erskine Caldwell, the ladies agree that they didn’t much like the play. Mrs. Bridge doesn’t see why such a play is “necessary,” yet it has its effect. One hot morning, she forgoes wearing stockings, then is embarrassed when two elderly widowed sisters come to call: “ ‘My goodness,’ cried Mrs. Bridge as she greeted them at the door. ‘I look like something out of Tobacco Road!’ ” Connell then begins a new, very short chapter with perhaps the book’s longest sentence:

Having been repelled by Tobacco Road to the point where it obsessed her, she employed it as a pigeonhole: whatever she found unreal, bizarre, obnoxious, indecorous, malodorous or generally unsavory, unexpected, and disagreeable henceforth belonged to Tobacco Road, was from there, or should have been there.

If this is “satire,” it is of the sort T. S. Eliot once called “creative” rather than “critical,” emanating not from an animus directed at some piece of human folly, but from an impulse to enhance the folly rather than reduce it. So Mrs. Bridge becomes the focus of a complicated, densely witty construction rather than something to be scornfully dismissed.

Perhaps the greatest pleasure we can derive from reading Mrs. Bridge is in the confirmation it provides of things we’ve forgotten about, like “Guest Towels” (the title of Chapter 13). These are put out for visitors but never used, either by them or by members of the Bridge family. When Mrs. Bridge goes around to collect the “little pastel towels,” she finds one missing, then discovers it in her son Douglas’s bathroom, filthy. It has obviously been used by him, whom she finds sitting in a tree in the adjacent vacant lot and who admits to having dried his hands on it. “ ‘These towels are for guests,’ said Mrs. Bridge, and felt herself unaccountably on the brink of tears.” As Douglas climbs higher into the tree, she begins to feel foolish, waving the towel and addressing someone who is invisible to neighbors who might possibly be watching. The scene is perfect in its compression, concluding with her repeating that guest towels are for guests, as Douglas climbs higher in the tree.

Then there is the problem of how far to go in decorating one’s house at Christmas. Mrs. Bridge (like my mother) believes in making the home “festive without being ostentatious.” This she does unfailingly, and, on one holiday occasion, she takes the children for a ride in the car to look at the Christmas decorations of others. One house, outrageously, has an enormous cutout of Santa Claus on the roof, “six reindeer in the front yard, candles in every window and by the front door an enormous cardboard birthday cake with one candle. On the cake was this message, ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEAR JESUS.’ ”

How might an inventive writer end this chapter, titled “A Matter of Taste”? By having his heroine declare, thoughtfully, “My word, how extreme. .  .  . Some Italians must live here.”

As a professor of literature, I have “taught” the novel many times and always wonder what part of it to conclude with. Late in the book, Mr. Bridge presents his wife with a Lincoln automobile, the size of which intimidates her. In trying to parallel-park, she remembers that Douglas, in a fit of measuring things, had determined that the Bridges’ pantry is approximately two cubic feet smaller than the Lincoln. But this does not assist Mrs. Bridge as she struggles to park the car, thinking “that it would have been easier to park the pantry.” At novel’s end, she is sitting helplessly inside their garage, the Lincoln’s motor having died, without room for her to exit the vehicle.

This is, of course, a metaphor for the lonely confinement of her life that the death of her husband and the departure of her children has brought on. It is an affecting close, but maybe too painful a note for the professor to end on. I choose, instead, another moment of the woman’s defeat, but one that Connell has surrounded with more than enough literary compensation. Mrs. Bridge, determined to surprise her husband with a favorite dish she hasn’t made in a long time, mixes up a batch of pineapple bread to accompany the less-than-thrilling casserole that is dinner. “ ‘Oh-ho!’ says Mr. Bridge, rubbing his hands together, ‘What have we here?’ ” As directed, he cuts into the fragrant-smelling loaf:

The first slice fell down like a corpse and they saw bubbles of white dough around the pecans. Mrs. Bridge covered it with the towel and carried it to the kitchen. Having disposed of the bread she untied her little ruffled apron and waited quietly until she had regained control of herself. Returning to the dining room with a loaf of grocery-store bread, Mrs. Bridge smiles and says, “It’s been a long time, I’m afraid.”

It may have been tempting for Connell to stop right there, one more bit of pathos to be added to the ever-growing list. Instead, he ends this way: “ ‘Never mind,’ said Mr. Bridge as he removed the lid of the casserole, and the next day he brought her a dozen roses.”

My sense is that student readers in 2013 are as touched and pleased by this scene as their parents and grandparents may be imagined to have been. Connell’s art in this novel is geared to a time period, but is also timeless.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.

Next Page