The Author Shares a Meaningful Encounter from his Research for an Upcoming Biography of Evan S. Connell
I was nearly three years into my project to write about the life and work of Evan S. Connell when I made another attempt to locate a potentially good source. I couldn’t find him the first time. I didn’t think he’d still be around, but surely he’d left his papers somewhere, and maybe those would include some letters from Connell.
Connell (1924-2013) was author of nearly 20 books and best known for two major and extremely dissimilar works. One was the quiet but potent mid-century novel “Mrs. Bridge,” and the other an expansive work of narrative history, “Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Big Horn.”
Based on letters I’d found in Connell’s papers at a Stanford University library, I knew that he and the man I was looking for had developed a friendship. In fact, one of his letters to Connell contained what amounted to an essential spark for my book: Some day, he wrote, someone will try to connect Connell’s impulses as a writer to explore such disparate worlds. So, here I was, and the prospect of finding another batch of Connell’s own letters was at least tantalizing.
As luck would have it, and for some seemingly inexplicable internet reason (though I could probably explain), my second attempt to find Webster Schott led me right to him. I called. He was intrigued to hear from me. He said he’d heard I was on the Connell case, and his initial response was that I was going to have quite a challenge on my hands. “He was a very difficult person to get to know,” he told me. A few days later I drove a mere 30 minutes to his house on the other side of Kansas City’s metro area. Small world.
Web Schott at the time was a trim 92 and sharp of mind. The memories behind his bright blue eyes were strong. He had been an astute and learned freelance book critic, and he wrote about Connell and his work over at least three decades.
Schott’s review of “Mrs. Bridge” for “The Kansas City Star” in 1959 was deemed of such local import that it was published on Page 1. “If in its humor and sadness and sense of loss,” he wrote, ‘Mrs. Bridge’ seems like a 20th-century tragedy, the tragedy is so moving because the people in this novel are so believably human.”
He was also a gentleman. After panning Connell’s next novel, “The Patriot,” about a World War II Navy flier, Schott wrote to Connell’s father, a noted Kansas City eye surgeon, to suggest that he not take it personally.
Schott spread the word about Connell via “The New Republic,” “Life” magazine, “The Washington Post” and other publications. Considering a later novel, he wrote, “(Connell) may be our most civilized writer of fiction.”
Schott’s literary career extended to editing a collection of William Carlos Williams’ writings for New Directions (“Imaginations,” 1970). In journalism, an extensive article he wrote for “The New York Times” in 1967 examined the way the nation was grappling with a sea change of attitudes about homosexuality. (I’m fairly certain that the rediscovery of that piece in recent years contributed to the algorithmic rise of Schott in my second Google search for him.)
For years, Schott’s day job was as a book editor at Hallmark Cards, based in Kansas City. The future award-winning writer Richard Rhodes worked for him back then. Eventually Schott left for another company, and he later came back to Kansas City and retired. But his connection with Connell, which began in 1951, continued. In 2000, Connell dedicated his nonfiction novel, “Deus lo Volt! Chronicle of the Crusades,” to Schott and his wife, Naoma.
Schott shared with me an envelope of clippings he’d saved about Connell and, yes, a good number of letters. I’d already found several of his own pieces, so my record of his experience with Connell was filling in quite nicely. And his observations about Connell’s difficult-to-penetrate persona confirmed what I’d been hearing from others but took the topic to a new level. “He was very self-focused,” Schott said, “but he was a really fine writer. I cared a great deal about him, but I’m not sure he cared about me.”
We talked for several hours, and we visited a second time in his sunlit kitchen and within his book- and art-lined walls. Then came COVID-19, and our chances to meet in person were over. By mid-spring, with my manuscript unexpectedly humming along toward a complete first draft, I screwed up my courage and asked Schott if he’d be interested in reading it. I put a chunk in the mail.
A few weeks later he called me with rather astounding news. Not only was he enjoying my manuscript; he thought it was terrific. His word. He said he owed me a debt for leading him to understand things about Connell that he never knew in their 60-year acquaintance. I sent him another chunk of chapters, and then the rest. His enthusiasm never waned. As a onetime editor, he didn’t refrain from pointing out places that confused him or where he thought I needed to give the reader more information.
I’ve put the entire manuscript through the wringer seven or more times since then. When I last spoke with Schott, the week before Christmas, I had a lingering question to run by him, but mainly I wanted to tell him that the book was on a fairly clear path to publication, thanks much to him. A few days later, on Dec. 26, he died.
I can’t adequately express how much that meeting with Schott meant, not only to my book but to me, personally, given our shared interests in literature, art and writing. I think we also shared a deeper, unspoken bond, one involving self-reflection and our respective sense of the writing life and our humble place in it. (When his obituary appeared the weekend I was writing this, it was a surprise to learn that we also shared a birthday.) I regret only that we hadn’t connected years ago. He’d told me the same thing.
Just a few weeks ago, my friends and I in Hemingway and biography circles were mourning the loss of Scott Donaldson, who had died at 92. Donaldson was one of the leading literary scholars of our time, and I was humbled to have him as an informal mentor over the years. I was not surprised to learn from Schott that he’d once had business with Donaldson. He had contributed to Donaldson’s biography of the poet Winfield Townley Scott. (I recognize the lexical thicket, or resonance, here — Scott, Schott, Scott—but don’t exactly know what to do with it.)
In my last communication with Scott Donaldson last March, I mentioned that I had recently taken inspiration from his book of essays about writing literary biography, “The Impossible Craft.” I also told him I’d been meeting with Schott. For purposes of illustrating the power of specificity, I offer here part of Donaldson’s emailed reply:
“Ah, Webster Schott. He was indeed a useful source for my Win Scott biography (the Hallmark connection), but I remember our interview vividly for another reason.” Donaldson went on to describe their discussion of a painful period of marital stress. Then he added: “‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ was playing on the car radio, and it remains for me a remembrance of that memorable time.”
When it eventually appears (from the University of Missouri Press), my book about Evan Connell will carry the influence of both Schott and Donaldson. My Connell story, as it unfolds, will very much be about time and memory. Both themes were made much more meaningful by my encounter with Webster Schott.