Chronicling the Great and Necessary Contradictions of an Artist

Steve Paul, shown here outside his Kansas City home, is scheduled to discuss “Literary Alchemist” in a conversation with
Whitney Terrell Dec. 1 in a program for the Kansas City Public Library. Details at kclibrary.org. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Steve Pauls’ ‘Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell’

University of Missouri Press

Steve Paul has, in a span of a few years, proven himself the capable chronicler of the complex and prolific lives of Kansas City writers of the 20th century. In his upcoming book, “Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell,” Paul turns his meticulous scrutiny toward the late author of “Mrs. Bridge” and “Mr. Bridge,” and reveals him to be so much more than “the late author of ‘Mrs. Bridge’ and ‘Mr. Bridge.’” This literary biography ushers its subject from childhood through death, while making a forceful case for Connell’s artistic legacy (“any discussion of the most memorable and long-lasting American literature must reckon with Evan S. Connell”).

Connell is referred to early on in the text as a “mosaicist, attentive to the tiniest of details, and an alchemist, testing the transformation of matter and soul.” Later, Connell described his own literary approach as “pointillistic.” Given Connell’s background and training in fine art, it is appropriate that the most at-hand metaphors for his literary style are borrowed from the visual arts.

When it comes to Connell’s cultural stance vis-à-vis the sweeping changes occurring in the mid- to late-20th century, Paul is careful to show that Connell’s alignments were not always obvious or straightforward. Connell felt dismissive toward the beatniks, had a slow road to acceptance of homosexuality (according to Gale Garnett), was unambiguous in his feelings towards racism: In his representation of the character of Mr. Bridge, Connell showed how the prejudices of the moneyed Midwesterner toward Black men and women is unexamined and ignorant. Then there is Mark Oppenheimer’s comment that the novel “Mrs. Bridge” “exploded the feminine mystique four years before Betty Friedan invented the term,” which speaks to the latent power that novels possess to change attitudes and postures, and how Connell sensitively observed his own surroundings and came to the same conclusions as Friedan about the subjugation of American women.

Evan S. Connell atop Long’s Peak, Colorado, summer of 1948 (courtesy of the literary estate of Evan Shelby Connell Jr.)

As expected from the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen,” this current offering is at its finest when exploring Evan S. Connell as a searching young man with literary ambition. I found Chapter 4, “Itty-Bitty Details,” to be the electric center of the book, as it begins with the line “It is tempting and entirely reasonable to consider the notion that Evan Connell’s literary career essentially began over a lunch with George Plimpton in Paris” and proceeds to demonstrate how consequential that lunch truly was. Plimpton’s contributions to Connell’s career included not only his occasional inclusion in “The Paris Review” but connecting him as well to the editors at Viking who would eventually publish his first book, “The Anatomy Lesson.” Chapter 4 also features the rawest of Connell’s rebellious and contrarian political musings, in the form of a letter to fellow writer Max Steele: “America is still outlawing everything from Communism to fornication and if they continue to do so I may be converted to both.” It is clear from the context that this is more mischief than manifesto, yet the mischief itself is revealing both of Connell’s character and his literary imagination.

Many of the book’s strongest moments come when Paul allows Connell to speak for himself, as in when Connell was making an argument in favor of Williams’ “Augustus” as the winner of the National Book Award: “I find it superior in several ways — in the richness of language, in the tremendous deliberation that went into its making, in the manifest intelligence and skill of its author, in the startling life of the characters, in its meaning to our own society, in its complexity, and also in a curious moral elevation which altogether separates this book from any of the others.” As Paul points out, here is Connell laying out what he regards to be “the elements of great literature,” and helps illuminate the strivings of Connell as an artist. To turn this into a list — (1) rich language, (2) deliberateness, (3) intelligence and skill, (4) real characters, (5) meaning to society, (6) complexity, and (7) moral elevation — we can then examine Connell’s work through his own measures and deem him radiantly successful on those exact terms, despite his claim that, “With a story . . . you always fail; it is never as good as it should have been.”

In the opening chapter, Paul presents the thesis that, in the novel “Mrs. Bridge,” “it is logical to regard (Douglas Bridge) as a stand-in for the young Connell, or a kind of invented memory of his own self-image.” He cleverly undercuts (or expands upon) that thesis with the possibility that Connell “was in fact a version of Walter Bridge himself, without perhaps Walter’s most grating qualities.” In the end this is Paul’s bailiwick — never allowing the narrative of a literary life to get reduced to an easy thesis and accepting the great and necessary contradictions of an artist.

Phong Nguyen

Phong Nguyen is the author of the novel “Bronze Drum” (forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing in 2022) and four other books. He is the Miller Family Endowed Chair in Literature and Writing at the University of Missouri, where he teaches fiction writing.

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