Ten years ago, when everything was different, the novel Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell, Jr attracted attention as one of those few American books which succeed in telling us something about that mysterious realm, the American Middlewest of the middle classes Even then, it was the Middlewest of twenty years before, but presumably the book spoke to, and spoke for, the generation that had been the right age for the Second World War, and to us, then, in 1959, those days before hadn't yet become remote The things we had grown up believing we still believed then, those articles of faith that distinguished us from our parents (and bound us to them for definition) hadn't yet been stranded on the shores of history
In Mrs Bridge Connell named the artifacts of that place and that time, spoke its dialect, rehearsed its folkways, all with the inseparable mixture of love and horror we must each of us have had for our parents and for our own childhood Its form was ingenious A major part of the success of the book was that Connell had found a solution to the problem of making a whole book out of lives whose only story, whose entire theme and plot and texture, is simply that they have no story At their moments of deepest insight, his people feel a vague wordless wondering, a kind of yearning, an empty, unspoken, unspeakable question about whether or not it has really been satisfactory that nothing has ever happened to them Yet this life without event or danger, adventure or challenge, without even discomfort, is precisely its own goal and purpose, and the goal and purpose of all visible parts of this society The dear mindless mother lonely in her too-comfortable doll-house had certainly not gone unrecorded She is the heroine, for instance, of at least a dozen stories by Peter Taylor, beginning in 1939, and his heroine under the various names he has given her might, with a certain descent in social status, a small increase in her myopia, slip into Mrs Bridge's place and find it her own There would be one more difference she might notice the terrible and imperceptible transfixion by a tireless filial eye, day and night, she might find, had undergone some change in focus The relentless apprehension would become in Connell's Kansas City a few watts less piercing, as it were, and yet curiously more obtrusive and distorting (Sometimes I think that the famous Hawthorne effect, in which the mere fact of being observed alters behavior, works in literature too parents who have a child infected with the virus of Novelitis must be subhmmally aware of it They must be as restless as a sleeper who is being watched)
But Connell could make a whole book, a novel, out of this life of non-events, and thus his heroine could achieve a representative presence and a name, as Peter Taylor's finer, subtler, larger, more generously-placed heroine could not in her various appearances A novel setting out to narrate in any usual fashion a life of such unrelieved boredom would necessarily drive us to deliriums of boredom and flight, just as the life itself drove us all away as soon as we could get out The usual procedure, as in, say, John O'Hara's stories, is to introduce some violence or some other kind of upset into the quiet industrious anthill, and then to observe the scurrying, but this is a laboratory condition and thus distorting Or, the novelist looks beneath the pretty surface of the wealthy suburb and detects the disavowed urges and hidden actions of the churchgoers, but what if it is true that they really do not do themselves the things they tell their children not to do? Or, again, the novelist takes some rebellious soul, some Carol Kennicott or Emma Bovary, and shows how the grindstones of bourgeois morality wear down her sensitive or romantic spirits Still, there remain those who never do anything but trudge round and round in harness turning those stones like blinkered camels How to tell their story?
Evan S Connell, Jr—what titles of Europe could more bristle with armigerous piety than our good American names—Connell told the story of Mrs Bridge in chapters as short as weather reports, a paragraph, a page, sometimes three or four pages There are 117 of these chapters They recount the tiny significant or significantly insignificant non-events of Mrs Bridge's life Mr Connell is not diffident about summary, neither in narrative exposition nor in character analysis By Chapter Three, “Preliminary Training,” Mrs Bridge is married and has her three children, and we are told straightaway how she deals with them, first in summary and then in an anecdote, one of those non-events
She brought up her children very much as she herself had been brought up, and she hoped that when they were spoken of it would be in connection with their nice manners, their pleasant disposition, and their cleanliness, for these were qualities she valued above all others
The anecdote shows us that this blandness, recounted by the author in what might well be Mrs Bridge's own words—is this the tone of irony, or of condescension, or of delicacy? Of each of them, sometimes—this bland moralizing is not quite the whole story One day when the children were very small, the older girl, Ruth, innocently appeared naked at the neighborhood swimming pool, and scampered away from the arms that reached for her, thinking it a new game “Then she noticed the expression on her mother's face and when she was finally caught she was screaming hysterically”
Chapter Four, “Marmalade,” tells in a hundred words how Mr Bridge works so hard in his law office that the family seldom sees him, and how he is so successful that they move to a new “large home just off Ward Parkway,” and how one morning Caroline says she is sick of orange marmalade Mrs Bridge replies patiently, “Now, Corky, just remember there are lots and lots of little girls in the world who don't have any marmalade at all”
The children grow up Mrs Bridge has her moments of doubt and confusion Corky, fiercely competitive, a cheater and yet a loser, marries early and badly Ruth, temperamental, beautiful, and without talent, takes herself away to Greenwich Village In 1939, Mr and Mrs Bridge voyage to Europe Douglas, a confident and manly fellow, joins the Army in 1942. Mr Bridge drops dead. Mrs Bridge, in Chapter 117, “Hello?,” gets herself stuck in the garage in the Lincoln one very cold day, and we leave her there, to die, presumably, calling “Hello? Hello out there?”
Mr Connell's method is so successful that it seems inevitable, it seems the one way that Mrs Bridge's story could be told in a novel Let a life of trivia, a life of miniature events, be told in miniatures, in tiny sketches much briefer than the shortest of short stories No coiling and uncoiling of plots, no reversals or surprises, no big machinery of the novel chugging along Of course the miniatures are very cleverly arranged, and we come to see the patterns they form And being miniatures, they must be precisely, even daintily done Large canvases may, or even must, be dashing in execution For miniatures, use your very finest and most pointed brush of a single hair
The subject, then, so necessary, and so infrequently attempted, and the method, a minor triumph it convinced Mr Connell too, and ten years later he has done it all over again1 I cannot seem to convey this information in any way that does not sound slightly ridiculous, and yet why should it? After all, Mr Bridge is in Mrs Bridge chiefly as one of those absent presences, one of those dominant but offstage figures, and the literary presentation of a Middlewestern male is as sorely needed as was that of the female So why not write the book over again with husband rather than wife in the foreground, using the same style, the same postage-stamp chapters, the same tea-cup dramas? Mr Bridge has a photograph of his family in his office “family portrait” He looks over his securities and his will in the safe-deposit vault of the bank “in the counting house” (The chapter titles have gone lower case in Mr Bridge) He resists a waiter's extortion of a large tip in an expensive restaurant “the tip” And, like Mrs Bridge, his very presence (or in his case, his usual absence) commands the hurt and puzzled love of his children and then as soon as they are old enough commands their rejection of him and all he stands for He can't abide the classical music Ruth plays for him, “strange music,” and male ballet dancers trouble him, “Coppélia” He keeps Negroes firmly in their places at every opportunity, and does not smile at bawdy stories He loves the voices of Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald on the Telephone Hour, and hates FDR He may be indeed, as the jacket claims, “the archetypal white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, middle-class, ‘right-thinking’ pillar of society.” He belongs to the country club
The novel Mr Bridge is in all details as witty and knowing and skillful as Mrs Bridge, and yet, of this pair, husband seems to me less convincing than wife He meant a lot in his silent absence, in the book named for his wife, with his few abrupt admonitions to the children—“Think”—or, coming home at some moment of his wife's most crucial and inarticulate need, as she rushes to him, he remarks wearily, “I see you forgot to have the car lubricated”
He means less in the revelation of his own heartfelt and tongue-tied yearnings that match but never meet hers She may be an archetype—not typical but beyond the typical, that really rather rare person who actually believes and feels those diluted injunctions of Puritanism that nice people in her day pretended to live by The protection from experience that this society provided women—that it forced upon them—was indeed effective, and it is within the knowledge of anyone who has lived in it to avow the reality of Mrs Bridge's superhuman innocence, the superhuman limitations forced upon her It is within this knowledge, too, to recognize women like Mrs Bridge's friend Grace Barron, who sought more than this, who went to concerts and read books, and to acknowledge that such a woman could be driven to suicide by her deprivations When Mr Bridge was only a stern and mysterious figure rarely at home, his adherence to the copybook maxims of small-town America was plausible top these were the correct things to tell children But downtown, as a highly successful lawyer, his ironclad innocence is simply not plausible, and he becomes more caricature than archetype He would be not a pillar of society but an oddball in that world, and the other men would not trust him
True, this was a long time ago, but I do not believe there ever was a time quite so remote as Mr Bridge's This is strange because the author obviously admires Mr Bridge very much It is as though he had known Mr Bridge only when he and Mr Bridge were so far apart in age that there could be no real communication between them, and then, later, he was unable to believe that Mr Bridge was, after all, a man much like himself Fathers are hard cases for us Americans!
And so, either or both of Mr Connell's pair of books will bring at least many pleased recognitions to old Middlewesterners and many true points of information to strangers in time or in geography—and there is perhaps something remaining to say about the generations here presented and their ways of judging one another The basic judgment, of course, is made by the generation born in the 1920's, and they judge the generation born in the last tail-end of the 19th century The judgment is that they have no feelings They are afraid of their own bodies and of other people's, they are afraid of their affections
The terms of the judgment, though, are those of cultural values that are quite as transient and as derived and as local at the time of pronouncement as those terms professed and even believed by Mrs Bridge She and her husband are condemned for their musical tastes, their snobbery toward Negroes and Jews and workingmen, their failure to read poetry and enjoy ballet and “modern” art, their ignorance of French
What has happened is something like this Those born in that tail-end of the 19th century often enough were born into real hard-bitten violent pioneering families, their fathers and mothers may well have quarreled with Indians for the acres of sod they broke. They did not spare the rod, and both boys and girls were primarily hands for field and house These children, when they grew up and had children of their own, tended to spoil them, there were no beatings, no hard tasks, no deprivations, only the constant recommendation of nice manners, pleasant dispositions, and cleanliness And of course with their inhibition of the physical violence they themselves had seen and suffered, there must have been likewise an inhibition of physical love (Who knows what they saw at night, in the wagons, the cabins, the sod huts?)
The children of the 1920's found this a code barren and embarrassingly unreal A new kind of outlet for feelings was sweeping the country some fifty years or more after its origin in Europe, and since of course parents disapproved of it, this new art and new intellectualism provided a means of escape for the young, a means of judging the parents and of finding them wanting
Those who as teen-agers in the 1930's and 1940's so judged their parents then are now parents of another grown generation (it really does seem as if people are born only in huge litters every twenty or twenty-five years) and I am sorry, but it was toward this most burning and tiresome question of our own day that I was wandering all the time What do Mrs Bridge's grandchildren, now in college, think of her children? What now of ballet, integration, Picasso, psychiatry, and sports cars? What of the Ivy League look, literary quarterlies, what of French wines? What of shallots?
1 Mr Bridge Knopf, 369 pp, 55 95