Mrs. Bridge (1959)
San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Novels of the West (51)
She brought up her children very much as she herself
had been brought up, and she hoped that
In one of the better rhetorical flourishes of his political career--a career admittedly marked more by acerbic wit than by grand ideas--Bob Dole offered himself at the 1996 Republican convention as a man who could provide a bridge to connect modern America to the lost values of its past (I believe this section of the speech was penned by the great novelist Mark Helprin). That Bill Clinton and the media tried to turn the vision into a negative, and that Clinton came up with the profoundly idiotic phrase "Building a Bridge to the 21st Century" (The bridge metaphor after all implies connecting two widely separated times while passing over the intervening years. Was Clinton proposing skipping 1997-2000 ?), does not lessen the value of the original image. After decades of social and cultural dislocations, most of us have at least an inchoate sense that there was something desirable about the traditional values that American towns like Dole's Russell, Kansas embodied. The concept of using the presidency as a bully pulpit to reconnect with that world certainly beats the hell out of how Bill Clinton proceeded to use it (mostly banging on it while claiming not to have banged an intern).
The aptly named Mrs. Bridge, also appropriately a Kansan, is a part of the generation that Dole was offering to provide a bridge back to. Mr. and Mrs. Bridges would have been contemporaries of his parents. Toward the end of the book, their son Douglas heads off to WWII, as did Dole. But where the senior Bridges are tradition bound and deeply conformist, their children and their society are changing rapidly. In 117 vignettes, Evan Connell paints a sympathetic but fairly condescending portrait of Mrs. Bridge as she fights to hold back the tide of these changes. She struggles to preserve proprieties and appearances as her three children grow increasingly rebellious at the stifling social conventions that she seeks to force upon them.
Meanwhile, as the children grow away from her, and with Mr. Bridge completely focused on his legal work, Mrs. Bridge begins to sense an emptiness in her own life. At one point, a friend who later takes her own life asks : "Have you ever felt like those people in the Grimm fairy tales--the ones who were all hollowed out in back?" This is pretty clearly Connell's point in the book, that Mrs. Bridge, however likable, is indeed hollow, that she is all deference to her husband, service to her children, and conformity to public mores, with no room left over for a unique and genuine person. He conveys this message with great humor and no little understanding, but it can't help but be a pretty harsh indictment of her essentially wasted life.
This is, of course, a rather conventional view of Middle America, particularly the Middle America of the 1910s and 1920s. In many ways, the book is a kind of portrait of a Mrs. Babbitt--it's Sinclair Lewis with a touch of feminist sensibility and a lighter, more humorous touch. Unfortunately for the literary class, their dismissive judgment of the Babbitts and Bridges has proven quite wrong-headed. In retrospect it has become obvious that removing the religious, social, and moral constraints which the Bridge children (and Connell and Lewis and so on) found so laughable has not led to greater happiness and personal fulfillment but instead has produced a society consumed by its own pathologies. The downward spiral into moral relativism and selfishness that the ensuing generations embarked upon is what makes us now look back so fondly and longingly to Bob Dole's Russell, Kansas.
Interestingly enough, Evan Connell, Mrs. Bridge and the Bridge children all seem to intuitively grasp the fact that the world of the Bridges is too valuable to toss away. Connell's portrayal of Mrs. Bridge is entirely too sympathetic for us to seriously believe that he thinks she's wasted her life. Moreover, the three best scenes in the novel all deal favorably with the life she has chosen. There's a moment where she considers voting for the radical Left in an election, but instead :
...when the moment finally came she pulled the lever
recording her wish for the world to remain as
Then there are two scenes with Mr. Bridge, the famous one where, having gone to their club to celebrate their anniversary, he refuses to leave the dinner table as a tornado approaches. The twister does indeed miss them, but the episode suggests the solidity of Mr. Bridge and of their marriage, both unyielding even to forces of nature :
The tornado, whether impressed by his intransigence
or touched by her devotion, had drawn itself
And in the most moving scene, Mrs. Bridge, despite having not cooked in years, tries to make Mr. Bridge's favorite dessert, pineapple bread, and biffs it horribly, Mr. Bridge gently tells her, "Never mind", and the next day brings her a dozen roses. Though Mr. Bridge is rarely even present in the book, these episodes capture the strength and essential goodness of the marriage.
Finally, though the children move away, even move quite far away, the most pleasant thoughts of the more rebellious daughter are of home and the other daughter returns whenever there's trouble in her own ill-advised marriage. And the son, Douglas, grows up to be a man very much like his father. They, like Mrs. Bridge, and like the author himself, seem to realize that though the life that the Bridges have made may at first seem emotionally stunted, overly circumscribed, and unfulfilling, upon further reflection, there is something powerfully compelling about it. Will the children of the Bridges' children feel that same internal tug toward home ? And will their children ? One doubts it.
This book is terrific, by turns moving and funny and heartbreaking. But in the end, the Bridges come off much better than Connell intended, and forty years later they look better still. Would that we had a bridge back to the simple values they represent.
-REVIEW ESSAY: Mrs. Bridge Is a Perfect Novel. But How Does It Work?: Unpacking an Underread American Classic (Emily Temple, August 18, 2020, Lit Hub)
Book-related and General Links:
-ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Connell, Evan S., Jr.
-REVIEW : of GOLD SEEKER Adventures of a Belgian Argonaut During the Gold Rush Years. By Jean-Nicolas Perlot (Evan S. Connell, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of THE WORLD RUSHED IN The California Gold Rush Experience.By J.S. Holliday (Evan S. Connell, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of THE CEREMONY & Other Stories. By Weldon Kees (Evan S. Connell, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of RISING FROM THE PLAINS By John McPhee (Evan S. Connell, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of KARAN By B. Wongar (Evan S. Connell, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of THE HIGHLAND PARK WOMAN By A. C. Greene (Evan S. Connell, NY Times Book Review)
-PROFILE : Salon.com People : Evan S. Connell (Greg Bottoms , Salon)
-ARTICLE : BOOK ON GENERAL CUSTER IS SURPRISE BEST SELLER (SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN, NY Times, February 13, 1985)
-ESSAY : HISTORY IN 3-D EVAN CONNELL'S BOOKS HELP US UNDERSTAND THE PAST IN ALL ITS COMPLEXITY (John Beer, Chicago Tribune)
-ARCHIVES : "Evan S. Connell" (Salon)
-EXCERPT : William S. Worley : edited from "Ward Parkway, Kansas City, Missouri" in The Grand American Avenue, 1850-1920
-READERS GUIDE : Counterpoint Reading Group Guide EVAN S. CONNELL Deus Lo Volt!
-REVIEW : of Deus lo volt! Chronicle of the Crusades by Evan S. Connell (Marion Lignana Rosenberg , Salon)
-REVIEW : of Deus Lo Volt; A Chronicle of the Crusades by Evan S. Connell (Jim Paul, SF Chronicle)
-REVIEW : of Deus lo volt! Chronicle of the Crusades by Evan S. Connell (ROGER K. MILLER , Book Page)
-REVIEW : of Deus lo volt! Chronicle of the Crusades by Evan S. Connell (Steven Langmuir, Boulder Weekly)
-AUDIO REVIEW : of Deus lo volt! Chronicle of the Crusades by Evan S. Connell (Alan Cheuse, All Things Considered)
-REVIEW : of Deus lo volt! (Randy Michael Signor, Book)
-REVIEW : of Deus lo Volt (Max Childers, Creative Loafing)
-REVIEW : of Son of the Morning Star (1985) (Page Stegner, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of THE WHITE LANTERN, by Evan S. Connell (George Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of THE ALCHYMIST'S JOURNAL By Evan S. Connell (1991) (Sven Birkerts, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Collected Stories of Evan S. Connell (Brooke Allen, New Criterion)
-REVIEW : of Evan S. Connell. The Collected Stories (Ronald Curran, World Literature Today)
-ANNOTATED REVIEW : Connell, Evan The Anatomy Lesson (Medical Humanities)
-REVIEW : Apr 24, 1969 John Gross: Lieutenants and Luftmenschen, NY Review of Books
The Military Philosophers by Anthony Powell
Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, Jr.
Pictures of Fidelman by Bernard Malamud
The Adventures of Menahem-Mendl by Sholom Aleichem
-AWARDS : Lannan Foundation | Literary Program : EVAN S. CONNELL RECEIVES $100,000 LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD (Santa Fe, NM -- The Lannan Foundation)
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