Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 818
Evan Shelby Connell, Jr., is one of the more versatile and wide-ranging figures in contemporary American letters. As novelist, short-story writer, poet, and historian, his interests range from the modern world to the vanished societies of antiquity. After growing up in Missouri, Connell interrupted his education at Dartmouth College to become a pilot with the U.S. Navy during World War II. At the end of the war, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill to obtain his B.A. from the University of Kansas. After further study at Stanford, Columbia, and San Francisco State Universities, Connell decided to make his career in the literary field. From 1959 to 1965, he served as an editor of Contact, a small literary magazine, but his main concern was his own writing. To help support himself while writing, he took jobs reading meters, passing out handbills, delivering packages, and working in an unemployment office. He began publishing short stories in various small literary magazines, and his work was included in some anthologies, including the 1955 edition of Best American Short Stories; his first collection of stories, The Anatomy Lesson, and Other Stories, appeared in 1957. His writing began to be recognized by such awards as the Saxton and Guggenheim fellowships and a prestigious Rockefeller Foundation Grant in 1967.
In his fiction, Connell depicts the loneliness and frustration of middle-class Americans struggling through lives devoid of meaning. His short stories reflect this theme, but his novels delineate even more sharply his sense of the emptiness of contemporary existence. Beginning with India Bridge of Mrs. Bridge, a repressed, mentally abused suburban housewife whose domineering husband has left her without a shred of self-esteem, Connell’s novels create a gallery of disconnected, desolate characters. Mrs. Bridge is perhaps the work that best represents Connell’s concerns, although Mr. Bridge, an in-depth portrayal of India Bridge’s spouse, a self-righteous, narrow, joyless workaholic, and Double Honeymoon, the story of a bored businessman and recent widower who stumbles into an obsessive, tragic affair with an unstable younger woman, are also compelling expressions of his views.
At the same time that Connell was traversing his bleak modern landscape, he was looking back into the fabled cultures and exotic personalities of the past, first as a poet, then as a historian. In 1963, Connell published a book-length poem, Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel, in which he used constantly shifting voices from different epochs to present the multiplicity of myths, superstitions, and religious beliefs that humans have used to make sense of the world and their place in it. A similarly composed epic poem, Points for a Compass Rose, documents human lust for blood and war through the ages. In A Long Desire and The White Lantern, Connell moves to straight narrative history. Both books consist of essays that deal with legend, historic mysteries, and the exploits of individuals—conquistadors, wandering Vikings, polar explorers, alchemists, and savants—in quest of glory, gold, knowledge, and the penetration of the unknown. Connell believes that human beings can be enriched by an understanding of the seamless nature of history and that much can be learned from the triumphs and mistakes of the past. Except for Points for a Compass Rose, which draws parallels between the United States in Vietnam and earlier destructive aggressors, Connell does not insist on lessons, being more caught up in the romantic allure of his subjects.
Connell’s interest in picturesque history became dominant in his work. With the exception of a few short stories, his writings after 1979 moved in this direction. In the novel The Alchymist’s Journal, noted medieval physician and alchemist Paracelsus reflects on the relationship of chemistry and medicine. Son of the Morning Star, a nonfiction work published in 1984, deals with the violent, myth-laden Indian wars on the Plains. In the process, it tackles two of the most enduring questions in American popular history: the nature of George Armstrong Custer and what actually happened at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Connell never comes to a conclusion, but he provides one of the most complete, evenhanded, and readable accounts of Custer’s exploits and the campaigns against the Sioux. The novel Deus lo Volt! retells the history of the Crusades based on twelfth and thirteenth century accounts and told through the eyes of a fictional historical personage, Jean de Joinville.
Recognition of Connell’s work has grown over time. The publication of Mrs. Bridge gave him a moderately significant critical following, and Mr. Bridge added to his reputation. Points for a Compass Rose was nominated for a National Book Award. Son of the Morning Star caught the public’s attention, became a best-seller, and was voted among the finest nonfiction volumes of the year by the National Book Critics Circle. Connell was given the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1987 and a lifetime achievement award by the Lannan Foundation in 2000.