Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

Points for a Compass Rose is an important statement about the troubled times in which it appeared and represents a reaction of a significant portion of the American people to their country’s involvement in the Vietnamese conflict. The work was published in 1973, a time when there was considerable and often anguished debate about the role which the United States had taken in Southeast Asia. Connell’s position on the matter is quite clear, but he moves beyond polemic and momentary relevance by connecting the American experience with those of other great powers— Rome, Spain, Great Britain.

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In a sense, Connell is asking questions about the nature of national power and its use, about the role of the individual in a nation. Such concerns are hardly new for Connell, but his approach—a long, discursive “poem”—was certainly unique for the period in which it was written. In this light, Points for a Compass Rose both comments upon its own time and manages to move beyond it, because of the many links and connections it makes with history.

Points for a Compass Rose also reveals its author’s artistic interests and abilities at an exceptionally high level. All Connell’s writings demonstrate an awareness of other cultures and an interest in the quirks and wonders of human nature, but this intelligence is never showcased. In The Connoisseur (1974), for example, his knowledge and mastery of pre-Columbian art is held in check by the narrative of the novel; the essays in The White Lantern (1980) never wander far from their central subjects. Still, in these and in Connell’s other writings, there is the sense that a great body of knowledge and lore lies hidden, waiting only for the right vehicle in order to be revealed.

In Points for a Compass Rose and its predecessor, Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel (1963), Connell found that vehicle. The loose, almost rambling system of these idiosyncratic works allowed him to introduce both fascinating fact and intriguing legend without concern for narrative consistency or the limitations of space; at the same time, the flexible framework he constructed enabled him to make the various bits and pieces cohere.

While Connell undoubtedly will continue to be best known for his novels, particularly the black comedy Mrs. Bridge (1959), his two book-length “poems” are his most innovative works. Connell adapted the method developed in these books for his greatest popular success, Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn (1984), a historical meditation centering on the life of General George Armstrong Custer.

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