The reissue of these classic American novels in unusually handsome paperback editions is an event to be celebrated. "Mrs. Bridge" and "Mr. Bridge" are the novels Sinclair Lewis might have written had he been a better writer and human being than in fact he was; they are satire of the first rank, set in the Middle West, but they are also affectionate and compassionate considerations of a man and a woman whose lives did not turn out as they had once hoped they would.
"Mrs. Bridge" was originally published in 1959, "Mr. Bridge" a decade later. That may seem a bit too recent to admit them as "classics," but I stand by the description. They are the best work by one of our best writers, and they have a sense of truth about them that is relatively rare in fiction: They persuade the reader, without the slightest hint of huffing and puffing, and the view they convey of a certain small part of the world is absolutely true.
That part of the world is Kansas City in the 1930s. It is a hard time for most people in the heart of the heart of the country, but not for Walter Bridge, his wife, India, or their three children. Mr. Bridge is an attorney who by punishingly hard work and diligent self-denial has moved his family into the Kansas City elite. The Bridges live in the country club section of town and Mrs. Bridge is "a bona-fide country-club matron." They have a large, handsome house; a Cadillac; a live-in servant named Harriet; a substantial and diversified portfolio of conservative investments; and a pervasive sense that something is wrong.
What is wrong is an old story: They have fulfilled the American dream and, having penetrated to its core, have found that there is no there there. The story that Evan Connell tells is the same one that Scott Fitzgerald told. Yet Connell brings such originality to it, and such abiding decency of feeling, that he has created something almost entirely new. He gives us characters and a world that are so real, they ache with life; he has given us a portrait of a large part of the American soul.
There is little drama in these novels, just as there is little drama in most lives. Mr. Bridge goes to work early and comes home late, usually with more work; his attractive secretary is devoted to him in ways he simply does not comprehend, being so completely absorbed in his work, and so he does not have an affair with her. Mr. Bridge loves Mrs. Bridge, who "had been brought up to believe without question that when a woman married she was married for the rest of her life and was meant to remain with her husband wherever he was, and under all circumstances, unless he directed her otherwise."
Mrs. Bridge works very hard at keeping busy, fighting off the boredom of her constricted life by heaving herself into art, or politics, or Spanish, or vocabulary -- anything to keep her addled and sorrowing mind occupied.
She is on shaky ground. Now that her children are teen-aged and flexing their new independence, she is "restless and unhappy and would spend hours thinking wistfully of the past, of those years just after her marriage when a day was all too brief." More and more it comes to her that she is an unnecessary person: her husband, her children, her neighbors -- no one seems to need her. On a trip to Europe with Mr. Bridge, she suddenly is confronted with the apartness that is the human lot:
"Why had he stood there looking? What had he been thinking? His expression had been so serious. Were there things he had never told her about himself? Who was he, really? From all the recesses of her being came the questions, questions which had never before occurred to her, and there on the foreign streets she felt lost and forsaken, and with great longing she began to think of Kansas City."
For different reasons, Mr. Bridge is no happier. To be sure, he pronounces himself a satisfied man, one who "had practically everything he ever wanted." But he has achieved his success at the price of fulfillment; he is painfully aware of the truth in a friend's remark that "it is not what a man does that he later regrets but what a man has failed to do." Like his wife, he senses and rues his isolation:
"She had been crying from happiness, which was something he had never done in his life and which was incomprehensible to him. Thoughtfully he contemplated the fearful blackness surrounding them, for there was no light anywhere beyond the rail of the ship, and he wondered if this was how it must be, if this was how they would end their lives, accompanying each other so closely, loving each other, touching one another with affection and sympathy, yet singularly alone."
But the bleak aspects of these remarkable novels should not be overemphasized. As social satire and commentary they are quite stunning, and marvelously funny. Connell's method is realism, and his eye for detail is penetrating. He understands as few other novelists do the degree to which Americans are obsessed by the good opinion of their fellows; Mrs. Bridge asks her son the question that millions of American parents have asked, "Do you want to be different from everyone else?" He also understands the subtleties of the manners by which we strive to make good impressions:
"The children learned it was impolite to talk while eating, or to chew with the mouth open, and as they grew older they learned the more subtle manners -- not to butter an entire slice of bread, not to take more than one biscuit at a time, unless, of course, the hostess should insist. They were taught to keep their elbows close to their sides while cutting meat, and to hold the utensils in the tips of their fingers. They resisted the temptation to sop up the gravy with a piece of bread, and they made sure to leave a little of everything -- not enough to be called wasteful, but just a little to indicate the meal had been sufficient. And, naturally, they learned that a lady or a gentleman does not fold up a napkin after having eaten in a public place."
The Bridges go through all the correct motions, but there is little joy to it: "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge were giving a party, not because they wanted to, but because it was time. Like dinner with the Van Metres, once you accepted an invitation you were obliged to reciprocate, or, as Mr. Bridge had once expressed it, retaliate." Small wonder that each of the children rebels; the good life for which they have been raised is scarcely as appealing as their parents imagine it to be.
Yet as sardonic as he can be about that life, Connell is unfailingly sympathetic to the people who lead it. Mr. and Mrs. Bridge are forever human, forever vulnerable, forever pitiable. In spare, whimsical, ironic prose, Connell exposes each and every one of their wrinkles and then, in the end, offers them to us as human beings to be cherished. In each of the novels, especially in "Mrs. Bridge," it is an extraordinary performance.
These are handsomely printed paperbacks, enclosed in equally handsome dust jacket typical of the excellent work that North Point Press has been doing since they opened up shop two years ago. These reissues are also available in a boxed set with cloth bindings, which I have not seen, for $27.50.