As a fan of early jazz, I’ve read a great deal about Kansas City as it was in the 1930s. A most attractive place it seems in retrospect, of twenty-four-hour drinking and gambling, to the accompaniment of wonderful music provided by young, prodigiously talented and mostly black instrumentalists and singers; a wide-open city ruled over by a corrupt mayor, Boss Pendergast, whose main duty seems to have been to keep the good times rolling. It is at this time and in this place that the novel Mrs Bridge (1959) by Evan S. Connell is set, but Mrs Bridge’s life elapses without a mention of any of these goings-on. For Mrs Bridge lives in a wealthy suburb of Kansas City, inhabited by respectable and well-off families, most of whom vote Republican in a United States recently carried in a landslide victory by Roosevelt and the Democrats.
The Depression hardly affects the Bridges or their neighbours. Their only contact with black people is to employ them as servants, and those servants go home at night to parts of the City the Bridges would not dream of visiting. The genius of Connell is to show that this is how most people live: first in their own minds, then in their families, then in their limited social circles; most historical novels fail to realize that most people simply do not notice whatever great moments of history are being enacted around them unless they actually impinge upon their lives.
The odd thing is that Evan Connell, on the face of it, looks the sort more likely to have written a great novel about all that exciting stuff happening on the other side of Kansas City. He was born in the city in 1924, the son of a doctor he described as a ‘rather severe man’. Connell dropped out of medical school in 1943 and joined the Navy, training as a pilot. After the war he travelled and wrote and worked at any odd job he could find. Every book he produced is well worth reading: the poetry, the essays, biographies and short stories. For most of his
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