When a white person — a white man in particular — comes of age either by escaping, eluding, or ignoring the seductive clamor of modernity, he becomes hardened. This doesn’t mean he becomes hard of heart or that he cannot love, appreciate beauty, or even change his ways. It means simply that he understands that the injustice of Truth will always be preferable to the injustice of Lies — and that there will always be injustice. What is tradition if not the regulation of human behavior honed over centuries of bitter Truth? What is modernity if not the abandonment of tradition for the sake of the elegant Lie? And what is the desire of the traditionalist, the conservative, and the reactionary if not to select the way of life with less injustice — measured and meted out as it may be — over that which promises no injustice at all, yet always enthusiastically overdelivers?
A man in this position grows sad, angry, and alienated when he watches his children and his people grapple unsuccessfully with the modern world. This, I believe, epitomizes Walter Bridge, the eponymous character in Evan S. Connell’s 1969 novel Mr. Bridge. The book is the sequel to Connell’s 1959 debut novel Mrs. Bridge, and the two books follow the same pattern: depicting the everyday life of an upper middle class family in 1930s Kansas City through brief, discrete chapters which resemble sketches or vignettes more than elements of a broader story. The novels make little demand on the reader to remember character names, plot points, or symbols. The chapters, for the most part, can be jumbled this way and that with little overall impact. It would be easy to dismiss both works as pointless since they offer little suspense or imagery, and since the dialogue-laden prose rarely rises above serviceable.
The genius of these novels — wherein one finds their gripping suspense and poignancy — is embodied by their deftly-hewn characters and narrator’s comprehensive historical understanding. Will Walter Bridge continue to provide for his family with his secure, low-yield investments and his long hours at the law firm? Will he keep his home as a bastion of stability in a slowly decaying world? Will his heart give out before he can ever retire? Will his wife India ever overcome her loneliness, boredom, and feminine insecurity? Will she ever be able to express her emotions or indeed act on her own? Will their children Ruth, Carolyn, and Douglas ever resist the natural temptations of youth and the less natural temptations of the modern world to become honorable, upstanding citizens like their parents?
Sounds like a lot of families we know, doesn’t it? Are they our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends? Are they parts of our families? Are we them? It takes quite a bit of life experience to be able to convert such extra-textual context into literary suspense. This is what Connell delivers, and this is why someone who is 38 and married with children will appreciate the Bridge novels more than someone who is 16, struggling in school, and itching to escape his parents’ house. Reading them is very much like living itself. If you want to know how the lives of your friends and family members will turn out, you will want to turn to the lives of the Kansas City Bridges.
A great example of Mr. Bridge’s grudging approval of life’s natural injustice comes when his children’s pet rabbit dies from shock after a neighborhood dog had lunged against its cage. His family mourns –but not Mr. Bridge:
That the creature could die of terror, and nothing except terror, was something Mr. Bridge found difficult to believe. Yet this was precisely what had happened. It disgusted him a little. He disliked weakness. He wrapped the carcass in a page of newspaper and threw the bundle in the garbage can. He did not blame the dog, which had acted according to nature. And if the dog had not destroyed the rabbit something else would have gotten it. Pets were difficult to keep in a city. The dog itself had been hit and nearly killed by a car a few months ago.
So be it, he thought, as he put the lid on the garbage can. The day may come when I will wish for a death as painless and quick.
Mr. Bridge applies his perspicacious fatalism to people as well, and is rarely wrong. He correctly predicts that a certain young boy will grow up to become a murderer because he sees that “he has the mind of an adult.” In Europe he knows instinctively when someone is trying to take advantage of him because he is a tourist. He recognizes socialist claptrap when he sees it, whether it comes from trendy authors, modernist painters, flamboyant psychiatrists, or one of India’s bookish friends. He has no time for society bores and blowhards, the very men India insists they socialize with every year. He also despises dishonesty and holds a longstanding grudge with a sitting Senator for never repaying a debt.
This makes him a bit of a fuddy duddy, but not one to be trifled with. His family knows this well. He slaps his oldest daughter Ruth when finding her in their living room with a man. He had approached them in the dark with a loaded pistol, expecting an intruder. If there is anything he hates, it’s carelessness — and this Douglas learns when facing his father’s wrath for not locking the doors and windows one evening.
Walter Bridge is the hardened conservative described above. People always challenge him to change, including his sensitive and malleable wife and his sometimes petulant children. But as an excellent judge of character, class, ethny, and race, he is moved by the modern world as much as a ten-ton ancient monument is by the tickling breeze:
A squat, bald Jew dressed in an expensive blue pinstripe suit skipped out of a doorway with an umbrella hooked over his arm. Mr. Bridge stopped walking and looked down at him suspiciously. The suit was an attempt at good taste, but it failed because it was obvious. He carried a copy of the Wall Street Journal but he held it so that it could be noticed. On his plump, pink, manicured little finger sparkled a diamond ring. Mr. Bridge looked again at the umbrella. The sun was shining, no rain had been forecast. This man was not to be trusted. Whatever his business, he was shallowly successful, and the business probably was marginal. He had the air of a slum lord. He could be a political lobbyist or a North End liquor wholesaler. He might be an osteopath or a cut-rate dentist. He was not a corporation executive or a reputable businessman. Whatever he did, he was not to be trusted. He was shrewd. He was repugnant. He was an opportunist.
Can the American WASP’s distrust of the Jewish nouveau riche be encapsulated better than this?
Walter Bridge also has no illusions when it comes to race, noting drily that a society gets the crime it deserves. He refuses a loan to his black live-in maid Harriet when her boyfriend becomes indebted to mobsters. He is appalled at the very idea that Harriet’s nephew wishes to attend Harvard. After his black garage attendant Lester gets arrested for fighting, he learns that Lester had spent ten years in prison for armed robbery. “Those people,” he scoffs wearily. “Time and Time again. If it isn’t a knife. It’s a razor.”
But there is nothing hidebound about Mr. Bridge. He is always willing to treat individuals on their personal merits (unless that individual is the son of a plumber who can’t even afford a diamond engagement ring for his daughter!) He defends a Mexican who had been disabled in an accident and is outraged when the man receives a paltry settlement. When Harriet gets arrested along with her boyfriend when her boyfriend was caught dealing drugs, he generously bails her out and spares her a tongue-lashing for some sage advice. When Ruth accuses him of anti-Semitism in a letter, he writes for several pages about how fairly he treats respectable Jews in town.
Walter Bridge may be humorless, which harms him socially from time to time, but it also lends him dignity. The same impulse not to laugh at dirty jokes is the same impulse not to laugh at people his class would deem dirty. He is as incapable of mockery or derision as he is of condescension. He treats everyone as an equal, as he would wish to be treated. A veteran of the Great War who had been born in poverty, he knows too well the stink of death and the pain of want. He denies himself luxuries and guilty pleasures because “his heritage argued against indulgence.” He has an unbreakable moral core, and a fierce love for his family which is beyond his sense of propriety to articulate.
Most of all, he understands the clash of civilizations. As the pre-war vanguard of the American white majority, he embodies this clash. Perhaps this is Connell placing his thumb on the scale from his modern vantage point, but Walter Bridge does seem to feel that things are slipping for the Anglo-Saxon Protestant America in which he grew up. He resists history because he correctly sees the degenerate world that widespread racial integration, philo-Semitism, mass immigration, and sexual liberation will lead us towards. There is little he can do about it except lash out at President Roosevelt or complain along with the aging Kansas City elite in their swanky country club.
But it goes beyond politics; it’s his gut reactions to things which define him. Walter Bridge will make an effort to judge a man on his merits, but he will not allow his daughters to attend parties in the black part of town. He sincerely empathizes with Jewish concerns over Nazi Germany, but when he notes the many Jewish names on the masthead of an avant-garde quarterly, he feels resentful. It goes further than this, though. In an animated argument with Grace Barron, India’s free-spirited and enigmatic best friend, Walter Bridge lays out a substantial part of today’s Dissident Right’s agenda:
“I have no love for Communism. None whatsoever. Let me tell you, if the Communists once obtain a foothold in this country they will stop short of nothing. Those people, if they ever get started, will divide up everything we have, make no mistake about that. Now you may not be disturbed by this prospect. You may not mind ‘sharing the wealth.’ But I, for one, have worked too hard for too many years to surrender lightly what I have earned and regard as my own.” He stopped talking. She already knew his opinion of Communism. He could not understand why she had brought up the subject.
“I find it one of the world’s loveliest thoughts,” she said. “Christ asked us to love each other. Marx is asking us to be sure everybody has enough to eat.”
She was attempting to start an argument. “If so, it has been a singular failure,” he said. “And let me remind you that Winston Churchill addressing the House of Commons stated recently: “If I had to choose between Communism and Nazism, I would choose Nazism.”
Later that evening Grace informs him that Avrum Rheingold — the squat, bald Jew described above — had put in a bid for a house in Mr. Bridge’s neighborhood:
Mr. Bridge was silent. The thought of Avrum Rheingold living in the Edison house enraged him, but he was careful to hide his anger. He reached for his glass, took another sip of water, and cleared his throat. He did not like the feeling that swept through him, or the urge to say aloud that he approved of the pogrom in Germany.
Any time a white man feels the need to hold his tongue while the civilization his ancestors built and that he himself maintains becomes cheapened or degraded by outsiders — and while he is forced to make room for these outsiders himself — he can look to Walter Bridge’s strenuous life for a wellspring of strength and hope. In his Bridge novels, Evan S. Connell has given the modern Right nothing short of a literary north star.
* * *
A note about the 1990 Merchant and Ivory film Mr. and Mrs. Bridge: It is well-acted and directed, as one would expect from such a production. James Ivory applies his characteristic light touch throughout the film, rendering the novels’ quotidian essence into enjoyable cinema. The film makes ample use of its period set and costume design, and Richard Robbins’ spellbinding soundtrack helps build suspense at key moments. But most of all it is Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward who make the film a worthy complement to its literary sources. They turn in picture- perfect and unforgettable lead performances. Having read both novels prior to seeing the film, I can state that Newman’s gruff and dignified Walter has supplanted my vision of the character almost completely, as did Woodward’s desperately decorous India. Both changes were as welcome as they are rare.
Yes, perhaps if screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had integrated scenes from the novels a little more artfully, we would have had a smoother final product. What’s appropriately disjointed on the page becomes jarringly inappropriate onscreen when you don’t have chapter headings demarcating one scene from another. Often I felt that Jhabvala had selected certain scenes not because they served any unified purpose, but simply because Connell had included them in the books. For example, the film stalls towards the end as Walter’s overwrought secretary Julia reveals that she has held a flame for him for 20 years. Her character plays no important role in the film whatsoever, so why are we wasting time on such pedestrian melodrama so close to the film’s conclusion? Shortly afterwards, we discover what happens to Grace Barron (in a heartrending performance by Blythe Danner), of whom we see far too little in the film. Her fate is not only thematic in both the books and the film, it also leads to some gripping drama involving India. Couldn’t Jhabvala have given us more of one woman and less of the other?
About how the film mangles the ending of Mrs. Bridge, however, the less said the better — but it was so shocking I must report on it. Mrs. Bridge has one of a novel’s most mystifying conclusions I have ever read. No spoilers here; I wouldn’t dare cheapen it in a review. The utterly ham-fisted way in which the filmmakers perverted the literary ending to become its cinematic opposite made my jaw drop, however. The film adaptation of Robert Cormier’s angsty young adult novel The Chocolate War chokes at the goal line as well, but at least that ending made sense from a cinematic perspective. The ending of Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, however, is lame by any standard. It seems Merchant and Ivory didn’t have the fortitude to adhere to Connell’s harrowing vision (which they easily could have done), and further couldn’t have been bothered to replace it with something good, let alone great — as if their typically erudite audience was not sophisticated enough to tell the difference. It is perhaps the most astounding filmmaking blunder I have ever experienced.
The most remarkable thing about the movie, however, is what Merchant and Ivory did not include, which was probably 80 to 90% of what Connell had presented in his novels — and this includes nearly all of the race realism and ethnocentrism mentioned above. Newman’s Walter Bridge is certainly conservative and makes his anti-Communist stance well-known. Hardly depicted, however, are his unflattering opinions about blacks, and the film mentions Jews not at all. Only after magnanimously bailing Harriet out of jail does Mr. Bridge grumble a bit about colored people seeking entry into white schools like Harvard. Such a perspective was so common back in the late 1930s that modern audiences would probably have scratched their heads if Mr. Bridge hadn’t said something along those lines. Plus, he had just done something kind and generous for a black person, so calling him racist would have been out of place as well.
It seems that the filmmakers wished to protect this upstanding, politically incorrect, white Protestant male’s reputation, and this is a decision I appreciate despite how it may depreciate the film over time. Unlike many Hollywood movies which flirt with gravitas, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge was not looking to stir the cultural pot or promote any kind of subversive agenda. Unlike the 1975 adaptation of The Day of the Locust, it didn’t use a popular novel’s scandalous nature to smear legacy white Americans as intellectually-challenged bigots. Instead, it kept all the humanity, passion, and pathos of the characters — just as the author had intended. Weeding out their uglier aspects may have made the film suffer a bit, but it was a small price to pay for propriety.
I’m sure Mr. and Mrs. Bridge would have approved.
* * *
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