It speaks to Willa Cather's talent as a writer that she manages to bring so much meaning to so slight a story. Alexander's Bridge is Cather's first novel, in this case a novella, written in 1912. She was not yet forty and still had all her best work ahead of her. As a matter of fact Alexander's Bridge is quite unlike her later work and some criticize her as writing as being too much in the vein of Henry James and Edith Wharton. She later called the story a "youthful mistake"and described herself as an "inexperienced writer", though she had been working as a journalist, had already been published and had traveled abroad.
Although she would find her footing with her next novel, O Pioneers, there are still glimpses of her skill as a writer. Her prose is crisp and clear and the story tightly controlled even if the symbolism feels a little heavy handed and perhaps the story is a little too tightly controlled? This is a story, if not exactly of drawing rooms filled with elegant Society, then certainly one of cosmopolitan cities, lost loves and regrets. It's the story of a man hitting midlife and finding life hasn't turned out quite how he expected, or at least not fulfilling in the way he wants it to be.
Bartley and Winifred Alexander appear to be a happily married couple. Winifred is a woman of distinction, tall and elegant who carries herself beautifully and proudly. She's matched well by her husband Bartley, a successful engineer famous for his bridge-building. She brings to the marriage a fortune, and he his skills as a bridge builder. It was through his work that the two met--when he built an important bridge in Canada, sealing his fame. Bartley has rugged good looks, tall and glowing in his strength and cordiality. "He looked like a tamer of rivers ought to look."
It's his former teacher, Professor Lucius Wilson, who first notes cracks in Bartley's perfect facade. He has come to Boston to visit and can't help but feel that "there were unreasoning and unreasonable activities going on in Alexander all the while." As the two converse Wilson tells his student that he's changed, that he seems to want "leave some birds in the bushes" when before he wanted them all.
"I still want a good many," he [Bartley] replies gloomily. "After all, life doesn't offer a man much. You work like the devil and think you are getting on, and suddenly you discover that you've only been getting yourself tied up. A million details drink you dry. Your life keeps going for things you don't want, and all the while you are being built alive into a social structure you don't care a rap about."
When Bartley travels to London on business he encounters a former love for whom his youthful passion ignites once again. Hilda Burgoyne is an actress who has never married and has followed Bartley's career.
"Remembering Hilda as she used to be, was doubtless more satisfactory than seeing her now--and, after all, Alexander asked himself, what was it but his own young years that he was remembering?"
The two fall in together once again, but for Bartley his ardor is dampened by the thought of his wife for whom he still cares deeply. Yet he cannot quite seem to extricate himself from what he feels for Hilda either. Although very subtly depicted the two have a passionate affair that moves from London to New York with hints that Winifred is aware of Bartley's indiscretions.
(Spoiler alert in the following paragraph).
Bartley has been working on what is going to be his biggest coup of bridge-building--the largest and most complex he's yet created. He decides he must call off his affair with Hilda, but the damage has been done. Such strength and character is crushed and comes tumbling down, the bridge collapses taking with it both workers and Bartley himself. It lacked the integrity needed, the solid foundation to carry its own weight and anything traveling from one end to the other. And so you see Bartley's true character, which crumbled, too.
(End of spoiler).
There is much to think about in this story. It's a particularly strong character study. Bartley is filled with regrets. Regrets for the way his life has turned out. Regrets for what he is doing to his wife. Regrets even for his success. He remarks that the bridge that made his success, the one for which he is known for, has given him the least satisfaction. The money his wife brought to the marriage has become more of a burden than something freeing. And now the dead calm of middle life confronts him and he is not ready for it. Bartley is a man of action and not reflection, but his renewed affair with Hilda offers him a different sort of excitement. It gives him the opportunity to "renew old experiences in imagination." What man facing midlife does not want to reach back into his youth and snatch back that happiness?
There is a brief mention of Alexander's Bridge in Hermione Lee's biography of Cather which was most interesting to read. She calls it "awkward and immature" and an imitation of (no doubt what Cather considered) "civilized East Coast writers" which goes agains the grain for Cather. "But it is more revealing of strong personal feeling than she would ever acknowledge." Cather uses the framing device she is so fond of--the learned professor as the keen observer at the beginning and end of the story. Lee calls Lucius Wilson the "wise Aristotle" to his student Alexander who creates his own empire. I thought that pretty clever actually. I suspect I have barely touched the tip of the iceberg with this one. See, even in a novella, her first novel, look what Cather is capable of!
Although not my favorite book by her, I'm still impressed by the skill she shows in telling her story. I read it along with Stefanie at So Many Books (you can read her thoughts on it here), and we chatted a bit about it when we finished. It's always so helpful to get a different perspective on a story, as well as helping me keep focused on my reading (and finishing in a timely manner). I do love Willa Cather and found this first book quite interesting and very good in its own way. I will most definitely be reading more of her work in the coming year.