Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

November 20, 2009

I have much enjoyed Willa Cather’s work and this little novella was no exception. While Alexander’s Bridge is a decidedly minor piece in her oeuvre, Cather’s incredible skill in capturing mood and character is on display. Still, the flaws are real. The story is a little too neat and the climax a bit contrived.

The novella is a deviation from Cather’s other work in that the primary settings are Boston, New York, and London, rather than the American west with which she is so closely associated. There is a western connection, but it is slight. It was pleasing to see her capture imagery besides the plains of Nebraska and other western states. She has an eye for setting and landscape that she puts to good use in this novella, though most of the novel is set indoors.

At the center of the story is Bartley Alexander, a superstar bridge builder in the prime of his career. The novella opens with his former teacher, Professor Lucius Wilson, having just arrived in Boston to visit. Wilson nears the appointed address in time to watch a woman enter:

Always an interested observer of women, Wilson would have slackened his pace anywhere to follow this one with his impersonal, appreciative glance. She was a person of distinction he saw at once, and, moreover, very handsome. She was tall, carried her beautiful head proudly, and moved with ease and certainty. One immediately took for granted the costly privileges and fine spaces that must lie in the background from which such a figure could emerge with this rapid gait.

Wilson follows the woman into the house to which he was headed. The woman was Mrs. Alexander. Bartley is working late, which suits Wilson fine. He relishes the opportunity to spend time with the elegant Mrs. Alexander.

Mrs. Alexander sat looking into the fire with intent preoccupation, and Wilson studied her half-averted face. He liked the suggestion of stormy possibilities in the proud curve of her lip and nostril. Without that, he reflected, she would be too cold.

Wilson evening is all but spoilt when Bartley does come home. Mrs. Winifred Alexander leaves the men to chat. Bartley is heading off to England shortly to fulfill the demands of his career. Alexander is working on a major bridge in Canada, where he met Mrs. Alexander. The bridge has the greatest span of its type and will be quite a legacy for Bartley. Yet, he is not content.

“After all, life doesn’t offer a man much. You work like the devil and think you’re 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. I sometimes wonder what sort of chap I’d have been if I hadn’t been this sort; I want to go and live out his potentialities, too.”

And this is the crux of the problem. Bartley is a man at the top of his game, but he feels the crush of responsibilities and the dwindling years of life. He longs for his lost youth. He is in a midlife crisis.

Men are not terribly imaginative in dealing with this particular psychological phenomenon. Bartley is a man’s man. He was exceptional in his younger days for his energy and drive. The next afternoon, when Wilson again has Mrs. Alexander alone, he describes Bartley as having “a powerfully equipped nature”.

“And, after all,” said Mrs. Alexander, “that is the thing we all live upon. It is the thing that takes us forward.”

Wilson thought she spoke a little wistfully. “Exactly,” he assented warmly. “It builds bridges into the future, over which the feet of every one of us will go.”

“How interested I am to hear you put it in that way. The bridges into the future — I often say that to myself. Bartley’s bridges always seem to me like that. Have you ever seen his first suspension bridge in Canada, the one he was doing when I first knew him? I hope you will see it sometime. We were married as soon as it was finished, and you will laugh when I tell you that it always has a rather bridal look to me. It is over the wildest river, with mists and clouds always battling about it, and it is as delicate as a cobweb hanging in the sky. It really was a bridge into the future. You have only to look at it and feel that it meant the beginning of a great career.”

In this novella, every image is laden with meaning. Mrs. Alexander’s observation of the bridge’s “bridal look” is no accident. While the novella threatens to devolve into melodrama at times, Cather’s hand is sure. She even manages to put in references to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, evoke Miss Havisham, and otherwise pepper this short work with factual and literary allusions. As her first published novel, Alexander’s Bridge demonstrates great promise.

Still, she improved a great deal from here. Living as we do in this world-wise time, it is easy to see the plot twists coming. Cather foreshadows a bit too much. And, yet, even if not surprising, the story is interesting and well told. Remember too, the term “midlife crisis” was not coined until 1965. If you enjoy Cather’s work, you will probably find this early piece a fascinating look into her development as a writer.

If you have not yet read Cather, I recommend you do. But you should probably start with My Antonia. It is more typical of her mature style, a greater accomplishment, and less predictable than this early work.