Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Alexander's Bridge by Willa Cather

First published in 1912 Alexander's Bridge was Willa Cather's first novel, although at only 152 pages it is only a novella. In later years she distanced herself from this work, stating in a preface to the 1922 edition it was...
"....immature and forced, a first venture into long fiction that did not deal with subject matter close to her heart or experience."
It is the story of Bartley Alexander, an American engineer world-renowned for building bridges. A man who appears to have it all, a successful business life and a loving wife, Winifred. His work takes him frequently to London and on one trip he meets up again with Hilda Borgoyne, an Irish actress he had loved as a young man. Renewing their relationship forces Alexander to confront the discontent he has been feeling towards his perfect life and he eventually finds himself torn between the two women and struggling to maintain a double life.

I haven't read anything of Willa Cather's before which I feel was an advantage because I couldn't judge this book by comparing it with those that came after and I'm glad it was short enough that I was happy to read it twice. On the first reading I liked the simple writing style very much and there are some lovely passages of decriptive imagery and perceptive insights but I didn't care for the unoriginal storyline and at times was bored by what seemed just another 'mid life crisis' tale. It reminded me of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence although Willa Cather is kinder to her characters. Alexander loves his work and his wife but ........
" He found himself living exactly the kind of life he had determined to escape. 'What' he asked himself ' did he want with these genial honours and substantial comforts?' Hardships and difficulties he had carried lightly: overwork had not exhausted him: but this dead calm of the middle life which confronted him - of that he was afraid. It was like being buried alive."
Hilda not only reignites memories of his lost youth but holds the potential for a more exciting future. 
By the time I turned the final page I'd come to realize how important the symbolism of the bridge was and so I read it again with more attention to the bridge metaphors . In this excerpt Winifred is speaking of Alexander's first Canadian bridge.
" 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."
 The struggle to 'span' the opposing forces in life - in oneself, in relationships, between work and home, society's expectations and one's own desires - is what Alexander's Bridge is about and I thought Willa Cather explored these issues very well. It leaves me looking forward to reading more.

I read Alexander's Bridge for The Willa Cather Challenge hosted by Chris @ WildmooBooks. The link leads to her post for commenting on January's book and there are questions posted for further discussion.


  1. Nice review, Cat. I have a feeling you'll really enjoy Cather's subsequent novels, which also explore the struggle to span various opposing forces. I'm thrilled that you've joined the challenge!

    1. Thanks Chris....with some time at the weekend I hope I'll be able to add a few thoughts to the discussion thread.