First published in 1912, Alexander’s Bridge was Willa Cather’s first novel. She had been publishing short stories for years and even had a couple of collections, but this novel, novella actually, was her first long work.
Cather has such an easy, beautiful voice that carries a reader pleasantly along. And even though this is not even close to the wonderful complexities of her later stories, her voice made it so I really didn’t care.
The story is about Bartley Alexander. Alexander
stood six feet and more in the archway, glowing with strength and cordiality and rugged, blond good looks. There were other bridge-builders in the world, certainly, but it was always Alexander’s picture that the Sunday Supplement men wanted, because he looked as a tamer of rivers ought to look. Under his tumbled sandy hair his head seemed as hard and powerful as a catapult, and his shoulders looked strong enough in themselves to support a span of any one of his ten great bridges that cut the air above as many rivers.
Aged forty-three, married to a beautiful woman, at the height of his career, he seemingly has it all. But something is making him start to feel a little dissatisfied. A mid-life crisis awaits!
On a business trip in London a friend takes him to see the play that is currently all the rage. The rage is more about a beautiful actress than the play itself. It turns out Alexander knows the actress, Hilda Burgoyne, quite well. In fact he had a youthful fling with her while he was studying in Paris a very long time ago. Seeing her again reminds Alexander of his youth and all its freedoms and suddenly the vague dissatisfaction crystalizes and he feels overworked, trapped, bogged down by tiny details he has no interest in:
He found himself living exactly the kind of life he had determined to escape. What, he asked himself, did he want with these genial honors and substantial comforts? Hardships and difficulties he had carried lightly; overwork had not exhausted him; but this dead calm of middle life which confronted him,—of that he was afraid. He was not ready for it. It was like being buried alive.
He goes to Hilda’s flat and discovers that while she has plenty of admirers, she has never committed herself to any man. It doesn’t take long for Alexander to discover that Hilda still loves him, and, because she is the bridge to his past, his youth, all the things he no longer has and wishes he did, Alexander rekindles their long ago affair.
Of course the clock cannot be turned back. While Hilda returns Alexander to his youthfulness, he realizes he does not want to abandon his success or his wife whom he loves. The transatlantic affair goes on for a number of years. Each time Alexander makes the trip to London he determines to break off the affair. He is feeling like he is living two lives and the deception is getting in the way of everything, keeping him from being happy with either life. But even though he feels “as if a second man had been grafted into me,” he cannot break off with Hilda.
And here is where Cather’s youth shows through. Instead of making Alexander face up to his situation and forcing him to make a choice, he gets an out. I won’t tell you what the out is in case you haven’t read the story; I don’t want to spoil it for you. Then after Alexander escapes having to make a decision, we get a sort of moral:
No relation is so complete that it can hold absolutely all of a person.
While this may be true, it is done a bit clumsily. Two novels later Cather writes Song of the Lark where there is barely a slip, no easy outs, and no obvious moralizing.
But even here in Alexander’s Bridge, you can see Cather’s interest in a certain type of character, in music, in strong women. It is still an enjoyable read because even when the story falters, there is still that marvelous Cather voice carrying everything confidently along.
I read this along with Danielle, so be sure to hop over and read her take.