Earlier this year, Thomas Otto, who blogs at Hogglestock and is part of The Readers podcasting duo, said that he was rereading all of Willa Cather’s twelve novels, at the rate of one per month. Cather is a favorite of mine, but it had been years since I really dug into her work, and I still haven’t explored much of it. I wanted to join in, though without the goal of reading quite one per month. Still, I’d like to go through her novels in chronological order, rereading the ones I’ve read — like O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop — and finally reading the ones I’ve been long meaning to, like The Professor’s House (see my post on the set here). Her debut novel, which is quite short and often listed among the great novellas, is Alexander’s Bridge. I’d never read it, and since it’s so short it made dipping my toes back into Cather unintimidating.
Though this is her earliest published long work, Cather had been writing poems and stories for a couple of decades. Perhaps because of this, the skills of a seasoned author are on display in even this debut. The novel is an observant eye’s character study, a psychologically acute exploration of dreams and desire and, that most haunting of themes, the unstoppable passage of time.
The central character, the Alexander of the title, is Bartley Alexander, a world-famous bridge engineer from Boston. As a young man, Alexander was ambitious. He knew he was capable of great things and maybe of even being recognized as being great. He was admired for his drive, and, indeed, it all has paid off. He is now at the prime of his career, the preeminent bridge engineer. When the story opens, Alexander is in charge of a major bridge in Canada, one that will be the largest of its type. And though his dreams seem to have come to fruition, Alexander is not a happy man.
He had expected that success would bring him freedom and power; but it had brought only power that was in itself another kind of restraint.
Cather herself, while at the beginning of her novel-writing career that was to make her world famous, still had a lot of experience under her belt by the time she published Alexander’s Bridge. She was nearly forty and had worked for a decade in Pittsburgh and for several years in New York City as an editor. Alexander himself is about the same age in Alexander’s Bridge, a time when one can look back and see what one has done and realize that time moves quickly. In the process of setting yourself up for success, you might have set up a life you don’t want to live:
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.
If ever I write about a midlife crisis, I hope I’m as eloquent! Indeed, that’s what really sets this book apart. You can probably guess the basic plot line. Alexander is “happily” married and his wife lives in Boston, but he has a mistress in London whom he knew before his successful days. He respects his wife and wants to break off his affair, but it’s like letting more of his old self go. The strength is in how well Cather presents it all.
I loved it and am excited to move on to Cather’s next novel, one I first read in the fall of 2000 and about which I remember little, her 1913 novel O Pioneers!