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Alexander's Bridge by Willa Cather
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Alexander's Bridge (1912)

by Willa Cather

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Barely more than a novella, Alexander’s Bridge is Cather’s first novel. It is always interesting to see the seeds of genius in an author’s early work, and this book is primarily interesting for that reason. The story itself is a bit of wish-fulfillment: set internationally, in London, Canada and New York, the main character Bartley Alexander is a man of accomplishment.

The preface to my edition was written by Willa Cather herself, in 1922, and begins:

It is difficult to comply with the publisher’s request that I write a preface for this new edition of an early book. Alexander’s Bridge was my first novel, and does not deal with the kind of subject matter in which I now find myself most at home. The people and the places of the story interested me intensely at the time when it was written, because they were new to me and were in themselves attractive. Alexander’s Bridge was written in 1911, and O Pioneers! the following year. The difference in quality in the two books is an illustration of the fact that it is not always easy for the inexperienced writer to distinguish between his own material and that which he would like to make his own.

The preface goes on from there, in the same insightful vein. Two things jump out at me in this passage. First, Cather herself is able to acknowledge that this book is qualitatively less as compared to her next book. I’ve not read O Pioneers!, although I plan to and soon, but having read My Antonia, One of Ours and Death Comes for the Archbishop, all later, and very different, works, I am in total agreement with her assessment. She did grow as a writer, and a great deal. I’m also fascinated by the fact that she referred to the writer in the masculine, when she herself is a woman, and is more or less talking about herself.

With respect to this book, it is worth reading because it was written by Willa Cather and Willa Cather is always worth reading. Having said that, she is at her best when she is writing about the prairie and men and women who are eking out a hardscrabble life on it. She is able to imbue their struggle with a nobility and beauty that is unique to Cather.

This book is ordinary, by comparison. It tells a story that, in essence, has been told hundreds of times before by dozens of skilled writers – a story of a wealthy man who builds great things in great cities, and who finds himself undergoing a rather trite and somewhat embarrassing midlife crisis that is inconsistent with his greatness. The middle aged man with feet of clay is a story that has been told before, and Cather brings little new or fresh to it. Bartley Alexander’s struggles with his penis and where he wants to put it, and his commonplace experience of being torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool, are as yawningly boring as the 1976 pop song that tells the same story, or the guy that you know on Facebook who just dumped his wife of twenty years for the girl he knew in high school because his wife just doesn’t understand him.

Conclusion: It’s Cather, so, yeah, it’s good. But her other stuff is so much better.

And, as an aside, these Vintage Classics editions are completely gorgeous! ( )
  moonlight_reads | Dec 11, 2016 |
5389. Alexander's Bridge, by Willa Cather (read 4 Jul 2016) I think I have read all of Cather's other fiction--Death Comes for the Archbishop on 8 Nov 1946, My Antonia on 5 Aug 1951, One of Ours on 11 May 1958, The Professor's House on 1 Sep 1970, O Pioneers! on 7 Sep 1970, A Lost Lady on 13 Sep 1970, The Song of the Lark on 19 Sep 1970, My Mortal Enemy on 19 Sep 1970, Shadows on the Rock on 20 Sep 1970, Lucy Gayheart on 20 Sep 1970, and Sapphira and the Slave Girl on 21 Sep 1970,, so I thought I should read this one. It is her first published novel and I did not expect too much from ii, but was surprised that it did arouse and hold my interest, with its hints of Henry James-like characterization. and its play on the conflict which an affair does, and properly so, bring to a principled person. The denouement was, I suppose, the only possible one, though I had hoped for a more innovative one. I am glad I read the book. ( )
  Schmerguls | Jul 4, 2016 |
At the end of my first year at university, the day after the final exam, I paid my first visit to the literature shelves in the basement of the university library. There were only a few shelves, because I was at university that – at the time – had no arts faculty. Those shelves didn’t look entirely promising, but there was a small run of green Virago Modern Classics. Half a dozen books by the same author; an author I hadn’t heard of before.

That was my introduction to Willa Cather.

I picked up the smallest book first – ‘My Mortal Enemy’ – just to see if I liked her. I loved her, I read all of those green books, I tracked down all of the others …..

That was a long time ago, and I’ve been thinking that maybe I should re-read Willa Cather’s novels is chronological order for quite some time.

I must confess that I didn’t really remember ‘Alexander’s Bridge’, Willa Cather’s first novel, from 1912; but I did remember that she hadn’t written a book that she didn’t like.

Now that I’ve read it again I have to sat that it isn’t her finest work. The story is a little underdeveloped, a little contrived; the writing, though lovely, is sometimes a little less than subtle. But it is a very accomplished and very readable first novel. Her understanding of character, her skill in evoking places was there; I could see so many signs of the fine novelist she would quickly become.

The story is set not in the American west that she is most associated with, but in Boston, in New York, and in London. She catches those places very well, and she sets up her story beautifully.

Professor Lucius Wilson arrives in Boston to visit a former pupil. His hostess, Mrs Winifred Alexander, arrives home just before him and he pauses to observe her:

“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.”

Mrs. Alexander explains that her husband is working late, and she is so hospitable, so warm, so charming, that Wilson is almost disappointed when her husband arrives and she leaves the two men alone to talk.

Bartley Alexander has been working on a major bridge in Canada. The bridge has the greatest span of its type, it will be an extraordinary achievement, it will place him at the pinnacle of his profession. But he is unsettled:

“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.”

It’s understandable: Bartley feels that pressure of responsibilities, he misses the energy and vitality of his youth, and he is aware that he is ageing and that his life is finite.

When he visits London he catches a glimpse of Hilda Burgoyne, an Irish actress who he had loved years earlier, and he starts to walk the streets near her home:

“He started out upon these walks half guiltily, with a curious longing and expectancy which were wholly gratified by solitude. Solitude, but not solitariness; for he walked shoulder to shoulder with a shadowy companion – not little Hilda Burgoyne, by any means, but someone vastly dearer to him that she had ever been – his own young self …..”

Inevitably, the two meet. They rekindle their relationship is resumed and Bartley finds himself emotionally torn between his perfect wife and his great lost love.

Willa Cather draws the love triangle so well, and with such subtlety. I understood Bartley’s emotions and I appreciated that both women – one aware of the other and one not – loved him and wanted the best for him.

They understand and accept the realities of life and their situation, in a way he can’t quite.

That side of the story was brilliantly executed; the way that the older side of the story played out though, the story of the bridge-builder- was a little contrived and a little predictable.

But the telling of the tale was lovely; the depth and detail of the characterisation, and the way that it was woven , made it a joy to read; and I am so, so pleased that I have started my second journey through Willa Cather’s novels. ( )
  BeyondEdenRock | May 10, 2016 |
In this her first published novel, Willa Cather is still relying highly on the Jamesian settings and style. But the story is an interesting one that examines the role of the artist and the artistic process, metaphorically ( )
  lucybrown | Sep 27, 2015 |
In this her first published novel, Willa Cather is still relying highly on the Jamesian settings and style. But the story is an interesting one that examines the role of the artist and the artistic process, metaphorically ( )
  lucybrown | Sep 27, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Willa Catherprimary authorall editionscalculated
Lee, HermioneIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lindemann, MarileeEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Late one brilliant April afternoon Professor Lucius Wilson stood at the head of Chestnut Street, looking about him with the pleased air of a man of taste who does not very often get to Boston.
It is difficult to comply with the publisher's request that I write a preface for this new edition of an early book. (Preface)
On 29 August 1907, the great cantilever bridge that was being built over the St. Lawrence River in Quebec collapsed and fell, with a terrible sound of grinding steel and snapping girders, shouts of terror and the booming crash of cables. (Introduction)
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Book description
Bartley Alexander, an engineer famous for the audacious structure of his North American bridges, is at the height of his reputation. He has a distinguished and beautiful wife and an enviable Boston home. Then, on a trip to London, he meets again the Irish actress he had once loved. Their affair resumes, and Alexander finds himself caught in a transatlantic tug of emotions -between the wife who has supported his career with understanding and strength and Hilda, whose impulsiveness and generosity restore to him the passion and energy of his youth. Alongside this personal dilemma there are ominous signs of strain in his professional life ...In this, her first novel, originally published in 1912, Willa Cather sympathetically explores the struggle between the opposing sides of the self which was to become the hallmark of her craft. Willa Cather (1876-1947), one of America's foremost novelists, is famous for her psychological acuteness and her studies of pioneer life. All her novels are published by Virago.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0486424502, Paperback)

Construction engineer Bartley Alexander is a troubled, middle-aged man torn between his cold American wife and an alluring mistress in London who has helped him recapture his youth and sense of freedom. A fascinating study of a man's growing awareness of the breach in his integrity, this book is essential reading for fans of this great American novelist.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:29 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Bartley Alexander of Boston, is an engineer famous for his North American bridges. On a trip to London he meets again the Irish actress he had once loved, and is torn between love and loyalty to his wife and his affair with Hilda.

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