Willa Cather

Alexander’s Bridge thoughts & comments

Cather around 1910 (from the Willa Cather Archive)

The response to the Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge has been so enthusiastic. There are participants who have never read a Willa Cather novel, some who have read them all before, and lots of folks somewhere in-between. And how fun is it that some of you are reading the novels with a group of friends!

I hope you’ve all had a chance to read Alexander’s Bridge. How’d you like it? 
My thoughts:
This was my second reading of Alexander’s Bridge. When I first read this novel I was in my mid-20s and saw Alexander as a tragic hero. Now, in my mid-40s, it speaks to me as a cautionary tale of what can happen when you lead a life of action without reflection. It seems that Alexander has lost touch with who he is and what he wants. I see him as a victim of his inability to be true to himself.

In some ways, Alexander’s plight made me think of a recent cartoon making the rounds on Facebook: “Inside every middle aged person is a teenager wondering what the hell happened.” I can relate.

Alexander has been a man of action, but he’s also been on autopilot. Underneath his hyper-masculine frame and worldly success, his foundation is weak. At one point Professor Wilson even says he thought he saw cracks in Alexander’s foundation (and ironically declares him “sound” just before the cracks start growing). At home Alexander follows his wife’s interests and at work he’s gotten to the point where he consents to using improper materials and accepts the minimum safety standards for his latest and largest bridge project. With Hilda he can pretend he’s young and free. He latches on to the loss of his youthful idealism and laments on how he feels trapped by demands. He doesn’t dig deeper and reflect on how he can achieve what he desires–feeling free and powerful.
Up until the end, Alexander doesn’t make a decision or take decisive action. The last time he and Hilda meet it’s implied that he’s going to leave his wife. He writes a letter to his wife, but then doesn’t send it the next morning. Alexander never squares things with himself. The strain becomes overwhelming and, as they say, something’s gotta give.

Had he lived, would he have have taken control of his life? He does say to Philip that anything he does can be made public, which up until now we know isn’t true, but would he have eventually spoken his truth? Or would he never have given his wife that letter? And if he did, was the letter another garbled message like the one he’d once sent Hilda? Was leaving his wife necessarily what he really wanted? We’ll never know. He died in his prime, his marriage intact, but he took down a whole bunch of people with him.

Here are some questions that I’ve been pondering:
  • Alexander says he’s not a man that can live two lives and even feels like there’s a second man grafted on to him. When did this second life begin? Is it after the affair with Hilda? Or is the second man the successful, well-married Alexander grafted onto the younger man with ideals and standards?
  • Do you think Winifred knows what’s going with her husband, particularly on the morning in January when he’s agitated and preparing to leave for England?
  • Is there a connection between the mummy in the museum and Mrs. Alexander, or some other character? I was struck by Hilda’s claim that perhaps Mrs. Alexander is afraid of letting the memory of her dead husband out a little and sharing him with others. It reminded me of how Hilda and Alexander used to talk of bringing the priestess mummy out of the museum on beautiful nights.
  • Do you agree with Wilson’s statement that more than anyone Mrs. Alexander did not choose her own destiny? Who has chosen their destiny in this story?
  • Wilson says early on in the novel that when there’s an early hurt in life, a boy can lose courage. Much later near the end of the novel, Alexander is thinking about a long forgotten sorrow of his childhood. Do you think his weak foundation stems from childhood or did it crack later in life? Could he have done anything to strengthen his foundation?
  • Although Freud didn’t publish his ideas about the Death Drive until 1920, I was struck by the statement that Alexander’s great mind “may for a long time have been sick within itself and bend upon its own destruction.” Do you think he craved his own destruction?

I’m looking forward to hearing what you all think of Alexander’s Bridge!

However short or long, please leave your comments below (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum so feel free to reply to one another.

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13 replies »

  1. Thanks for offering up this forum. I enjoyed reading this book for the first time. Here is a link to my review on Goodreads.

    Winifred was a most intriguing character. I was disappointed that she didn't have more of central role in the narrative, especially after that great opening scene where Wilson encounters in the street and sizes her up.

    I think Winifred did choose her destiny, when she linked her fate to Bartley. She chooses to marry him, even though she recognizes his restless, fiery, and unreflective nature. She says even when they first met, “I knew then that your paths were not to be paths of peace, but I decided that I wanted to follow them.”

    If she did know about the affair, I think she probably chose to overlook it. (She was an intelligent and worldly woman. She probably had some inkling.)

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  2. I have read nearly all of Willa Cather’s novels and short stories. This is my least favorite of them, an opinion seconded by Willa Cather herself.

    Like many aspiring writers, she set out to write the type of book that was popular at the time. This being early in the 20th century, Henry James and others of his ilk were capturing the attention of the publishing world and readers. Cather intentionally embarked on writing a deeply psychological novel that essentially copied their style.

    In later interviews, Cather admitted that she didn’t write Alexander’s Bridge from the heart or from any personal knowledge of the trials and tribulations of the central characters. She wrote it because she thought that's how you were supposed to write novels then.

    Because of this, I call Alexander’s Bridge her great pretend novel. She pretended to know and understand the characters without any basis in real life. While it is an entertaining and interesting story, and a wonderful first effort, it falls flat for me because the novel lacks any significant insights into the situation she has created.

    After she wrote Alexander’s Bridge, she visited her brother in Arizona and experienced an artistic awakening. There she decided to follow the adage of writing only what you know. She began writing from her heart and own experiences of growing up in Nebraska, leading to Song of the Lark, O! Pioneers and her other great novels and short stories in which her characters and stories leap off the page as real people and real situations – because they are based on what she knew best, those real people and real situations she grew up with.

    What is most interesting to me about Alexander’s Bridge is what I call literary archeology. We’re seeing the very beginnings of the evolution of a brilliant writer. From this early foundation, we can trace how she made a radical change in her approach, leading her to emerge as one of our nation’s finest novelists.

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  3. I agree about Winifred. She seems to be living the life she's chosen quite well. I think there's a lot more to her than meets the eye, especially considering that we only see her through Wilson's eyes and he seems like such an unreliable narrator at times.

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  4. Hi Cat! Enjoyed your review. Cather's ability to show the tensions that people experience as they try to “span” the opposing forces in their lives has been what's kept me coming back to her.

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  5. Hi, Chris. 🙂

    I've given up reviewing for the time being (I'm flighty like that), but I wanted to just leave a brief reaction to the book here.

    I wasn't overly fond of it. I think I missed the “Nebraska Cather”, since I've only read O! Pioneers and My Antonia.

    One thing I did notice is that you can still see her wonderful ability to describe a place in her writing. There's a paragraph in chapter seven that jumped out at me as very her:

    “After miles of outlying streets and little gloomy houses, they reached London itself, red and roaring and murky, with a thick dampness coming up from the river, that betokened fog again to-morrow. The streets were full of people who had worked indoors all through the priceless day and had now come hungrily out to drink the muddy lees of it. They stood in long black lines, waiting before the pit entrances of the theatres – short-coated boys, and girls in sailor hats, all shivering and chatting gayly. There was a blurred rhythm in all the dull city noises – in the clatter of the cab horses and the rumbling of the houses, in the street calls, and in the undulating tramp, tramp of the crowd. It was like the deep vibration of some vast underground machinery, and like the muffled pulsations of millions of human hearts.”

    I just love that.

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  6. I cannot say that I “enjoyed” reading this novel but it was interesting. I do not think Winifred had a clue about Alexander's affair.

    The author's ability to describe not only places but feelings and emotions kept me reading and I look forward to her other novels.

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  7. I took up the WC challenge gladly as I own the Library of America volumes, so I have everything at hand to read and they've been on my (very long) list of books I must read sometime. I don't like how the LOA has arranged the books and the lack of copyright data with the text. The volume called Early Novels and Stories starts with The Troll Garden, which are stories. I think it should have been placed at the end of the volume because O Pioneers! definitely should be the lead off. Quibble, quibble.

    WC was 39 when Alexander's Bridge was published, which accounts for her skillful handling of the maturity of the theme (mid-life crisis). It wasn't hard to predict the outcome of the story, which made it entirely satisfactory when it transpired. I think I would have felt tricked by any other resolution. On the other hand, its predictability made it read like a minor work to me. I loved the strong sense of place.

    I look forward to O Pioneers!.

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  8. I can almost smell the damp wool off the crowd. I miss the Nebraska Cather as well. While I don't think Alexander's Bridge is as bad a novel as others have made it out to be over the years, it does lack a sense of passion that's infused in Cather's subsequent novels and, as others have said, it is a bit predictable. So glad you gave it a go.

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  9. I admire your succinct assessment of AB. I also own the Library of America volumes and agree with you about the frustrating arrangement and lack of quick reference to copyright info. I'm bothered that they didn't include Alexander's Bridge and My Mortal Enemy in either of the volumes that contain novels. I would have preferred to see the volumes divided into “Early Novels,” “Later Novels,” and then “Stories, Poems, and Other Writings.” Well, as you said, quibble, quibble. I'm just glad we'll be giving those LOA volumes a workout this year!

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  10. Participating in the challenge to read a Cather novel a month during 2012 is such a fun way to start the new year!

    I had not read Alexander's Bridge before and was excited to do so. I found it enjoyable – a very fast, easy read. Having read other Cather novels, and knowing how Cather herself felt about Alexander's Bridge, I was pleasantlly surprised by the story. What I really enjoyed reading were the descriptions – again, we see why part of Cather's genius was her ability to pull her readers into her novels through a sense of place. And, we are left with that glimpse of what the future holds for Cather as a writer.

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