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Alexander’s Bridge (1912) is Willa Cather’s first published novel, although it is not the first novel she wrote. An incisive inquiry into matters of fate and fallibility, Alexander’s Bridge, like Edith Wharton’s classic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The House of Mirth (1905), raises questions that trouble us still. Among these questions are matters of human responsibility, individual autonomy, and whether we make our own luck or are subject to the vagaries of an indifferent universe. Cather examines these questions and others as she explores the arc and descent of Bartley Alexander, a successful bridge builder who has surmounted humble beginnings to experience fame, wealth, and finally, a thoroughly preventable death in the prime of his life and career. As such Alexander’s story may remind readers of the stories of countless others whose outsized lives, mishaps, and deaths appear in today’s newspapers and television news shows.
Renowned for such novels as O Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918), Willa Cather (1873 - 1947) is often thought to be exclusively a chronicler of the early days of Nebraska’s settlement. Born in Winchester County, Virginia, and at age nine relocated to the town of Red Cloud, on the plains of Nebraska, Cather graduated from a rigorous academic program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and moved to Pittsburgh in 1896. In Pittsburgh, Cather worked in journalism and, by age twenty-two, was made managing editor of Home Monthly magazine. Cather then worked for McClure’s, publishing her own early prose and poetry in other magazines, until the celebrated and influential author Sarah Orne Jewett counseled her to leave her job and devote herself to writing, as well as to turn her attention to the Nebraska and Virginia of her childhood. This advice to concern one’s self with the terrain and populations of one’s earliest environs is not unlike that which Edith Wharton had earlier received from Henry James, who wanted his young friend to turn her back on European themes and locales in order to plumb New York and its society in her work. Taking Jewett’s advice made a decisive difference in Cather’s career, as taking James’ had made in Wharton’s; Willa Cather became one of the preeminent authors of her generation, and by 1923 she had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with the World War I novel One of Ours.
When she died in 1947 Cather was still considered one of the greatest authors of her generation, although she had been the target of disdain by some vocal critics in the 1930s. Such critics decried what they considered to be Cather’s lack of political engagement; however, one might argue that these critics simply misread her work, which is always concerned with such matters as the despoiling of the environment, the pervasiveness of the profit motive in human interactions, the plight of immigrants, and the manner in which many of America’s poorest and weakest inhabitants are, sometimes literally, ground up in the wheels of commerce and progress. Thus, despite the formal elegance and lucidity of her work, which in no way resembles the cruder muckraking work of some of her more clearly activist colleagues, Cather can readily be considered a politically engaged author. She questions, with love and fierce intellect, some of the most unexamined but cherished notions of the United States of America, such as the idea that deserving people, like cream, always rise to the top. Cather’s concern with this issue can be seen in Alexander’s Bridge, in which the qualities that help Alexander rise, namely charisma, energy, and ambition, become the same man’s weaknesses once he has lost his moral and ethical bearings.
Despite suffering critical slings and arrows, Cather produced provocative work throughout her career; indeed, her final work, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), a novel about slavery, evil, and complicity in evil, elicits passionate response over half a century after its publication, most notably in Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s volume of criticism Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). In contrast, Alexander’s Bridge, Cather’s first foray into the genre that brought her fame, is somewhat less well known, despite the high quality of Cather’s story and her precise and graceful prose style.
Alexander’s Bridge was first published in the February, March, and April 1912 issues of McClure’s under the title Alexander’s Masquerade. It received a generally enthusiastic critical reception, even from the famously acerbic columnist H. L. Mencken, who praised Cather’s descriptive gifts and noted with approval Cather’s obvious familiarity with Edith Wharton’s themes, such as responsibility and duty, and with Wharton’s lucid writing style. Mencken’s appreciation of Cather’s work was so warm and sincere that his were among the most enthusiastic reviews written of My Antonia (1918), helping cement Cather’s already solid reputation. One review of Alexander’s Bridge favorably compared Cather’s accomplishment to that of the popular and respected author Dorothy Canfield Fisher, while another review suggested that there were many established and successful novelists who would do well to study and emulate Willa Cather’s clear style and her precise narrative control. Alexander’s Bridge was thus a remarkable critical and commercial success, particularly when one bears in mind that many authors’ first novels are judged on the authors’ potential for future growth and improvement, rather than on the actual merit of the work itself.
Interestingly, though, the style, subject matter, and cosmopolitan locale of Alexander’s Bridge are different enough from even Willa Cather’s own concept of her career that the author made repeated, ultimately successful, attempts to underplay the novel’s significance in her body of work. Ten years after its initial publication, Cather asserted in the Preface to the 1922 edition of Alexander’s Bridge that the novel did not deal with the sort of subject matter she now preferred to examine. In short, she had moved forward as an author, and she preferred that her readers would do so as well. Cather further, and repeatedly, insisted that Alexander’s Bridge was derivative, and that her subsequent works were more worthy of attention and acclaim than was Alexander’s Bridge.
Complicating matters still more, once Cather had found her voice and milieu as a chronicler of pioneer life, she worked to disassociate herself from the literary influence of novelists of manners Edith Wharton and Henry James. Alexander’s Bridge is the novel in which Wharton’s and James’ literary influence upon Cather is most in evidence, for instance in the cosmopolitan settings in which the novel takes place, in Cather’s meticulous examination of Bartley Alexander’s conscience and in his musings about his ethical dilemmas and his purpose in life, and, as scholar Sharon O’Brien notes, in Cather’s use of architectural metaphors to explore her own artistic concerns. Furthermore, like Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart, from The House of Mirth (1905), Bartley Alexander is consumed by forces outside his control; however, unlike Bart, who is beset by small-minded and cruel people who assist her to her doom, Cather’s Alexander brings many of his problems upon himself, through his sins of omission and commission. Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that Cather would repudiate both Alexander’s Bridge and James’ and Wharton’s literary influences after she decided to look to her Nebraska childhood for subject matter, although she always declared herself a grateful devotee and student of her regionalist mentor Sarah Orne Jewett. Despite Cather’s own reservations, Alexander’s Bridge remains a strong novel, and a good representative of novels in the early twentieth century. When an author dismisses and disparages her own work, it seems inevitable that other readers and critics will defer to her judgment, regardless of how incorrect this judgment may be. That Alexander’s Bridge is comparatively ignored is truly Cather’s own doing; however, it seems appropriate in this case to take the author’s words with a grain of salt and to read and evaluate the novel with an open mind.
The protagonist of Alexander’s Bridge, Bartley Alexander, is supremely talented, energetic, and visionary, and is well-rewarded for his ability and his ambitious projects. When his compensation is added to his wealthy wife’s estate, the modestly born man’s assets are staggeringly large. Nonetheless, Alexander is flawed in small but important ways. Chief among his flaws is a desire to have what he lacks, as well as an unwillingness to give up what he has in order to get what he desires, a tendency his old college professor, Lucius Wilson, describes as the desire to have all the “birds in the bushes.” This small defect in character, when combined with a bit of bad luck, proves disastrous.
Literary critic Sally Peltier Harvey describes Alexander’s Bridge as an “inverted and subverted Horatio Alger story,” suggesting that the novel reveals Cather’s skepticism about such cherished American myths as the self-made man, who rises by what Alger termed “luck and pluck,” as well as the concept that material success is in some ways indicative of moral virtue. In fact, Alexander, assumed by many critics to have been named for Alexander the Great, becomes increasingly careworn and disillusioned as he conquers the bridge-building world. And, as his career and reputation approach their zenith, Alexander finds his energy, motivation, and life force waning. Alexander, once a lad in shabby clothes, gets a piece of good fortune early in his career, and he also manages to wed a wealthy and socially prominent woman. This happy ending is where Horatio Alger’s novels end, but it is where Cather’s novel begins, with Alexander and his wife, Winifred, adjusting to life after his thrilling success. As Alexander explains to Lucius Wilson, “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.” Bartley Alexander has gotten what he wanted for his life, but he no longer wants it. Alexander’s Bridge is, then, a novel about what happens after one has gotten one’s happy ending.
According to scholar Bernice Slote, Cather’s use of color in Alexander’s Bridge “reinforces emotion with symbolic meaning.” For instance, the novel begins and ends with what Slote identifies as “gray and watery elements”; in addition to the visual aspects of grayness and water, Alexander speaks of “drowning” in the daily details of his work and he is, ultimately, drowned by panicking workers after they are all thrown into the St. Lawrence River. Thus, the grayness of Alexander’s external world symbolizes the grayness of his moral and ethical landscape, and his sense of being drowned in details and responsibility foreshadows his literal drowning. Slote further suggests that the most important element in Alexander’s Bridge is that of division. The novel’s protagonist is divided against himself and his impulses, and his bridge ultimately falls, or divides, of its own weight. Too large and unwieldy, and not sufficiently sturdy, the bridge, like Alexander himself, falls to spectacular pieces, carrying “lesser” men, innocent men, to their deaths.
Despite the fact that clothing styles, manner of speech, and personal and social morality have changed in the years since Alexander’s Bridge was first published, Cather’s examination of individual responsibility, as well as how one goes on with life after having achieved fabulous success, remains timely. Cather’s crisp sentences and nuanced descriptions of Alexander’s internal and external world make the novel compelling and thought-provoking reading for people still steeped in the notion that virtue is rewarded with material success, and that wealth, fame, and position are the measures of an individual’s true worth. Nearly a century after it was first published, Willa Cather’s Alexander’s Bridge remains an elegant and incisive critique of both the American Dream and the concept of free will. Despite Cather’s reservations about the novel, and despite her systematic attempts to disparage and marginalize it, Alexander’s Bridge rewards its readers’ time and attention.
Angela M. Salas earned her Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. An associate professor of English at Clarke College, in Dubuque, Iowa, she has published about Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Yusef Komunyakaa, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.