Alexander’s Bridge, the third of the four latest Art of the Novellas, was, perhaps shockingly, my first experience with Willa Cather. And as so often seems to happen, probably an atypical one: far from the West, it follows the story of Bartley Alexander, Boston engineer of world renown. Set alternately in Boston, London, New York City and only briefly the wilds of Canada, the settings are decidedly cosmopolitan—as is Alexander himself, and his interests.
Alexander’s bridge is a literal thing: that’s what he makes, and he’s made more than one, though one particular project has most of his attention during the period of the novel. Or at least, most of his attention that’s devoted to work at all, because he is decidedly distracted by an old flame.
Happily married now for some ten years, Alexander goes, as he frequently does, on a business trip to London. He meets an old friend for dinner who invites him to the theater, where a particularly good comedy is now being staged—starring Hilda, unbeknownst to anyone but themselves, Alexander’s long-discarded love. And the worries that Alexander’s former teacher, Professor Wilson, had about his forceful nature, begin to come true. “I’m sure I did you justice in the matter of ability,” Wilson has told him before the trip, “Yet I always used to feel that there was a weak spot where some day strain would tell. Even after you began to climb, I stood down in the crowd and watched you wtih—well, not with confidence. The more dazzling the front you presented, the higher your façade rose, the more I expected to see a big crack zigzagging from top to bottom…then a crash and clouds of dust.” But Wilson believes just the opposite has happened. Alexander believes this too, but the reinvigorated youth he feels upon meeting Hilda again is too much for him.
This is probably the most psychologically interesting part of the novella. It is not that Alexander’s affair will ruin him, per se. It is not her, but “youth [that] was the most dangerous of companions” for him. Still very much in love with his wife, Alexander does his best to carry on at home as normal, even as he continues to go back and forth to London, always visiting Hilda when he does (though admittedly, this is not very often). But at home it is his own youth, not longing for Hilda, that haunts him. His comfortable life agitates him; he wants things to seem normal, but his own turn back toward the young man Wilson worried about prevents that even in the most normal and familiar of circumstances.
Cather brilliantly brings the words Wilson uses to describe his worry to life at the end of the novella, when Alexander’s ultimate tragedy must come. Unwittingly delayed by a meeting with Hilda in making a vital trip up to Canada to supervise construction of his bridge there, he is dismayed to discover “that the whole great span was incurably disabled, was already as good as condemned, because something was out of line in the lower chord of the cantilever arm.” Just one flaw like that can ruin a whole bridge—can force nothing less than its demolition and rebuilding. But can a man be rebuilt? And after he has been demolished?