Monday, January 18, 2016

Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

The world needs more books about sexy civil engineers that are world famous bridge designers.  Bartley Alexander is working on several important projects, including a bridge in Canada which will be the largest cantilever bridge in the world.  He loves his supportive, beautiful, and well connected wife, Winifred, but a chance meeting with a long ago love, actress Hilda Burgoyne, in London puts Alexander on a path to disaster.  Torn between two women he loves, Alexander must make a decision about his future.  

Alexander’s Bridge was Willa Cather’s first novel published in 1912.  In an interesting preface that was added for the 1922 reprint, Cather states that the novel was a practice novel that “does not deal with the kind of subject-matter in which I now find myself most at home.”  She stated that she picked the subject as she found it interesting and that “the writer, at the beginning of his career, is often more interested in his discoveries about his art than the homely truths that have been with him from his cradle.”  This novel was good, but definitely not as polished as other Cather works.  It’s amazing to me that O, Pioneers, one of my favorite novels, was published only a year later.  I thought in this novel, Cather was trying to mimic Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence at certain moments, but without the experience in Wharton’s world, it falls short.  Part of the problem is just the brevity of this novel, it doesn’t have much room to expand on the characters.

One item I found interesting was that the back description on this book stated that Alexander’s wife Winifred was “cold” and that is what drove him to Hilda.  I didn’t find that at all.  Alexander seemed to really love Winifred and had in fact left Hilda for Winifred in the first place.  With Hilda, Alexander seems to want to recapture his lost youth, but his deep regard seems to be for Winifred.  This is what causes his extreme angst.  I’ll put a spoiler alert now as I want to talk about the ending.

The disaster at the end of the novel seemed familiar to me so I looked it up. Willa Cather based it on the Quebec Bridge Disaster in Canada where 88 people were killed in not one, but two bridge failures.  The first failure was caused when famous bridge engineer, Theodore Cooper, decided to lengthen the bridge span without revising his calculations.  He also did not inspect the construction personally, but had a young engineer without experience do this.  The young engineer sent to Cooper telling him that things were not looking right, and Cooper wrote back to stop work.  Unfortunately they did not and it had tragic consequences.

In Alexander’s Bridge, Cather mimicked real world events with Alexander in New York with Hilda during this critical time.  The on-site inspector cannot find Alexander and gets a hold of him a day later to tell of the problems.  The inspector couldn’t get a hold of him as he was with Hilda illicitly.  This one day delay makes it so that when Alexander arrives on site, he is too late and while inspecting the bridge, the tragedy occurs.  Alexander’s love for both women, his indecision, made it so that he was crushed both literally and figuratively, but luckily for him, his letter to Winifred telling her of the affair has the ink washed off so she never knows.  

I wear a stainless steel ring on my right pinky as part of the Order of the Engineer.  It is on my working hand to remind me to always be ethical in my work as an engineer and to put mankind before profit.  I always heard the legend that this came from Canada and that the original rings were made from a bridge that collapsed there.  Reading this novel and finding out about the Quebec Bridge Disaster, I put two and two together.  Canadians go through the Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer which was originally written by Rudyard Kipling (who knew!) and was eventually brought to the United States as the Order of the Engineer.  The Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer was develop in the 1920’s in direct response to the Quebec Bridge Disaster.
My favorite quote from the book from Alexander, “After all, life doesn’t offer a man much.  You work like the devil and think you’re getting on, and suddenly discover that you’ve only been getting yourself tied up.  A million details drink you dry.”  Spoken like an overworked engineer.

Alexander’s Bridge was not Cather’s best work, but it was an interesting look into her development as an author and also fascinating to me as an engineer.  If you are a fan of either Cather or civil engineering, I highly recommend this book.  If you are just starting to read Cather, I recommend My Antonia or Death Comes for the Archbishop which are her best works.

Book Source:  Christmas gift from my best friend Jenn.


  1. Laura, I've heard of Willa Cather (of course), but not this particular book. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about it, as a reader and as an engineer. I like the idea of wearing your pinky ring as a reminder.

  2. I've heard of the author myself but this book is different. New to me and intriguing.

  3. This author sounds very familiar but I don't think I've ever read any of her works. Your comment on the overworked engineer strikes a chord with me too. My hubby is an electrical engineer in the medical field and totally overworked.:-)

  4. I'm glad I'm not the only one that enjoyed the overworked engineering quote! Willa Cather is a great author, well worth reading. This book is definitely one of her lesser known works and I wouldn't rate it as her best, but it was still intriguing.