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From Cather Studies Volume 4

Alexander's Bridge

The "Other" First Novel

You had your searches, your uncertainties, And this is good to know—for us, I mean Who bear the brunt of our America And try to wrench her impulse into art. —Ezra Pound, "To Whistler, American"

As she made clear, Cather preferred to forget Alexander's Bridge. In her essay "My First Novels (There Were Two)," written in 1931, she locates her true beginning with O Pioneers! and dismisses Alexander's Bridge as a "studio picture"—that is, airless, not done on site—bearing the marks of a beginning writer fascinated by "interesting material" and "clever people" (On Writing 91, 93). But along the way she says something that qualifies her disparagement: "The impressions I tried to communicate on paper were genuine, but they were very shallow" (On Writing 91).

No one can deny shallowness: stilted dialogue, stagey settings (so many teas before cozy fires), Wilson's Poelike presentiments of a fatal flaw in Alexander, and of course the love-triangle plot. Wherein is the novel genuine? However hard to locate, a strain of something transcending the melodrama of the story has been sensed by a number of careful readers, beginning with Ferris Greenslet, Cather's Houghton Mifflin editor, who recommended it for publication, noting that he found "a spiritual sense of life" (qtd. in Woodress 216) in the manuscript. Edith Lewis, in her memoir, venturing a slight disagreement with her old friend, speaks of the novel's "gathering intensity and power," as though Cather's "true voice had broken through" (79). Among later commentators Bernice Slote, Susan J. Rosowski, and Elizabeth Ammons should be noted. Still, defining the elusive genuineness of the novel, its authenticity, remains a problem.

Cather herself seems to be considering the question of authorial genuineness in a letter of 1943 recalling how she came to write "Paul's Case." The story rose, she says, from her memory of a troubled boy in her Latin class and from her own feelings about the old New York Waldorf Astoria. She adds that most stories are made in this fashion, by a grafting of some figure with apart of "the writer's self" (letter to Mr. Phillipson). That phrase, "the writer's self," suggests an undercurrent of intensity, a nerve touched, that we respond to as authentic. Cather elsewhere asserted the centrality of her own involvement in what she wrote. For example, speaking at Bryn Mawr in 1927 she referred to "personal emotional experience" as the beginning ofevery "genuine imaginative production" ("Future of Art" 2).[1]

What I hope to show is that some part of Cather is embedded in Alexander's Bridge and that—strangely—this part is her feeling about her "interesting material," which she so belittles in "My First Novels." In other words, what was engaging her emotional interest around 1911 was the international scene and its "clever people." She indeed did think then, as she put it in order to deny it, that "London is more engaging than . . . Gopher Prairie" (On Writing 92).

Two biographical details may clarify this claim. The first is a passage from a letter Cather wrote to E. K. Brown in 1946 in which she describes a defining choice she faced at the time of writing Alexander's Bridge. She recalls that she then had a chance to live in London, a move urged particularly by two English friends, William Heinemann and William Archer, men she characterizes as full of gayety and wit. She decided not to make the move, she says, only after talking with Louis Brandeis, who praised O Pioneers! when it came out in 1913. In other words, the plan lasted until O Pioneers! was published and appreciated. Implausible as it seems, an expatriate Cather was possible.[2]

Lewis confirms that Cather wrote Alexander's Bridge while troubled by indecision: "I seem to recall it as a period of uncertainty and change. . .. I remember that we discussed once whether it would be worth while to buy a new coffee pot, since the future seemed so uncertain" (74). Cather and Lewis were then in a small and unsatisfactory apartment on Washington Place. They would move to the comfort of Bank Street only after O Pioneers! was ready for publication.

The second bit of biographical data—really just an image—comes from a letter Cather wrote to Elizabeth Sergeant in August 1912 from Pittsburgh, where she was staying at the McClungs' home and working on O Pioneers! She reports that she and Isabelle are reading aloud the ninth volume of Michelet—six volumes further on than in March.[3]

How are these two pieces from her life related to the authorial self-inspiriting Alexander's Bridge? All readers of the novel must agree that when we step back, as it were, and ask what the novel describes we say that it is an image of the agony of indecision, of a mind in torment from not being able to find a resolution. It is, in fact, an image of a mind evermore stricken with fear of finally choosing one path and thus eliminating forever what the path not taken promises.

It is possible that in following Bartley's struggles Cather was drawing on the insights of William James, whose "devoted disciple" she had been during her Pittsburgh days (Seibel 202). In his Introduction to Psychology, just out in 1890, and in the more popular Psychology: Briefer Course that followed two years later, James wrote explicitly of the pain of indecision, about which he knew firsthand, having himself been driven to a mental breakdown by the dilemma of having to choose between a life given to art and one given to science and medicine. He speaks movingly of "that peculiar feeling of inward unrest known as indecision" and of the "desolation" of doubt leading to "a lonesome moral wilderness." It is such a lonely and life-annihilating dilemma that is at the heart of Alexander's Bridge (James528, 534).[4] Indeed, the peculiar misery of the story is that no resolution is ever found. The hero undergoes no illumination, no rush of self-knowledge. Bartley dies baffled, his irresolution underscored by the reversals in his thinking in the last hours of his life. Significantly, these are presented as failures of communication, writings that do not fully reflect the writer's mind and never reach their intended audience. Bartley writes two letters in his last hours, the first to Hilda, saying that he must give her up, which he destroys when she appears in his New York rooms and he realizes that he cannot live without her. The second is to Winifred, saying that he must leave her. (Bartley's studio rooms, rented from a portrait painter, have large windows, mirrors, and glassy framed pictures that reflect and distort, suggesting his increasing disintegration.)[5] The next morning on the train north he rejects this letter too. He cannot face a life in cheap continental hotels even to be with Hilda. But the letter remains in his pocket when he drowns under his collapsing bridge, but—yet again "but"—it is so water-soaked as to be illegible and is never read (but is misinterpreted by Winifred). The essential incoherence of Bartley's life remains.

It may be objected that I am equating what Cather depicts as a life-defining dilemma—Bartley's—with what is, after all, a mere geographical displacement and one that could be reversed. However, the London decision was fraught with implications that made it more than just a change of scene.

Why did London so attract Cather at this time? Part of the answer lies in the great turn her life had so recently taken professionally and socially. In just six or seven years she had moved from being an obscure high-school teacher to a personage welcome in the intellectual and art-centered circles of London. The names she mentions to Brown—Heinemann and Archer—were at the heart of the publishing and theater worlds. Through them and others she had met Edmund Gosse, H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, Edward Garnett, and Ford Madox Ford. She had encountered Swinburne in the British Museum (Tittle) and attended the funeral of Meredith (letter to Mrs. Seibel). Further, she had made her own mark in this company, as Sergeant perceived during a conversation shortly after they met in 1910: "she was soon telling me about an evening in a box at the new Irish players in London with William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory. I could see how much at home she felt in such brilliant company, I could divine how these great literary figures enjoyed the fine, free discriminations of a cultivated American mind; which intrigued them the more because expressing itself in a very un-English accent . . . a Nebraskan had the right 'American' tang" (60-61). In sum, Sergeant writes, "For her London, London of all cities" (59). And it seems clear that Heinemann and Archer were not just contacts but valued friends, especially Archer, who visited Cather in New York (Lewis 75). Interestingly for the reticent Cather, she spoke of Archer in an address she gave at Bowdoin College in 1925 in order to illustrate her point that an author should feel love (her word) for her characters. She recalled talking to the actor George Arliss about Archer and how all the details brought up revealed their affections for him (Staples).

The life such friends promised would have been enticing to any lover of art and literature, particularly to one self-conscious about her prairie education, as Cather called her small-town schooling, but doubly so for Cather in contrast to the humiliations she had endured on her first trip to Europe in 1902. Mark Madigan, tracing the troubled friendship of Cather and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, makes clear how painful, how prolonged, was Cather's envy of Fisher's refined learning and sophistication that made it possible for her to talk easily with Cather's beloved Housman while Cather herself sat there tongue-tied. It took 20 years before Cather, her success now assured, could confess her bitterness to Fisher. We may note that the Cather-Fisher correspondence reports a clear instance of Cather using her own powerful emotions for her fiction. Writing One of Ours, Cather says, she built on her bitter memories to convey Claude Wheeler's sense of being shutout from a promised land when he talked with David Gerhardt who, like Fisher, carried his Europeanized education so lightly (Madigan 126-27). But just a few years had brought a dazzling reversal. As an editor at McClure's,Cather could now move with ease in the Republic of Letters (the eighteenth-century phrase Edith Wharton uses in The House of Mirth to suggest the worldly fraternity of the learned).

Of course London—that is, Europe—was the place to be for a writer. James and Wharton were the obvious models, but different American writers went too—Stephen Crane and, for a time, Robert Frost. Another wave of modernist expatriates was waiting in the wings or already there, showing how pervasive the pull was. In Europe was the good and free life, as Cather dramatizes in "The Bohemian Girl," the story she wrote shortly after Alexander's Bridge. Clara and Nils run from the cultural wasteland of Nebraska to Europe—to be exact, Bergen (a choice, it may be observed, that considerably surprises anyone of Norwegian ancestry). And in the epilogue of Alexander's Bridge we find that Professor Wilson, having come into money, has left the West to live in London, as though London was his natural home.

More to the point, the fabric of the novel conveys the glamour London had in Cather's imagination. The London scenes are rendered with exactitude and detail, whereas Boston remains somewhat misty. London streets and buildings and places are named—Piccadilly, Bedford Square, Trafalgar Square, the Embankment, the Houses of Parliament—as they "catch fire with the sunset"(Alexander's Bridge 35). When Bartley and Hilda return from an excursion to Richmond they see London as "a distant gold-washed city," its shadows changed by a "shining, pulsing, special atmosphere" (92). They see lines before the pit entrances of the theaters, "short-coated boys, and girls in sailor hats, all shivering and chatting gayly" (93).

Yet the attraction of London as a way of life was only part of its lure. Its more crucial significance is suggested by the picture of Cather and McClung reading Michelet's history, volume 9. This is the question of what kind of writer Cather wanted to be as she left full-time publishing to try to make it as a writer. (It should be emphasized that a move to London would not have entailed continuing as McClure's editor. In London she could readily do occasional freelance work, as she seemed to have been planning.) What kind of writing did she aspire to? The answer is the top level: that is, she wished to be a contender on the plane of high culture. What we know of Cather's reading, her habits, her passions, her friends—and we know quite a bit about these, early and late—reveal someone consumed, yes, by a desire to be a writer, an artist in the life-dedicating romantic style, but also by a twin ambition, that is, to know everything—all literature, music, art, languages, works of history and philosophy. She wanted, as Mallarmé put it, to be one who had read all the books or to use the phrase of Ezra Pound, who was already in Europe, Cather aspired, as did he, to "world citizenship."[6]

This is an ambition, a distinction, the power of which is now hard to convey. The desire to be, as the pallid phrase has it, "liberally educated" has lost its pull—indeed, is under attack as "Eurocentric" (see, for example, Elizabeth Ammons's essay in Cather Studies 3). But this cultural ideal had a long history, perhaps especially among women writers and thinkers, who, if they could not do a lot of things, could at least read books, as we see in the lives of George Eliot, Margaret Fuller, Virginia Woolf—to mention a few—and also Edith Wharton, a poor little rich girl who spent hours reading in her father's library. The picture of Cather and her handsome socialite friend determinedly pushing through Michelet's history says something about this drive. [7] Part of the attraction of London, then, was that it represented the nature of the writing she aspired to.[8]

As a correlative, in reverse as it were, we may ask what kind of writing she did not want to do. In this regard it is suggestive to look again at the influence of Sarah Orne Jewett, about which so much has been made both in criticism and in biography. Certainly Cather was heartened by the interest and friendship of the older, established author. But her admiration for the writing was tempered. In the introduction she wrote for The Country of the Pointed Firs she says much in praise but reservedly. She must have been thinking of her own very different fictional characters when she noted,"Miss Jewett wrote of the people who grew out of the soil, . . . not about exceptional individuals at war with their environment." And in an interview she gave almost contemporaneously (1924) she said crisply of Jewett, "She was a very uneven writer. A good portion of her work is not worth preserving... . She was a voice. She spoke for a slight but influential section of the American people" (Rasco 68). Here Cather reveals the very different scope she had set herself. For her the sketch, the local scene, local color for its own sake, were not enough. She was always angered by being placed with the regional realists.

And if she should choose to write about life in the West, life as she remembered it, she had an audience to fear. "The Sculptor's Funeral" and "A Wagner Matinee," in which she had not disguised her fear of the empty land and her loathing for small-town small-mindedness, had angered Nebraskans and offended her family. As late as 1921 she told an interviewer about her hurt at the criticism: "the root and branch kind of attack is hard to forget" (Hinman 48). Possibly Jewett, too, was an inhibiting force. Despite her advice about truth-telling, she had not liked the pessimism of Cather's early stories.[9] "The Enchanted Bluff," a poeticized blend of childhood memory and nature writing, might have pointed a way out, but even here the obliterating force of the prairie or a stifling small town threatens the boys. In the story Cather wrote just before Alexander's Bridge, pretty Nelly Deane is extinguished by the western town. It must have appeared dauntingly difficult, perhaps impossible, to attain world citizenship by way of Nebraska.

If only she could have it both ways, like Hartwell, the sculptor hero of her 1907 story "The Namesake": Hartwell lived all his life in Europe but nevertheless was always referred to as "the American." He succeeded as did no other artist in capturing in bronze "all the restless, teeming force of the adventurous wave still climbing westward in our own land" (139). Later, two successful novels behind her, Cather indulged herself in a more personal wish-fulfillment dream through Thea Kronborg, the ambitious girl from the West who achieves success abroad and returns to success at home, performing before all her western friends, even Spanish Johnny. Meanwhile, back home in Moonstone, Aunt Tillie basks in the pleasure of reading about Madame Kronborg's triumphs.

However, as we well know, Cather did not move to London. No doubt a mixture of powerful and difficult to articulate loyalties were tugging at her—loyalties to family, to the land, to language—making clear that here, inescapably, was her subject and here she must make her way. She pictures this relentless pull in the closing scene of "The Bohemian Girl." Eric, Nils's young brother, has started on his journey of escape to join Clara and Nils in Bergen, but in growing anguish of mind, and inevitably, he jumps from the eastbound train and takes the westbound back to Omaha, to mother, and to the farm.

The struggle that Cather is remembering—or endured in the course of writing Alexander's Bridge—was between the brilliant lights of London and the dim campfires of childhood, so memorably invoked when Bartley looks from the train bearing him to his doomed bridge and sees boys camped around a marsh fire. He remembers his western boyhood but cannot connect the boy and the man, the western youth and the ambitious builder of the world's bridges. That was the dilemma Cather faced: how to satisfy her intellectual and worldly ambitions while remaining loyal to her western past.

Alexander's Bridge shows how it can be done: although Hilda Burgoyne seldom appears in the list of Cather's strong women, she is, as Bartley calls her,"powerful" (95). She represents the integration that so far had eluded Cather. Hilda is independent, an increasingly successful actress, and an artist who uses her past—her Irish country roots—to further her art. She is a rememberer: she visits the Paris people she and Bartley had known in their young romance, she lives in Bedford Square where her family had lived, she visits the British museum, as she did as a child. Significantly, the art of the Museum speaks to her—she senses the good wishes of the Egyptian princess in the mummy room, whereas Bartley shudders at the dead art held in those walls and at the coldness of the Elgin marbles.

Bartley's boyhood memories, in contrast to Hilda's, are scattered fragments—hunting jack rabbits with a favorite greyhound, remembering locoed horses in a corral (74, 102). Only once, on a park bench in London, could he "feel his own continuous identity—feel the boy he had been in the rough days of the old West" (39).[10]

Alexander's Bridge exemplifies the root of Cather's impasse: Living one's life with the British Museum as a neighbor was one thing, living next to an endless cornfield quite another. Cather would go on to find connectedness, to discover a way of bringing the muses of poetry and epic into her empty land, but she would also remain keenly aware of the pains of disconnectedness and of the dangers of half-buried memories and sudden dislocations. St. Peter and Myra Henshawe are the obvious examples, but even in a very late story, "Before Breakfast," a dark current of memory, a hinted betrayal of an early self, undermines the equanimity of Henry Grenfell. Cather was more right than we have sometimes supposed in asserting that she had two beginnings.


 1. Although the reporter covering the speech uses few quotation marks, the article appears to be a straightforward summary of the address. Clearly Cather stressed the importance of the artist's involvement: "In the last analysis, the most significant thing in any art is composition, that is, the author's physical and emotional relation to his subject" ("Future of Art" 3). (Go back.)
 2. Very likely Cather had decided against London before this. She and Lewis signed a lease for the Bank Street apartment while she was still working on O Pioneers!, shortly after her trip to Arizona in the summer of 1912 (Woodress 233). Still, she did mention London longingly in a letter to Elizabeth Sergeant of December 1912. (Go back.)
 3. These letters are summarized by Sergeant (95-96). (Go back.)
 4. James's language describing the mental pain of indecision is notably violent: "and in the very act of murdering the vanguished possibility, the chooser realizes how much in that instant he is making himself lose. It is deliberately driving a thorn in one's flesh" (534). James analyzes five types of resolution, the last of which, the catastrophic, would seem to fit Bartley's story: "In men of the world-shaking type, . . . in whom tenacious passion combines with ebullient activity . . . the resolution is often of this catastrophic kind. The flood breaks quite unexpectedly" (533). (Go back.)
 5. I am indebted to Polly Duryea for this observation. She speculates that the painter Cather had in mind was William Merritt Chase, whose paintings frequently included mirrors and framed paintings. Duryea's argument that Bartley's collapse is imaged in the glass distortions of his rooms is persuasive in part because Cather tells us that the framed painting was done by the painter when he and Bartley were young in Paris. Cather seems to be calling our attention to a link between the artist and Bartley (Duryea 124-25). (Go back.)
 6. In an odd little essay, "What I Feel About Walt Whitman" (1909), Pound, with his characteristic truculence, expresses the contradiction aspiring American writers then felt for, on the one hand, the full intellectual tradition and, on the other, the newness of America: "I am (in common with every educated man) an heir of the ages and I demand my birthright." At the same time he cannot repudiate America, symbolized by Whitman: "He is America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America." It is tempting to see Cather's allusion to Whitman in her title O Pioneers! as a public declaration of definitively taking sides with "the roughnecks," as opposed to the Europeanized expatriates (Pound 814). (Go back.)
 7. I do not mean to suggest that Cather read Michelet just to be reading a big book. One of her favorite quotations is from him, "Le but n'est rien; le chemin, c'est tout," and she obviously found congenial his romantic version of history as a record of the struggle of human freedom against fatality. In a letter to Sergeant she speaks of history as a "vast consolation" during a difficult week (letter of 24? or 28? March 1912; I am indebted to Marilyn Arnold for information about this letter. She mentions the unclear postmark). Other philosophical writers that Cather read carefully at various times include William James, Henri Bergson, and George Santayana. (Go back.)
 8. "Behind the Singer Tower," the story Cather wrote immediately after Alexander's Bridge (before "The Bohemian Girl," apparently), tackles large social and intellectual themes: exploitation of immigrant workers, anti-Semitism, naturalism, and "The New York Idea"—power from ungoverned technological growth. Clearly she was again trying to write about "big" subjects. (Go back.)
 9. When The Troll Garden came out in 1905, someone at McClure's sent Jewett a copy. In her acknowledgment letter Jewett wishes that the "promising" writer had been less pessimistic. She wishes that a more "hopeful construction" had been put on the "disappointed lives." If Cather knew about the letter, these comments would have discouraged her from writing with "genuineness" about her western memories (Blanchard 355). (Go back.)
 10. Cather told an interviewer in 1925: "I write only of the Mid-Western American life that I know thoroughly, and I must be here, where the stream of that life flowing over me touches springs that release early-caught and assimilated impressions. I cannot create my kind of thing without American speech around me" (Tittle 84). (Go back.)


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