Alexander’s Bridge: Book #1 of the Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge 2012

Illustration from McClure’s

Welcome to the first month of The Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge 2012!

The challenge is to read all 12 of Willa Cather’s novels in chronological order, one each month, throughout 2012. For full details about the challenge and to express your interest in participating, click here.

Our first novel in the challenge is Alexander’s Bridge. Read it sometime over the next three weeks and we’ll start our conversation about it on Monday, January 16th.
About Alexander’s Bridge:
  • It was published in 1912 when Cather was 37.
  • It’s a short novel or novella, clocking in at 27,256 words (for the sake of comparison, the “average” novel is 70,000 to 150,000 words). 
  • Cather started working on the story in May 1910 and finished it in the summer of 1911. From February to April 1912 it was serialized in McClure’s magazine under the title “Alexander’s Masquerade.” It was published in book form by Houghton Mifflin in April 1912 and sold for $1.

Here’s a brief description from the Virago Modern Classics edition:

Bartley Alexander, an engineer famous for the audacious structure of his North American bridges, is at the height of his reputation. He has a distinguished and beautiful wife and an enviable Boston home. Then, on a trip to London, he has a chance encounter with an Irish actress he once loved. When their affair re-ignites, Alexander finds himself caught in a tug of emotions—between his feelings for wife, who has supported his career with understanding and strength, and Hilda, whose impulsiveness and generosity restore to him the passion and energy of his youth. Coinciding with this personal dilemma are ominous signs of strain in his professional life. In this, her first novel, originally published in 1912, Willa Cather skillfully explores the struggle between opposing sides of the self, a facility that was to become a hallmark of her craft.

Alexander’s Bridge is often not stocked at bookstores. However, your local bookseller should be able to quickly get a copy for you or check out your local library.

  • If you read digital books on an eReader or your phone, you can download a free digital edition from Project Gutenberg here (they have epub, kindle, mobi, etc. formats). 
  • If you want to read an online edition that includes informative hyper-linked footnotes, visit The Cather Archive for the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition of the novel here. Even if you don’t read this online edition, a visit to this outstanding resource will be well-worth your time. 
  • There are hard copies of the book available via and other online sources, including the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, NE.

    Have you ever heard of Alexander’s Bridge? Based on what I’ve seen on blogs and from talking with actual flesh-and-blood folks, it seems that most people familiar with Cather have read My Antonia and/or O Pioneers! Fewer have read Death Comes for the Archbishop, but the title might ring a bell. Most people, however, have not even heard of Alexander’s Bridge.

    Why is this? Is it because My Antonia and O Pioneers! are “better” novels than Alexander’s Bridge? Or do My Antonia and O Pioneers! better exemplify themes that teachers have wanted to get across to their students in recent decades and so it’s more often introduced in the classroom? Alexander’s Bridge, if taught, seems to be used as an example of the engineer as American hero.

    Cather herself struggled with the place of Alexander’s Bridge among her other novels. She’s not unique in this desire. Nathaniel Hawthorne completely disowned his first novel. You’ve heard of The Scarlett Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851), but have you heard of Fanshawe? That was Hawthorne’s first novel, which he self-published anonymously in 1828. It didn’t make the splash that Hawthorne had hoped. He burned the unsold copies and never looked back. [If you’re interested, Fanshawe is available here from Project Gutenberg.]

    Although Cather didn’t completely disown her first novel, she made statements about it in later years that distanced it from her later novels. Tom Quirk explores these statements and concludes that they can be “attributed to nothing more significant than Cather’s presentation of a revised but attractive artistic identity, something any shrewd professional writer is apt to do.” Indeed, I just came across a different sort of authorial distancing around Demian (1919), Hermann Hesse’s fifth novel. Hesse published Demian under a pseudonym because Hesse felt his real name was “too strongly associated with a kind of fiction that he had outgrown. He did not want expectations based upon his previous novels to interfere with readers’ experience of his new novel” (Hal Hager in the HaperPerennial Modern Classics edition). Such interference seems to be what Cather may have been trying to avoid.

    Cather, the story goes, found her voice as a novelist in her second effort, O Pioneers! It’ll be interesting to see what we all think about Alexander’s Bridge and how it does or doesn’t fit in with Cather’s subsequent novels as we read her works throughout the year.


    I’ll post my thoughts on reading Alexander’s Bridge in a new post by noon on Monday, January 16. At that time the conversation will begin–simply post your thoughts about the novel in the comments section of that post so we can have everyone’s thoughts in once place. Please hold off on sharing your thoughts about the novel until the16th so everyone has the time to read the novel.

    Happy Reading!

    One comment

    1. Thanks for the interesting info. Although I'm familiar with some of WC's titles I'd never heard of Alexander's Bridge but I've downloaded onto my Kindle and look forward to reading it.

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