Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

Alexander's BridgeI think Willa Cather gets men.

During her life, and in the critical response to her work after her death, she took her fair share of heat for not writing often enough from a woman’s point of view.  Even when the book was about women, like My Antonia, her narrator had a male voice.  I think it’s fair to ask  why she made this choice, it may even be fair to take her to task for it a bit, but she really does it well.

Her men are not rugged men’s men, not her narrators at least.  They tend towards the intellectual, the arty.  Even in a book like O, Pioneers where so many of the men were farmers on the American prarie I had the feeling that they would have been happier in a college town somewhere.  (Much of her fiction is set in college towns on the prarie.)  Jim Burden, the narrator of My Antonia, ends up a lawyer living in New York City.

But I always believed Willa Cather’s men.  Fully believed them.  Not just as characters, but as male characters.

Many people today make the case that only a member of a specific group can fully and accurately represent that group because you have to live it to understand it.  I think many of use like to think that our experience makes us different from the rest of the herd; you can’t understand me if you haven’t been through what I have.

I’ve never really bought that.   I read too much to believe it.  A great author, a great artist, can make that leap of empathy well enough to portray multiple perspectives.  Ones who can write from a point of view not their own should be admired for that level of skill.  It’s not something everyone can do.

Alexander’s Bridge is Willa Cather’s first novel/novella, but even this early in her career she succeeds in presenting a male point of view.  Alexander is Alexander Bartley, an engineer from the prairie states who has become a world renowned designer of bridges.  His life has taken him back east where he has married above his station, the daughter of one of the first men to hire him.  His work takes him to London where he encounters his first love, an actress, whom he had nearly forgotten.

Though his marriage is a happy one, Alexander begins an affair which continues whenever his work takes him to London.  The time is early 20th century so a business trip to London means an absence of weeks at least.

Alexander’s Bridge is not Willa Cather’s best work by any means.  It’s a good book, one that fits well into her body of work, but her best stuff would come later.  But it reveals from the start that she understood the men and the women she wrote about equally well, well enough to write in either voice most likely.  I think, in the end, her decision to write so frequently from a male perspective added to the quality of her work.