Death Comes for the Archbishop

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'Quite simply a masterpiece ... I am completely bowled over by it; by the power of its writing, by the vividness of its scene painting and by the stories it tells' A. N. Wilson 'Where there is great love there are always miracles' Two French priests have been sent to New Mexico to reawaken the faith. There, they must contend with unforgiving landscapes, danger, rebellion and loneliness. But through their many years together they are sustained by faith, friendship and the awe-inspiring majesty that surrounds them. A work of ...

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Gissinglover

Sep 13, 2017

God And The American Southwest

Willa Cather's famous novel "Death Comes for the Archbishop" (1927) is set against the backdrop of the United States' acquisition of the New Mexico territory as a result of the Mexican War. Another less than happy historical incident also forms a boundary of the story: the forced removal of the Navajo Tribe from its ancestral home in the 1860s, with a great toll of death and suffering, followed by the return some years later of the Navajos to their current Reservation. Cather develops her timeless and austere story against the background of these events.

Cather's book tells the story of Father Jean Pierre LaTour, a French priest who has come to the Ohio Valley to do missionary work. With the United States' acquisition of New Mexico, the Church sends him on an arduous journey to Santa Fe to become the Bishop and to revitalize the Catholic Church. He is soon joined in Santa Fe by his long-time friend from his seminary days in France, Father Joseph Valliant. LaTour is scholarly and aloof, while Valliant is emotional and impulsive, a man of the people. A great deal of Cather's book centers on the friendship between the two priests. Cather changed the names of her characters, but the depiction of the two priests is historically based. Cather adopted and idealized their portrayals for her purposes in the novel. Other historical figures in the novel include the scout Kit Carson, who receives a sympathetic portrayal, and the native priest Padre Martinez, who attempts to break away from the orthodox Catholicism of Father LaTour and to found his own order. Martinez receives a less than sympathetic portrait from Cather.

Over the years of the story, LaTour and Valliant wander the deserts and small settlements of New Mexico and Arizona in an attempt to bring Catholicism to the people. During the timeframe of the book, the territory was inhabited largely by Indians and by Mexicans with only a few settlers from the States. As the book progresses, the pace of settlement quickens, as LaTour lives to regret the changed, urban character of Santa Fe where he builds a glorious cathedral. Cather is at her best in her descriptions of the landscape of the American Southwest, its distances, bleakness, deserts, heat, frost, wind, and cold. Cather offers a portrait of the Indian people, and the high mesas on which some of them lived. She shows a sensitivity to native Indian religions, which persisted through the Indians' nominal conversion to Catholicism.

With her attraction to the Southwest and its people, Cather also was greatly devoted to French culture and to the life of the mind. There are many descriptions in the book of LaTour and Valliant's love for French art, literature, wine, and cuisine and music. I had the feeling that Cather wanted to bring the best of European civilization to the New World. Yet, both LaTour and Valliant fall in love with their new homeland and LaTour declines the opportunity to spend his final years in a university position in France.

Cather wrote this book to emphasize the importance of religion in American life and in the settlement of the Southwest in particular. She had become dismayed by the increased emphasis on materialism, individuality, and sensuality that she saw in her contemporary America of the 1920s. She thus wrote a book that modified the usual picture of American expansionism to focus on religion. Today, as in Cather's day, many people overlook the role religion has played in shaping the American experience.

As a young woman, Cather had converted from the Baptist to the Episcopalian form of Protestantism. She never became a Catholic, but she studied and learned a great deal from Catholicism that is reflected in this book. She emphasizes a life of simple piety, devotion, and order, finding God in the everyday. There are many beautiful passages in the book on the Virgin Mary and her role in Catholicism, and discussions of piety, celibacy, miracles, and living a quiet contented life.

"Death Comes for the Archbishop" has always been a difficult book to classify. The work has a surprisingly modernist structure for a novel, with its lack of a plot line. The book has a historical setting, but it should not be read as history. It is concerned with a religion in which Cather did not herself believe and it shows her hero, LaTour, as enduring many moments of doubt. The picture that emerges is ultimately one of serenity and faith, but it is a harder and more complex vision than may appear on the surface.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to reread and rethink "Death Comes for the Archbishop" when I read it with a book group. Many critics prefer some of Cather's lesser-known works, such as "A Lost Lady" or "The Professor's House" to this famous novel. But "Death Comes for the Archbishop" is unquestionably a moving work richly deserving of its place as an American classic.

Robin Friedman

Arabella

May 3, 2012

Quiet and spellbinding

This is a lovely and unusual book. There is not much of a narrative. It's a quiet series of episodes in the lives of two Catholic missionaries and the people they meet in New Mexico and environs in the nineteenth century. It's evocative of the Southwest and of people who have made their lives there. I read it in and around Santa Fe and I'm so glad I did.

Robert E S

Jul 7, 2011

Southwest Memories

A perennial favorite, Death Comes for the Archbishop is a warm account of life in the old Southwest. Most enjoyable reading, regardless of your religious affiliation.

LongTallSally

Sep 4, 2008

A wonderful read

I read this book on the way home from a trip to New Mexico. I wish I had read it before I went--or any time. The language is wonderful, the pace slow but not dull, and the book evocative of a long bygone era in the history of this nation: southwestern settlements by Spanish missionaries. Highly recommended.

rejoyce

Aug 15, 2007

Indwelling Spirit of the American Desert

In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather becomes a poet of the Southwestern land, light, and air: "These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky. Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapour; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an oriental city lay directly behind the rock. The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave."

Cather tells the story of two French missionaries, bishop Jean Marie Latour and his vicar Joseph Vaillant who intend to build a cathedral in the New World (the novel is based on the lives of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Father Joseph Machebeut). The author herself envisioned the book as a narrative, hardly a novel at all, but rather a non-linear, achronological succession of "timeless moments" as though the narrator was God himself, and the story was animated by gesture, appearance, light, and color. In fact, scholars note Cather's debt to Puvis de Chavannes' frescoes of holy stories painted on the nave of the Pantheon in Paris as a source: their static, monumental quality, the soft light in which the figures are suspended outside of time.

According to her biographer Sharon O'Brien, the region became for Cather "America's place for revelation. . .[she] approached the Southwest's arid climate and desert landscape with contrasting associations drawn from nineteenth-century French fiction, the Bible and church history. . .(I)n the Southwest Cather found spiritual, sensual, and creative experience unified and indistinguishable."

Perhaps most strikingly, for a novel of the 1920s, Cather's novel honors the Southwest's Indian and Mexican cultures, and renders the region's cultural hybridity empathetically. In the book's final section, on his deathbed, the bishop expresses his concern for the Navajos who, during "that terrible winter," are brutally expelled from Canyon de Chelly and driven to the Bosque Redondo. The government deems the bosque unsuitable for the nomadic native people, and the remaining Navajos are allowed to return to the canyon. The bishop lives to see "two great wrongs righted": the end of slavery and the restoration of Navajo land. In choosing to tell this story in a coda, Cather gives the Indian story near-equal weight with the bishop's passing.

The novel is respectful as well of Mexican generosity, religiosity and pride, and of the native reverence for the land: They "seemed to have none of the European's desire to 'master' nature. . .The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it."

While the novelists of the Lost Generation wrote books of expatriate disaffection and longing, Cather wrote a masterpiece of the indwelling spirit in the American desert: "The traveller dismounted, drew from his pocket a much worn book, and baring his head, knelt at the foot of the cruciform tree."

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