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Death Comes for the Archbishop (Vintage Classics) Paperback – June 16, 1990
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“A truly remarkable book . . . Soaked through and through with atmosphere . . . From the riches of her imagination and sympathy Miss Cather has distilled a very rare piece of literature. It stands out, from the very resistance it opposes to classification.” --The New York Times
"The most sensuous of writers, Willa Cather builds her imagined world as solidly as our five senses build the uiverse around us.” —Rebecca West
“[Cather’s] descriptions of the Indian mesa towns on the rock are as beautiful, as unjudging, as lucid, as her descriptions of the Bishop’s cathedral. It is an art of ‘making,’ of clear depiction—of separate objects, whose whole effect works slowly and mysteriously in the reader, and cannot be summed up. . . . Cather’s composed acceptance of mystery is a major, and rare, artistic achievement.” —A. S. Byatt
From the Inside Flap
Willa Cather's best known novel; a narrative that recounts a life lived simply in the silence of the southwestern desert.
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The building of the cathedral occupies a relatively small portion of Cather's book. Most of Latour's building is in human terms, visiting parishes that had not seen a priest in generations, giving hope to the poor and oppressed, and reaching out to the Indian tribes. He finds priests getting rich on the backs of their parishioners, or making free with their women; he deals with these situations with quiet tact if possible, but with firm authority if not. He is aided in his work by his boyhood friend from the Auvergne, Father Joseph Vaillant, a man of boundless energy who rides far into Arizona, and later north to the gold rush communities of Colorado, to explore the extent of a diocese so vast that neither man can truly comprehend it. Until the railroad arrives towards the end of the book, all these journeys are made on horseback, through country now trackless and terrible, now abloom with flowers in fertile arroyos, now glowing with vast mountain vistas. And above it all, the sky. "The plain was there, under one's feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky."
No wonder this book is displayed in shop windows all over New Mexico. Cather describes a land that is still recognizable, even in its local detail, but she distills its essence in a purer form -- no small achievement for a plains-dweller from Nebraska! No small achievement either that a Protestant author could reach so deeply into the soul of Catholicism. But her window was simply her humanity; the stories in this book (and for the most part they are stories) move, intrigue, or amuse the reader because they are not merely tales of a place, but of people in that place. Cather's canvas was the page, and her palette words -- simple words, but used exquisitely. Coincidentally, I have just been reading another masterpiece from the same time, Thornton Wilder's THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY. Cather and Wilder share the same elegance, the same simplicity, the same humanity. 1927 was a remarkable year!
Though all men may be "created equal", their characters are not, and this story is powerful in that regard as it exposes men of the cloth that are there simply as users of others, as opposed to the devoted, the sincere whose life work has been striven to the good.
The novel is timeless. The story unfolds in France and Italy, is about two boyhood friends who study for the priesthood together and subsequently end up doing their life's work together in the wild, open country of the New Mexico and Arizona frontiers. This work spans their entire lives, and the adventures, trials and hardships are many. The artistry that Willa Cather employs as she takes her reader through the magnificent, lonely expanses of sage and cactus, to the Mexican people in remote areas; the lawless exiles who hope to disappear into it's wilderness, is all accomplished as though a painter is at work beside her, shaping her words into visuals, making this work one of her best, in my view.
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.