Book Specs

Author: Willa Cather
Publisher: Book-of-the-Month Club by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Publishing Date: 1995
Number of Pages: 303
Genre: Historical


One of the most important American writers of the twentieth century, Willa Cather mined her childhood experiences on the Nebraska plains and her later love for the Southwest to create timeless tales of romance, tragedy, and spiritual seeking. The author of 12 novels and nearly 60 short stories, Cather won a Pulitzer Prize in 1922. Considered by many to be Cather’s greatest work, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) is an experimental novel based on the real-life experiences of two French missionaries in New Mexico. In Cather’s hand they become the aged, withdrawn bishop Jean Marie Latour and his practical and hopeful vicar, Joseph Vaillant, who struggle together to bring Old World religion to the New World by building a cathedral in the desert Southwest. As always, Cather makes her landscape – the arid New Mexican plains – a palpable character in the story, and she shows an early empathy with the Navajo and Hopi nations’ reverence for unspoiled nature.

Through the Eyes of the Frontier

Let us admit, us readers do read a lot of books out of sheer curiosity. I am guilty of this, a lot of times. Whilst there were a lot that didn’t live up to the hype or to the expectations, there were some that literally knocked the ball out of the ballpark. That can be said for Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.

The arid deserts of New Mexico are the ancestral abodes of different Indian groups, particularly the Navajos and the Hopis. They are societies that existed for thousands of years, uninterrupted, unimpeded. They have their own belief systems that survived years of changes. But over the horizon, something is brewing, something that will unsettle these millennium-old societies.

It is the mid-1800s. The Catholic Church set out on a mission to Christianize the New World. Appointed to lead the indoctrination of the teachings of the Church to the New Mexican Indians are Jean Marie Latour and Joseph Vaillant. But their mission is beset with a bevy of challenges, from logistics to the skepticism of the people they are set to enlighten.

“They ravaged neither the rivers nor the forest, and if they irrigated, they took as little water as would serve their needs. The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it.” ~ Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

The story’s centrifugal point is the attempt of Latour’s and Valiant’s efforts to establish a diocese in New Mexico territory. These two clergymen who both graduated from the same French seminary, experience the harsh conditions of traveling to the frontiers. Braving scorching deserts, snowy mountains, treacherous grounds, and fierce sand and rain storms, their indomitable spirit sauntered towards the heart of the New World territory.

The novel vividly depicted all the challenges and hardships both experienced in the New World. With full authority granted by the Vatican, they have but thousands of miles to administer. The clergymen’s real homes were on top of mules that travel for miles; they rarely spend time in their shabby homes in Santa Fe. They travel from one poverty-stricken Pueblo to another to conduct different ceremonies such as weddings, baptisms, and even bleak funerals. For a span of nearly fifty years, they have traveled far and wide, visiting distant places just to conduct Mass and initiate the construction of churches.

The extreme conditions were bad enough, but these weren’t the only challenges the two men of faith have to deal with. Being one of the early clergymen to arrive at the New Frontier, skepticism and resistance from the locals were palpable. Although the French priests were warmly welcomed, the new rulers (Spaniards) still dealt with thinly-veiled sarcasm. On their journey to the Frontier, they had to deal with a bandit, something that the frontier was quite known for during that period.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is not just the story of two French priests in the desolate Frontier. It is also a story about the hypocrisy of the Church as an institution, particularly of those who run it. On a more universal note, the novel is about how new policies and ideals impact long-standing traditions and systems of beliefs. It is about how these elements alter ways of life, especially for people from far-flung places. Justifiably portrayed in the novel is the heavy resistance to these new policies.

“Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!” ~ Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

One of the things that Cather did great was transporting her readers into a threadbare world. The landscape is extremely desolate and arid but through Cather’s vivid descriptions, the wild and rough terrain transformed and came alive. The place symbolically became the third primary character in the narrative. This is all thanks to Cather’s powerful and impeccable storytelling. One great example of her descriptive prowess is contained in the line below:

This mesa plain had an appearance o great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away, and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into the mountain, plain, plateaus.

At its heart, Death Comes for the Archbishop is the stylized recount of actual historical events that have transpired in the deserts of New Mexico. The novel draws inspiration from the lives of Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Joseph Projectus Machebeuf who both served the clergy in New Mexico. There were also some literary references to actual historical figures. The novel briefly chronicles the construction of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.

On its own, the plot is dull and bland. However, Cather’s writing prowess made the narrative prosper. Her extensive talent gave the book a poignant mood. Hovering over the narrative is the omniscient narrator, who gave life to the atmospheric novel. Moreover, a lot of the stories she related were vividly depicted, bereft of melodrama and ostentatiousness that a less-skilled writer would have overdone.

“Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!” ~ Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

For a first Cather novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop exceeded my expectations. It is not just a book about the Church but also about the impacts of new policies on old cultures and traditions. Cather took a step out of the formulaic storytelling that today’s literature is doused in. Although the characterization careened on the monochromatic side – you’re either black or white – the great facets of the novel offset this minute flaw.

Cather had a modern progressive attitude as demonstrated by her sympathy for the plight of the Native Americans. She was also able to capture the subtle spiritual relationship the Native Americans had for their land. What is lacking, however, was a deeper perspective and exploration of the impact the subjugators had on the Natives. Despite its flaws and what it lacked, Death Comes for the Archbishop was a memorable read that provided me my first glimpses into the work of one of the most prominent American writers fo the first half of the 20th century.



About the Author

220px-Willa_Cather_ca._1912_wearing_necklace_from_Sarah_Orne_Jewett(Photo by: Wikipedia) Wilella Sibert Cather was born on December 7, 1873, in Gore, Virginia. When she was nine years old, her family moved to Nebraska.

Cather’s interest in writing and reading was demonstrated at a very early age. Her zest for reading made her befriend a Jewish couple who gave her free access to their extensive library. During her freshman year at the University of Nebraska, her essay on Thomas Carlyle was published in the Nebraska State Journal. This paved the way for her to become a regular contributor to the Journal. She also served as the managing editor of her school’s student newspaper, The Hesperian. From aspiring to be a physician, she shifted her major in science to a Bachelor of Arts in English.

Two years after graduating in 1894, Cather moved to Pittsburgh to work for Home Monthly, a women’s magazine. She also worked as a telegraph editor, drama critic, and teacher. At the same time, she also worked on her writing. In 1905, her first collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, was published. Her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, was published in 1912. Alexander’s Bridge was followed by the Prairie Trilogy: O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Antonia (1918). Her 1923 work, One of Ours, won the Pulitzer Prize. She also published a couple of essays and non-fiction works,

Willa Cather passed away on April 24, 1947.