Published in 1927 in New York, Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop is based on the actual lives of Archbishop Lamy, the first bishop of New Mexico, and his vicar, Father Joseph Machebeuf. Both men were from France. When Cather came across Father Joseph Howlett’s biography of Machebeuf (published in 1908), she was inspired by the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of pioneer priests and missionaries in New Mexico. Howlett’s biography included letters Machebeuf wrote home to his sister, a nun. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Lamy becomes Bishop Jean Marie Latour, and Machebeuf becomes Father Joseph Vaillant. Although the novel is based on historical figures and information, the bulk of the book is fictionalized. Without the factual information and the insights of Machebeuf’s biography, however, Cather may not have been inspired to write the book, nor would she likely have been able to construct such believable, complex characters.
Set in the second half of the nineteenth century, Death Comes for the Archbishop spans almost forty years in the life of Bishop Latour. It is an episodic narrative that shows how the French priest gradually wins the trust and respect of the natives, and brings order to the Catholic Church in the Southwest. The novel is peopled with numerous minor characters who function to represent and relate the culture, folklore, history, and belief systems of the Mexican and Indian people in New Mexico. The novel is also known for its rich descriptions of landscape and its role in the lives of the people who live among it.