Death Comes for the Archbishop
Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) Willa Cather
The following entry presents criticism of Cather's novel Death Comes for the Archbishop. See also O Pioneers! Criticism and Willa Cather Short Story Criticism.
Considered by Cather to be her best work, Death Comes for the Archbishop evidences Cather's love of the American Southwest and her interest in the role of the Catholic Church in the culture of the region. The fictionalized story of forty-one years in the life and career of Archbishop Lamy (called Father Latour in the book), the first bishop appointed for the territory of New Mexico after its annexation to the United States, Death Comes for the Archbishop in many ways defies the novel genre; Cather referred to it as a “narrative” rather than a novel because of its loosely constructed episodic nature, and early reviewers were often puzzled by its structure. Nonetheless, Death Comes for the Archbishop remains one of Cather's most critically acclaimed and widely read works.
Plot and Characters
Cather's interest in the history and culture of the American Southwest began much earlier than the writing of Death Comes for the Archbishop. But on a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, she became acquainted with a biography of Father Macheboeuf, a missionary priest who served as Vicar to the Archbishop Lamy in the Vicarate of New Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century. The letters inspired her to write the novel, in which she changed the priests' names to Jean Latour and Joseph Vaillant. There is little formal plot in Death Comes for the Archbishop, but the book tells in a series of short episodes the story of the slow organization of the small parishes throughout the mountains and deserts of the Southwest into a central diocese, led by Archbishop Latour. Both born and raised in France and both deeply dedicated to their work, Latour and Vaillant travel thousands of miles throughout New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, as well as into Mexico and back to Rome, as missionaries, with the ultimate goal of building a great cathedral in Santa Fe. After many adventures and much work together, Latour and Vaillant part when Latour sends him to Colorado; Vaillant spends the rest of his life there, eventually becoming Bishop of Colorado. Latour at last builds the cathedral and retires to the countryside near Santa Fe, spending his old age remembering his time traveling with Vaillant rather than returning to his native France. When he realizes he is near death, he asks to be taken to the cathedral, where he dies in 1889.
Another major inspiration for Cather in the writing of Death Comes for the Archbishop was a series of frescoes by Puvis de Chavanne depicting the life of Saint Genevieve. Cather had seen the frescoes on a trip to Paris in 1902 and determined to someday write a book in the style of a legend. Thus, the book is not only written as a nondramatic legend—more hagiographic than novelistic—but it is also written as a series of tableaux, as in the visual arts. Additionally, the title of the book is taken from a Holbein woodcut entitled The Dance of Death, in which an anthropomorphized image of death comes to take an archbishop; again, Cather created a deliberate link to the visual arts with her book. Critics have noted this and the painterly quality of Cather's passages describing the landscape of the Southwest. Cather's main interest in writing Death Comes for the Archbishop was to present a synthesis of the priests' upbringing and education in France—the highly cultured Old World—and the primal beauty and history of the Southwest. In other words, she intended to present first the dichotomy of the Old and New worlds and then to demonstrate the successful merging of the two worlds, through Latour's centralization of the Church in the region and his building of the European-style cathedral against the New Mexican landscape. Similarly, the book alternates passages describing the present lives of the two priests with passages about Native Americans, frontier folk figures, and Spanish colonial history, attempting to reconcile the region's turbulent past with its missionary present. But the strongest symbol of Cather's intention is Father Latour himself, who is believed by many critics to be the embodiment of the themes of old and new, art and land.
While My Ántonia is generally considered by critics to be Cather's greatest achievement, Death Comes for the Archbishop has enjoyed wide success since its publication in 1927. Cather considered it not only her best work but also claimed that writing it was her most pleasurable professional experience. But some critics disliked Cather's eschewing of high drama, questioning the value of a work of fiction that explored neither conflict nor overt emotion. Still others have expressed confusion over the book's structure and title—wondering why the archbishop's death is so prominent in the title when it is in fact such a small part of the book. Many, however, have found that Cather reached the height of her artistic expression in Death Comes for the Archbishop, at least equal to My Ántonia, because of the beautiful simplicity of Cather's narrative description and her colorful characterizations of Fathers Latour and Vaillant.
April Twilights (poetry) 1903
The Troll Garden (short stories) 1905
Alexander's Bridge (novel) 1912
O Pioneers! (novel) 1913
The Song of the Lark (novel) 1915
My Ántonia (novel) 1918
One of Ours (novel) 1918
Youth and the Bright Medusa (short stories) 1920
A Lost Lady (novel) 1923
The Professor's House (novel) 1925
My Mortal Enemy (novel) 1926
Death Comes for the Archbishop (novel) 1927
Shadows on the Rock (novel) 1931
Obscure Destinies (short stories) 1932
Lucy Gayheart (novel) 1935
Sapphira and the Slave Girl (novel) 1940
The Old Beauty and Others (short stories) 1948
Five Stories (short stories) 1956
The Kingdom of Art (essays) 1966
The World and the Parish (essays) 1970
Uncle Valentine, and Other Stories (short stories) 1973
(The entire section is 99 words.)
SOURCE: “Hymn to Spiritual Beauty,” The Saturday Review of Literature, September 10, 1927, p. 101.
[In the following review, Dodd offers high praise for Cather's portrayal of the priests in Death Comes for the Archbishop.]
After reading Death Comes for the Archbishop, I indulged myself in a critic's day-dream; and found myself not too patiently trying to explain this book—so reticent, so distinguished, so beautiful—to a rebellious young person in very short skirts who rather petulantly had asserted that she was an incarnation of Average Public Taste in America.
“You say, my dear child, that Miss Cather's novel has bored you; that you couldn't get through it; that it isn't really a novel at all. When I ask you why it isn't really a novel, you maintain there's no story in it—by which, obviously, you mean there's no ‘love story’ in it. In this as in most things you are wrong and—don't bother to forgive me, sweet child!—rather pathetically stupid. There is a great, a very great, love story in Miss Cather's masterly, quiet narrative. It is a severe, purely designed chalice of hand-beaten silver, filled to the brim with the white essential wine of love—love of man to man, love of God to man, love of man to God.
“True, it nowhere lures you to identify yourself with some fair, and conceivably frail, heroine whose neurotic organism is asquirm with...
(The entire section is 773 words.)
SOURCE: “The Pathos of Distance,” in The Nation 125, No. 3249 (12 October 1927): 390.
[In the following essay, Krutch discusses Death Comes for the Archbishop as an elegy and compares the novel, which, he points out, has almost no plot, to a beautiful picture.]
In one of his literary essays Havelock Ellis drew a useful distinction between what he called the Nordic and the Celtic treatments of the past. The uninstructed reader of Homer might, he pointed out, very reasonably suppose that the poet was contemporary with the events which he described, whereas in the case of any Celtic epic it is always perfectly evident that the author is dealing with things which, for him as well as for the reader, are remotely picturesque. The Greeks, in other words, preferred to treat the past as though it were present because they were interested in a dramatic immediacy, but the Celts deliberately evoked the pathos of distance because that pathos was to them the essence of poetry.
Now I am by no means certain that this distinction upon the basis of race is valid; perhaps it would be safer to speak merely of the heroic and the elegiac moods; but certainly the distinction itself is of fundamental importance and it is, moreover, the one which serves better than any other to define the particular quality of Miss Cather's work. Though she is absorbed in what would be to another the heroic past of...
(The entire section is 955 words.)
SOURCE: “A Vivid Page of History in Miss Cather's New Novel,” in The New York Times Book Review, September 4, 1927, p. 2.
[In the following review, Stuart questions the wisdom of Cather's changing certain historical facts about the Catholic missionaries in the American Southwest in Death Comes for the Archbishop,but he ultimately praises it as a “remarkable” novel.]
In Death Comes for the Archbishop Miss Willa Cather has given us an account of the episcopate of one of those devoted servants of the Catholic Church who carried its doctrines to the New World.
The Congregation De Propaganda Fide has had to face many knotty problems during the four centuries of its existence, but probably no single one where so many possibilities for mistake and disaster existed as that which confronted it after the taking possession of New Mexico for the United States by General Kearny in the Summer of 1846. The religious destiny of a new district “larger than Central and Western Europe, barring Russia,” suddenly became a matter of urgent concern. And everything about the new territory was cryptic and unprecedented. Missionaries and enthusiasts such as accompanied the Spanish conquistadores wrote some of the most splendid chapters in the history of the Catholic Church. But to administrators of a later and more sober day they bequeathed some terrible dilemmas Everywhere abandoned...
(The entire section is 1494 words.)
SOURCE: “Business as an Artist,” New York Herald Tribune Books, September 11, 1927, pp. 1, 5-6.
[In the following review, West contrasts Cather's simple yet evocative story-telling with the more complicated modes of modernist writers such as James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, finding Cather's writing in Death Comes for the Archbishop a great artistic accomplishment.]
The most sensuous of writers. Willa Cather, builds her imagined world as solidly as our five senses build the universe around us. This account of the activities of a French priest who was given a diocese in the Southwest during the late '40s impresses one first of all by its amazing sensory achievements. Miss Cather has within herself a sensitivity that constantly presents her with a body of material which would overwhelm most of us, so that we would give up all idea of transmitting it and would sink into a state of passivity; and she has also a quality of mountain pony sturdiness that makes her push on unfatigued under her load and give an accurate account of every part of it. So it is that one is not quite sure whether it is one of the earlier pages in Death Comes for the Archbishop or a desert in central New Mexico that is heaped up with small conical hills red as brickdust, a landscape of which the human aspect is thirst and confusion of the retina at seeing the earth itself veritably presenting such reduplications of an...
(The entire section is 3932 words.)
SOURCE: “The Genesis of Death Comes for the Archbishop,” in American Literature, 26, No. 4 (January 1955): 479-506.
[In the following essay, the Blooms examine factors that went into Cather's writing of Death Comes for the Archbishop, particularly her wish to recreate in fiction the tradition and style of medieval saints' legends that appear in writing and painting.]
For Willa Cather as for Henri Bergson, whom she admired, literary creation—that is, the choice of subject matter and the technique enforced by it—was an “intuitive” rather than an “intellectual” process. When the novelist, according to Miss Cather, deals with material that is deeply a part of his conscious and subconscious being, he has “less and less power of choice about the moulding of it. It seems to be there of itself, already moulded. If he tries to meddle with its vague outline, to twist it into some categorical shape, above all if he tries to adapt or modify its mood, he destroys its value. In working with this material he finds that he has little to do with literary devices.”1
Certainly in Death Comes for the Archbishop Miss Cather was dealing with familiar material, or as she would say, her “own material,” which she knew instinctively. Yet this of all her many novels was candidly and deliberately experimental in form. Preferring the term “narrative” to that...
(The entire section is 10859 words.)
SOURCE: “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” in New Mexico Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring-Summer, 1957, pp. 69-82.
[In the following essay, Greene characterizes Death Comes for the Archbishop as a “search for the moral self,” which he also believes informs Cather's other works.]
Of the works of Willa Cather perhaps the most familiar to the general public, Death Comes for the Archbishop has, nevertheless, aroused conflicting response as to its merit. E. K. Brown, for example, has interpreted the text in terms of a “frieze.” “The composition of this frieze,” he writes, “in the grouping of its figures and their portrayal against a living background, is the most beautiful achievement of Willa Cather's imagination.” David Daiches, on the other hand, while admitting the popularity of the book, has found himself less impressed, “perhaps because its qualities, though considerable, are rather obvious.” Mr. Daiches pursues his suspicion of a “soft” quality, summarizing it as “a novel both sophisticated and elemental, both meditative and full of action, an epic success story with a brightly colored surface—such a novel could hardly fail to be acclaimed as her most effective work to date.”
The temperate calm of the prose has impressed another critic as “a frank and even romantic submission to the past, to the Catholic order and doctrine,...
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SOURCE: “In Search of the Archbishop,” in The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 4, January, 1961, pp. 409-27.
[In the following essay, Horgan examines fiction and nonfiction about the life of the historical Father Juan Bautista Lamy, the archbishop of Cather's novel.]
It might be well to start by making the acquaintance of the man for whom I search. I, who have lived since childhood under the spread of his luminous shadow, once identified him in these words:
He was the first bishop and archbishop of Santa Fe, Juan Bautista Lamy. When he came to the [Rio Grande] in 1851 as vicar apostolic he found a sorry state of affairs. The nearest bishop had always been at Durango, fifteen hundred miles away … The population lacked not only for spiritual help but also for civilizing aids in other matters. There were no schools, no hospitals, no agency to provide a sense of the future to the young in terms of their rightful growth of mind and spirit. The churches were almost all in ruins. An immense task faced the young bishop. He attacked it with a sort of grave passion, and for the rest of his life he was to see grow under his touch a revived society that found its connection with the great world.
He began his teaching at the simplest point of contact with his diocese—any point, across desert and mountain,...
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SOURCE: “Death Comes for the Archbishop: A Novel of Love & Death,” in New Mexico Quarterly, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1966-67, pp. 389-403.
[In the following essay, Charles maintains that the title of Death Comes for the Archbishop belies the novel's focus on life and Christian love.]
Willa Cather's masterful novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, contains a strikingly paradoxical relationship between the title, with its emphasis on death, and the story, with its stress on life and love. This subtle dichotomy of the human condition—love and death, Eros and Thanatos—affords, then, a basis upon which to examine the work.
Nearing the end of his life, the narrative's hero, Archbishop Latour, says to his young friend, Bernard Ducrot, “‘I shall not die of a cold, my son, I shall die of having lived’.”1 One might well read there, ‘of having loved,’ for that is precisely what this novel portrays. Miss Cather herself gives the clue when she discusses the style of the novel in a letter written to Commonweal in November 1927:
I had all my life wanted to do something in the style of legend which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment. Since I first saw the Puvis de Chavannes frescoes of the life of St. Geneviève in my student days, I have wished that I could try something like that in prose;...
(The entire section is 6089 words.)
SOURCE: “The Southwest Eternal Echo: Music in Death Comes for the Archbishop,” in The Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1966, pp. 5-18.
[In the following essay, Giannone examines the significance of music in Death Comes for the Archbishop.]
One can only concur with E. K. Brown's judgment that Death Comes for the Archbishop “is the most beautiful achievement of Willa Cather's imagination.”1 Here, theme strikes a perfect balance with technique. The Nebraska novels and the early short stories convincingly render the novelist's two worlds of pioneering and art and dramatically assert her positive faith in a triumphant human spirit. But in these works where Willa Cather seems very much at home with her materials, one does not find a comparable control and confidence in her treatment. She experiments a great deal with point of view, structure, and characterization; but no defined, assured mode emerges. As Cather's craft and style establish themselves, the balance between vision and technique shift in the other direction, for it is in the dark middle novels (A Lost Lady, The Professor's House, and My Mortal Enemy) where Willa Cather develops her distinguishing stylistic brevity and suggestiveness and invests her materials with a simple structural unity. But the abiding defeatism in the novels of her middle career does not truly represent...
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SOURCE: “Southwest Classics Reread: Death Comes for the Archbishop,” in New Mexico Quarterly, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1966-67, pp. 389-403.
[In the following essay, Powell discusses his impressions of Death Comes for the Archbishop upon rereading it after twenty years.]
Twenty years had passed since I last read Death Comes for the Archbishop. The question was, on rereading would I rank it as high now as I did then? That's the risk one takes. Tastes and standards change—or should. Life appears differently at sixty-five than it did at forty-five. Therefore I didn't hurry. I began by reading Willa Cather's other books and the biographies and memoirs that have appeared since her death in 1947.
Then at the last, with everything else read, I came to the Archbishop. This time I brought to it two decades of familiarity with the Southwest—its landscape and literature; its culture, historical and contemporary; and its literary personalities. Through living and by comparison and selection, evaluation and judgment, I had progressed a bit.
The physical book was the one I had read before, having patiently stood there on the shelf, awaiting my return. At some point I had tucked in it a colored postcard of the life-size bronze of the Archbishop that stands before his cathedral in Santa Fe. It was this statue that aroused Miss Cather's curiosity about...
(The entire section is 4686 words.)
SOURCE: “Cather's Mortal Comedy,” in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. LXXIII, No. 2, Summer, 1966, pp. 244-59.
[In the following essay, Stewart argues that Cather borrowed heavily from Puvis de Chavannes's series of frescoes of the life of Saint Genevieve and Holbein's “Dance of Death” woodcuts in her composition of Death Comes for the Archbishop.]
The importance of Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop is that it is one of the most elaborately contrived novels ever fashioned by an American, rivalling in artistic allusiveness Eliot's Wasteland and in technical complexity Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! So adroit had she become, however, in the practice of her much publicized “démeublé form” that she could use it as mere façade. Behind its plain face she built, as it were, a complicated cathedral into which busy critics of her time and ours seldom glance. That this novel has become standard high school fare is a joke almost as preposterous as the comparable fate of Gulliver's Travels.
For one thing, Death Comes is a truncated Divine Comedy, but we must approach the significance of this analogue by following the path that Miss Cather prepared for us when she made other models explicit. Whereas she claimed music—the sonata form—as her guide in structuring The Professor's House, frescoes and woodcuts supply the design of...
(The entire section is 5202 words.)
SOURCE: “A Novelist's Miracle: Structure and Myth in Death Comes for the Archbishop,” in Western American Literature, Vol. VII, No. 1, 1972, pp. 39-46.
[In the following essay, Dinn examines the miraculous in Death Comes for the Archbishop.]
One hardly expects enchantment to begin, “One afternoon in the autumn of 1851 … in central New Mexico. …”1 But the measure of Willa Cather's experiment in Death Comes for the Archbishop is that she seeks to involve the reader in the preternatural world of the miraculous without detaching him from the familiar sphere of history and geography. While unfolding a tale anchored in the prosaic spheres of when and where, she uses structure and myth to evoke more ethereal spheres.
In the same matter-of-fact tone with which she introduces the solitary horseman in New Mexico, Cather in the prologue has already introduced four dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church dining in Rome. One is a pleading missionary bishop, and the others are cardinals who barely feign interest in the frontier Church in North America. It is out of the “monotonous persistence” of the bishop and the tepid interest of the cardinals that the protagonist's destiny is arranged.
On this literal level, the book is what one would expect—an account of Bishop Latour's work in the new territory. It is a collage of the...
(The entire section is 2922 words.)
SOURCE: “Art and Religion in Death Comes for the Archibishop,” in The Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1973, pp. 293-302.
[In the following essay, the Stoucks argue that Cather's faith in the redemptive effects of and similarities between art and religion form a fundamental theme in Death Comes for the Archbishop.]
Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.
Godfrey St. Peter in The Professor's House, p. 69.
In criticism of Death Comes for the Archbishop one finds a curious reversal of emphasis. Where studies of most fictions are concerned to a great extent with theme or content, essays written about the Archbishop, except for those which are part of a comprehensive view of Miss Cather's work, are almost exclusively concerned with the novel's form.1 The reason for this is obvious; there are few other novels by any author in which the reader, experiences such a complete sense of structural flawlessness, such a sureness of formal design. It is exactly this sense of formal perfection which seems to tease the critics in their continuing admiration of the book's form. Yet the novel's themes or motifs have been conceived and developed with an equal sureness of statement and design. Indeed, in an overview of Willa...
(The entire section is 3604 words.)
SOURCE: “Death Comes for the Archbishop: Worlds Old and New,” in In Time and Place: Some Origins of American Fiction, The University of Georgia Press, 1977, pp. 105-30.
[In the following essay, Watkins discusses Cather's diverse cast of characters, settings, and themes in Death Comes for the Archbishop.]
Few narratives treat a greater diversity of cultures than Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop.1 Set in Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, this novel portrays to some extent the life of many kinds of peoples: the Spanish fathers of the early days, Pueblo and Navajo Indians, Mexican descendants of Spaniard and Indian, French missionary priests brought to the Southwest by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy just after New Mexico became a territory of the United States, and Anglo-Americans who succeeded the Mexicans. Within these cultures, especially among the numerous pueblo villages of the Southwest, are infinite variations of language, legend, and folklore. In some situations several cultures intertwine in harmony or conflict, complexity or simplicity, retrospect or the present. A Jesuit French priest, for example, visits Taos and lives at the home of a Mexican priest, meets an expelled member of the flagellant Penitentes society, talks with and about Mexicans and the Taos Pueblo Indians, learns of the massacre of the Anglo-American governor of New Mexico by...
(The entire section is 10773 words.)
SOURCE: “Willa Cather's Archbishop: A Western and Classical Perspective,” in Western American Literature, Vol. XIII, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 141-50.
[In the following essay, Murphy maintains that Cather's view of history in Death Comes for the Archbishopis “cyclical” in that the heroic archetypes of the American West repeat those of the classical literature of Europe and ancient Greece.]
The hero rather than setting or situation is the main thing in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Willa Cather admitted that for a long time she had no intention of writing the novel: “the story of the Church and the Spanish missionaries was always what most interested me; but I hadn't the most remote idea of trying to write about it.”1 What changed her mind were stories she had heard about Archbishop Lamy of Santa Fe and her discovery of Howlett's biography of Bishop Machebeuf. She was intrigued by the reaction of the French priests to the people and country of New Mexico, the Western experience as filtered through the hero she would fabricate from these and other sources, a hero at once “fearless and fine and very, very well-bred. … What I felt curious about was the daily life of such a man in a crude frontier society.” In this way she revealed her interest in creating a Western hero, one sharing the experiences of Leatherstocking, the Virginian, and even Huckleberry Finn, yet...
(The entire section is 3845 words.)
SOURCE: “Cather's Archbishop and Travel Writing,” in Western American Literature, Vol. XVII, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 3-12.
[In the following essay, Stouck argues that, rather than falling into the novel genre, Death Comes for the Archbishop follows the tradition of North American travel writing.]
There has always been a problem classifying Death Comes for the Archbishop. Early reviewers of the book said it could hardly be termed a novel because it had no plot. Willa Cather in turn suggested the term “narrative.”1 As time passed her critics fell into the habit of referring to the Archbishop as an historical novel. Certainly the book is set in the nineteenth century and is more or less faithful to the history of the Catholic Church in the American Southwest. In her letter to The Commonweal Cather says she wanted to do something in the style of legend, which is rather different from history in that it almost entirely eliminates cause and effect, i.e., the temporal conditions of a narrative sequence. She says her title comes from Holbein's Dance of Death, which also suggests an aesthetic intention somewhat different from historical fiction.2 The greater part of that letter to The Commonweal, however, describes the genesis of the book in terms of her experiences as a traveller in the Southwest, how she not only admired the churches and...
(The entire section is 4241 words.)
SOURCE: “Bishop Latour and Professor St. Peter: Cather's Esthetic Intellectuals,” in The Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 61-70.
[In the following essay, Doane outlines ways in which Bishop Latour in Death Comes for the Archbishop is similar to Godfrey St. Peter in Cather's novel The Professor's House.]
Willa Cather's The Professor's House and Death Comes for the Archbishop appear to have little in common: Godfrey St. Peter is oppressed by a family and society he perceives to be excessively materialistic, while Bishop Latour works to bring Catholicism to the Southwest. In form, too, the books appear to share little: Bishop Latour's “narrative”1 is a “loosely episodic”2 travelogue;3 St. Peter mentally escapes in an inset to the ancient Cliff City of higher values. Despite these differences in form and subject matter, the central characters of the two books are remarkably similar: both St. Peter and Bishop Latour are reserved observers of the societies around them, both seek solitude and contemplation, both are highly valued by the people surrounding them, but each has difficulty in interacting effectively, both have inner lives that are somewhat independent of their actions in their environments, both intertwine art and religion as governing principles in their lives, both value nature and the enclosed protection and...
(The entire section is 3349 words.)
SOURCE: “Latour's Schismatic Church: The Radical Meaning in the Pictorial Methods of Death Comes for the Archbishop,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 71-88.
[In the following essay, Schwind examines the meaning of Cather's pictorial compositions in Death Comes for the Archbishop.]
Shortly after Death Comes for the Archbishop completed its serialized run in Forum magazine in 1927, Willa Cather expressed doubts about the novel's reception. In a letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, an old Nebraska friend and fellow writer, Cather cynically wondered: Could a novel featuring the Virgin Mary as its leading lady hope to survive in a world of motion picture romance and glamour?1 Although it had been widely read in Forum, Cather evidently had become less certain about the novel's popular appeal by the time it was due to be published in book form than she had been when she first delivered her manuscript to Knopf. Alfred Knopf recalls that Cather was initially so convinced that Death Comes for the Archbishop would sell longer and better than any of her previous novels that for the first time she insisted upon higher royalties.2
However uncertain she may have been about its public success, Cather never doubted her artistic success in the novel. An earlier letter to Fisher confirms what Cather told her...
(The entire section is 7216 words.)
SOURCE: “Death Comes for the Archbishop: Cather's Mystery and Manners,” in American Literature, Vol. 57, No. 3, October, 1985, pp. 395-406.
[In the following essay, Skaggs addresses the question of how Cather could have written My Mortal Enemy and Death Comes for the Archbishop—two novels radically different in tone and subject matter—within the space of twelve months.]
If the components of great art remain subtle and elusive, the springs of artistic creativity are even more so. How a writer produces an enduring fiction is a question even the writer cannot answer with certainty. But because unanswerable questions are the most tantalizing, we readers find questions regarding the components of a particular creative moment irresistible. Of all the teasers in American literary history, however, none has haunted me more than this question: How did Willa Cather write both My Mortal Enemy and Death Comes for the Archbishop within a single year's span?
My Mortal Enemy, as James Woodress succinctly puts it, is “the bitterest piece of fiction … [Cather] ever wrote.”1 This shortest of her novels suggests that human relationships are not only endlessly complicated but also endlessly destructive. Cather, like a twentieth-century Hester Prynne, recognizes a nightmarish triangular relationship, only to find “no way out of this...
(The entire section is 4713 words.)
SOURCE: “Women and the Father: Psychosexual Ambiguity in Death Comes for the Archbishop,” in American Imago, Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 61-76.
[In the following essay, Shaw relates Cather's own sexual and gender crisis to her portrayal of the female characters in Death Comes for the Archbishop.]
How do we explain three quietly iconoclastic women in a narrative which James Woodress calls “a modern saint's life” (406) depicting an archbishop whom John J. Murphy extols as one who “combines rather than divides the world and the home and is, at once, father, uncle, husbandman, cook, builder, scholar and teacher, artist and historian” (54)? More apropos, perhaps, why must we explain the women at all? We need to explain them first because Willa Cather placed them in her narrative landscape of Death Comes for the Archbishop and because they are as intriguing as mesas on the horizon. Further, we need to explain them becuase they serve as a major corrective to the prevailing image of Archibishop Latour and because their provenance is Cather's psychosexual ambiguity. That ambiguity, in turn, elucidates Cather's overall narrative concept and effectively balances the recent argument that Cather resolved her sexual dilemmas and that by 1913, with the publication of O Pioneers!, “she had discovered her authentic, essential identity” as a female (O'Brien, 7). On the contrary,...
(The entire section is 6168 words.)
SOURCE: “The Bishop's Face: Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop,” in Spirit of Place: The Making of an American Literary Landscape, Sierra Club Books, 1989, pp. 139-64.
[In the following essay, Turner recounts his attempts to discover the personal background to Death Comes for the Archbishop, including his interviews with New Mexican writers of the 1920s and his travels to sites visited by Cather.]
You could get an argument about this from residents of other parts of the state, but it would still be reasonable to claim that the hub of New Mexico's thriving tourist industry is the lobby of Santa Fe's La Fonda hotel. There in a cool, high-ceilinged dimness you may see the smart-looking strangers—silver concha belts, scarves, broad-brimmed hats—whisking in and out on errands of pleasure. Occasionally, but not often, they rest in the deep-cushioned lobby chairs above which are the framed prints of Gerald Cassidy that depict the very lineaments of the state's vaunted enchantment.
If they are looking bookishly inclined, there is the surprisingly literary gift shop, and on its racks, snugged in between Louis L'Amour and John Nichols, is Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop. Its presence amidst the gaudier currency of contemporary Southwestern fiction might be taken for another bit of local color, the literary...
(The entire section is 11417 words.)
SOURCE: “Dispossession and Redemption in the Novels of Willa Cather,” in Cather Studies, Vol. 1, 1990, pp. 36-54.
[In the following essay, Fisher-Wirth categorizes Death Comes for the Archbishop as the fifth in the series of Cather's novels—including My Ántonia, A Lost Lady, The Professor's House, and My Mortal Enemy—that deal with issues of fall and redemption.]
Man was lost and saved in a garden.
—Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
Death Comes for the Archbishop is an anomaly in Willa Cather's fiction. Massive, serene, and luminous, it is scarcely a novel at all; it lacks the novel's defining feature, psychological development and change. Nor does the book have much conflict. Moments of danger in the present end as soon as they begin.1 Episodes of suspense or terror in the past come to the reader contained and made safe by means of a framed narration.2 The crises in Jean Latour's long struggle to create and control his diocese are briefly reported but take place primarily off-stage.3 Nevertheless, despite its lack of drama, Death Comes for the Archbishop repeats and transforms the central concerns of Cather's psychologically complex and conflict-ridden earlier fiction—concerns with possession and loss, with fall and redemption. The...
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SOURCE: “Cather's New World Divine Comedy: The Dante Connection,” in Cather Studies, Vol. 1, 1990, pp. 21-35.
[In the following essay, Murphy argues that Death Comes for the Archbishop is Cather's deliberate attempt to create a twentieth-century Divine Comedy.]
More than twenty years ago, in his insightful essay “Cather's Mortal Comedy,” D. H. Stewart analyzed Death Comes for the Archbishop as a truncated Divine Comedy structured around the seven virtues and their corresponding vices and crowned at the end by the “Beatific Vision” of Latour's last thoughts. Although his analysis is forced in places, Stewart succeeds in making a case for Dante as a possible Cather “influence” and indicates references to him in her writing. In Cather's essay “Escapism,” Dante is among the great men she wishes to rescue from the “iconoclasts and tomb-breakers” of this century, who dispose of him “because he was a cryptogram and did not at all mean to say what the greatest lines in the Italian language make him say” (25-6). Stewart also calls attention to the passage in My Ántonia where Jim Burden's mentor Gaston Cleric reads “the discourse between Dante and his ‘sweet teacher’ Virgil … and the lines of the poet Statius, who spoke for Dante” in honoring the Aeneid as “mother to me and nurse to me in poetry” (261-62).1
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SOURCE: “Death Comes for the Archbishop: A Novel Way of Making History,” in Willa Cather: Family, Community, and History, edited by John J. Murphy with Linda Hunter Adams and Paul Rawlins, Brigham Young University, 1990, pp. 265-74.
[In the following essay, Warner discusses the artistic liberties Cather took in telling the story of the two historical New Mexican bishops in Death Comes for the Archbishop, finding that, while Cather's novel is a great work of art, it leads to the wrong impression of the men.]
A skillful writer and wonderful teller of tales, Willa Cather produced a work in 1927 that is eminently readable, fascinating, alive with detail and description of people and places. Death Comes for the Archbishop is a classic example of the novel accepted as history. It is prominently displayed in bookstores in Santa Fe, inviting tourists and the general public alike to read what is advertised as an accurate and sympathetic description of nineteenth-century New Mexico. To this day, high school teachers and university professors in both American literature and history assign this book to their students. It is probably the most-admired and best-known Southwestern novel and after more than sixty years continues to evoke profound emotions about the Catholic church, the Hispanos, Mexicanos, Native Americans, and Anglo-Americans of Territorial New Mexico. It is an enormously...
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Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1987, 583 p.
Illustrated biography that contains a chapter on Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Byatt, A. S. “Willa Cather.” In Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings, pp. 197-216. New York: Turtle Bay Books, 1992.
Discusses Cather's major works, including Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Crane, Joan St.C. “Willa Cather's Corrections in the Text of Death Comes for the Archbishop, 1927 to 1945.” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 74 (1980): 117-31.
Comprehensive list of Cather's corrections and changes to Death Comes for the Archbishop between the time of its serialization and its publication in book form.
Gale, Robert L. “Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop.” Explicator 21 (May 1963): 75-6.
Compares the tone and structure of Death Comes for the Archbishop with the symbol of the Angelus bell that rings in the novel.
Keeler, Clinton. “Narrative without Accent: Willa Cather and Puvis de Chavannes.” American Quarterly XVII, No. 1 (Spring 1965): 119-26.
Provides a detailed examination of the frescoes that...
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