Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1065
When writing of her great predecessor and teacher, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather expressed her belief that the quality that gives a work of literature greatness is the “voice” of the author, the sincere, unadorned, and unique vision of a writer coming to grips with the material chosen. If any one characteristic can be said to dominate the writings of Cather, it is that of a true and moving sincerity. She never tried to twist her subject matter to suit a preconceived purpose, and she resisted the temptation to dress up homely material. She gave herself absolutely to her chosen material, and the result was a series of books both truthful and rich with intimations of the destiny of the American continent. By digging into the roots of her material, she exposed deeper meanings, which she expressed with a deceptive simplicity. Her vision and craftsmanship were seldom more successful than in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Cather merged her voice with her material so completely that some critics have said that the book is almost too polished and lacks the sense of struggle necessary in a truly great novel. This, in fact, indicated the magnitude of the author’s achievement and the brilliance of her technical skill. Death Comes for the Archbishop resonates with the unspoken beliefs of the author and the resolved conflicts that went into its construction. On the surface, it is cleanly wrought and simple, but it is a more complicated and profound book than it appears at first reading. Cather learned well from Sarah Orne Jewett the secrets of artless art and of sophisticated craftsmanship that disarms by its simplicity.
Death Comes for the Archbishop is a novel that reaffirms part of the American past, the history of the Catholic Southwest beautifully told through the re-creation of the lives of Bishop Lamy and Father Macheboeuf, two devout and noble missionary priests in the Vicariate of New Mexico during the second half of the nineteenth century. The novel combines the narrative with bright glimpses into the past in stories that cut backward into time. Tales and legends that extend beyond the period of American occupation into three centuries of Spanish colonial history and back to the primitive tribal life of the Hopi, the Navajo, and the vanished cliff-dwellers break the chronicle at many points, giving it density and variety and allowing the work to recapture completely the spirit and movement of the pioneer West. It is true that this novel is an epic and a regional history, but much more than either, it is a tale of personal isolation, of one man’s life reduced to the painful weariness of his own sensitivities. Father Latour is a hero in the most profound sense of the word, displaying virtues of courage and determination, but he is also a very human protagonist, with doubts and inner conflicts. His personality is held up in startling contrast to that of his friend, Father Vaillant, a simpler, though no less good, individual. Cather’s austere style perfectly captures the scholarly, urbane, religious devotion that characterizes Father Latour, and the reader is always aware of a sense of the dignity of human life, as exemplified in the person of one individual. Cather is not afraid to draw a good man, a man who could stand above others because of his deeds and innate quality.
Although based on a true sequence of events, the book focuses less on plot than on character and, perhaps more specifically, the interplay of environment and character. Throughout the book, the reader is aware of the human reaction to the land, and that of one man to the land he has chosen. Subtly and deeply, the author suggests that the soul of the man is profoundly altered by the soul of the land. Cather never doubts that the land, too, possesses a soul and that this soul can transform a human being in complex and important ways. She is fascinated by the way the landscape of the Southwest, when reduced to its essences, seems to reduce human beings to their essences. Cather abandons traditional realism in this book and turns toward the directness of symbolism. With stark pictures and vivid styles, she creates an imaginary world rooted in but transcending realism. The rigid economy with which the book is written gives it unusual power in the reader’s mind long after the reading. The greatest symbol is provided by the personality of Bishop Latour, who stands like a windswept crag in the vast New Mexico landscape and represents the nobility of the human spirit despite the inner conflicts against which all must struggle.
The descriptions of place set the emotional tone of the novel. The quality of life is intimately related to the landscape, and the accounts of the journeys and the efforts to survive in the barren land help to create an odd warmth and almost surreal passion in the narrative. Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant establish a definite emotional relationship with the country; if the other characters in the book are less vividly realized as individuals, it is perhaps because they do not seem to have the same relationship with the land. Certainly none of them is involved in the intense love-hate relationship with the land with which the two main characters struggle for so many years.
Although the narrative encompasses many years, the novel is essentially static and built of a series of rich images and thoughtful movements highlighted and captured as by a camera. This quality of the narrative is a characteristic of Cather’s style: The frozen moments of contemplation and glimpses into Father Latour’s inner world and spiritual loneliness are the moments that give the book its greatness. Despite the presence of Kit Carson, the novel is not an adventure story any more than it is merely the account of a pair of churchmen attempting to establish their church in a difficult new terrain. The cathedral becomes the most important symbol in the final part of the book, representing the earthly successes of a man dedicated to unworldly ambitions. This conflict between the earthly and the spiritual is at the heart of Bishop Latour’s personality and at the heart of the book. The reader understands, at the end, when the bell tolls for Father Latour, that the man’s victory is greater than he ever knew.