When Death Comes for the Archbishop was published in 1927, readers and critics alike embraced the novel. Cather’s love of the Southwest and its inhabitants was clear, and readers came to share her affection for the region. In American Writers, Volume 1, Dorothy Van Ghent observes, “Most of the episodes evoke the virtue of place, textures of earth and weather that are the basis of all sense of reality, and the relationships of human generations silently handing down their wisdom of place.” Brad Hooper in Booklist remarks that Death Comes for the Archbishop is a story told “in a beautifully lyrical style.” Cather’s captivating language was intentional and hard-earned, according to Van Ghent, who notes that every day after writing, Cather went alone into the woods to read it aloud for sound and rhythm.
Cather’s characters and their struggles are another topic of critical commentary. In American Heritage, Alexander O. Boulton writes, “Willa Cather’s picture of the Southwest and its early inhabitants isn’t easy to shake off, even today. She saw a racial contest where modern ideas struggled against ancient fears and superstitions.” Van Ghent comments, “the people in the book, the ‘strong people of the old deep days of life,’ not only have each their legends but have become their own legends.”