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.