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Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) Willa Cather

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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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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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

Lee Wilson Dodd (essay date 1927)

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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 sexual desire. In this respect, I am forced to admit, it fails your instinctive expectations pretty badly; and unless you can (temporarily) free yourself of these anticipatory longings, this book is not for you. But if you can manage to survive this disappointment and attune your mind (may I daringly presume you have one?) to less customary harmonies, harmonies both throbbing deeper and lifting higher than the common range, I venture to assure you that you will soon forget to be bored.”

However, not even in day-dream could I longer continue, for my rebellious young person in very short skirts had already vanished, leaving behind her merely an echo of jazz and faint whiffs of perfumed lip-stick, aromatic chewing-gum, and synthetic gin. …

Death Comes for the Archbishop tells how a young man, Jean Marie Latour, once a seminarist in Auvergne, rode with difficulty into the newly erected territory of New Mexico as Vicar Apostolic, and of the wise and good works he wrought there for many years, until, mourned by all his people, “the old Archbishop lay before the high altar in the church he had built.” Is it a narrative of fact—biography in the guise of fiction? Or is it an independent creation, a fabric woven of many colored strands, sombre or brilliant, drawn from the annals of our Southwestern frontier? I do not know; and while I shall be interested to learn, if I am ever to learn, I do not greatly care. For this much is certain: by putting unforgettably before us the life (actual, wholly imagined, or partly imagined) of Father Latour, Miss Cather has also given us truth, has brought to us a quintessence distilled from a given region, with all its forms and modes of being, throughout a selected, unifying stretch of years. No artistic purpose is more difficult of fulfilment; and to indicate Miss Cather's stature as artist, it is enough to say that in the present novel one such staggering attempt has been serenely and triumphantly carried through.

But that is not all; it is far from all.

Range through the world's literature and ask yourself how many convincing portraits you can remember of a good and great man. You will not, I fear, recall many. … Well, here, at least, is one such portrait—winning, human, and complete. But no, there are two such in this extraordinary book, and they are finely differentiated! Father Vaillant and Father Latour … both living men, and utterly unalike, except in their central shining goodness—for I can think of no other word to express their quality. It is the love of these two men for each other, for their God, their Church, and their body-breaking and often heart-breaking tasks which makes of this book a grave, uplifting hymn to Spiritual Beauty. It is nothing less than that.

Nothing less … and it has, perhaps, turned one astonished reader a little giddy in the head. The whole thing was so unexpected. Intellectual and Spiritual Futility Blues have been so much more in our modern line. So if there are any artistic faults in this book (as there well may be, man being what he is) I confess that I was far too stirred to note them.

Joseph Wood Krutch (essay date 1927)

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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 our continent, her mood is that which Ellis would call the Celtic. She has upon occasion evoked her own memories, and one would expect to find in them the softness of remembered things, but even when her stories are rather documented than recalled she manages to invest documents with the wistful remoteness of recollected experience and to make past things vivid, less because they are present in the heat and sweat of actuality than because some softened memory of them seems to be. Not Calliope nor Melpomene is her muse but rather she who was called the mother of them all, and she is always at her best when that fact is most clearly recognized.

Certainly her newest story—concerned with the life of a missionary bishop to the newly annexed territory of New Mexico—would be in the hands of another something quite different from that which she has made it. These were stirring, adventurous times; many writers might feel that they could be recaptured only in some exciting and dramatic narrative; but Miss Cather softens the epic until it becomes an elegy. In recounting the lives of her characters she chooses by preference their moments of calm reflection; when she wishes to throw the long tradition of the priesthood into relief against the primitive background of the new land, she seizes upon some contrast that is deep without being violent; and she sees everything as one sees it when one broods or dreams over the past. The tumult and the fighting reach us but dimly. What we get is the sense of something far off and beautiful—the picturesqueness and the fragrance of the past more than the past itself, pictures softened by time and appearing suddenly from nowhere.

In a garden overlooking Rome, a cardinal drinks his wine and discusses the appointment of a new bishop for a vague and distant see. That bishop, come all the way from the Great Lakes, struggles with the paganism of his priests, rides miles over the desert to perform a belated marriage ceremony over the Mexicans whose children he has baptized, or dreams of the cathedral which shall some day rise in the savage land; but at night he cooks himself a soup with “nearly a thousand years of history” in it and in the sense of these vanished contrasts lies the effect of the book.

After supper was over and the toasts had been drunk, the boy Pablo was called in to play for the company while the gentlemen smoked. The banjo always remained a foreign instrument to Father Latour; he found it more than a little savage. When this strange yellow boy played it, there was softness and languor in the wire strings—but there was also a kind of madness; the recklessness, the call of wild countries which all these men had felt and followed in one way or another. Through clouds of cigar smoke, the scout and the soldiers, the Mexican rancheros, and the priests, sat silently watching the bent head and crouching shoulders of the banjo player, and his see-sawing yellow hand, which sometimes lost all form and became a mere whirl of matter in motion, like a patch of sandstorm.

Even when Miss Cather strives most consciously to give to her books a narrative movement there is likely to be something static or picture-like about her best effects, and when she falters it is usually in the effort to carry the reader from one to the other of the moments which rise like memories before her. In the present instance she has nothing that could properly be called a plot, but she is wisely content to accept the fact and to depend upon the continuous presence of beauty rather than upon any movement to hold the interest of the reader. When things are recalled in the mood of elegy there is no suspense and they do not take place one after the other because, all things being merely past, there is no time but one. And so it is in the case of Death Comes for the Archbishop. It is a book to be read slowly, to be savored from paragraph to paragraph, and it is quite the most nearly perfect thing which its author has done since A Lost Lady.

Henry Longan Stuart (essay date 1927)

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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 missions and ruined churches bore witness to Indian warfare as terrible in its character as the desert raids which wiped out the African Even the character of the neophytes who had withstood the storm and the pastors around whom they rallied was a debatable question. There was too much reason to fear that for the former religion had become matter of a few pious practices grafted upon a paganism never really abandoned in the heart and that, for the latter, the corruption almost inevitable when isolation overtakes an infant church was calling for stern disciplinary measures if the seed sown in the blood of so many martyrs was not to be choked in thorns and brambles.

These are the times and conjunctures that seldom fail to produce extraordinary men, or, rather, that call forth from men who in normal times might have spent their lives blamelessly and anonymously, unsuspected resources of heroism and initiative. Such a one was Jean Marie Latour, successively Vicar Apostolic Bishop and Archbishop of Santa Fé for thirty-eight years.

At the very beginning of any consideration of such a book, a question of literary conscience poses itself. The newly aroused interest in American history as dramatic material of the first order is having many results, some good, some less so. But it is quite plain that it is producing and will produce in the future a type of book which falls under no category hitherto familiar. This new type may be roughly defined, not so much as an historical novel, as a superimposition of the novel upon history. And it is not taking its place among forms hitherto recognized without a certain accompanying mystification. No one who has followed current literature within the last few years will have any difficulty in recalling instances in which such outstanding landmarks in our history as the gold rush of 1848 on the Pacific slope, or the acquisition of Alaska have been dealt with in very light-hearted fashion. For the smaller fry whose mission is merely to entertain the question how far established fact is adhered to is hardly worth putting. But for a writer of Miss Willa Cather's calibre, it is in its place. The facts of the Santa Fé episcopate are accessible in any standard book of reference. We know that its first Bishop was John Baptist Lamy, that his life followed, chronologically at least, the limits given it by Miss Cather. We may suspect that, in the new setting she has given it, an enormous amount of tradition, collected upon the spot is enshrined. Nevertheless, the mere transposition of Latour for Lamy, for a man not forty years dead, is a little disquieting. Does it bespeak a resolution to have done with the tyranny of fact, an enfranchisement from the limitations hitherto accepted, more or less loyally, by those who make the historical novel their concern? And may not the new fashion quite possibly be laying snares for the feet of generations to come, little versed in documentation and quite ready to take the word of so fascinating a writer in matters of fact as well as of fancy?

This reservation made, it is sheer critical duty to go and admit Miss Cather has succeeded in producing a truly remarkable book. To begin with, it is soaked through and through with atmosphere, not of the facile sort acquired by the mere descriptiveness, but by the relation of every scent and sound to that the senses and nerves of one who sees the barren upheaved land and breathes the intoxication of its barrenness for the first time.

Moreover, by an artistry that is as beautiful as it is rare, every perception of this fantastic diocese and of the violent and generous childen who are his charge, is allowed to reach us through the perceptions of a thoroughly civilized man, of gentle birth, but from the Province where feudalism lingered latest, and the stubbornness of whose sons is a French proverb, cultured, a little aloof and filled with pity for something vaguely fine and doomed to perish that he sees around him. Bishop Latour, though he accepts all hardships with equanimity and good grace, has no discoverable austerities. He likes good cheer, good wine and good architecture, shudders retrospectively, like Mrs. Trollope at the memory of frontier Cincinnati, and to the day of his death never loses a certain feeling of satisfaction as he washes his hands in the big silver bowl that was the gift to him of a lordly Spanish parishioner. His Indian guides love him for his good manners, for his unostentatious courage and for the respect with which he listens to their tales of the old religion, satisfying himself with an “Our Father,” recited together before pastor and neophyte roll themselves in their blankets. His hand is forbearing and patient, even when armed with the thunder of Rome, and ready to fall upon recalcitrant Padre Martinez, the bull-necked tyrant of Taos, who leads the life of a patriarch of the Old Testament amid his herds and women. His belief in God and his faith is crossed, as it is crossed among so many scholarly Christians, by a skepticism as to the power of average human nature to correspond with the message offered.

When officiating on the enchanted mésa of Acoma,

he had never found it so hard to go through the ceremony of the mass. Before him, on the gray floor, in the gray light, a group of bright shawls and blankets, some fifty or sixty silent faces; above and behind them the gray walls. He felt as if he were celebrating mass at the bottom of the sea for antediluvian creatures, for types of life so old, so hardened, so shut within their shells, that the sacrifice on Calvary could hardly reach back so far. Those shell-like backs behind him might be saved by baptism and divine grace, as undeveloped infants are, but hardly through any experience of their own, he thought. When he blessed them and sent them away it was with a sense of inadequacy and spiritual defeat.

Many figures, some familiar, come into the story Miss Cather has to tell us. There is our childhood friend Kit Carson with his dignified Mexican wife. “There is something curiously conscious about his mouth, reflective, a little melancholy—and something that suggested a capacity for tenderness. The Bishop felt a quick glow of pleasure in looking at the man.” There is Father Vaillant, blundering, warm-hearted and enthusiastic, type of the older missionary school of Jogues and Lallemant, who leaves his rich Denver parishioners to (“men who owned mines and saw-mills and flourishing businesses; but they needed all their money to push these enterprises”) and goes back to beg among his poverty-stricken Mexicans, who gave “if they had anything at all.” There is the guide Jacinto, who takes his Bishop during a blizzard into an ancient haunt of fear and superstition, after first swearing him to secrecy, and lets him listen to the roar of a subterranean torrent moving in utter blackness under ribs of antediluvian rock.” There are legends, beautiful and terrible, of Fray Baltazar, who made his rock bloom like the rose and paid for gluttony with his life, of Fray Junipero, who met the Holy Family at the foot of three cotton trees in the desert. From the riches of her imagination and sympathy Miss Cather has distilled a very rare piece of literature. It stands out, from the very resistance it opposes to classification, in the authentic line, and at no great distance, either, of such masterpieces of our literature as “Eothen” and “Arabia Deserta.”

Rebecca West (essay date 1927)

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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 image as one could conceive only as consequences of a visual disorder. When the young bishop on his mule finds this thirst smoldering up to flame in his throat and his confusion whirling faster and faster into vertigo he blots out his own pain in meditating on the Passion of our Lord. He does not deny to consciousness that it is in a state of suffering, but leads it inward from the surface of being where it feebly feels itself contending with innumerable purposeless irritations to a place within the heart where suffering is held to have been proved of greater value than anything else in the world, the one coin sufficient to buy man's salvation. This, perhaps the most delicate legerdemain man has ever practiced on his senses, falls into our comprehension as lightly as a snowflake into the hand because of Miss Cather's complete mastery of every phase of the process. But she becomes committed to no degree of complication as her special field. A page later she writer of the moment when the priest and his horses come on water in language simple as if she were writing a book for boys, in language exquisitely appropriate for the expression of a joy that must have been intensest in the youth of races.

Great is her accomplishment. That feat of making a composition out of the juxtaposition of different states of being, which Velaszquez was so fond of practicing, when he showed the tapestry-makers working in shadow and some of their fellows working behind them in shadows honeycombed with golden motes, and others still further back working in the white wine of full sunlight, is a diversion of hers also. She can suggest how in this land of carnelian hills that become lavender in storm, of deserts striped with such strangeness as ocher-yellow waves of petrified sand, of mesas behind which stand cloud mesas, as if here nature had altered her accustomed order and the sky took reflections as the waters do elsewhere; of beauty in which a quality of prodigiousness is perpetually present like a powerful condiment—the Bishop and his boybood friend would find refreshment in going back in memory to the cobbled streets of Clermont, where ivy that is cool to the touch and wet about the roots tumbles over garden walls and horse-chestnuts spread a wide shade which is scarcely needed, and simple families do explicable things and eat good food and love one another. Perfectly conveyed is the difference in palpability between things seen and things remembered: as perfectly as those other differences in palpability which became apparent to the senses of the Archbishop as death approached him. Then the countryside of Auvergne became a place too wet, too cultivated, too human; the air above it seemed to have something of the heaviness of sweat. The air that can only be breathed on land which has not yet been committed to human purposes, the light, dry air of the desert, is more suited to one who is now committed to them as little as it. He has now the excess of experience which comes to old age; since no more action is required from him, there is no particular reason why his attention should be focused on the present. So as he lies in his bed in the study in Santa Fé where he had begun his work forty years before, all the events of his life exist contemporaneously in his head, his childish days in Clermont and on the coast of the Mediterranean, his youth in the seminary at Rome, his travels among the deserts and the mesas, the Mexicans and the Indians. That is well enough, but it could not go on. He longs, and one can feel the trouble in the old man's head as he wishes it, for this free wind that has never been weighed down by the effluvia of human effort to blow away his soul out into its sphere of freedom.

She is working on a theme that is peculiarly sympathetic to her. When Father Vaillant goes to administer the sacraments to the faithful on the ranchero of Manuel Lujon he bustles into the kitchen and, with scarcely less care than he bestows on preparations for the holy office, he rescues the leg of mutton that is destined for his dinner and cooks it himself so that when he carves it at table a “delicate stream of pink juice” follows the knife. It is an incident which Miss Cather relates with a great deal of sympathetic feeling; and it is, of course, a beautiful symbol of the effective synthesis which inspires the Roman Catholic Church to its highest activities. That Church has never doubted that sense is a synthesis of the senses; and it has never doubted that man must take the universe sensibly. The people, the suffering generations, deprived of material for the enjoyment of the senses, cry out for saints who shall sanctify their own fates by being holy, who court suffering, who deprive their senses of all material enjoyment But behind them watches the Church to see that they avail themselves of this hungry sainthood only as one does of some powerful opiate, in small doses and not habitually. Not for long were the faithful to be allowed to abuse or miscall the body which has been given them as the instrument with which they must perform their task of living. Those who claimed supersensual ecstasies were—as one may read in the life of St. Teresa—exposed to the investigations of persons who comported themselves like inspector of nuisances. While it is untrue to say that Protestantism invented or even specially stimulated Puritanism—the type of mind which tries to satisfy an innate sense of guilt by the coarser forms of expiation is naturally attracted to whatever the current religion may be and emerges equally under Catholicism or paganism or Islamism or any other formulated faith—it is true to say that Catholicism has always suppressed with extreme vigor such heresies as led to unwholesome abstinences becoming the general practice. The Cathari, for example, were persecuted because, although their ascetic teachings might have led to individual sinlessness, they would have wiped out the community, and there would have been so many happy villages the fewer. It would almost seem sometimes as if the Church burned heretics because it was afraid that if it did not, man would burn his soup.

And soup, as the Roman Catholic Church knows, as Miss Cather knows, is a matter of the first importance, “When one comes to think of it,” said the Bishop, sitting over a meal prepared by Father Vaillant on one of their early days at Santa Fé, when they were gloomily discussing the possibility of maintaining a French propriety of diet in a country so basely ignorant that it knew nothing of the lettuce, “soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.” … Doubtless he would, if pressed, have admitted that, while the introduction of good soup and lettuce was not the object of his labors in his diocese, they would at least afford a test of success. It was with no sense of triyial declension from his activities that, at the end of his life, he chose for the country estate of his retirement land on which he had seen an apricot tree with “two trunks, each of them thicker than a man's body,” which was glorious with great golden fruit of superb flavor, and because of that indication of suitability planted orchards of pears and apples, cherries and apricots there, from which he furnished young trees for his priests to plant wherever they went, for their own eating and to encourage the Mexicans to add fruit to their starchy diet. In all his intermediate activities he has never really gone far from the earth that grows lettuces and apricots.

There is a chapter relating to the rebellious Father Martinez in which Miss Cather, with a blacksmith's muscle, has wrought into compendious form a prodigious deal of reading about the problem the Church has had to face in its effort to secure priests lion-like enough to maintain the faith on the raw edges of civilization against the paganism of lawless men and yet lamb-like enough to remain in loyal subjection to authority seated half the world away; it, too, is a demonstration of sense founded on a fusion of the senses. The Bishop, although fastidious almost to the point of squeamishness, tolerates this priest who rides at the head of a cavalcade of Mexicans and Indians like their robber chief, whose corridor walks are perpetually painted with a shadow-show of servant maids fleeing before young men whose origin seems to be indicated by the tart disputations at the supper table concerning the celibacy of the clergy, whose past is stained with bloodshed arising out of a lecherous desire for certain lands as hot as the lands themselves. In spite of all this the Bishop does not deprive him of his parish. He looks around and marks the theatrical fervor of the landscape of “the flaming cactus and the gaudily decorated altars,” of the gestures with which the women flung shawls on the pathway before him and the men snatched his hand to kiss the Episcopal ring; and perceives as in complete keeping with that world this passionate and devout scoundrel who gives his virility to the chanting of the mass as he gave it to murder, to the enrichment of his church with vestments and shining vessels as to the complication of his domesticity with amorousness. It is as if he tasted a chili con carne, judged it just as the Mexicans who were going to eat it would like it, and out of regard for the harmonies of life smoothed from his face all signs of what his French palate thought of the high seasoning. Though this may be an affair of importance, it is still an affair of the senses.

But there is more to life than this. St. Teresa was greater than her investigators. The community that chose to die might know more in the moment when it went out to death than the neighboring unperverted community might know when it came in to supper. It is inconceivable that man was born of woman to suffer more forms of agony than there are kinds of flowers simply in order that he should make good soup. That complaint might be made against Miss Cather herself, in her own absorption in sense and the senses. She arranges with mastery such phenomena of life as the human organism can easily collect through the most ancient and most perfected mechanisms of body and mind. But must not such an art, admirable as it is, be counted as inferior to an art which accepts no such limitations, which deals with the phenomena of life collected by the human organism with such difficulty that to the over-strained consciousness they appear only as vague intimations, and the effort of obtaining them develops new mechanisms? Ought not art that tries to make humanity super-human be esteemed above art that leaves humanity exactly as it is? One is reminded constantly of that issue while one is reading Death Comes for the Archbishop by its similarity in material to some of the recent work of Mr. D. H. Lawrence. Both writers come face to face with the Indian and find there is no face there but an unclimbable cliff, giving no foothold, like the side of a mesa; but each takes it so differently. “The Bishop,” says Miss Cather, of a certain conversation by a camp fire, “seldom questioned Jacinto about his thoughts or beliefs. He didn't think it polite, and he believed it to be useless. There was no way in which he could transfer his own memories of European civilization into the Indian mind, and he was quite willing to believe that behind Jacinto there was a long tradition, a story of experience, which no language could translate to him. A chill came with the darkness,” … and so on. There is no attempt to fit the key into the lock. That door will not open. But Mr. Lawrence cries out in his last book of essays: “The consciousness of one branch of humanity is the annihilation of the consciousness of another branch. … We can understand the consciousness of the Indian only in terms of the death of our consciousness.” There is nothing here to say he will not try it. Indeed, the querulousness of it, suggests a tired, brave man becoming aware of an imperative call to further adventure. There may be necessary a re-entrance to the darkness of the womb, another fretful birth. He will try it!

The difference in their daring is powerfully suggested by a certain chapter of this book named Stone Lips. The Bishop and his Indian guide are on the desert when a snow storm breaks and covers the land with a white blindness. The Indian makes the Bishop leave the mules and clamber over rocks and fallen trees to a cliff in which there is a cave that has an opening, sinister enough in itself, with rounded edges like lips. It is large, shows signs of being used for ceremonial purposes, and is clean and swept; but it is icy-cold and full of a faint but loathsome odor. There is a hole in the wall about the size of a watermelon. This the Indian guide fills up with a mixture of stones, wood, earth and snow. Then he builds a fire, and the odor disappears. There is, however, a humming as of bees, which puzzles the Bishop till the guide takes him to a part of the cave where there is a crack in the floor through which sounds the roaring of an underground river. The Bishop drops off to sleep, but wakes up and finds the boy mounting guard over the hole in the wall, listening as though to hear if anything were stirring behind the patch of plaster. The episode owes its accent, of course, to the proximity of the cave to the pueblo of Pecos, which was reputed to keep a giant serpent out in the mountains for use in religious festivals.

Miss Cather passes through this experience responding sensitively and powerfully to its splendid portentousness, but she stays with the Bishop the whole time. Mr. Lawrence, on the other hand, would have been through the hole in the wall after the snake. He would have been through the crack in the floor after the river. Irritably and with partial failure, but also with greater success than any previous aspirant, he would have tried to become the whole caboodle. Does not such transcendental courage, does not such ambition to extend consciousness beyond its present limits and elevate man above himself entitle his art to be ranked as more important than that of Miss Cather?

To ask that question is our disposition to-day. It is the core of contemporary resentment against the classics. But one must suspect it. It leads to such odd preferences on the part of the young: for example, to the exaltation of James Joyce over Marcel Proust, although A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is like a beautiful hand with long fingers reaching out to pluck a perfect fruit, without error, for the accurate eye knows well it is growing just there on the branch, and Ulysses is the fumbling of a horny hand in darkness after a doubted jewel. Such a judgment leaves out of account that though a jewel is more precious than a fruit, grace also is one of the ultimate values, a chief accelerator of our journey toward the stars. It should like all occasions when we find ourselves rejecting non-toxic pleasantness make us examine ourselves carefully to see if we are not the latest victims to the endemic disease of Puritanism, to this compulsion to satisfy an innate sense of guilt by the coarser forms of expiation.

There is, after all, no real reason to suppose that there is less Puritan impulse in humanity than there ever was, since the origin and control of such infantile fantasies as the sense of guilt have hardly yet begun to be worked upon; and it would be peculiarly apt at this moment to express itself in the sphere of art. The Church no longer takes care of it among the literate, for during the last century they either ceased to go to church at all or have transferred their adherence to some faith which does not pander to those lownesses; but they found a new and disguised channel for the old impulse in reformist politics.

That again has been denied them, for the war has damped political enthusiasm just as the biological advances of the nineteenth century damped religious fervor. The weaker spirits are scared by the evidence that social change may involve serious hardship and have scuttled back to Toryism; the stronger spirits who can bear to envisage hardship are just as paralyzed by their doubt whether there is any economic system yet vented which is certain to justify by success the inconveniences of change. There has happened, therefore, a curious reversal of the position in regard to the gratification of the Puritan and counter-Puritan impulses in the last century. The young men who were Puritans in politics were anti-Puritans in literature. They were willing to die for the independence of Poland or the Manchester Fenians; and they relaxed their tension by voluptuous reading in Swinburne. Nowadays the corresponding young men gratify their voluptuousness by an almost complete acquiescence in the political and economic status quo, an unremorseful acceptance of whatever benefits it may bring them personally; and they placate their Puritanism by demanding of literature that never shall it sit down to weave beauty out of the materials which humanity has already been inable to collect with its limited powers, that perpetually it must be up and marching on through the briars toward some extension of human knowledge and power.

It is characteristically Puritan, this demand that the present should be annihilated. The churchgoers of the breed insisted that we should have no pleasures in this world, but should devote curselves to preparation for the next. The political sphere made the same demand in many veiled forms, which one may perceive, in the phrase constantly used in propagandist literature that it is the duty of each generation to sacrifice itself for the sake of future generations.

It is, of course, pernicious. It makes man try to live according to another rhythm than that of the heart within him, which has its systole and its diastole. It deftly extracts all meaning out of life, which, if it were but an eternal climbing of steep steps, sanity would refuse to live. And esthetically it is the very deuce, for in rejecting classical art it rejects the real sanction of the revolutionary art it pretends to defend. For when Willa Cather describes in terms acceptable to a Catholic missionary society the two young priests stealing away secretly from Clermont to avoid saying good by to their devoted families, who would have been too greatly distressed by the loss of their sons, she is not as explicit as Mr. Lawrence would be in his statement that in this separation a creature as little Christian as a snake was trying to slough its skin, that a force as hidden from the sun as an underground river was trying to separate itself from its source. But by proving exhaustively what joy a man can have and what beauty he can make by using such material and such mechanism he, already has she proves Mr. Lawrence's efforts to add to their number worth while. Since man can work thus with his discoveries, how good it is that there should be discoverers!

There is nothing here which denotes rejection of any statement of life fuller than her own. Her work has not that air of claiming to cover all the ground which gives the later novels of Henry James the feeling of pretentiousness and futility which amazingly coexists with the extremes of subtlety and beauty and which is perhaps due to his attempt to account, for all the actions and thoughts of his characters by motives established well in the forefront of consciousness. Miss Cather is indeed deeply sympathetic to what the order of artist who is different from herself is trying to do, as can be seen in her occasional presentation of incidents that would be beautifully grist to their mill: as in the enchanting story of an El Greco painting of a St. Francis in meditation, which was begged from a Valencian nobleman by a hairy Franciscan priest from New Mexico for his mission church, who forced the gift by his cry: “You refuse me this picture because it is a good picture. It is too good for God, but it is not too good for you,” and was, at the pillaging of the mission church, either burned or taken to some pueblo. How we can imagine that part of the spirit of El Greco which was in that picture, crying out while flames made it the bright heart of an opening flower of massacre, or while the smoke of the adobe dwelling discolors and stripes it like a flagellation, “It is just as I thought.” … And how in the anguished accents of Mr. Lawrence's work that imagined cry sounds!

Miss Cather is not unaware of these fissures in the solid ground of life, but to be aware of them is not her task. Hers is it to move on the sunlit face of the earth, with the gracious amplitude of Ceres, bidding the soil yield richly, that the other kind of artist, which is like Persephone and must spend half of his days in the world under the world, may be refreshed on emergence.

Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom (essay date 1955)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10859

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 of “novel,” she envisaged the Archbishop as a legend, in the medieval tradition of Christian saints' lore, and thus of self-imposed necessity she eschewed all obvious dramatic treatment. Instead of the rising action and complexities which characterize the plots of more conventional novels, Miss Cather employed episodic simplicity, giving equal stress to each incident. The incidents, then, she selected with exceeding care, not for the evocation of suspense but for a massive cumulative intention. It was to this end that she integrated the details of theme, plot, characterization, and mood which make up the novel. As she says:

Since I first saw the Puvis de Chavannes frescoes of the life of Saint Geneviève in my student days, I have wished that I could try something a little like that in prose; something without accent, with none of the artificial elements of composition. In the Golden Legend the martyrdoms of the saints are no more dwelt upon than are the trivial incidents of their lives; it is as though all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual experience, were of about the same importance. The essence of such writing is not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in it—but to touch and pass on.2

In adapting technical treatment to subject matter, and in selecting locale and situation, she was affected by numerous determinants—her theory of literary genesis; her personal experiences and friendships; her readings. All these factors entered significantly into the composition of the Archbishop.3


The Archbishop, like all of her novels of the frontier, allegorizes the individual's withdrawal from a “stupefied materialistic world” and his quest for a direction of life which will relate him most meaningfully to a higher order, either of an impersonal, non-religious power or of a highly personal, Christian God. Born of the spirit, the quest is limited by neither time nor place. For Willa Cather, with her sense of timelessness and her imaginative power of historical reconstruction, there were many frontiers. Beginning with that one which was closest to herself chronologically and geographically, she concentrated her early work on the pioneer land of the Middle-Western prairie. Activated by her awareness of this most recent manifestation, she began to enlarge her perspective and to apply her observations to other frontiers. Through her expanded interests, for example, she conceived a comparable spiritual motivation among the ancient cliff dwellers and the fulfilment of their primitive culture. This broadening of interest accounts, then, for the idyllic interludes about the cliff dwellers which she introduced into both The Song of the Lark and The Professor's House. For Shadows on the Rock Miss Cather made a further shift of her conceptual frontier, this time to seventeenth-century Canada, where she portrayed the spiritual seeking of the French as the motivation of their self-determined exile. And in the Archbishop she again related her frontier historically, now to the American Southwest in the middle nineteenth century.4

Willa Cather long cherished an affection for the Southwest and its mythology even before her first visit in 1912. Considerably before this date and certainly long before the idea of the Archbishop came to her, she had become intrigued by a legend which tells of how a tribe of Indians, a thousand or more years ago, were isolated from their home on Katzímo, a vast New Mexican mesa-top, forbidding and impregnable to hostile Indians. This people, according to the legend, farmed the fertile desert at the foot of their mesa encantada. One summer while almost all the members of the tribe were harvesting, a fierce storm destroyed the sole passage leading to the summit of the island of rock. Hopelessly cut off, the tribe moved on to the Ácoma mesa, where they established their now traditional home. From these materials, Miss Cather created her little-known short story, “The Enchanted Bluff” (1909),5 an interesting anticipation of her spiritual interpretation of the Ácoma mesa in the Archbishop. Although vague in its outlines, this early story is yet significant in that it conveys some of the sense of yearning and seeking which gives tonality to the Ácoma incident in the Archbishop. When Miss Cather set down her short story, the Katzimo legend was already something of a cause célèbre. The controversy over its authenticity, engaged in by Charles F. Lummis, William Libbey, and Frederick Webb Hodge,6 had flared in newspapers, magazines, weeklies, and scientific publications. That Miss Cather was familiar with the quarrel is evident from “The Enchanted Bluff,” in which she has her characters prepare to scale Katzímo by the unique method used by Professor Libbey. At the same time she repudiated Libbey's skepticism, accepting the authenticity of the legend, as it was proposed by Lummis and Hodge.7

Almost from the beginning, then, Miss Cather was “teased” by the idea of the Southwest. While she and her brother Douglass were still children in Nebraska, they had talked of exploring the Southwest together, even as the youngsters in “The Enchanted Bluff” dreamed of a similar exploit. Then in 1912 she visited Douglass in Winslow, Arizona, where he was employed by the Santa Fe Railroad.8 Thus her first trip to the Southwest became the realization of a childhood dream, and she was imbued with the satisfaction expressed by Father Joseph in the Archbishop (pp. 263-264): “To fulfill the dreams of one's youth; that is the best that can happen to a man.”9 For Willa Cather this visit was also an introduction to the Southwestern frontier. There she remained several months, “and a whole new landscape—not only a physical landscape, but a landscape of the mind, peopled with wonderful imaginings, opened out before her.”10 In this new world a vitality that she had never before known made clear to her the superficiality of her first novel, Alexander's Bridge (written in 1911), and revealed to her the direction of her creative genius. There she refrained from writing and “recovered,” she said, “from the conventional editorial point of view.”11 She visited Arizona again in 1914, although it was not until 1915 that she made her first lengthy sojourn in New Mexico, and in 1916 she returned once more. “Passionately interested in the country itself, in all its natural aspects—and in the people,” Willa Cather went there without regard for the possibilities of literary exploitation.12 Only after her love of the land had matured and acquired a deep-rooted significance did she put into words her most profound and in some ways her most meaningful novel. Its technical conception came to her appropriately enough when she returned to New Mexico in 1925 after a nine-year absence, and it was seemingly inevitable. In a single evening during that summer while was stopping at Santa Fe, as she often said, the idea of the Archbishop emerged essentially as she afterward wrote it.13 That Miss Cather should have been so long in the concrete formulation of the novel fits in admirably with her theory of literary genesis. In her ennobled view of the writer's function, she postulated that

… his material goes through a process very different from that by which he makes merely a good story or a good novel. No one can exactly define this process; but certainly persistence, survival, recurrence in the writer's mind, are highly characteristic of it. The shapes and scenes that have “teased” the mind for years, when they do at last get themselves rightly put down, make a very much higher order of writing, and a much more costly, than the most vivid and vigorous transfer of immediate impressions.14

It was this kind of deliberate process which went into the creation of the Archbishop. Significantly she made the above statement before her crucial trip to New Mexico in 1925. She returned from New Mexico to Jaffrey, New Hampshire, in the autumn of that year; “and it was there that she wrote—at a sitting, as it seems to me now—the magnificent introduction to Death Comes for the Archbishop.” All that winter in New York, she continued to work on the novel “with unusual happiness and serenity.” But as it progressed, she realized that there were many things and places she needed to learn about, many details that she wished to verify. And so once more, in July of 1926, she went to her beloved Now Mexico.15

These trips to the Southwest not only made concrete for her the physical landscape but also introduced her to people and experiences invaluable for the creation of the novel. For example, on her first visit to Arizona she met a friend of her brother, the Reverend T. Connolly, the Catholic priest in Winslow.16 Frequently Willa Cather accompanied him on his long drives to distant parishes, and they talked about the country and the people, and about surviving Spanish and Indian legends. Later she met Father Haltermann, a Belgian priest, who lived with his sister in the parsonage behind the church at Santa Cruz, New Mexico. The “florid, full-bearded farmer priest,” whose duties among his eighteen Indian missions brought him a close familiarity with the native traditions, was one “of the most intelligent and inspiriting persons” she met in her Southwestern travels.17 Miss Cather was most impressed by the tact and good sense of many of the priests and “the cultivation of mind that gave them a long historical perspective on the life in these remote little settlements.”18 Indeed, from Father Haltermann and his colleagues Miss Cather learned not only the religious and secular traditions of the area but also many unofficial and intimate details about the construction and financing of the Cathedral of Santa Fe which appear in the novel.19 Moreover, many of the details of the Archbishop owe their realism to the novelist's acquaintance with several Indians native to the region. Foremost was Tony Luhan, a Taos Indian, who made an immediate impression upon Miss Cather. “He was a splendid figure, over six feet tall, with a noble head and a dignified carriage; there was great simplicity and kindness in his voice and manner.” Arrayed in his purple blanket and silver bracelets, Tony Luhan accompanied Miss Cather to some of the most remote and inaccessible Mexican villages in the Cimarron Mountains; “and from Tony, Willa Cather learned many things about the country and the people that she could not have learned otherwise. He talked very little, but what he said was always illuminating and curiously poetic.”20 Tony in all likelihood became the model for Eusabio, the Navajo Indian described in the Archbishop (pp. 233-238) as “extremely tall, … with a face like a Roman general's of Republican times. He … wore a blanket of the finest wool and design. His arms, under the loose sleeves of his shirt, were covered with silver bracelets. …” Like Tony Luhan, Eusabio, wearing an expression of “religious” seriousness, “talked little, ate little, slept anywhere, preserved a countenance open and warm, and … had unfailing good manners.”

The Archbishop, like Miss Cather's other frontier novels, represented an intensely personal experience, in conception and growth. It was not so much a piece of fiction—a mere story—as it was her vision of life and attitude toward truth. The point at which actuality and invention merged was invisible, for except in necessary mechanical details Miss Cather herself made no such arbitrary distinction. The fact is, her experiences of life were the book and the book was her life. Like a great metaphor, then, the novel became a subtle evaluation of her attitudes and emotions. Even as she drew upon knowledge from individuals to express a philosophy and mood, she drew also from events experienced in the Southwest. Every year in Santa Fe, for instance, a procession honoring the Virgin commemorated De Vargas's recapture of the city for Spain in 1692. Recorded historical details of the procession were of course available to Miss Cather, but even more important than her readings was the fact that she witnessed the procession and reacted emotionally to its spiritual implications. In the novel she directs her focus on the image of the Virgin Mother carried through the streets by the participants. She concentrates on profoundly simple elements to describe the love which the Mexicans cherished for the holy figure. Although this incident is organically inseparable from the sympathetic portrayal of religious love which is a secondary thematic concern of the novel, Miss Cather pauses briefly to inject a few lines of exposition for the fuller clarification of her meaning:

These poor Mexicans, [Father Latour] reflected, were not the first to pour out their love in this simple fashion. Raphael and Titian had made costumes for Her in their time, and the great masters had made music for Her, and the great architects had built cathedrals for Her. Long before Her Years on earth, in the long twilight between the Fall and the Redemption, the pagan sculptors were always trying to achieve the image of a goddess who should yet be a woman. (pp. 258-59)

One of the most striking portions of the novel, the chapter describing Father Latour's introduction to Ácoma, reveals Miss Cather's typical fusion of personal experience, interpretation, and random reading. From her own visit to the mesa she stored up an impression later expressed through her prelate:

Finally a day came when our driver, a Carlisle College Indian named Mr. Sarascino, announced that he could get us to Ácoma. There is no need to tell of that journey—Willa Cather has told it in the Archbishop. In a sense, she had been looking forward to it all her life. As we passed the Mesa Encantada (the Enchanted Bluff) we stopped for a long time to look up at it. A great cloud-mesa hung over it. It looked lonely and mysterious and remote, as if it were far distant in time—thousands of years away.21

The same experience emerges thus in the Archbishop:

Ever afterward the Bishop remembered his first ride to Ácoma as his introduction to the mesa country. One thing which struck him at once was that every mesa was duplicated by a cloud mesa, like a reflection, which lay motionless above it or moved slowly up from behind it. These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky. Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapour; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an oriental city lay directly behind the rock. The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave. (p. 96)

But if much of her knowledge of Ácoma and the nearby Mesa Encantada was informed by sensitive observation, it was probably derived also from historical and quasi-literary sources. For some of her factual details she was indebted to Lummis's volumes and to Twitchell's treatment of New Mexican history. From Lummis especially she derived her references to Fray Juan Ramirez, “a great missionary, who laboured on the Rock of Ácoma for twenty years or more,” his mule trail, “the only path by which a burro can ascend the mesa, and which is still called ‘El Camino del Padre,’” his massive church with its beams drawn from the San Mateo Mountains. There are further allusions to the military invincibility of the Ácomas, their single defeat at the hands of the Spaniards in armor, the picture of St. Joseph and its magical rain-producing qualities.22 Yet vital as these real details are in creating a sense of the historical past, they are less important than Miss Cather's particular understanding and symbolic transference of the Ácoma mesa; for herein is the synthesis of everything she means by sanctuary:

All this plain, the Bishop gathered, had once been the scene of a periodic man-hunt; these Indians, born in fear and dying by violence for generations, had at last taken this leap away from earth, and on that rock had found the hope of all suffering and tormented creatures—safety. They came down to the plain to hunt and to grow their crops, but there was always a place to go back to. If a band of Navajos were on the Ácoma's trail, there was still one hope; if he could reach his rock—Sanctuary! On the winding stone stairway up the cliff, a handful of men could keep off a multitude. The rock of Ácoma had never been taken by a foe but once,—by Spaniards in armour. It was very different from a mountain fastness; more lonely, more stark and grim, more appealing to the imagination. The rock, when one came to think of it, was the utmost expression of human need; even mere feeling yearned for it; it was the highest comparison of loyalty in love and friendship. Christ Himself had used the comparison for the disciple to whom He gave the Keys of his Church. And the Hebrews of the Old Testament, always being carried captive into foreign lands—their rock was an idea of God, the only thing their conquerors could not take from them. (p. 98)

In the chapter as a whole she has refined and intensified a great natural phenomenon through artistry; but she has also fulfilled her own inner state through a peculiarly apt religious symbolism, with its mingling of the pagan and the orthodox. Her analysis of the symbolic meaning of the Ácoma mesa leaves no doubt in the reader's mind. Nor is it an isolated symbol, for in slightly altered form it appears repeatedly in The Song of the Lark, The Professor's House and Shadows on the Rock.

Finally, the Archbishop appears to owe much historically and philosophically to the many source works which Miss Cather read. “In order to write this book,” Michael Williams points out, “she has read a great deal in other books; she has studied books. …” Miss Lewis, who was in a position to know, has substantiated Williams's remark with specific observations on the novelist's avid researches.23 Among the books she read were Defouri's Historical Sketch of the Catholic Church in New Mexico; Salpointe's Soldiers of the Cross; the Catholic Encyclopedia; the works of Lummis, such as Mesa, Cañon and Pueblo, Some Strange Corners of Our Country, and A New Mexican David; Bandelier's The Gilded Man; Palou's Life of Ven. Padre Junípero Serra; Twitchell's Leading Facts of New Mexican History; and the translation by Winship of Castenada's The Coronado Expedition. Although she does not openly acknowledge her use of any of these books, her indebtedness becomes readily apparent in certain details, a character sketch or two, and casual historical allusions. To one volume, however, she was overtly indebted. This was The Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf, by William Joseph Howlett, a priest who had worked with Father Machebeuf in Denver. It was from this volume that she drew most of her biographical data about Father Latour (Archbishop Lamy) and Father Joseph Vaillant (Father Machebeuf). In the work of Father Howlett, she says, “at last I found out what I wanted to know about how the country and the people of New Mexico seemed to those first missionary priests from France.” This, then, was Willa Cather's basic printed source for Death Comes for the Archbishop.24


The reading which shaped the component elements of the novel must not be confused with rigid, unimaginative paraphrase. She molded her materials rather according to artistic necessity. To achieve an aura of realism—and it must be remembered that Miss Cather's technical intention of emulating a legend allowed for no more than a peripheral reconstruction of facts—she borrowed from her reading seemingly casual historical references. To bolster her primary purpose—thematic re-evocation of pioneer striving, its success and in some instances its failure—she gleaned from her reading a series of characterizations and contrasting character sketches. Her purposeful selection of characters, further, made necessary the delineation of an appropriate religious backdrop for their activities. For this end also, then, her reading equipped her with essential details, and it sharpened her insight. All these materials she manipulated to fuse a relatively sophisticated Catholicism with the ancient paganism of Indian rites on the one hand, and with primitive Mexican devotion to Catholicism on the other.

The least important of Willa Cather's borrowings may be found in her use of historical facts, which she characteristically subordinated to the novel's structural totality. Since reportorial accuracy is distant from her aims, she consciously developed a power of selectivity, supported, as she herself admits, by Merimée's estimate of Gogol. “L'art de choisir parmi les innombrables traits que nous offre la nature est, après tout, bien plus difficile que celui de les observer avec attention et de les rendre avec exactitude.”25

Thus, Miss Cather never introduces facts as such or for their own sake. And rather than linger over them she mentions them briefly and without pedantry. Twice in the course of the Archbishop, for instance, she touches on the massacre of Governor Bent, which occurred in 1847. This readily verifiable event she could have encountered in any history of New Mexico, Twitchell's or Read's, for example.26 In all likelihood, however, Miss Cather based her account on Father Howlett's statement:

It was said that [Father Martinez] had much to do with the uprising of the Indians and Mexicans at Taos, when Governor Bent and about fifteen Americans and their Mexican sympathizers were massacred on Jan. 19, 1847. He at least shared with the Indians and Mexicans in hatred for the Americans, and, in their ignorance of events and conditions outside their little valley, they imagined they were but beginning a patriotic war which would result in freeing their country from the foreigner, who was supposed to be an enemy to their race and to their religion. The suspicion is probably well founded, although the U. S. Government did not find Father Martinez guilty of direct complicity in the unfortunate insurrection.27

Unlike most of the other chroniclers of the affair, Father Howlett is forthright in accusing the Mexican padre. In her first mention of the massacre Miss Cather is but vaguely allusive, mentioning by name neither the governor nor the supposed leader of the revolt. She records dispassionately: “Only last year the Indian pueblo of San Fernandez de Taos murdered and scalped the American Governor and some dozen whites. The reason they did not scalp their Padre, was that their Padre was one of the leaders of the rebellion and himself planned the massacre” (p. 8). In her second mention, however, she, like Father Howlett, is much more explicit, identifying by name the priest who engages her attention in one of the central episodes of the novel: “It was common talk that Padre Martinez had instigated the revolt of the Taos Indians five years ago, when Bent, the American Governor, and a dozen white men were murdered and scalped. Seven of the Taos Indians had been tried before a military court and hanged for the murder, but no attempt had been made to call the plotting priest to account. Indeed, Padre Martinez had managed to profit considerably by the affair” (pp. 139-40). Her first allusion broadly suggests the hazards of pioneering under the zealous but subverted state of religious belief which prevailed in New Mexico. The second occurs much later in the novel, after she has introduced Father Martinez as an antagonistic character. Now, when she wishes to expose the priest's ruthless, materialistic aspirations, she makes concrete his complicity in the massacre. For her purposes, indeed, she does not allow herself even Father Howlett's charitable suspension of absolute judgment. Miss Cather, it would appear, accepted Father Howlett's suspicion and then manipulated the evidence to conform to the purposes of the novel.

Father Martinez himself serves as her spokesman in another use of historical data. Conversing with Father Latour, the renegade priest comments on the historically famous revolt of Popé in 1680, “when all the Spaniards were killed or driven out, and there was not one European left alive north of El Paso del Norte.” He boasts that Popé, a San Juan Indian, operated out of Taos. Once again this particular fact is common knowledge, although the fullest account of it probably accessible to Miss Cather appears in Hubert Howe Bancroft's History of New Mexico and Arizona.28 Bancroft emphasizes, as does Miss Cather, that the revolt originated among the pueblo communities in an effort to rid themselves of foreign domination. Father Martinez's reference to the Popé rebellion is thoroughly consistent with Miss Cather's characterization of the unruly priest. By implication Popé becomes the archetype of Martinez; by indirection Father Latour is being warned that Father Martinez, likewise operating out of Taos, will not tolerate foreign interference. The threat veiled in the reference to Popé is, indeed, all the more sinister for its obliqueness; and it enhances dangerously his cool warning that future European meddling will be met with violence. He says, “You are among barbarous people, my Frenchman, between two savage races. The dark things forbidden by your Church are a part of Indian religion. You cannot introduce French fashions here” (p. 148).

Many of her historical facts Miss Cather selected because they convey her faith in the human longing for sanctuary. Symbolically expressive of this kind of yearning is her interpretation of the Navajos' struggles: their slaughter by white troops at the supposed invincible Canyon de Chelly; their enforced exile to the Bosque Redondo; and their eventual return to the lands of their fathers. As she manipulates these historical incidents, they take on a mystical, religious significance. She envisions the canyon as a spiritual fortress, where the Navajos “believed their old gods dwelt … the very heart and centre of their life.” The Indians' exclusion from the fastness she sees as their tragic loss of sanctuary, without which they must perish physically as well as spiritually. The Navajos' ultimate return becomes for Miss Cather an optimistic presage that genuine faith, and this not necessarily Christian, will assert itself against base aspirations and abuse. Whether she had documentary proof for her spiritual interpretation of the Canyon de Chelly is problematical.29 What is apparent, however, is that the struggles of the Navajos have for her a significance parallel with those of the Ácomas. Her visit to the Canyon de Chelly in 1925,30 enhanced by romantic knowledge of the canyon's supposed inaccessibility, gave shape to her interpretation. The traditional Navajo nostalgia for homeland, poignantly stated in so many of their commonly sung chants, complemented further her literary needs and spiritual bent.31

Historical eras widely separated in time challenged rather than inhibited Miss Cather in her artistic constructions. Frequently this separation afforded her a basis for believing that man's problems and needs are eternally reiterated, and that they are distinguished only by external details of history. For her only the inner meaning is the essential one. Thus she might boldly link together events which had occurred centuries apart, in order that the early occurrence should serve as a parable for the later one. This is the kind of spiritual union which she achieves in relating the decline of the Pecos tribe from the splendor it enjoyed in the sixteenth century to its pathetic moribundity in the nineteenth. Through the sensitive eyes of Father Latour, Miss Cather witnesses the contemporary atmosphere of death and decay—“empty houses ruined by weather and now scarcely more than piles of earth and stone.” In her interpretation the process of decay began with Coronado and his men who “set forth … on their ill-fated search for the seven golden cities of Quivera, taking with them slaves and concubines ravished from the Pecos people” (p. 125). The waste begun by the white man in the sixteenth century culminated in the ravages of the modern white man, whose civilized diseases “were the real causes of the shrinkage of the tribe.” Drawing her account—particularly the description of the Pecos pueblo—mainly from Bandelier's The Gilded Man, Salpointe's Soldiers of the Cross, and Winship's translation of Castenada's account of the Coronado expedition,32 she establishes a series of contrasts as a memento mori. She offers first the contrast between the thriving Cicuyé of the sixteenth century and the dying Pecos pueblo of the nineteenth. She then places against the strong Indians of Cicuyé the yet stronger Spaniards of Coronado who in their hungry search for gold and new worlds were destroyed, as she sees it, by the dissipation of a noble dream into the lust of materialistic desire. By analogy, thus, in which she adroitly fuses historical time, she fulfils the perpetual conflict between spiritual serenity and greedy turbulence. In so doing she accommodates one of her favorite themes: that sophisticated civilizations are acquisitive, and that materialism is a betrayal of man's spiritual needs, leading to negation and destruction.33

Characterization is of primary importance in the Archbishop, for Miss Cather relied strongly upon her principals to communicate the theme of the pioneer quest within the superficially simple format of the legend. Once again recorded history provided her with sound, convenient models for her human portraits. Miss Cather went to sources only for the outlines of events and people. These outlines she then enriched with her own inventive imagination. From the works of Howlett and Lummis she derived the patterns of her major characters, Latour, Joseph, Martinez, and Chavez. Each of them she made representative of a pioneer type and yet as individualized as it is possible for a type to be. All are motivated by an intangible, spiritual seeking. Fathers Latour and Joseph undergo a metamorphosis from the functional, historical treatment of Howlett's biography, where Latour (Lamy) especially is an incompletely and nebulously drawn personality. In Miss Cather's hands they are contrasted gently, even lyrically, as symbolic of the complete flowering of the pioneer type. They have abandoned their earlier unsatisfactory environment and have brought only their yearning, their religion, and the best of their culture into the wilderness to prepare themselves for a newly purposeful life. Although Latour and Joseph are impelled by comparable spiritual motives, they are constituted differently. Father Latour, an aristocrat and philosopher, is strengthened by an introspective power of love for all individuals; in his rare moments of uncertainty, he is never torn by doubts about the sanctity of his mission but rather by fears of his own capacity for love. Father Joseph complements his friend by his practicality. Lacking his superior's philosophical penetration, he drives onward by bustling activity and never-questioning acceptance of his mission and capacities. For several reasons Father Latour remains a comparatively shadowy figure throughout the novel while Father Joseph becomes more and more realistic. Father Joseph is by his very nature dynamic and not essentially “intellectual,” as is Latour. Howlett, moreover, concentrates mainly on Joseph, and thus, it might reasonably be expected, gives Miss Cather a more tangible working model. Finally, Miss Cather deliberately idealized Latour as her representation of the aesthetically refined qualities of the pioneer search. As Father Joseph evaluates the life and work of the Archbishop, he reflects: “Perhaps it pleased Him to grace the beginning of a new era and a vast new diocese by a fine personality. And perhaps, after all, something would remain through the years to come; some ideal, or memory, or legend” (p. 255).

Set up against these two monumental figures are Father Martinez, drawn from Howlett, and Don Manuel Chavez, from Lummis. Both characters, historically and fictionally, wish passionately to safeguard their pioneer frontier against the inroads of people whom they regard as “foreigners,” as despoilers of the “wild land” and the old order. But both are made to represent the pioneer of warped design who falls short of complete realization because of the flaw which renders him incapable of love. And because both are trying to preserve the unpreservable, they must be destroyed, figuratively if not literally. As Miss Cather says of Father Martinez: “The American occupation meant the end of men like himself. He was a man of the old order … and his day was over” (p. 154).

Father Howlett's biography is so important to Miss Cather's creative scheme that a comparison between the two books makes impressive the large number of details, incidents, and psychological qualities which she borrowed. …

For the most part, Miss Cather admits that she follows her basic source faithfully—but not slavishly. On a few occasions, however, she uses Father Howlett's book merely as a jumping-off point; that is, on these occasions she takes merely the kernel of an idea suggested by Father Howlett and develops it into a fully detailed incident. For example, one of the most terrifying episodes of the novel—the character and death of Father Lucero—grew out of the following brief statement: “there was a Mexican priest, Mariano de Jesus Lucero, at Arroyo Hondo … whom Bishop Lamy was obliged to suspend for irregularities and schismatical tendencies, and who was a former pupil and great friend of Father Martinez. These two now joined their forces and continued their opposition to Bishop Lamy, until he was obliged … to pronounce upon them the sentence of excommunication.”40 Similarly, one of the most delightful interludes in the book—“The Bishop Chez Lui”—is based on but a single sentence in a letter of Father Machebeuf to his sister, May 26, 1841: “But Necessity, the mother of invention, has taught us a little of the science of the kitchen, and I am able to give the cook a few lessons.”41

But this kind of creative expansion is rare for Miss Cather, who usually reproduces situations more closely than in the above instances. Indeed, she will sometimes carry over in an incident not only the ideas, point for point, but much of the language as well.

Archbishop (pp. 202-03)

He smiled to remember a time long ago, when he was a young curate in Cendre, … how he had planned a season of special devotion to the Blessed Virgin for May, and how the old priest to whom he was assistant had blasted his hopes by cold disapproval. The old man had come through the Terror, had been trained in the austerity of those days of persecution of the clergy, and he was not untouched by Jansenism. Young Father Joseph bore his rebuke with meekness, and went sadly to his own chamber. There he took his rosary and spent the entire day in prayer. “Not according to my desires, but if it is for thy glory, grant me this boon, O Mary, my Hope.” In the evening of that same day the old pastor sent for him, and unsolicited granted the request he had so sternly denied in the morning. How joyfully Father Joseph had written all this to his sister Philomene, then a pupil with the nuns of the Visitation in their native Riom, begging her to make him a quantity of artificial flowers for his May altar. How richly she had responded!—and she rejoiced no less than he that his May devotions were so largely attended, especially by the young people of the parish, in whom a notable increase of piety was manifest.

Howlett (pp. 33-5)

At the approach of the month of May, Father Machebeuf wished to make preparations for May devotions. This was quite natural for him, but it was a new departure for the old pastor. It was a novelty! an innovation! The lingering consequences of Jansenism were yet visible, and new forms of devotion were not encouraged by the old pastors. Special devotions to the Blessed Virgin were of the suspected class. The aged priest may have partaken of this prejudice … but in any case, he was old, and it is difficult to move old men.

Not discouraged, however, the young curate went to his room, and, taking his rosary, he spent the rest of the day in prayer. He prayed, not that he might have his own way, but that whatever was for the glory of God might be done, and he felt confident that Mary would arrange all things for the best.

[The pastor consents to the fete.]

Immediately he wrote to his young sister, who was a pupil with the nuns of the Visitation in his native village of Riom, expressing his lively joy and requesting her to make up and send to him at once a supply of artificial flowers for his May altar. This she did with great pleasure, and she was delighted to learn and to record the fact that the May Devotions were numerously attended and resulted in a great increase of piety in the parish of Cendre.42

Most frequently Miss Cather borrows to preserve the basic situation of an incident and then elaborates upon it only enough to concretize it, to make it more credible. This is exactly what she has done in her depiction of Father Joseph at Rome. The matter-of-fact account in Father Howlett's book is now enlivened not only by Father Joseph's personality and humor, but by the inclusion of the procedure followed during an audience with the Pope. This last piece of information she obtained, as she herself admits in “On Death Comes for the Archbishop,” from conversations with Father Fitzgerald in Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Archbishop (pp. 230-31)

Joseph had stayed in Rome for three months, living on about forty cents a day and leaving nothing unseen. He several times asked Mazzucchi to secure him a private audience with the Pope. The secretary liked the missionary from Ohio; there was something abrupt and lively and naif about him, a kind of freshness he did not often find in the priests who flocked to Rome. So he arranged an interview at which only the Holy Father and Father Vaillant and Mazzucchi were present.

The missionary came in, attended by a chamberlain who carried two great black valises full of objects to be blessed—instead of one, as was customary. After his reception, Father Joseph began to pour out such a vivid account of his missions and brother missionaries, that both the Holy Father and the secretary forgot to take account of time, and the audience lasted three times as long as such interviews were supposed to last. Gregory XVI, that aristocratic and autocratic prelate, who stood so consistently on the wrong side in European politics, and was the enemy of Free Italy, had done more than any of his predecessors to propagate the Faith in remote parts of the world. And here was a missionary after his own heart. Father Vaillant asked for blessings for himself, his fellow priests, his missions, his Bishop. He opened his big valises like peddlars' packs, full of crosses, rosaries, prayerbooks, medals, breviaries, on which he begged more than the usual blessing. The astonished chamberlain had come and gone several times, and Mazzucchi at last reminded the Holy Father that he had other engagements. Father Vaillant caught up his valises himself, the chamberlain not being there at the moment, and thus laden, was bowing himself backward out of the presence, when the Pope rose from his chair and lifted his hand, not in benediction but in salutation, and called out to the departing missionary, as one man to another, “Coraggio, Americano!”43

Howlett (pp. 128-29)

The great event of his visit was his audience with His Holiness, Pope Gregory XVI, on November 17. The Holy Father was greatly interested in his account of missions, and gave him apostolic benediction for himself and his flock, and Father Machebeuf still further remembered his flock by asking the Pontiff to bless for them the supply of rosaries, crosses and medals with which he had provided himself for the purpose and occasion.

The interview made a lasting impression upon him, and the words of the Holy Father—“Courage, American!”—were never forgotten by Father Machebeuf, who often recalled them afterwards, and always with a strengthening effect.

On another occasion Miss Cather has fused two characterizations from her original source to make up a single complete portrait. Thus, the fully developed study of Padre Martinez which appears in the Archbishop is in reality based upon the combined sketches of Fathers Martinez and Gallegos in Howlett's book. The biographical details of Father Martinez's life which Miss Cather presents are historically accurate, but his career as libertine, carouser, and Don Juan was suggested rather by Howlett's description of Father Gallegos, another priest whom Archbishop Lamy was forced to excommunicate.

The Padre [Gallegos] was very popular with certain classes in the parish, and these were the rich, the politicians and business men, few of whom had any practical religion. With these he drank, gambled and danced, and was generally a good fellow. He was a man of more than ordinary talent, and on that account he received considerable respect and deference. His conduct, however, gave scandal to the good within the fold, and also to those without the fold, for it furnished them an occasion for reviling the church. (pp. 191-92)

To round out the details of Father Latour's portrait, Miss Cather drew from the writing of still another churchman, Father Salpointe, who had come to the archdiocese of Santa Fe only nine years after Father Lamy. Soldiers of the Cross was the source of valuable factual information, particularly for details of the declining years of the Archbishop: “After his resignation, July, 1885, the Most Rev. J. B. Lamy retired to a small country place he had purchased in 1853 in the vicinity of the Tesuque River. … Early after the purchase of the premises, the Archbishop had a modest house and a small chapel built on it, and when he felt the weight of years added to that of the administration of his vast diocese, it was there that he was wont to go at times, for some days of rest” (p. 275). Those familiar with the Archbishop will readily identify a parallel situation in the description of the country house where the aged Latour spent many hours in tranquil meditation. From Salpointe's book, too, Miss Cather derived the extremely moving description of Father Joseph's funeral and the devotion of Father Raverdy, himself mortally ill, as he rushed home from France “to make his report to Bishop Vaillant and die in the harness.” The scene in the novel reaches poignant culmination when the “dying man, supported by the cab-driver and two priests” makes his way through the mourning crowd and drops to his knees before Father Joseph's bier.44 And, finally, Miss Cather derived wholly from Soldiers of the Cross details about the Archbishop's death: his catching cold at his country house, his desire to return to Santa Fe, the nursing ministrations of the Sisters of Loretto, his request for the Holy Viaticum.45

For Chavez, the fourth of her important characterizations in the Archbishop, Miss Cather went to Lummis's essay, “A New Mexican Hero.” Her portrait of Chavez—his aristocratic forebears, his pride, his skill with the bow and arrow, his anti-Americanism, the murder of his brothers by the Navajos, his own near death at the hands of the Navajos when he was eighteen, his two-day march across the desert while he was wounded, his home in the San Mateo Mountains—all of these details are substantially grounded upon “A New Mexican Hero” and are further substantiated by Miss Cather's reading in Twitchell's history.46 But while she accepted factual details about Chavez, she nevertheless reinterpreted them; in her eyes Chavez was a pioneer with distorted principles. Her sympathies, unlike those of Lummis, were for the Indians, not Chavez; and in altering superficial details to accommodate her own attitude, she acted in thorough consistency with her artistic practice. Miss Cather measured the significance of reality less by its temporal accuracy than by the implied meaning that she derived from it.

Because her major pioneer characters were men of faith, she was obliged to provide for them a locale which combined the frontier and a profound religiosity of contrasting attitudes. Her serious reliance upon contrast for the development of both background and characterization is, indeed, a notable aspect of her technique. Against the sophisticated scholarly introspection of Father Latour, thus, and the practical religious activity of Father Joseph, she sets forth the muted simplicity of Mexican faith and the barbaric continuity of Indian ritual. Finally, as an historic and symbolic parallel to the efforts of the two French priests, she recounts the arduous toil of Father Junípero Serra, the priest whom she identifies so closely with the Western missionary spirit as to make of him a symbol of its heroism. All this information for her religious backdrop Miss Cather absorbed principally from her observation and interpretation of the area. But as always her reading proved an invaluable source of suggestions and partially developed ideas.

The primitive artistry of Mexican religious images early attracted Miss Cather's attention. She speculated in the Archbishop on the motivating force behind the creation of these images, and concluded that for these simple people “who cannot read—or think” the image was the “physical form of Love” (p. 220). Here, as in other aspects of her concern with the spiritual problem, she was drawn to instinctive goodness unalloyed by rational considerations. She sensed also that these images were expressions of an entire culture, individually created in the reflection of native poverty and struggle as well as simple devotion. Father Latour, who saw the wooden saints in the humblest Mexican homes, found them “much more to his taste than the factory-made plaster images in his mission churches in Ohio—more like the homely stone carvings on the front of the old parish churches in Auvergne” (p. 26). Although Miss Cather makes no obvious observations on Father Latour's mild censure of the mass-produced statuettes, her implication is sufficiently clear: they are to be equated symbolically with the disappearance of the frontier under the pressures of “machine-made materialism,” and they spell the attrition of individualized, emotional worship. In the New Mexico of Father Latour this enervating force was not yet at work. Later, however, in her own trips to the West Miss Cather was to see the beginnings of this same negation of idealism:

May I say here that within the last few years some of the newer priests down in that country have been taking away from those old churches their old homely images and decorations, which have a definite artistic and historic value, and replacing them by conventional factory-made church furnishings from New York? It is a great pity. All Catholics will be sorry about it, I think, when it is too late, when all these old paintings and images and carved doors that have so much feeling and individuality are gone—sold to some collector in New York or Chicago, where they mean nothing.47

She felt this trend toward appalling ugliness and uniformity reflected the loss of creative imagination which she deemed essential to the pioneer spirit.

In juxtaposition to the gentle and simple devotion of the Mexicans which she stresses (she devotes a whole chapter to the history of the Shrine of our Lady of Guadalupe48 but makes no more than a passing reference to the fanatic piety of the Penitentes), Miss Cather sets forth the age-old pagan rites of the Indians. She even magnifies their barbarism and antiquity by viewing them through the agency of the fastidious Father Latour. Thrown into physically close proximity to Indian ritual, he is repelled by its antediluvian nature. Thus, upon entering the Pecos ceremonial cave where he seeks shelter from a snow storm, “the Bishop … was struck by a reluctance, an extreme distaste for the place. The air in the place was glacial, penetrating to the very bones, and he detected at once a fetid odour, not very strong but very highly disagreeable” (p. 129). And although nothing of a remarkable nature happened at the time, years later the cave “flashed into his mind from time to time, and always with a shudder of repugnance quite unjustified by anything he had experienced there. It had been a hospitable shelter to him in his extremity. Yet afterward he remembered the storm itself, even his exhaustion, with a tingling sense of pleasure. But the cave, which had probably saved his life, he remembered with horror” (p. 135). From this concrete incident with its mere echoes of ancient ritualism, Willa Cather moves to more specific details of pagan worship. In their recording she has an opportunity to display her knowledge of Pecos religious legends, such as their year-round care of an undying fire, snake worship, and the hidden shrine in a cavern of the Pecos hills.49

Although Miss Cather treats these Indian rites and legends in evocative fashion, she is purposely vague about them; again and again she points out that her sources are mainly rumor and hearsay. Common talk probably brought to her attention the notion that “somewhere near Pecos is a sacred cave known only to the descendants of these Indians. … What this cave contains, or where it is located is a secret no white man knows.”50 Similarly she may have derived her information about the actual religious practices from common knowledge; but it is also possible that she learned of them from an old account by Lieutenant J. W. Abert, who reported:

The village of Pecos is famed for being the residence of a singular race of Indians, about whom many curious legends are told. In their temples they are said to keep an immense serpent. … Others say that they worshipped a perpetual fire that they believed to have been kindled by Montezuma, and that one of the race was yearly appointed to watch the fire. As the severity of their vigils always caused the death of the watchers, in time this tribe became extinct [Miss Cather alludes to this perhaps fanciful interpretation]. Again, I have been told that some six or eight of their people were left, and that they took the sacred fire and went to live with the Pueblos of Zuni.51

Always, whether she treats the religious faith of the Mexicans or the mysterious ceremonies of the Indians, Miss Cather succeeds in creating an atmosphere of religious continuity which can be stifled only temporarily but never destroyed. She creates, in short, a sense of spiritual timelessness rooted in the unrecorded past and extending toward an unfathomable future. This aura of pious continuity—pagan or Christian—is symbolized in part by the fourteenth-century Spanish bell which hung for over a hundred years in the Church of San Miguel at Santa Fe, and then lay for another hundred in a cellar only to be once more resurrected, this time by Father Joseph.52 This same aura is crystallized even more overtly in a single incident related in the Archbishop by Father Joseph:

Down near Tucson a Pima Indian convert once asked me to go off into the desert with him, as he had something to show me. He took me into a place so wild that a man less accustomed to those things might have mistrusted and feared for his life. We descended into a terrifying canyon of black rock, and there in the depths of a cave, he showed me a golden chalice, vestments and cruets, all the paraphernalia for celebrating Mass. His ancestors had hidden these sacred objects there when the mission was sacked by Apaches, he did not know how many generations ago. The secret had been handed down in his family, and I was the first priest who had ever come to restore to God his own. To me, that is the situation in a parable. The Faith, in that wild frontier, is like a buried treasure; they guard it, but they do not know how to use it to their soul's salvation. A word, a prayer, a service, is all that is needed to set free those souls in bondage. I confess that I am covetous of that mission. I desire to be the man who restores these lost children to God. It will be the greatest happiness of my life. (p. 207)

Although Miss Cather brought to the episode a sanctified interpretation that is her own, the physical occurrence is by no means her invention; the history of the Southwest contains numerous comparable allusions. The Catholic clergy in the uncertain days of their missionary toil frequently were compelled to bury their sacred treasure in anticipation of Indian raids, and subsequent discoveries such as Miss Cather recounts were fairly commonplace. She may have heard of a find like this during one of her many visits to New Mexico; and certainly she read of similar incidents, particularly in the work of Salpointe and in the diaries of Major James H. Carleton and Lieutenant Samuel D. Sturgis (1853).53

Miss Cather saves for the conclusion of the Archbishop the story of miracles experienced by Father Junípero, and these augurs of piety she employs as climactically as her legend-like construction of the novel will permit. From the Reverend Francis Palou's Life of Ven. Padre Junípero Serra, she selects three miracles which befell the missionary priest: the miraculous fording of the river, the “manna” in the desert, and the visitation of the Holy Family in the guise of poor Mexicans.54 But she develops only this last miracle—at once the most inspirational and the most dramatic of the three—into a full-blown incident. At its conclusion she meditates upon its significance: “There is always something charming in the idea of greatness returning to simplicity—the queen making hay among the country girls—but how much more endearing was the belief that They, after so many centuries of history and glory, should return to play Their first parts, in the persons of a humble Mexican family, the lowliest of the lowly, the poorest of the poor,—in a wilderness at the end of the world, where the angels could scarcely find Them” (p. 284). Through Willa Cather's presentation of the miracles her complex intention becomes most apparent. Here she concretizes the religious simplicity of her frontier locale. Here, also, she recreates Father Junípero as a figure heroically parallel to Father Latour, and in thus doing she reiterates her faith in the Archbishop not only as a remarkable individual but as the representative of a hardy, sanctified breed. And finally, she points to the ameliorations of these hardships which beset the religious missionary. This last goal she states positively by reminding her readers that “no man could know what triumphs of faith had happened there, where one white man [the early missionary] met torture and death alone among so many infidels, or what visions and revelations God may have granted to soften that brutal end” (p. 280).

For her deeply felt imaginative purposes, then, Willa Cather had made rich application of literary borrowing and personal experiences and observations. A surprising aspect of her use of source materials is that, despite her manipulation of data, she never distorts information or makes serious departures from historical authenticity. She alters facts only twice, and in each instance she anticipates the reader's knowledge and probable objections.55 When dealing with rumor or common supposition, she is in most cases careful to point that out. Yet it should be abundantly evident by now that her concern is not with facts as such but, rather, as they through their symbolic or metaphorical nature convey elevated concepts. Surely Coleridge's belief that “veracity does not consist in saying, but in the intention of communicating, truth,” would have been most acceptable as a statement of her own conviction. And the most satisfying technical aspect of her use of factual materials is her genius in molding and individualizing their diversity into an organic totality. This is her achievement of “similitude in dissimilitude.” Usually charitable in her evaluations of historical figures, she feels a tremendous and sympathetic oneness with them and their environment. Actually, it is her consistently fostered sympathy in union with discriminated historical details which has made the Archbishop the greatest of her novels. And for its final evaluation we may propose the same standards which she herself applied to the works of Sarah Orne Jewett:

It is a common fallacy that a writer, if he is talented enough, can achieve this poignant quality by improving on his subject matter, using his “imagination” upon it and twisting it to suit his purpose. The truth is that by such a process (which is not imaginative at all!) he can best produce only a brilliant sham, which … looks poor and shabby in a few years. If he achieves anything noble, anything enduring, it must be by giving himself absolutely to his material. And this gift of sympathy is his great gift; is the fine thing in him that alone can make his work fine.

The artist spends a lifetime in loving the things that haunt him, in having his mind “teased” by them, in trying to get these conceptions down on paper exactly as they are to him and not in conventional poses supposed to reveal their character. … And at the end of a lifetime he emerges with much that is more or less happy experimenting and comparatively little that is the very flower of himself and his genius.56


  1. Introduction to Alexander's Bridge (Boston and New York, 1922), p. viii.

  2. “On Death Comes for the Archbishop,” Willa Cather on Writing (New York, 1949), p. 9.

  3. This article is by no means intended as a definitive study of all of the experiences, acquaintances, and reading which went into the creation of the Archbishop. It is merely a sampling of the sources which helped to bring the novel into being.

  4. Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom, “Willa Cather's Novels of the Frontier: A Study in Thematic Symbolism,” American Literature, XXI, 71-93 (March, 1949).

  5. Harper's Magazine, CXVIII, 774-781 (April, 1909).

  6. Charles F. Lummis, “The Enchanted Mesa,” Mesa, Cañon and Pueblo (New York and London, 1925), pp. 213-29.

  7. Miss Cather was not to see Katzímo until 1926 (Edith Lewis, Willa Cather Living, New York, 1953, p. 146).

  8. Ibid., p. 80.

  9. All references to Death Comes for the Archbishop are to the edition published by Alfred A. Knopf (New York, 1927).

  10. Lewis, op. cit., pp. 80-1.

  11. “My First Novels (There Were Two),” Colophon, Part VI, 1931.

  12. Lewis, op. cit., p. 101.

  13. Ibid., p. 139.

  14. “The Best Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett,” Willa Cather on Writing, p. 48.

  15. Lewis, op. cit., p. 144.

  16. Ibid., p. 82. According to the Official Catholic Directory of 1912, the Reverend T. Connolly was the priest in charge of Winslow County, Arizona.

  17. “On Death Comes for the Archbishop,” p. 4. She was also indebted to Ewan Macpherson (Lewis, op. cit., pp. 147-48), an editor of the Catholic Encyclopedia, and Father Fitzgerald (“On Death Comes for the Archbishop,” p. 11) for further knowledge of Catholicism.

  18. Lewis, op. cit., p. 82.

  19. E.g., the incident in the Archbishop of Doña Isabella Olivares's contribution to the building fund of the Cathedral of Santa Fe. That there was such a contribution is today common knowledge in Santa Fe. According to Mrs. Olive B. Corwin, assistant librarian of the Museum of New Mexico, Olivares was a fictitious name, and in actuality the Olivares family was the Baca family, one of the most prominent in New Mexico.

  20. Luhan was the husband of Mabel Dodge, once hostess to the D. H. Lawrences in Taos. Miss Cather met the Lawrences while she too, in the summer of 1925, was a guest of the Luhans (Lewis, op. cit., pp. 142-43). See also Mabel Dodge Luhan, Lorenzo in Taos (New York, 1932).

  21. Lewis, op. cit., p. 146. The chapter “The Lonely Road to Mora” in the Archbishop is similarly based on a personal experience (ibid., pp. 101-02).

  22. Mesa, Cañon and Pueblo, pp. 264 ff.; Some Strange Corners of Our Country (New York, 1915), pp. 262 ff.; Ralph Emerson Twitchell, Leading Facts of New Mexican History (Cedar Rapids, 1912), I, 199-200.

  23. “Willa Cather's Masterpiece,” Commonweal, VI, 490 (Sept. 28, 1927). For an amusing interpretation of Miss Cather's literary research in Denver while working on the Archbishop, see Mildred R. Bennett, The World of Willa Cather (New York, 1951), pp. 222 ff. Cf. also Lewis, op. cit., p. 140.

  24. “On Death Comes for the Archbishop,” p. 8. “Through an unfortunate oversight, Miss Cather gave no acknowledgment of her debt to Father Howlett, and after Death Comes for the Archbishop was published in 1927, he wrote her a gentle reminder. At that time she wrote a now famous open letter to ‘The Commonweal,’ telling of how she came to write the book, and giving Father Howlett full credit. She also sent him an autographed copy of the novel, begging his pardon and asking his blessing. … Miss Cather sent two autographed copies of her book to the St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Father Machebeuf's diocese, with a letter acknowledging her debt to the earlier volume” (Bennett, op. cit., pp. 132-33).

  25. “The Novel Démeublé,” Willa Cather on Writing, p. 37.

  26. Twitchell, op. cit., II, 233; Benjamin M. Read, Illustrated History of New Mexico (Santa Fe, 1912), p. 446.

  27. W. J. Howlett, Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf, D.D. (Pueblo, Colorado, 1908), p. 227.

  28. (San Francisco, 1889), pp. 174 ff.

  29. No authoritative work on the religion and mythology of the Navajos states that the Canyon de Chelly was the home of the Navajo gods.

  30. Lewis, op. cit., p. 140.

  31. Cf. New Mexico's Own Chronicle, ed. Maurice Garland Fulton and Paul Horgan (Dallas, 1937), pp. 13-14.

  32. A. F. Bandelier, The Gilded Man (New York, 1893), p. 206; J. B. Salpointe, Soldiers of the Cross (Banning, California, 1898), p. 287; George Parker Winship, tr., “The Coronado Expedition, 1540-42,” U. S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Fourteenth Annual Report, 1891-92 (Washington, 1896), passim.

  33. That Miss Cather was long interested in Coronado and “his search for the seven golden cities” is evident from her insertion of an unrelated discussion of his activities in My Ántonia (Boston and New York, 1926), p. 277. Cf. also Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom, “Willa Cather's Novels of the Frontier: The Symbolic Function of ‘Machine-made Materialism,’” University of Toronto Quarterly, XX, 45-59 (Oct., 1950).

  34. Salpointe, op. cit., pp. 195-196, and James H. Defouri, Historical Sketch of the Catholic Church in New Mexico (San Francisco, 1887), p. 33.

  35. Defouri, op. cit., p. 33; Salpointe, op. cit., pp. 195-96.

  36. Defouri, op. cit., pp. 34-5; Salpointe, op. cit., p. 196.

  37. Salpointe, op. cit., p. 198.

  38. Defouri, op. cit., p. 125.

  39. Salpointe, op. cit., p. 231.

  40. Howlett, op. cit., p. 228; Archbishop, pp. 164-74.

  41. Howlett, op. cit., p. 95; Archbishop, pp. 35 ff.

  42. Cf. the incident of the white mules, the description of Father Joseph's begging expedition, and the departure of the two young priests for America. See above, p. 495.

  43. Cf. the description of the boyhood and early training of the two priests and the incident of “A Bell and a Miracle.” See above, pp. 494-95.

  44. Salpointe, op. cit., p. 233; Archbishop, pp. 291-92.

  45. Salpointe, op. cit., p. 275.

  46. “A New Mexican Hero,” A New Mexico David and Other Stories and Sketches of the Southwest (New York, 1891), pp. 190-217; Twitchell, op. cit., II, 383-384.

  47. “On Death Comes for the Archbishop,” p. 6.

  48. The account in the Archbishop, pp. 47-51, is based almost entirely on the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, 1910), VII, 43-4.

  49. Archbishop, pp. 123-24.

  50. Earle R. Forrest, Missions and Pueblos of the Old Southwest (Cleveland, 1929), p. 104, records this information as part of common hearsay.

  51. “Report of Lieut. J. W. Abert of His Examination of New Mexico, in the Years 1846-47,” Executive Documents … of the Senate of the United States (Washington, 1847), IV, 30. Abert himself was amazed at the interest in Pecos religious superstitions shown by “enlightened man” (pp. 39-40).

  52. Miss Cather borrowed the story of the bell directly from Howlett's book. Cf. above, p. 495.

  53. Salpointe, op. cit., p. 227; Major James H. Carleton and Lt. S. D. Sturgis, “Diary of an Excursion to the Ruins of Abo, Quarra, and Gran Quivera in New Mexico,” Smithsonian Institution, Annual Report (Washington, 1855), pp. 296-316.

  54. (San Francisco, 1884), pp. 12-3, 21-2.

  55. She has Father Joseph die before Father Latour, a fact not historically accurate, as she herself points out in “On Death Comes for the Archbishop,” p. 12. Moreover, she alters consciously the date of the abandonment of the Pecos pueblo. See Archbishop, p. 125.

  56. “The Best Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett,” pp. 50-1.

George Greene (essay date 1957)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5606

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, and the deserts of California and New Mexico in which the two priests … lived with such quiet and radiant perfection.” Alfred Kazin, from whom this is taken, further characterizes Miss Cather's “secession”: “Her characters,” he explains, “no longer had to submit to failure; they lived in a charming and almost antediluvian world of their own.”

It is my view, in contrast, that Death Comes for the Archbishop carries forward exploratory impulses notable as far back as O Pioneers! My conclusion is that it powerfully verifies the search for the moral self which energizes Miss Cather's finest achievements, its basic operative mode being one of discovery rather than recollection. It is a fitting precursor to Shadows on the Rock, which chronicles the local victories of an achieved order, however embattled. “The longer I stayed in the Southwest,” Willa Cather has said, “the more I felt that the story of the Catholic Church in that country was the most interesting of all its stories.” Formal elements in her book are anticipated by her response to native churches, some of them centuries old. “They were all fresh, individual, first-hand.” Local craftsmanship, roughhewn and unself-conscious, connotes individual effort rather than organizational skills. Frontier settings provide dramatic contrast to Archbishop Lamy, prototype of her hero. “In his pictures,” Miss Cather has explained, “one felt the same thing, something fearless and fine and very, very well-bred—something that spoke of race.” She then sketches what was in all probability her initial creative impulse: “What I felt curious about was the daily life of such a man in a crude frontier society.”

General outlines thus emerge: tribute to pioneer robustness and aesthetic sensibility, qualities which found partial expression in the modest loyalty, the unlettered courage of Alexandra Bergson and Ántonia Shimerda. By 1927, however, individual stamina does not suffice, and our story, spanning approximately thirty years, develops the strenuous process by which a frontier area is cultivated by two men of God.

“I had all my life wanted to do something in the style of legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment.” Thus Miss Cather explains her formal program. In the prologue, when the prelates discuss the new appointment, a French cardinal insists: “‘He must be a man to whom order is necessary—as dear as life.’” It is in this area, dissemination of order based upon religious values, that Bishop Latour transcends the impasse torturing Godfrey St. Peter. Early in his residence in Santa Fe, the young man consecrated Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico awakens to the sound of a bell. “Before the nine strokes were done,” he moves backward in time, “Rome faded, and behind it he sensed something Eastern, with palm trees—Jerusalem, perhaps, though he had never been there.” Later, choosing stone for his cathedral, Bishop Latour is vividly conscious of history. “‘When I look up at this rock,’” he says, “‘I can almost feel the Rhone behind me.’” And he returns in memory to the pale brown color of the Palace of the Popes at Avignon.

Associated with this sense of the past and of a living culture emerging from that past, one finds stories, most of them dealing with Fathers Latour and Vaillant, which convey the legendary imprint Willa Cather sought. Tensions in the lives of these missionaries, the dangers which they confront and overcome, reveal themselves with characteristic indirection. A typical instance occurs early. Bishop Latour returns to Santa Fe after traveling south for more documentation of his authority. Thirsty and hungry, he rests his eyes from the glaring sun and conical hills, which elbow one another in the stifling heat. His glance falls on one juniper different from the others. “It was not a thick-growing cone,

but a naked, twisted trunk, perhaps ten feet high, and at the top it parted into two lateral, flat-lying branches, with a little crest of green in the centre, just above the cleavage. Living vegetation could not present more faithfully the form of the Cross.

More than some critics have been willing to admit, this narrative takes into account modes of error and self-deceit, as in the case of Padre Gallegos, who, though he “was ten years older than the Bishop … would still dance the fandango five nights running. …” “The Legend of Fray Baltazar,” relating how an avaricious priest of the early 18th century is killed by Indians, finds a parallel in Padre Martinez, whose mouth “was the very assertion of violent, uncurbed passions and tyrannical self-will. …” He rejects unqualifiedly the ruling of the Church on celibacy. “‘You are among barbarous people, my Frenchman,’” Padre Martinez insists, “‘between two savage races. The dark things forbidden by your Church are a part of Indian religion. You cannot introduce French fashions here.’”

Yet this same man, with all his grossness and self-esteem, sings the Mass in a manner unsurpassed. “Nothing in the service was slighted, every phrase and gesture had its full value. At the moment of the Elevation the dark priest seemed to give his whole force, his swarthy body and all its blood, to that lifting up.” One never forgets his lecherous luminosity, just as one returns in memory to Padre Lucero, who joins his fellow priest to form a mutinous church. On his deathbed Padre Lucero confesses that he has stolen money left by his colleague for Masses.

Far from imposing any “soft” quality, any childish, monolithic world, this narrative of the mid-19th century conveys a varied series of characterizations. Rich Doña Isabella is tricked into revelation of her true age, while old Sada, a servant woman, suffers at the hands of bigoted employers. “Kneeling beside the much enduring bond-woman,” Bishop Latour verifies the holiness of simple things, “he experienced those holy mysteries as he had done in his young manhood.” In this place of harsh tasks and sullen mysteries, the study of Pascal co-exists with the unbridled sexuality of Padre Martinez, just as the brutality of Buck Scales recedes to proper level before the idealism of Kit Carson, in whom one felt “a quick and discriminating intelligence.”

Middle sections of the text are largely committed to this diversity of human exchange. Book VII, on the other hand, is entitled “The Great Diocese,” and here the resolution focuses more closely upon the two principals. “It was just this solitariness of love in which a priest's life could be like his Master's,” the Bishop encourages himself. “It was not a solitude of atrophy, of negation, but of perpetual flowering.” One recurs frequently to this note of discovery, of liberation beneath the permanent forces of nature. When Father Vaillant leaves to minister to new settlers in Colorado, we enter the final phase of the narrative, and comparisons make us conscious of the special hardships under which the two exiles have worked. The Bishop's final serenity is powerfully affirmed by his sensitivity to shape, color, sound, as when he acknowledges the spell of his cathedral. “Nothing sensational, simply honest building and good stone-cutting—good Midi Romanesque of the plainest. And even now, in winter, when the locust trees before the door were bare, how it was of the South, that church, how it sounded the note of the South!”

Phrasing here is symptomatic. The old man remembers his original intention of returning to France; then he fixes his attention on this new place, and rhythm communicates his conviction of ineffable presiding powers. “Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!”

Nothing better illustrates the author's concern for depth of characterization, for recognizable human beings reacting to one another, than her development of the two protagonists. Father Vaillant emerges most vividly in the middle chapters, which are dedicated largely to mundane chores. “Blanchet,” with his hair the color of “dry hay,” best handles average, tiresome details. This skinny, bowlegged human being possesses no refined tastes—in theology or art, that is to say: the stomach, rather, is his special province. “‘Are we to eat dried beans and roots for the rest of our lives?’” he protests. Indefatigable courage gladdens his weathered face, “the lips thick and succulent but never loose, never relaxed, always stiffened by effort or working with excitement.”

During their early days in New Mexico Joseph refers to his wish, never accomplished, of ending his career in monastic seclusion. “‘One day you will release me,’” he declares jokingly, “‘and I will return to some religious house in France and end my days in devotion to the Holy Mother.’” No one better appreciates the fierce energy concealed by Father Vaillant's near-sighted eyes than Bishop Latour. “There was certainly nothing in his outer case to suggest the fierceness and fortitude and fire of the man, and yet even the thick-blooded Mexican half-breeds knew his quality at once.”

Bishop Latour embodies a more subtle form of spirituality. At our first encounter three words display his characteristic note: “brave, sensitive, courteous.” It is just, one feels, to speak of this man as Willa Cather's most finely matured hero. One notes immediately his regard for viable formalities. “He had a kind of courtesy toward himself, toward his beasts, toward the juniper tree before which he knelt, and the God whom he was addressing.” Jean Marie Latour does not come easily by this selflessness. His bearing, even when alone in the desert, was “distinguished.” Yet this very aristocratic reserve, significantly, guarantees his position. The Bishop makes no effort to translate all his personal traditions. “There was no way in which he could transfer his own memories of European civilization into the Indian mind, and he was quite willing to believe that behind Jacinto there was a long tradition … which no language could translate to him.”

Refinement of spirit, communicating itself both to Indians and to outstanding whites like Kit Carson, derives its central impulse from an innate reserve. Miss Cather has been accused, as her hero accuses himself, of being un pédant. As the book nears its close, however, we learn that it was Jean, the pédant, who sustained his friend when the latter was faltering. “In a moment they were off, and before long Joseph had fallen asleep in his seat from sheer exhaustion. But he always said that if Jean Latour had not supported him in that hour of torment, he would have been a parish priest in the Puy-de-Dôme for the rest of his life.” And it is Jean who verifies the goal most indispensable to Willa Cather. “‘To fulfill the dreams of one's youth,’” he reminds Joseph, “‘that is the best that can happen to a man. No worldly success can take the place of that.’” We sense the yea of vigorous souls, beginning with Alexandra and continuing with men like old Captain Forrester.

“Character,” R. P. Blackmur has observed, “requires the sense of continuous action to show continuously.” This is what I have in mind when I speak of the dramatic effect of Death Comes for the Archbishop, notwithstanding the non-dramatic mode Miss Cather has selected. At the very start individual sentences project this urgency. “On his arrival at Santa Fe, this was what had happened,” and we move directly to the Bishop's forced march back into Old Mexico. In the course of this trek the most significant scenes focus on the hidden village of Agua Secreta. We advance into this isolated place, with its saint's statue in the costume of a ranchero, “velvet trousers richly embroidered and wide at the ankle, velvet jacket and silk shirt, and a high-crowned, broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero.”

One recalls Padre Herrera, nearly seventy, so timidly anxious to convery the apparition of the Virgin, whose mind “was still full of the sweetness of his late experience.” In more humble vein Padre Jesus de Baca keeps birds with one wing clipped because “parrot feathers were much prized by his Indians as ornaments for their ceremonial robes. …” This old man, “poor, and too soft-hearted to press the pueblo people for pesos,” reports an Indian tribe atop their solitary plateau. “‘At Acoma,’” he assures his Bishop, “‘you can see something very holy. They have there a portrait of Saint Joseph, sent to them by one of the Kings of Spain, long ago. …’”

This reference expands when, pages later, we begin the account of Fray Baltazar, who was “of a tyrannical and overbearing disposition and bore a hard hand on the natives.” Not a carnal man, Baltazar spares no extravagance to make his existence more comfortable. “The difficulty of obtaining an interesting and varied diet on a naked rock seemed only to whet his appetite. …” During a party, in a fit of temper, Baltazar kills a servant. The guests escape, the remaining servant runs away, and that night the Indians bind their tormentor, carrying him to the edge of the vast rock. “The four executioners took him up again from the brink where they had laid him, and, after a few feints, dropped him in midair.” Thus two stories, separated by a century in time, work together to dramatize the good and evil, the childish faith and savage retaliation, observable in an apparently limited locale. The contrast between the ingenuous benignity of Jesus de Baca and the fatal gluttony of Fray Baltazar owes a major debt to their intensified, beautifully foreshortened presentation.

Bishop Latour at length gains access to levels free from time. “He was soon to have done with calendared time,” he reminds himself, “and it had already ceased to count for him.” One then confronts what may well be the most decisive lines of the text: “He sat in the middle of his own consciousness; none of his former states of mind were lost or outgrown. They were all within reach of his hand, and all comprehensible.” We begin to recognize the value of the heterogeneous experiences which enter into this story. They contribute, however obliquely, to the conquest of self, the aspiration to higher levels of consciousness, which colors the writing.

If we agree that this book studies the development of the esprit fort of Christian humanism under adverse conditions, then we see how, in this case, style is dexterous in a most satisfying way. Early in the prologue one is made conscious of the gap between frontier exigencies and cloistered routine. The missionary stands apart from the European prelates; he is “an Odysseus of the Church,” bound to look “much older than any of them, old and rough. …” We sense the breadth of his diocese within the “icy arms” of the Great Lakes, his “long lonely horseback rides among his missions. …” In this Old World milieu, nature is associated with urban prestige, suggesting formal display, letter rather than spirit. Rome itself, the eternal city, falls into this category: “… the low profile of the city barely fretted the skyline—indistinct except for the dome of Saint Peter's, bluish-grey like the flattened top of a great balloon, just a flash of copper light on its soft metallic surface.”

Nothing is more persuasive than Miss Cather's treatment of backgrounds against which her characters live and move—backgrounds which, in lesser hands, might have provided fatal opportunity for the “voluptuous unconcern” of which Wordsworth complained. The best manner in which to define such elements, of course, is to state simply that they establish Miss Cather's mature objectivity, her ability, that is, to lose herself in the requirements of theme. At the outset, the dreary regularity of landscape slackens the pace, no effort being made to heighten interest, no intimation given of events to come. “As far as he could see, on every side, the landscape was heaped up into monotonous red sand-hills, not much larger than haycocks, and very much the shape of haycocks.” The repetition, weary, depleted, of haycocks implies the physical and mental fatigue of lonely journeys. Similar command is visible later, when Miss Cather wishes to expose the emotional bond between her hero and his surroundings. Gazing at the rock of Acoma, Bishop Latour takes in all its oppressive vastness, and we recognize a movement incompatible with the characteristic upward surge of men like himself and Father Vaillant.

This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape.

A moment later the rock of Acoma is made subject to a more personalized influence. “Christ Himself had used that comparison for the disciple to whom He gave the keys of His Church. And the Hebrews of the Old Testament, always being carried captive into foreign lands—their rock was an idea of God, the only thing their conquerors could not take from them.” But we retreat from such intimations to the perdurable cycle of sand and dust and lonely watchfulness. For the most part Miss Cather relies upon visual details which lend themselves to ready assimilation. “The sandy soil of the plain had a light sprinkling of junipers, and was splotched with masses of blooming rabbit-bush—that olive-coloured plant that grows in high waves like a tossing sea, at this season covered with a thatch of bloom, yellow as gorse, or orange like marigolds.” Yet she shows herself profitably fascinated by revelations in the midst of wonted things: the peach orchard and grape cuttings of Fray Baltazar, the bean salad, with its touch of onion and salt pork, with which Father Joseph crowns his meal, the glistening stone of the Bishop's cathedral.

There is no need to insist upon incalculable possibilities—these things are fundamental to the Bishop's reading of human experience. Rather the necessity arises to provide adequate foundation for this world of miracles, which makes a man give up European retirement for a place which “sounded the note of the South!”

A welcome visitor to the dying Archbishop is the Navajo chief, Eusabio: “… one of the strong people of the old deep days of life did appear, not in memory but in the flesh, in the shallow light of the present.” Only by relinquishing oneself, freely, to time-encircled cycles does one emerge, as Bishop Latour succeeds in doing, at the summit of awareness. There is a passage in Meister Eckhart which sheds light on thematic elements here. In a sermon the Dominican refutes the notion of God as found only under special conditions. A man may go into a field and pray, or he may turn into a nearby church; what Eckhart warns against is equating formula with penetration: “… if he is more aware of Him because he is in a quiet place, that is his own deficiency and not due to God, Who is alike present in all things and places and willing to give Himself everywhere so far as lies in Him. He knows God rightly who knows Him everywhere.”

Willa Cather had been involved before with this problem of spiritual intelligence and intact sensibility: in the solitary homeliness of Alexandra Bergson, in the pliant enthusiasms of Antonia, in the torturous escape of Claude Wheeler, in the youthful miscues of Niel Herbert, in the psychic discordance of Professor St. Peter. But now, clearly, we have attained to something higher. It is wise to examine the text itself on this score. The rock is “the utmost expression of human need; even mere feeling yearned for it; it was the highest comparison of loyalty in love and friendship.” But for those trapped on the mesa of Acoma, isolation meant destruction. “He felt as if he were celebrating Mass at the bottom of the sea,” the Bishop recoils before these pathetic strangers, “for antediluvian creatures; for types of life so old, so hardened, so shut within their shells, that the sacrifice of Calvary could hardly reach back so far.” Considering the fate of another vanishing tribe, the churchman unqualifiedly rejects any program based upon ritualistic deification. “Pecos had more than its share of dark legends—perhaps that was because it had been too tempting to white men, and had had more than its share of history.” (Italics added) This is the fate of traditions atrophied by carelessness or excess, by separation from the basic humanity which must purify lasting experience. Father Joseph pleads for a difficult assignment. “‘Any one of our good French priests from Montferrand can serve you here. It is work that can be done by intelligence. But down there it is work for the heart, for a particular sympathy. …’”

Throughout, Miss Cather has been interested not in physical details themselves, but in details as signposts to moral response: the gentle manner of Jean Marie, the prize mules of Father Joseph, the tangled ball of woman's hair in the bedroom of Padre Martinez' house, the agonized face of Padre Lucero in candlelight, the tacit eloquence of Kit Carson. As the churchman draws near his final journey, the passage of time fades, together with other dreary concomitants of earthly endeavor. “The mistakes of his life seemed unimportant, accidents that had occurred en route, like the shipwreck in Galveston Harbour, or the runaway in which he was hurt when he was first on his way to New Mexico. …”

It ceases to be crucial that there was no longer “any perspective in his memories,” for the Bishop has earned the sense of timelessness which is a handmaiden of spirit. In this vividly moral world even minor details become potentially emblematic. It is writing (here too one locates a valuable guide to method) in which the whole is more important than independent segments. Yet one feels it erroneous to conceive of this book as allegory. Miss Cather would concur wholeheartedly with the following view from Santayana. “It is those of us who are too feeble to conceive and master the real world, or too cowardly to face it, that run away to those cheap fictions that alone seem to us fine enough for poetry or for religion.”

I have said enough to indicate how Death Comes for the Archbishop pursues Willa Cather's major theme: the quest for personal equilibrium, an equilibrium with social and artistic ramifications, but one which was, for her, primarily an issue of moral awareness. In Bishop Latour, her most thoroughly realized protagonist, we observe the subtlety with which this moral awareness, in a human being of intelligence and sensitivity, aligns itself with religious discipline. It should be obvious that emphasis is never given to specific details of “dogma.” “One friendly reviewer,” Miss Cather remarked, “says that to write the book I soaked myself in Catholic lore; perhaps it would have been better if I had. But too much information often makes one pompous, and it's rather deadening.”

In contemporary religious literature, T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene, François Mauriac, among others, have established the prevailing view of our era, a period characterized by secularism, materialism, individualism, superficial Christianity. Their primary goal depends largely upon variations of that honored prayer beginning: “O Lord, I am nothing, I have nothing, I can do nothing but sin, being a child of wrath by nature. …” Everywhere one hears cries of emptiness and mediocrity. Both our poets and fictionists echo the opinion voiced by Romano Guardini when he warns that we ought not yet to call ourselves Christians, but only those who are trying to become Christian.

Granting that these chroniclers are correct in terms of present actualities, it is necessary to recall that Willa Cather is not involved with the tactical defense of any specific area of belief, no more than with realistic exploration of religious mores. Her impulse emphasizes those pervasive attributes of courage and generosity independent of time which express themselves in a variety of contexts, in an Indian pueblo full as well as at the Vatican. Jean Marie Latour is not intended to proffer qualities intrinsically superior to earlier exemplars of pioneer heroism; his native powers, on the other hand, find more complete, formalized expression through the conventions, one feels tempted to write, of his vocation. Miss Cather resolutely avoids larger issues of church discipline, the formalities of doctrine or modes of action within the hierarchy, for example.

Attention continually fixes itself on her characters as individuals. Yet it is not without significance that her hero fulfills himself in a religious vocation. “‘I shall die of having lived,’” insists the old Bishop, and we review the heartache and physical separation which have purified his ideal. Watching his friend in the coffin, “scarcely larger than a monkey,” he forces himself to imagine his companion of the past. He sees Joseph, yes, “but always as he was when they first came to New Mexico.” “It was not sentiment,” we are cautioned; “that was the picture of Father Joseph his memory produced for him, and it did not produce any other.” On his bed of death, the old man returns to earlier experiences, to that moment when his impulse to help others exercised itself most fatefully. Those nearby think he wishes to ask for something. “But in reality the Bishop was not there at all,” we understand;

he was standing in a tip-tilted green field among his native mountains, and he was trying to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eyes by the desire to go and the necessity to stay. He was trying to forge a new Will in that devout and exhausted priest; and the time was short, for the diligence for Paris was already rumbling down the mountain gorge.

A new will—our destination, all along—rises to full stature with the noise of the Paris coach; this capacity, shared by such various human beings as Bishop Latour, Kit Carson and old Eusabio, to forge something of permanence out of the clay of their mortal selves. It is precisely this power which makes it possible for the Bishop, not to vanquish, but to control distress and loneliness: “… when he entered his study, he seemed to come back to reality, to the sense of a Presence awaiting him. The curtain of the arched doorway had scarcely fallen behind him when that feeling of personal loneliness was gone, and a sense of loss was replaced by a sense of restoration.” Adequately schooled, this will makes possible exile from things ordinarily necessary for men of sensibility. “Beautiful surroundings, the society of learned men, the charm of noble women, the graces of art, could not make up to him for the loss of those light-hearted mornings of the desert, for that wind that made one a boy again.”

Expatriation has grown into one of the most confused literary questions of our era, especially when the investigator makes no allowance for legitimate distinctions. Most readers, when they approach this issue, form in their minds the notion of a dependency ascribed to certain of our writers who hanker after institutions of the Old World. Henry James's desire to “re-ascend the stream of time” is one expression of the voluntary expatriate. Another attitude, exemplified by men like Harry Crosby and the Black Sun Press, suggests the task of the expatriate as one of conscious mockery of the relinquished fatherland. One revives, perhaps too readily, the anti-American views of young people who went to Europe to assist at the Revolution of the Word announced by magazines like transition.

There is another side to this matter, one both deeply American and intimately associated with the lot of the creative artist in our age. I refer to psychological expatriation, the malaise one notes in Hawthorne as well as in artists more commonly assigned to the cult of “Europe,” Henry James and T. S. Eliot. In such cases it is not so much a problem of physical location as one of spiritual dissatisfaction. Indeed, the major stumbling block for modern artists, irrespective of country or personal situation, has been to assert values in the face of the separation in the world around them of the centers of cultural power from the centers of political and economic power. Hawthorne remained at home for the most part, painfully exploring for material with which to clothe his creative urges, whereas Henry James and Mr. Eliot used this quest to dramatize the major theme of their careers. We need not remind ourselves that this problem of psychological (or, perhaps better, spiritual) expatriation remains chronic in twentieth century letters. James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, André Gide, each in a way adjusted to individual response, have all of them reacted to what will probably be recalled as the major heresy of the late nineteenth century: the credo which held that art can be divorced from the power and resources of society without danger to both.

It would be ridiculous to pretend that Willa Cather was untouched by this unsettling tendency. What I am trying to suggest is that, making allowance for varying modes of perceiving reality, she devoted herself to what she considered the best line of attack against a debilitating divorce. What has confused issues has been the wholesale readiness to accuse her, often with minimum reference to text, of flagrantly avoiding the crises of human life.

Willa Cather sought to depict the good life, a life characterized by intellectual awareness, imaginative sympathy, moral discipline—qualities in her pioneers of the land as well as of the soul. Descartes, that most influential of moderns, has taught us that the essence of the soul is consciousness. Paradoxically, Willa Cather has best stated her program through the rendering of exactly this quality. “He sat in the middle of his own consciousness. …” Those who reject this as a religious novel in the parochial, inflexible sense are wide of the mark. What is amply present, as it must everywhere be present in mature imaginative prose, is a revelation of the complexities of experience as they operate in situations geographically distant, perhaps, but humanly as intimate as one's next breath.

This is the lesson of Death Comes for the Archbishop, if one may insert a currently devaluated term. It salutes the preciousness of everyday existence, the craving of human beings to form logical patterns, provided that one possesses some guiding principle, some valid norm. It suggests the breadth of the real world, the world of inevitable partings, of failures and misunderstandings. It reflects a world where everything has its due place; where nothing is observed in isolation, but rather as an integral part of a steadfast complex—one not facilely allegorical but endowed with the natural symbolism available to a theocentric world.

We speak, fairly but loosely, of Jean Marie Latour's opportunities for dedication, and some of his admirers would feel that parallel choices no longer exist. Yet an equally plausible and not more strenuous corollary of his life supervenes upon its defense of a minority view of humility, one which grasps it as a power of eliciting reverence for beauty, here and now, full well as in the New Mexico of a century ago. Miss Cather repeatedly insists (and is not this her ultimate claim upon our loyalty?) that such reverence need never descend to standardized enthusiasms, genteel avoidance of fact. She makes generous provision for individual discrimination, counterbalancing the introspective Bishop himself with the brusque and weathered Father Joseph. What she recommends is not vacuous yea-saying, but reasoned sympathy and intelligent tolerance. Most valuable of all, Jean Marie Latour expresses the truth that, no matter how distinct one's mode of guiding response, surrender through discipline does not cheapen the prestige of individuality, but builds, in time, a more genuine plentitude of consciousness itself.

On his election to the French Academy Louis Pasteur addressed his new colleagues. “Happy is the man,” he reminded them, “who bears within him a divinity, an ideal of beauty and obeys it, an ideal of art, an ideal of science, an ideal of country, an ideal of the virtues of the Gospel.” The pervasive ideality reiterated in these words lives at the heart of the Bishop's journey: an ideality channeled and controlled by means of the superb distribution of Willa Cather's narrative, with its freely acknowledged debt to history as well as imagination.

Paul Horgan (essay date 1961)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8345

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, which he could reach by going on foot or mounted on a burro or a horse. He travelled tens of thousands of miles in order to find his people and know their country. Finding and knowing these, he loved them, whether in a remote pueblo, a forgotten river town, or a mining camp. … His thoughts and deeds were woven in and out of the life of the river frontier like fine threads among coarse. He stood as a man of mind and spirit in a society of physical, often brutal, preoccupations. He represented knowledge and charity where all too often prevailed ignorance and self-interest … The Archbishop by his works seemed to anticipate the precept of a later teacher of his faith who said, “All our raw material of sanctity is in the now, just as it is.”

So with the raw materials that he found he created the image of a life that had its design in the all-encompassing terms of his Christianity. His love of enlightenment came to show in the form of schools. He founded conventual academies in several cities all the way from Santa Fe to El Paso. He established a college in Santa Fe and led the citizens' support for New Mexico's first system of public education. His love of charity created the first hospital and orphanage in the Southwest, to which he gave up his own house. Where he had come to find nine poor and indifferent priests, in a few years he had over forty who strove to match his exquisite example of probity and dedication. He built eighty-five new churches, repaired the old ones and ended with almost a hundred and fifty altogether, including the cathedral of Santa Fe which he raised in the likeness of the romanesque temples of his native Auvergne. His good, clear sense of the world led him to do all he could to bring the railroad to Santa Fe and to foster the establishment of industry. He encouraged the slowly learning population to answer the call of new opportunities of work under new forms of commerce and to be provident with their honest gains. …

Not the least of his personal contributions to his people was his plain, tall presence among them. When he would walk about the plaza of Santa Fe, or ride into an earthen town on a burro, or step off an afternoon train at Albuquerque, or an early morning train at Las Cruces, he seemed to lift up every heart by his encompassing smile, that so wholly changed his gaunt face and deeply shadowed eyes. He was spare and weathered like any other plainsman, the worst of whose endurances and dangers he had learned for himself. There was no other way in which he could have come to grips with the great duty of his life, and the land that embraced it.

In 1875 when he was created archbishop the whole territory [of New Mexico] celebrated the honor with him—the plain citizenry, the government, the army, men of business and industry, the students in his colleges, and the Indians in their pueblos. Upon his death in 1888 he was mourned both as a humble missionary priest and as a creative citizen who by his double example gave to the severe land that he loved its first secure sense of the values that could not fail no matter how complex the world of the future might become.1

I first encountered him in the atmosphere—the special tone of Santa Fe. As a boy I moved from New York State to New Mexico with my father and mother and my brother and sister. We settled at Albuquerque, and soon formed the habit of spending the summers in the cooler, higher mountain capital. Though all this began about 1915, Santa Fe still seemed to me more like a place in the nineteenth century. There was a vast old scroll saw wooden hotel, and the streets away from the plaza were unpaved, and had no lights, even of gas, and citizens walked about like animated images out of stiff group photographs in faded sepia. The famous revival of “pueblo” or “Santa Fe” style of architecture was just beginning to make its effect against the prevailing red brick and gray wood of the territorial period, and what really seemed to me the true style of the city was something quite different. I did not really know what it was, but I saw it in the tall Mansard roof of St. Michael's College, and the Loretto Convent with its little Gothic chapel, and the long porches and whispering halls of St. Vincent's Hospital, and above all in the Cathedral of St. Francis. It was a French nineteenth-century air, and it seemed to me the most characterizing element of Santa Fe. These were the most prominent buildings, and in my youthful impression, they stood forth more importantly than the hillsides and lanes where small adobe houses sheltered most of the population—such houses as were called warrens for prairie dogs by early American travellers from the prairies, and as would in the twentieth century provide a whole new aesthetic in architecture for later settlers with developed sensibilities.

Even though our family habit of faith brought me regularly to the buildings I have mentioned, which must help me to explain why they impressed me to the exclusion of other claims upon my interest, I still did not know anything of the man, even his name, in whose image they stood.

But knowledge of him came to me from a family who possessed his memory. Among the new friends of my parents in Albuquerque were descendants of a pioneer Jewish family whose first members had come to Santa Fe in the prairie commerce. They were intelligent and hard-working, and worldly success came to them. They built a fine house on Palace Avenue in Santa Fe, and by their cultivation, grace, and energy, they contributed much to the isolated life of the old mountain capital. They knew everyone. One of their good friends was the Archbishop of Santa Fe, and I first heard his name from the daughter of the pioneer merchant. With her husband, a prominent wholesaler in Albuquerque, she would bring their family to the old Palace Avenue house at Santa Fe to escape the hot summers of Albuquerque. They used to invite me to visit them. I did so, to my immediate profit, for their household was gemütlich and even to my eyes comfort; and also to my later advantage, for the house became the setting of one of my novels, and the tradition of the archbishop was first given into my awareness there.

I cannot now recall any of the anecdotes which my charming and animated little hostess used to tell of Archbishop Lamy. She had seen him in her girlhood. It was taken for granted that he was often a guest in her father's house. He was the most famous man of Santa Fe, and to know him was cause for pride. The power and the charm of his memory came to me through the recollection of the lady who evoked him. Abrupt, impatient, and merciful in the face of my ignorance, she gave him to me. Who built the college? Archbishop Lamy. The convent and its chapel? The archbishop. The hospital? He. The cathedral? Who else? Loved trees and gardens so much that he gave away cuttings and seeds and saplings, and even on occasion went to plant young trees with his own hands for particular friends? Himself. Used to stop and talk to people every day walking in the plaza? Made many trips across the plains in wagons and even once had to fight Indians at a river crossing? Left when he died a feeling of deep sorrow not only among the people of his Church but in everyone else, too—those who knew what he had done for such a vast land, those in whose doorways he used to appear as a friend. She had seen him. I had not. Yet so I came to feel his quality and his effect, and ever afterward, when I went to the cathedral at Santa Fe, or walked along the long wall of the Bishop's Garden, or heard the angelus clapping its rings of sound over the city, he was somewhere behind my thought, my eye, my ear; and one day he would move me to vest him, however poorly, in my word.

But in this preoccupation I was anticipated by others. Without knowing it at the time, I one day intruded inadvertently upon the literary tradition of Archbishop Lamy. It was during the summer several years after my first view of Santa Fe. La Fonda, the modern hotel on the site of the first inn at the end of the Santa Fe Trail, has a number of balconies and porches which catch shadow and seclusion in the manner of the puelbo style with its little setbacks and terraces. One morning quite idly I went through a heavy panelled door leading to one such porch and knew at once that I must go away.

In the deepest corner of the porch were two steamer chairs, and upon them reclined two ladies whose concentration I disturbed. They were busy with papers and pencils. I have an impression of many accessories—notebooks, opened volumes, steamer rugs against the vagrant breezes which feel cool to someone out of the sun in Santa Fe, perhaps a thermos jar containing hot bouillon, possibly a fly whisk, and what else? If I invent it, it is because I have forgotten, and if I have forgotten it is because the nearer of the two ladies turned upon me a light blue regard of such annoyance and distaste at my intrusion that I was gone too quickly to take more than a sweeping impression of where I had been. But I was there long enough to recognize that it was Miss Willa Cather whom I had interrupted at work with her secretary, and I was already so devoted to her work that my chagrin rose equal to my respect. Decades later, and myself the victim of countless interruptions of my own working situations, I know acutely what it may have cost Miss Cather to recover through deep breaths in the mind that wonderful, removed, beautifully lost sense of utmost communion with one's subject which every artist must develop for himself every time he works, and which I had shattered for her.

What was she working on that morning? I did not know, and I cannot now say, but a year later her novel about Juan Bautista Lamy was published. She called it Death Comes for the Archbishop.2 When I saw her that day—it was the only time I ever saw her and I always regretted that I never had the opportunity to tell her how sorry I was for my transgression—she was working only a hundred yards from his cathedral, whose humble beauties she was the first to recognize. I remember the eagerness and excitement with which I awaited my first edition copy of her Lamy novel in the following year, 1927.

Miss Cather's book was the second in which the archbishop played a leading role. The first, a factual work entitled The Life of the Right Reverend Joseph A. Machebeuf, D.D.,3 reproduced letters by this first Bishop of Denver, and in many of these Archbishop Lamy figured large. The two men had come from France to America as young missioners together, and their lives followed ever after a closely knit course. In his letters home to France, and particularly to his sister, a nun in the convent of the Visitation at Riom, Monsignor Machebeuf spoke often of his friend, Father, and later Bishop, and yet later Archbishop Lamy.

Out of these references rose the portrait of a man. How is it that some men and women above others always in even the slightest contact at even great distance give to us an immediate sign of their presence and their meaning upon this earth? Lamy was such a one. There was nothing in the least spectacular about him, and yet his simplest gesture opens him to us, and us to ourselves. So it was with the Machebeuf letters. Lamy lived in them at second hand, at one remove, as it were, yet with sufficient vitality and effect to command the interest and even the love of later readers.

For, as she tells us in an essay about how she came to write her Lamy novel,4 Miss Cather found her major and almost her entire inspiration for that attractive novel in the book which Father William J. Howlett of Denver put together out of the Machebeuf letters. In this sense, Father Howlett was the first Lamy scholar, and to him all other searchers after the archbishop owe all respect and gratitude.

I saw my first copy of his book during my tenure as librarian of a school in New Mexico. It was bound in now-faded purple cloth which was meant, I suppose, to suggest the royal color of the episcopate. The book was, of course, a rarity. It had come into the collection over which I presided through the gift of a patron. I was never one of those librarians who say that they have no time to read. I read many and certainly skimmed all of the books which entered our accessions. I read Father Howlett on Machebeuf and rediscovered Lamy. I was already the author of ten or twelve books, and everything, all day long, seemed to me, as it still does, the stuff of which books must surely be made. Lamy, secure in fiction through the gentle intuitions of Miss Cather, presented me with immediate and wonderfully vague and strongly potential notions for a work about him in another form than the novel. I made tentative notes. I sketched outlines and designs, in search of the perfect vessel of form in which to pour the flow of his life. I shall not here discuss what these were—some of these notes still contain life, and the power to work alive in me every time I look at them the impulse to develop them further. They must, therefore, abide in silence until I am ready and able to use them. Any writer will know how priceless such notes are, for in contrast to such, many others, once set down with excitement and love, fade with time into inanity, and might as well be thrown away for all the good they are.

With other books taking form, I still kept Archbishop Lamy in the forefront of my thought and feeling, and when I went to Santa Fe one time in the late 1930's, I paid a call upon his long later successor, the Most Reverend Rudolf A. Gerken. Our conversation soon came around to Lamy, and His Excellency asked me if I would like to see the room in which Lamy died. It was a beautiful chance to feel the immediate atmosphere of my subject—observe how possessive one becomes in literary terms—and I went with Dr. Gerken to a large, square, lofty room at the rear of the episcopal residence on Cathedral Place. It contained a tall walnut bookcase with glass doors which was filled with books. Were these Lamy's books? Nobody knew. I looked upward. Where wall and ceiling met was a molding in pressed plaster consisting of small angelic heads—cherubim. They seemed to smile forth a silent anthem. Some movement of the senses gave me a pang for the past, and a resolution for the present. I felt the actuality of Archbishop Lamy in his old room where, on a narrow bed in the corner, he died, in pain, and at peace, on a snowy morning of 1888.

The present Archbishop of Santa Fe, the Most Reverend Edwin Vincent Byrne, whom I met several years later, after World War II, also suffered my interest in Juan Bautista Lamy. But he did more. More than anyone else, he fostered it, and presently, with his strong and persuasive encouragement, my abiding but formless hope of one day preparing a work about Lamy gathered new energy, and I soon knew what I wanted to attempt.

Archbishop Byrne has a very keen sense of history and a most devoted regard for the place in history of the Metropolitan See of Santa Fe. When I petitioned him for access to whatever archival materials might be held at Santa Fe concerning Lamy, he took me to the vaults of his chancery and indicated the folios which had just been catalogued by my old friend and colleague, Fray Angelico Chavez, O.F.M. Whatever was there he would open to me. Archbishop Byrne searchingly tested my seriousness and my devotion in the matter. A man of extraordinary spirituality, he sobered me with the intensity and the rectitude of his desire that nothing but the best and most devoted effort was to be brought to bear on the project of a biography of his beloved predecessor. He gave me a sense almost of vocation in how I must approach the task.

Once given, the effect of a solemn blessing survived, without in any way excluding the most adventurous and worldly aspects of how research may be managed. Archbishop Byrne was profuse with suggestions and advice on where to look elsewhere for material, and in more than one interview he shored up my resolutions with expressions of confidence and gratification in my undertaking. By taking it seriously long before anything like a body of material was gathered, he gave the project reality for me, and soon I was able to propose it to my publishers. These gentlemen responded immediately with a contract. All, they indicated, that I had to do was to respond, in turn, with a completed manuscript. The project was launched.

It would have to mature slowly toward the point of completion in finished text. It has been my experience with historical materials that they cannot be arbitrarily brought into use. If they are to belong beautifully to an appropriate form of statement, then they must create that form rather than have that form imposed upon them. In dealing with history I have always felt that the historian should try, however far he may fail, to create a work of art in his book. I am reminded of a remark of the late Bernard Berenson who while discussing the view that history is a science did not agree. “It is,” he said, “an art which must not neglect the known facts.”

I have said on an earlier occasion5 not unrelated to my own effort as an historian that it always seems to me that historical materials which I intend to use must sink deep into my subconscious possession, and then in a due course which cannot be hurried I must call them to mind almost as if I were inventing them, but without in the smallest particular departing from the perfect truth so far as I could see it. In this process, then, the literary form of my work would find its most natural beauty, and so sustain my interest in the task of shaping a narrative in the twin images of truth and of art.

Hoping to advance this process in search of the archbishop, I called on the eminent Jesuit man of letters, Father Philip Caraman, during a visit to England in 1955. His American confrère, Father Harold C. Gardiner, to whom I owe so much as a writer in the United States, had sent me to him. I discussed with Father Caraman my hope of going to Rome to find documents in the collection of the Holy See which would bear upon Lamy's career. Soon enough we were talking about one of the great obstacles which lay across my path.

This was what is informally called “the hundred-year rule.” This rule is a long-standing policy of the Church which for perfectly good reasons of administrative responsibility and discretion denies access to archival materials which are less than a hundred years old. One had heard rumors here and there of rare—extremely rare—exceptions granted under the rule, but what good were rumors, and what was a rule for anyway if it were broken? A swift and anguished calculation revealed the effect which the hundred-year rule must have upon my pursuit of Lamy's papers. He died in 1888. Under the rule I must be denied access in 1955 to any papers dated after 1855. The last thirty-three, the most active and fruitful years of the archbishop's life would be closed to me, if, indeed, these were touched upon in the Roman archives. I did not even know whether papers covering this period existed—but if they did, and if I could not study them, what a blow to my project.

Father Caraman did not know either, but he was wholly aware of the acuteness of my problem. If I were soon going to Rome, as I then planned to do, it would be well for me to have help in informed quarters there. Father Caraman urged me to write to an historian in his Society at Rome, and to describe my hopes and the difficulties which I anticipated in their fulfillment.

Accordingly, from London, I wrote to Father Ernest J. Burrus, S.J., at the Institute of Jesuit History in Rome. Within a week or so came a kind and explicit reply, saying that the established difficulties were all too real, and that they were grave. Still, if I were coming to Rome, something might be undertaken. The writer would do whatever he could to help, and the hospitality of his Society's house was extended to me. Meanwhile, he concluded, had I thought of consulting the collection of books and papers belonging to Bishop Laurence J. FitzSimon, of Amarillo, in my search for Lamy materials?

I gasped. This seemed to me a positively virtuoso performance in the tradition of that omniscience in affairs with which the members of the Society of Jesus had been credited for centuries by a repeatedly astonished world. A Jesuit father writing from Rome to a New Mexican in London commending to him an historical collection in Texas which was to be seen only 200 miles from his hometown across the world! I was, obscurely, shamed for not having known about all this on my own, and, therefore, I was inclined to dismiss what, to my graceless temper, looked like a piece of scholarly swank. Matters required me to return to the United States without going to Rome, and the farthest thing from my mind was the suggestion that Amarillo, Texas, could possibly harbor anything I might want to use. Let me in humility hasten to say that this part of the story had an ending happier than I deserved.

Meanwhile, my widening vision of Archbishop Lamy's life took me to the Auvergne, that region of France's most ancient Roman history, where he was born, and which he left in 1839 to go to Ohio as a young missioner, along with his friend and schoolmate, Joseph Machebeuf. In Clermont-Ferrand, the seat of a bishop, where in Roman times Vercingetorix held the phalanxes of Caesar at bay, I looked for the archbishop in the records of the chancery. An old and earnest priest-secretary undertook to help me in the bishop's office, which I found in an old gray stone house in an old, narrow, cobblestoned, twisting, dark street. “Who?” he said. “Jean Baptiste Lamy, the first Archbishop of Santa Fe, in New Mexico, which is one of the United States,” I replied, certain that this son of the Auvergne must be a great hero to later churchmen there. The secretary was polite but could not conceal his bafflement. He had never heard of him. I gave a few particulars, and he nodded into his folded fingers, searching his memory. In a moment his old pink face and clear blue eyes lighted up with an idea and he told me to wait. He went briskly to the next room, and for the next many minutes I heard fascinating obscure sounds such as might be made by a large and industrious mouse expertly at work on loose papers. Then I heard a bronchial little cry of satisfaction, and the secretary returned to me with a copy of La Semaine Religieuse, the diocesan weekly. It was an issue of 1888, containing the necrology of Monsignor Lamy. Delightedly the secretary showed it to me. It was the key to all. He saw there that Monsignor Lamy was born at Lempdes, eleven kilometres from Clermont-Ferrand. He gave me the name of the curé of Lempdes, and sent me to see him.

I drove into the open, serene landscape of the region, where tilled fields and low hills reached away to hazy mountains, among which loomed highest the grand hump of the Puy-de-Dôme. Lempdes is a small village of winding lanes and close houses, plastered in the sandy color of the local earth. I was oddly put in mind of Santa Fe. At a far end of the village I found the curé in his house. Now I was in some diffidence for the assumption I had held about the fame of my archbishop, and my first words to the curé were, “Father, does the name of Jean Baptiste Lamy mean anything to you?” “But naturally,” he replied, “we pray for him every Sunday.” Suddenly I felt that I had come home.

Whereupon, the curé, hearing of my purpose, gave me many good things. I saw and made notes from documents in his custody. He showed me the village church which when it was rebuilt in the 1870's was reconsecrated by Archbishop Lamy on a visit home from America. We paused at the little shrine of Our Lady of Good News, where Lamy as a little boy made special and continuous devotions. The curé took me about the village and introduced me to a surviving grandniece of the archbishop in the earthen courtyard of her house and barn. The village has probably not changed from Lamy's time. In the beautiful, grave, dark-eyed children of Lempdes in the clay streets, at play with kittens and puppies where no traffic came to make them scamper, I believed I saw the essential truth of the archbishop's childhood environment.

In the village and in Clermont-Ferrand I made several water color drawings—a process by which for years I have fixed for myself my impressions of scene and spirit of place for later reference in historical writing. I entered several churches numbered among the earliest Romanesque structures in France, and saw in their dark and arched massivity the original grandeurs and simplicities which Lamy sought to recall in his cathedral of Santa Fe. I saw the seminary which he attended and which could be called the architectural parent of old St. Michael's College in Santa Fe, and I went to Riom to see where Joseph Machebeuf had come from. I was far away from New Mexico—as far as Lamy, in New Mexico, had been from the Auvergne. Some arc of historical vision found for me its ends in both places. Another whole world of reference in the archbishop's life had now been opened out for me. With much stored for the future, I returned to the United States to work on a book more immediately in hand.

Two years later I had occasion to be driving westward in winter. It had been for years my insensitive habit to pass rapidly through Amarillo, Texas, and my first impulse was to do so now. What could detain me? Old advices from Rome to London advising me to search for Lamy in the Texas Panhandle? I was not persuaded, and New Mexico called. Still, with an air of conscious virtue I reminded myself that to an historian in search of fact no lead could be too unlikely to pass by. I, therefore, must linger in Amarillo to follow the suggestion of Father Burrus. I telephoned to the episcopal residence of Amarillo and after a long wait I heard the voice of Bishop FitzSimon on the wire. I stated my mission. There ensued a conversation curiously hesitant, I thought, on his part, increasingly doubtful on mine. I began to feel that I must be unwelcome, and, perhaps, actively intrusive. But at length he asked, “How long do you plan to be in Amarillo?”

“I would gladly stay as long as necessary if there is any possibility that Your Excellency can see me.” A long pause. Then, with a sigh, “All right. Come here at eight o'clock tonight.”

At eight I was received by a small, prim, decorous housekeeper who took me to a large parlor. She was assisted by a white, smooth-haired mongrel dog whose right front leg had been amputated. He responded to my petting with an ecstatic smile and a twist of his plump torso. I had only a moment to wait until my host entered the far end of the parlor. The bishop came forward, limping. He carried one of his hands in the other. He moved with trouble and courage. His face was keenly marked by intelligence and suffering. His hair was silvery gray. He was slender. He wore a dark gray coat-sweater of fine stitch, a fine Italian sport shirt in dark stripes, dark trousers, and his episcopal ring. He greeted me kindly and took me to his study, a room lined in books and panelling. There, speaking with hesitancy which he tried to control, he explained almost at once that he had recently recovered from a paralytic stroke. Some acts were still difficult for him. What I had thought to be reluctance on the phone was actually a triumph over rebellious organs of speech. My compunction was great. His warmth was moving.

Then to work. He had spent hours since my phone call going through the index cards of his historical papers and books, and he had compiled a mass of references for me to examine. His eyes lighted up with the love of the scholar for raw material, and into his weary voice came a youthful eagerness. He was superbly informed in the period and place of my subject. We talked for two hours or more. His cheeks grew hot and showed color. He fed me with the very bread of inspiration. I was voracious. My questions were incessant and demanding. He replied with enthusiasm.

Suddenly I saw that he was dreadfully pale. I had exhausted his meagre resources of convalescent strength. Hoping that I did not reveal my concern for his frailty I jumped up to go. “Yes,” he said, “I tire easily and suddenly. You must excuse me now. But come back tomorrow morning and make whatever notes you like.” Full of fearful hope that I had not harmed the bishop with my exhausting demands, I left him. On my way to a lodging I felt also an abashed gratitude for the wisdom and generosity of Father Burrus, at Rome. Father Burrus, like his fellow societarians, had known exactly what he was talking about. For I had found in Amarillo not only a gold mine of material for my purposes but also, I hoped, a rare new friend in Bishop FitzSimon. And so he proved.

I returned the following day and found him rested and eager to open his filing cabinets for me. We spent the morning, we lunched, we worked in the afternoon. His references were excellent—so excellent that at one moment I turned to him and said, “Sir, you have so much here about Archbishop Lamy, so well organized, that I am troubled by a fear.” “What is that, Mr. Horgan?” “Am I intruding on plans of your own to work on a biography of the archbishop? I would not trespass for the world …” “Not at all,” he replied. “The book I was working on all these years was the life of Bishop Jean Marie Odin, of Galveston. When I was doing my research on him, I kept coming across material on Lamy. I took notes every time on him, thinking they might some day be of use to somebody else.”

Saying this, he gazed at me very directly with his clear, gray eyes. He all but said aloud, “… and you are that somebody.” If I here claim this interpretation, it is because he went on to say that he had denied access to his materials to any number of applicants before me. It happened that he had known of me before I telephoned him. Now it seemed to him that I should have his help. Both humbled and excited by my good fortune I vowed to justify if I could the confidence which the Bishop of Amarillo showed me. We returned to work on his files.

A year later I saw him again. This time he insisted that I stay at his house. I had already taken a room at a motel. He instructed me to check out and move my things to a corner room upstairs in the episcopal residence. His personal chapel was on the same floor. It was a privilege and I accepted with a full sense of its rarity. The followed more hours of good study in his upstairs library, and meals, served by Miss Lily Linhart, the housekeeper, in her devoted worry. The bishop's health was better, and his droll, crisp humor played freely, making his conversation doubly delightful to me as we developed a closer and deeper acquaintance. We discussed future stages of my search.

“I'm planning,” I said, “to make the same journey which Archbishop Lamy made from Santa Fe to Durango, Mexico, in 1851. I want to go at the same time of year—autumn—so I can see the landscape more or less as he saw it. I hope to make some water color sketches to hold my impressions.” I think I must have sounded rather satisfied with the degree of my scholarly care for the physical truth of my subject. His Excellency deflated me with one of his inexpressibly droll and sardonic observations. “I trust,” he said, with a rising inflection which made a mock marvel of my intrepid intention, “I trust you will also ride a burro all the fifteen hundred miles, as the archbishop did?” I was chastened. “No, sir,” I replied, “I'm afraid I'll be making the trip in a modern, high-powered automobile.” Bishop FitzSimon closed the lesson by saying, “Don't you think you should spend at least one night out on the ground, as he did?”

I asked his help in another matter, for he read and corrected a biographical essay I wrote about Lamy for publication by Father Caraman in The Month, in England, and by Bruce Catton, in American Heritage, in this country.6 He told me of his early life, and said with truculence meant to amuse that he was the only member of the hierarchy who could brag that he was a gob in the United States Navy in World War I. We pored over his most treasured volumes, and he seated me beside him at a school play where he had to make a front-row appearance, and in response to my request for a memento, he gave me one of his red-violet silk birettas and a signed photograph of himself. He began to call me by my first name. He gave stature to my work by his interest and help. At the end of my second visit he permitted me to look forward to a third. Before this could be, he died.7 His own book on his early bishop was never written. I shall hope to serve him as well as I can in mine, remembering his high standard of historical truth and human grace.

I read as a lecture the biographical essay at St. Francis Auditorium of the Museum of New Mexico as a benefit performance for the Santa Fe Opera, in the summer of 1958. At this event Archbishop Byrne occupied a seat of honor in the front row. Afterward he spoke to me and confirmed his interest in my pursuit of the biography, and advised me to go to the University of Notre Dame for materials; for he knew that in the last decades of the nineteenth century a librarian of Notre Dame with a keen interest in history had gathered from many chancelleries across the nation a considerable collection of diocesan archives including some dealing with Archbishop Lamy.8

In due course I followed Archbishop Byrne's guidance and at Notre Dame I spent a profitable month as a guest of the university, working in the archives maintained so expertly by Father Thomas T. McAvoy, C.S.C. One of the letters of Archbishop Lamy which I read referred to a mitre which he had been asked to send to Notre Dame for inclusion as a memento in the treasure of the university church. Evidence indicated that the mitre had been sent. I went to Father McAvoy with the story and asked if the mitre could be seen. It was not long before he put it into my hands.

It was the first possession which I knew for certain to have belonged to the archbishop, and I touched it with full respect. He had worn it in various performances of his august duties. It was of cloth of gold lined in scarlet silk. It told me, of course, of a bishop's status and authority, that great living link with Christ through the apostolic succession. And it told me more, of a more humble, intimate, and immediate significance, for by the size of the headband it told me the dimension of the archbishop's cranium, which was larger than that of most men. With this numble fact, and by thoughtful scrutiny of his faded photographic portraits, I was able by one more impression, however incomplete, to summon his presence before my mind's eye.

I sought him among the living, but how few, in mid-twentieth century, were there alive who had seen him. One was an old lady in Santa Fe who was the adopted daughter of his nephew. She had seen him in her childhood, and she remembered one day when he came to call on her as she lay abed with some childhood illness. She was terrified, he was a great man, an archbishop, and she pulled the covers over her head. And then, gradually, he made her lose her fear and speak to him happily. It was tender and appealing, this scene, but it was conventional, and it was sparse. Whom to ask elsewhere about him? I saw a piece in a newspaper about a priest who in his ninety-ninth year was living in retirement at Mount Saint Rafael Hospital in Trinidad, Colorado. His name was Father Joseph S. Garcia and—here my interest was shocked alive—he been personally chosen for the priesthood by Archbishop Lamy, who had sent him off to the seminary, and who had brought him back to New Mexico to work in the parish of Las Vegas. Father Garcia was the only living being who, not as a child but as a grown man, had seen the archbishop. Within a day I was travelling by car from Santa Fe to Trinidad in beautiful mountain winter weather hoping I could confront Father Garcia.

By good fortune the chaplain of the hospital was a young Irish priest who was a most cultivated man. He understood my interest at once and the importance to me of hearing from Father Garcia, if he could talk to me, whatever he might recall about the archbishop. With utmost tact, with a chaffing tenderness for the extraordinary tiny ancient priest who was still clear in mind and tidy in person, Father Reid arranged with Father Garcia to receive me. Little kind deceptions were necessary in order to spare Father Garcia the effort of trying too hard to be a satisfactory exhibit as a piece of living history. I had rather more than an hour with him and gradually he found his ease among memories from the time eight decades ago when he had been put to work by Archbishop Lamy. I heard an old voice, clear and remote and dry like the whisper of autumn leaves when stirred by an idle wind from faraway, speak of the archbishop's presence. I took my leave with a sense of returning to the present. I rejoice to report that Father Garcia has not only lived to celebrate the votive Mass of Our Lady on his one hundredth birthday, but that he passed his 101st birthday on October 28 and is still living in comfort at Trinidad.

The vision of the biographer is necessarily bi-focal. He must train one lens on the distant aspects of his subject, composing all parts in a general clarity and harmony. And he must train the other on aspects so near that at moments he must believe that he sees the very interior of his subject's experience and nature. Common sympathy goes far, of course, toward establishing this intimate entry into detail. Yet beyond this, there may come necessities of pursuit which will take the biographer into the deepest well of vicarious experience in order to understand a certain detail.

Such a necessity was mine as I contemplated the fact that Lamy was a bishop consecrated in the most august of heritages—the apostolic succession. The Church in electing and marking a man for the episcopate surrounds the event of his consecration with a glory, a power, and a weight of ritual whose solemnity gives outward form to the majesty and sacredness of the inner fact of the consecration. This inner fact is none other than the transmittal of authority and responsibility from the hands of Christ through the hands of Peter and the hands of all bishops thereafter in the Holy Roman Apostolic Church.

The moment would come in my narrative of Bishop Lamy's life when his consecration must be referred to, described, or even possibly explained for the reader. Surely the direct experience of such consecration must be one of the most profoundly affecting which any man can know. In order to explain it properly, I wanted to come as close as possible to the act of consecration, in something more than a spectator's participation from a remote place in the nave. I wanted to know as nearly as I could how it felt to become a bishop, if intimate observation could make up for all that I lacked in training, vocation, and direct experience in the matter.

It was a midwinter day in New York when I learned that the Cardinal Archbishop of New York would soon consecrate as bishop the Rector of St. Joseph's Seminary at Dunwoodie. If I could manage to gain admittance, perhaps, I could come to a place near enough to the ceremonies to allow me to make some rapid drawings in wash and water color of what I observed. By the act of concentration needed to make a graphic record of an event as it passed I would in some degree enter as a participant into the meaningful spectacle which I must see.

But, perhaps, there would be quite proper official objections to my course. I consulted a member of the staff of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Father, now Monsignor, Charles J. McManus. So soon as he heard my general purpose and my particular hope, he moved to facilitate all. He instructed me to be on hand at the cathedral a half-hour before the ceremonies were to begin on the stated morning. I would be permitted to make my little drawings provided I remained inconspicuous. The night before the day of consecration Father McManus left at my hotel up the avenue a printed copy of the liturgy of the occasion so that I might familiarize myself with it in advance. I was as impressed by his thoroughness as I was moved by his consideration.

Of these I had ultimate demonstrations on the following morning when I came to the cathedral. Father McManus was waiting for me at nine o'clock before the main sanctuary. He conducted me to a place just outside the chancel screen on the gospel side of the high altar. There an airy system of carved wood gothic arches gave perfect visibility upon the sanctuary while marking it apart formally. In juxtaposition to one of those arches a small tribune had been erected, with three sides curtained by a green cloth, while the fourth side was open to the chancel. I could see all without being seen. A chair was placed for me to use.

I hardly touched it in the three hours of splendor which followed, while two cardinals, with innumerable other prelates and clergy, witnessed and sealed the elevation of the Most Reverend John M. Fearns to the purple, and two choirs sang in antiphon, and gestures repeated through 2,000 years vested a man and his spirit in the modern world with the unaltered powers of that apostleship upon which the occasion rested.

Equipped with my little bottles of clear water to use with my very small pans of color, and with a another little bottle containing an india ink wash, and wielding pen and brush over my bound sketch book, I made many drawings. Whatever their interest as drawings, which must be slight, their existence is for me a testimony of the motion and the style which were released in the act of creation whereby a priest at New York in December, 1957, and another priest—my priest, John B. Lamy, as he was then known in Ohio—at Cincinnati in November, 1850, both received the mitre. It would require an imagination dulled by the dusty seductions of pedantry not to be moved by the analogy here contained.

And now, with this indication of one of the large aspects at the heart of my subject, I must let the chronicle of my search lapse into silence. I must do so in honor of one of the most delicate suspensions which an author ever knows in the process of bringing together all the elements of his book.

My quest took me into further adventures, some rewarding, others disappointing; but in either case, all so intimately united with the very process of my work that I cannot further describe the search without endangering that which is not yet ready to be published. In the preparation of every book there are periods of touch and go, when the live thread of the subject, precarious at all times in the imagination, could be fatally severed by an incautious pull beyond its strength to bear. Such a pull occurs to us when we are tempted, as I am now, to luxuriate in the delights of discovery and synopsis, in order to show you what a beautiful work I have planned, and how the more recent of my acts of search for my subject may have given me riches which could create the very fabric of my story. But in all respect for the task upon which I have more work and time to spend, and which must be kept alive at its most generative force within the imagination, I must resist the desire to take my listener and my reader any farther with me now. I must hope that when my work is finished and the final phases of my search are there revealed in their proper places my present restraint will be justified.

It now remains to continue my search for the archbishop within myself, that I may understand his times, recapture his image, and at last find words to give him a second life for those who may read the pages I hope to write.


  1. Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History (New York, 1954), I, 865-67.

  2. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1927.

  3. This biography by William J. Howlett was published in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1908.

  4. On Writing (New York, 1949), “On Death Comes for the Archbishop,” pp. 3-13.

  5. Speech of acceptance on receiving the Bancroft Prize in History for Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History, at Columbia University, April 28, 1955.

  6. “Jean Baptiste Lamy. First Archbishop of Santa Fe,” The Month, XVIII (October, 1957), 203-14; (November, 1957), 282-92; “Churchman of the Desert,” American Heritage, VIII (October, 1957, 30-35;) 99-101.

  7. Bishop FitzSimon died on July 2, 1958.

  8. For an account of the origin of the Notre Dame manuscript collections cf. Thomas T. McAvoy, C.S.C., “Manuscript Collections Among American Catholics,” Catholic Historical Review, XXXVII (October, 1951), 281-95.

Sister Peter Damian Charles (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6089

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; something without accent, with none of the artificial elements of composition. In the Golden Legend the martyrdoms of the saints are no more dwelt upon than are the trivial incidents of their lives; it is as though all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual experience, were of about the same importance.2

The “one supreme spiritual experience” of Jean Latour's death is constantly and consciously present to his very living out of the life of love and of dedication he has espoused from the novel's opening pages, and indeed before. Lee Wilson Dodd wrote perceptively in his review of the work: “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.”3 Yet this love is inspired and shadowed by death—the death of the God-Man—whose incarnation, Denis de Rougemont tells us, delivered man from “the woe of being alive” and made possible a new concept:

Death, from being the last term, is become the first condition. What the Gospel calls dying to self is the beginning of new life already here below—not the soul's flight out of the world, but its return in force into the midst of the world. … Thereupon love is no longer to flee and persistently to reject the act of love … the love of God has opened an entirely new way to us—the way of holiness. And the way is the contrary of the sublimation that had been an illusory flight out of the concreteness of life. To love according to this new way is a positive act and an act of transformation.4

This is the love, undoubtedly, that motivates and sustains Jean Latour in his positive commitment to life and the goods that it holds—friendship, appreciation of beauty, enjoyment of fine foods and gardens. But the simple fact of his dedication to a transcendent solution to the love-death conflict does not remove the essential struggle from the life of Jean Latour; it does, however, provide a rationale that serves to case the torment. A sensitive, genteel, intelligent young man, the bishop experiences to an extraordinary degree the demands of the human condition; yet the serenity with which he lives out his life bespeaks the sublimity of his consecration.

Miss Cather's method in this novel is eminently designed to convey this mood of calm acceptance of all the divergencies of human existence. The telling of Jean Marie Latour's journey toward death by recounting a series of adventures interspersed with legends and historic tales is not at all an eclectic, haphazard evasion of the novelist's task. It is, by contrast, a most suitable way of re-creating the bishop's mind—the landscape to be explored in this probing of the love-death dichotomy. Only by an attempt at assimilation of all that impinges upon the consciousness of this “well-bred and distinguished” pioneer churchman can one approximate any comprehension of the forces that move him. Indeed, it is this quality of intense cerebration, this habit of “[sitting] in the middle of his own consciousness,” of constantly relating his actual situation to all of history, all of civilization, that sets the bishop apart from his fellows. He is assuredly la tour, the tower, aloof and above, yet integrally belonging to all around him. At the same time it is this very characteristic that creates within Jean Latour the great tensions of love and death which fill his life and make for the largeness of vision and understanding that marks his person.

The reader's attention is first called to Jean Latour's intellect during the “prologue” when Bishop Ferrand, the American missionary, pleads with the three cardinals to recommend his candidate to the Provincial Council at Baltimore. The Spanish Cardinal Garcia Maria de Allande remarks, suggesting the book's direction, “‘And this Latour is intelligent, you say? What a fate you are drawing upon him!’” (p. 11) The hardship of this fate receives verification when one first views the young bishop in the novel: travelling through the wilderness of conical hills and juniper trees in New Mexico, the “solitary horseman” who is “sensitive to the shape of things” mutters dazedly, “‘Mais, c'est fantastique!’” (p. 18) His frustration, however, finds some comfort in an act of love. Opening his weary eyes, he sees before him a juniper tree whose “naked, twisted trunk” had taken the form of a cross. This is, without a doubt, a miracle of the type the bishop was later to explain to his friend and vicar, Joseph Vaillant—“human vision corrected by divine love” (p. 50). He kneels before the symbol of greater Death and Love to renew his love in time of lesser “death.” This worshipper of “singular elegance” and “distinguished” manners is indeed a man of love, of God and of all creation, but his very presence and stance betray him as a man who knows death too—death and suffering. Later in the day when his suffering from thirst becomes extreme, we learn of his solace through meditation on Christ's Passion. The death of the Lord is the great holocaust into which he subsumes all the lesser deaths of his humanity, and through which he transforms his most ordinary actions into deeds of love. And yet, for Bishop Latour, it is his power of intellect that allows this mastery over—or, paradoxically, this submission to—the combined forces of Love and Death in the person of Jesus Christ. At the same time, however, despite the fact that Jean Latour is ruled by, and rules with, Love—accounting for the overall imperturbable tenor of his life—his intense intellectuality serves as a kind of Thanatos-force that comes into his life and causes the deaths that ready him to meet that final death at the end of his life of love. It is this complex aspect of the bishop's character that I shall examine in this analysis.

The most pervasive of Jean Latour's struggles extends throughout the novel: the constant contrast of his thoughtful nature with that of his active fellow-seminarian and life-long friend, Joseph Vaillant. This difference between the two men, though a basis for their mutual love and support, eventually causes the young bishop's “bitter personal disappointment” at Father Joseph's final departure from him. Although they both come from the same section of France, the priests did not know each other as children. It is in the seminary that the son of the scholarly Latours meets the son of the baker of Riom, and their meeting has immediate consequences. Father Latour later recalls how in an instantaneous act he had chosen the lively, ugly boy for his friend. The narration emphasizes the contrast between the two: “Latour himself was much cooler and more critical in temper: hard to please and often a little grey in mood” (p. 225). Joseph Vaillant—impetuous, gregarious, sickly yet ardent—becomes devoted to the handsome, intellectual, aloof Jean Latour. In their seminary at Clermont both young men, hearing a missionary bishop from Ohio plead for volunteers to the United States, respond eagerly and bind themselves to his aid. On the day of their secret departure from Riom, the tranquil Jean strengthens the tortured Joseph who “had been abroad in the fields all night, wandering up and down, finding his purpose and losing it” (p. 285). Jean Latour, who, “having made his decision and pledged himself, knew no wavering” (p. 284), calms his distraught friend with rational argument and the two begin then journey. Joseph's gratitude to his friend is profound, and, we are told, “he always said that if Jean Latour had not supported him in that hour of torment, he would have been a parish priest in the Puy-de-Dòme for the rest of his life” (p. 286). Jean's intellectuality had saved Vaillant, but frequently in their missionary life together Father Joseph finds that very trait in Jean difficult to understand. By the same token. Father Latour sometimes takes Father Joseph's view to be simplistic, if not rash.

Their attitudes differ characteristically in the matter of miracles. Saved from death due to thirst by suddenly coming upon the Mexican settlement of Agua Secreta in an early scene in the novel, Jean Latour reflects:

If Father Vaillant were here, he would say, “A miracle”; that the Holy Mother, to whom he had addressed himself before the cruciform tree, had led him thither. And it was a miracle. … But his dear Joseph must always have the miracle very direct and spectacular, not with Nature, but against it. (p. 29)

Later after they have jointly heard the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe from the old Mexican priest, Padre Escolastico Herrara, Father Joseph remarks to Bishop Latour: “‘Doctrine is well enough for the wise, Jean; but the miracle is something we can hold in our hands and love.’” The bishop's answer sounds the depths of his recognition of both human and divine essences:

Where there is great love there are always miracles. … One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always. (p. 49)

This same breadth of vision makes for humor in their lives also, causing Father Latour to see in Father Joseph's excellent soup at Christmas dinner “the result of a constantly refined tradition … nearly a thousand years of history” (p. 39), much to the chagrin of the cook! And again, wakening to the tones of the ancient silver bell which Father Vaillant had polished and raised with much effort, Jean comments on its rich and long history to the impatience of his vicar, who complains, “‘What are you doing, Jean? Trying to make my bell out an infidel? … I noticed that scholars always manage to dig out something belittling’” (p. 45). Father Latour's insistence that he does not belittle but enhance falls upon deaf ears, and the bishop can but smile at the simplicity and zeal of this friend.

It is, however, after they have been missionaries together for a number of years that Bishop Latour suffers his most difficult struggle both because of his love for and his difference from his old friend. In the spring of 1859, Jean Latour experiences once again the joy of being in Santa Fe with his vicar, who is recovering from malarial fever. The eager Joseph, though delighting in the hours of reflection and prayer alloted to him during May, this favorite of months, tells his bishop he hopes to be on his Arizona mission by July. Bishop Latour's remonstrance, “‘You must realize that I have need of you here, Father Joseph. My duties are too many for one man’,” calls forth the ardent plea:

But you do not need me so much as they do! … Any one of our good French priests from Montferrand can serve you here. It is work that can be done by intelligence. But down there it is work for the heart, for a particular sympathy, and none of our new priests understand those poor natures as I do. I have almost become a Mexican! … Their foolish ways no longer offend me, their very faults are dear to me. I am their man! (p. 208)

The bishop's response is serene, yet the narrator reveals the death this costs him:

No one would have guessed that a sharp struggle was going on within him. Father Joseph's impassioned request had spoiled a cherished plan, and brought Father Latour a bitter personal disappointment. There was but one thing to do,—and before he reached the tamerisks he had done it. He broke off a spray of the dry lilac-coloured flowers to punctuate and seal, as it were, his renunciation. (pp. 208-09)

The ultimate reward of his sacrifice is foreshadowed immediately afterwards by the appearance of Magdalena, one of the first of his “saved” children, advancing into the garden “in a whirlwind of gleaming wings” (p. 209).

Such symbolic approbations of his successes are rare, however, and Bishop Latour discovers more often, especially in the absence of his Eros-inspired friend, that the “grey mood” of this Thanatos-self returns to haunt his loneliness. The narrator tells of one particularly bitter moment on a bleak “December Night”: “Bishop Latour had been going through one of those periods of coldness and doubt which, from his boyhood, had occasionally settled down upon his spirit and made him feel an alien, wherever he was” (p. 211). In this dark frame of mind, he is obsessed with a sense of failure; he sees his prayers as “empty words”; his soul, a “barren field”; his diocese, a “heathen country.” The Indians, whose basic spirit is akin to his own, become, in this dark night, a people who travel “their old road of fear and darkness, battling with evil omens and ancient shadows” (p. 211). The Mexicans, on the other hand, whose carefree nature Father Vaillant regards with such affection, Father Latour views as “children who play with their religion” (p. 211). Racked by the torment of his own powerlessness, the bishop tosses sleepless upon his bed, and finally decides to brave the cold to seek solace in his church. His encounter there with the miserable old peon slave Sada performs in a natural way the “miracle” of grace that he needs to lift his spirit from the throes of Thanatos up to that union of the two forces in Agape, the love of God. He later tells Father Vaillant of the joy of that night which reawakened in him the convictions of youth: the trust in the “Cross that took away indignity from suffering and made pain and poverty a means of fellowship with Christ” (p. 217), and in Our Lady, “the Image, the physical form of Love!” (p. 219). Above all, this experience helps him to comprehend that, pitiful as the trembling Sada was, “his poverty was as bleak as hers. … This church was Sada's house and he was a servant in it” (p. 218). The strange paradox of Love and Death is only intelligible in terms of the God-Man's command to love even if it means daily “death.”

But such momentary enlightenments do not permit the bishop to quell this growing need to share the joys and hardships of his mission life with his vicar. The following spring, Jean Latour journeys south to visit his Navajo friend Eusabio, whose son had died during the long winter. There, in the midst of a storm, “cut off from even this remote little Indian camp by moving walls and tapestries of sand” (p. 233), he undergoes the mental agony of personal decision: can he justify the recall of Father Vaillant from Tucson to satisfy his own lonely spirit? Pondering this question, he contemplates the strange contradictions of his friend's nature and concludes that “he simply accepted them, and when Joseph had been away for a long while, realized that he loved them all. … The man was much greater than the sum of his qualities. He added a glow to whatever kind of human society he was dropped down into” (pp. 226, 228). “On the third day,” the narrator records, “the Bishop wrote a somewhat formal letter to his Vicar.” (p. 230). This action, however, does not put to rest the bishop's problems. When Father Joseph obediently returns to Santa Fe, three weeks pass before the bishop makes any move to acquaint the priest with a reason for the recall. Riding out of town one afternoon, Jean Latour leads his friend to a ridge high over the Rio Grande valley where they come upon a “rugged wall” of “strong golden ochre, very much like gold of the sunlight that was now beating upon it. …“‘That hill, Blanchet,’ he tells his boyhood friend, ‘is my Cathedral’” (p. 241). The revelation of this sacred hope is accompanied by the first mention of the bishop's actual death: “‘I should like to complete it before I die—if God so wills’” (p. 242). As the bishop discloses his inmost thoughts, and, at the same time, reveals openly his deeply death-conscious nature, his expansive vision comprehends the past and the future as well as the present; but his beloved vicar responds disappointingly: “‘You plan far ahead. … Well, that is what a bishop should be able to do. I see only what is under my nose. But I had no idea you were going in for fine buildings when everything about us is so poor—and we ourselves are so poor’” (pp. 243-44). Once again, the bishop explains calmly to his friend, “‘But the Cathedral is not for us. Father Joseph. We build for the future—better not lay a stone unless we can do that’” (p. 244). Just before they leave the rock, now a throbbing gold in the subdued rays of the setting sun, Latour confides in his friend, ‘“I tell you Blanchet, I would rather have found that hill of yellow rock than have come into a fortune to spend in charity. The Cathedral is very near my heart, for many reasons. I hope you do not consider me very worldly’” (p. 245). Indeed, his last sentence betrays the clarity with which he senses his friend's mystification at having been called home from saving souls to hear a poor missionary bishop talk of dreams. Joseph's lack of understanding of symbolic values, though it hurts Father Latour, prepares him somewhat for the “letter of importance” which comes soon afterwards from the Bishop of Leavenworth. Reading the plea for a priest for the newly populated area of Pike's Peak, he offers the task to Father Joseph. The old impetuosity appears in Vaillant's reply. “‘I can start tomorrow if you wish it,’” and Jean brakes his friend's enthusiasm with the reminder, “‘Not so fast. … You must take your living with you. … This, I fear, will be the hardest mission you have undertaken’” (p. 248).

As the preparations get underway, the narrator discloses Father Latour's pain at the thought of separation, possibly a “final break” from his friend. It is only when the old subject of miracles comes up again that Father Joseph begins to see the deep feeling at the root of his intellectual friend's maneuvers. Commenting happily on the fortunate chance of his being in Santa Fe, however obscure the reason, when the “letter of importance” arrives, he concludes, “‘When the call came, I was here to answer it—by a miracle, indeed.’” Once more Jean objects rationally:

‘Miracles are all very well, Joseph, but I see none here. I sent for you because I felt the need of your companionship. I used my authority as a Bishop to gratify my personal wish. That was selfish, if you will, but surely natural enough. We are countrymen, and are bound by early memories. And that two friends, having come together, should part and go their separate ways—that is natural too. No, I don't think we need any miracle to explain all this.’ (p. 253)

Sobered by his bishop's words, Joseph retires to his room where he reflects—perhaps for the first time—on the great difference in their natures. He realizes that “wherever he went, he soon made friends that took the place of country and family. But Jean, who was at ease in any society and was always the flower of courtesy, could not form any new ties. … He was … gracious to everyone, but known to very few” (p. 253). Conscious now of the severe struggle within his friend's soul, he is touched to tears when the bishop offers him the white mule Angelica to accompany his Contento—the pair he had bargained for so shamelessly at the outset of their missionary life together, the pair symbolic of their own close relationship in joy and hardship. The next day, Jean Latour rides with Joseph as far as the loop were the road gives the traveler the last glimpse of Santa Fe; Joseph murmurs his motto, “Auspice Maria!” and turns his back on “familiar things.” Returning to his home and his study, the bishop seems, the narrator assures us, “to come back to reality, to the sense of a Presence awaiting him” (p. 256). Once again, as in the “deaths” that filled his earliest days as a missioner, Father Latour seeks refuge in the immensity of the Love and Death of his Saviour. He finds his “sense of loss … replaced by a sense of restoration” and reflects on the solitude which is not a negation but a “perpetual flowering.” The bishop's intellectual powers, so often the source of darkness and death to him, now bring life and love in his contemplation of Mary, the fascination of men of all times—even in “the long twilight between the Fall and the Redemption, when the pagan sculptors were always trying to achieve the image of a goddess who should yet be a woman” (p. 257).

In the years of separation that follow, the love of the two great men does not diminish, but the death caused by the contrast of their natures becomes subsumed. On the occasion of their last visit together, Jean Latour, the great thinker, can bestow upon his friend the considered recognition: “‘Blanchet … you are a better man than I. You have been a great harvester of souls, without pride and without shame—and I am always a little cold—un pédant, as you used to say. If hereafter we have stars in our crowns, yours will be a constellation. Give me your blessing’” (pp. 261-62). And the man whose “grey mood” so often brought Thanatos into his life kneels before his vicar, “Trompe-la-Mort”—whose Eros-character drove him always deeper and deeper into life. Indeed, Father Vaillant's nickname, “Death-Deceiver,” given to him because of his frequent escapes from death though mortally ill, works well to suggest his Eros-nature, so alien to the Thanatos-spirit of his friend, Jean Latour.

Although Jean Latour's relationship with Joseph Vaillant is the most pervasive example in the novel of the love-death conflict created by his keen intellect, it is not the only one. Throughout his missionary activities this introspective quality marks his dealings with the varied groups under his jurisdiction, often providing a deeper love and understanding but making also for dark hours of struggle with his Thanatos-spirit. This is clearly seen as the narrator pictures Father Latour's first contact with his flock in the old Mexican settlement of Agua Secreta which he comes upon so fortunately when he is in danger of dying from thirst. (Miss Cather also subtly symbolizes here the reciprocal needs of pastor and flock.) Accepting the meager hospitality of these people, Latour recognizes the death-dealing possibilities of their superstitious cult of the saints and of their narrow-minded religiosity which sees infidels in all Protestants; yet in his wisdom he discerns too the simplicity of their faith and love. He can smile at their “mixed theology” just as he smiles at his own musing on the goat, “symbol of pagan lewdness … [whose] fleece had warmed many a good Christian, and [whose] rich milk nourished sickly children” (p. 31). His consideration of the broad view of history enables him to see how death, like the darkness which must finally release the “subterranean stream,” ultimately yields to love even as it springs from love:

This spot had been a refuge for humanity long before these Mexicans had come upon it. It was older than history. … This settlement was his Bishopric in miniature. … The Faith planted by the Spanish Friars was not dead; it waited only the toil of the husbandman. (p. 32)

These reflections, which can only derive from a consciousness “acquainted with the night,” result finally in a “love for his fellow man flowing like peace about his heart” (p. 29), as well as in a calm assurance at the thought of future confrontations with such terrifying persons at the powerful old Padre Martinez of Taos.

In his associations with his native clergy Father Latour employs this same judicious blend of mind and heart, always carefully assessing a situation intellectually while yet allowing his final judgment to be made with charity. It is, however, in his dealings with the most primitive culture under his care—the Indians—that Bishop Latour's sensitive and learned nature faces its darkest times. The first Indian with whom the bishop comes in close contact is his guide, Jacinto. This young man shares the bishop's hardships in travel, and gradually, though silence is “their usual form of intercourse,” he comes to enjoy real companionship with Father Latour. On their trip to the Laguna Indians as they discuss the meaning of the evening star and pray together before retiring, the narrator notes the bishop's “satisfaction that he was beginning to have some sort of human companionship with this Indian boy” (p. 93). Jacinto's reactions, too are revealed, and one sees the deep source of Jean Latour's appeal for such sincere natures:

The truth was, Jacinto liked the Bishop's way of meeting people. … In his experience, white people, when they addressed Indians, always put on a false face. … The Bishop put on none at all. He stood straight and turned to the Governor of Laguna, and his face underwent no change. Jacinto thought this remarkable. (p. 94)

This simple acceptance of people as they are wins for Jean Latour love and friendship, but it sometimes causes him frustration and suffering. Journeying with Jacinto toward Acoma Mesa in order to say Mass there for the dwindling tribe, Father Latour learns that these Indians, who “must share the universal human yearning for something permanent, enduring, without shadow of change” had their idea in substance: “They actually lived upon their Rock; were born upon it and died upon it” (p. 98). Such concretization of an aspiration appalls Latour, and he finds the celebration of Mass in the “gaunt, grey, grim” church of Acoma to be an unparalleled experience. Here his vast knowledge of the past depresses him as he realizes the ruthless power that made this church possible, and the grim grasp for safety that made this sanctuary necessary. Consequently he feels not as though he were on the roof of the world, but as if he were “celebrating Mass at the bottom of the sea, for antediluvian creatures; for types of life so old, so hardened, so shut within their shells, that the sacrifice of Calvary could hardly reach back so far” (p. 100). Neither is his sense of “inadequacy and spiritual defeat” lessened when, on the homeward trip, Jacinto narrates the fearful “Legend of Fray Baltazar,” the story of the ambitious friar whose exploitation of the Acoma tribe is matched by their requital of his cruelty in slinging him to his death over the edge of the rock. This same haunting feeling of frustration in the face of darkness re-occurs to Jean Latour months later as he spends a night with Jacinto's family in their tribal home, the Pecos pueblo. And his unusual experience of camping with Jacinto inside the peculiarly shaped cave, “Stone Lips,” merely strengthens his intimation of a dark secret at the heart of this tribe's trouble. Though the bishop keeps the secret of the mysterious “horror” in the cave, he is the more deeply convinced that “neither the white men nor the Mexicans in Santa Fe understand anything about Indian beliefs or the workings of the Indian mind” (p. 133).

The Indian character does, however, strike a responsive chord in Father Latour. One Indian who remains his life-long friend is Eusabio, the Navajo leader whom the young bishop met soon after he first came to his new diocese. The strong brave's dignified appearance reflects the broad view of culture so appealing to Father Latour's mind. Later, the bishop visits Eusabio in order to console him upon the death of his only son, and the welcome he receives is one of dignity, confidence, and appreciation. It is here, enjoying the peace of the isolated Navajo hogan, that Father Latour struggles with himself over the matter of Father Vaillant's recall and feels himself “sitting in the heart of a world made of dusty earth and moving air” (p. 230). Returning to Santa Fe in the company of Eusabio, Jean Latour finds that “traveling with Eusabio was like traveling with the landscape made human” (p. 232). Inspired by this intense rapport with natural life, the bishop muses upon the race's characteristic attitude toward the land: “‘It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it. … They seemed to have none of the European's desire to ‘master’ nature, to arrange and re-create. They spent their ingenuity in the other direction; in accommodating themselves to the scene in which they found themselves.’” (pp. 233-34)

This respect and reverence for nature's mystery taps a kindred depth in Jean Latour's profound being, and he detects in the Navajo people a “superior strength” which adds to his sorrow during the years when this noble tribe is persecuted in and expelled from their own land. Though he is unable to aid them, Father Latour rejoices in their final restoration to their “sacred places” and this thought brings him consolation as he welcomes Eusabio in Santa Fe just before his death. The devotion of the stalwart primitive to the scholarly old priest confirms the deep spiritual bonds which unite them despite the cultural distance between them. The Indian nature seems capable of calling forth not only the dark Thanatos but also the strong Eros within the bishop's soul.

The last part of the novel, Book Nine: “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” brings into relief the “one supreme spirtual experience of Father Latour's life—his death—the end toward which his full and varied activities have been tending and the goal toward which he looks for the fulfillment of the struggle between Eros and Thanatos in Agape. The section opens with a quotation from a letter written in 1888—nearly forty years after the bishop's arrival in New Mexico—by Jean Marie Latour to Joseph Vaillant's sister, the beloved Philomène. While declaring his love for his old friend, the letter at the same time betrays the Thanatos-tendency which has always marked the bishop's deeply intellective faculties, for he assures Philomène that death has been the source not of separation but of union between the two friends. This thought, welling from the Thanatos-spirit which is constantly aware of death, produces the same depth and breadth of vision overflowing in love that has characterized the bishop's whole career. He is concerned not only with the present moment, his approach to death, but with the past and with the future. His interest in the future declares itself in his care for the training of new missionaries for the diocese. But his joy in the past occupies even more of his hours as the time grows short. After suffering chill and cold from exposure during a mission journey, Latour requests a return to the scene of his youthful activity—Santa Fe. Now near his beloved Cathedral, the bishop realizes that the withdrawal into its shadow is an acknowledgement of an approach to his tomb. He specifically asks Bernard Ducrot to make the journey with him “late in the afternoon, toward sunset” (p. 270), when the glowing mountains embracing the town and his Cathedral burn an “intense rose-carnelian; not the colour of living blood, … but the colour of the dried blood of saints and martyrs” (p. 273); the Sangre de Cristo, indeed. His old study, too, with its “thick, wavy white walls that muted sound, that shut out the world and gave repose to the spirit” (p. 273) makes a kind of tomb to which he retires before his last long rest. Here in this retreat he follows a simple routine of rising, praying, visiting, and thinking, his ever-active intellect always at work. At times he dictates “old legends and customs and superstitions” (p. 277); at others he recreates in his imagination memories of his missionary life with Joseph Vaillant, and contemplates with serenity the differences between himself and his friend.

As the final days close in upon him, his “sound mind” surveys life with equilibrium. Death, who has always been with him, he knows well, and he feels confident that “the future [will] take care of itself.” The narrator continues:

But he had an intellectual curiosity about dying, about the changes that took place in a man's beliefs and values. More and more life seemed to him an experience of the Ego, in no sense the Ego itself This conviction … was something apart from his religious life; it was an enlightenment that came to him as a man, a human creature. … He observed also that there was no longer any perspective in his memories. … He was soon to have done with calendared time, and it had already ceased to count for him. He sat in the middle of his own consciousness; none of his former states of mind were lost or outgrown. They were all within reach of his hand, and all comprehensible. (pp. 289-90)

This quality of close intellection which had dominated his every action and allowed for the depth and breadth of view encompassing both love and death persists to the last. Because he had centered his thought upon the Love and Death of Christ whose Cross, planted in the middle of history, extends its arms both to the past and to the future, he himself was able to imitate that all-embracing vision and to find no contradiction in the fact that his future begins where his past had begun; “in a tip-tilted green field among his native mountains where … he was trying to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eyes by the desire to go and the desire to stay. He was trying to forge a new Will in that devout and exhausted priest; and the time was short, for the diligence for Paris was already rumbling down the mountain gorge.” (p. 299)

Death, from being the “last term” has indeed become the “first condition” and the new life of love in the future is not totally alien to the person who has lived it out on these terms already here below. Jean Marie Latour can face death with genuine peace of mind and soul because his personal love-death struggle, though unresolved for most of his life, has gained in strength and serenity through constant reference to the supreme example, that consummation of the Love-Death conflict in the person of Jesus Christ.


  1. Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 269. All references are to this edition.

  2. Willa Cather On Writing (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), p. 9.

  3. Lee Wilson Dodd, “A Hymn to Spiritual Beauty,” Saturday Review of Literature, IV (September 10, 1927), p. 101.

  4. Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World, trans. Montgomery Belgion, revised and augumented edition, (New York: Anchor Books, 1957), pp. 58-60.

Richard Giannone (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4903

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 the full Catherian view of life. If one considers her vision from the whole of her canon, one sees that her view expands, it does not contract, from its original statement—from Cather's initial, hopeful glimpse of man's possible glory.

With Archbishop Willa Cather returns to her early theme, a trust in man's spirit, and she also brings to this novel the technical mastery, a strong sense of clear, purposive design, from her middle career. This is not at all to say, however, that Archbishop is repetitious or structurally imitative. Through her chief character, Bishop Latour, Willa Cather deals with more complex implications of the pioneering theme than she did with the earlier pioneering heroes, Ántonia Shimerda or Alexandra Bergson. The pioneer for Cather always holds cultural importance and always acquires a place in history, but what is implicit and symbolic in her early conception of the heroic settler becomes explicit and thematic in Archbishop. In the person of Bishop Latour the cultural dimension of a single life is of the greatest importance because he, unlike the uneducated immigrants, sees history philosophically and is conscious of his role in its development. Her hero's personality gives the pioneering theme a new emphasis and broader scope. It is culture, of which pioneering is but one aspect, which is the theme of Archbishop.

Though the novel's form shows the influence of the simply patterned novels which precede it, Archbishop constitutes a structural innovation and expansion of her established procedure just as it marks a thematic refinement. In Cather's word, Archbishop is a “legend,” a mode “which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment.”2 In practice, the legend does not progress through conflict, as does a conventional novel, but moves through montage, which has its own thematic principle of control. “The essence of such writing,” Willa Cather continues, “is not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in it—but to touch and pass on.”3 And her explanation, though rather figurative and subjective, fits the novel because she uses a series of interrelated tales to give the effect of a moving culture. Through vivid episodes she spans a full era, forty-one years of chronological time and nearly a century of psychological time.

The Professor's House reveals the precedent for this method. There Cather projects the central character's growing dissatisfaction with life back into history and into another place—the symbolic center of life—through “Tom Outland's Story.” What proves to be a successful device in The Professor's House amounts to an organizing principle in Archbishop. Instead of a single tale-within-a-novel, Cather offers numerous narrative insets of varying mood, pace, and moral through which she achieves a sense of temporal and spiritual progress of an epoch. Also, her technique evokes a feeling of the culture's geographical expanse. By striking the note and passing on, by juxtaposing scenes, Cather lengthens action as she vivifies it.

Willa Cather traces the growth of Southwestern civilization from its origin to its florescence, and she records this advancement by explaining the various cultures which contribute to its individuality and style. Each of these forces has a symbolic pattern, and collectively they define a wide range. The range covers the region's elemental features, like the taming of the land, its human conditions, such as the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter, and finally the Southwest's spiritual nature, the reverent use of the earth and the religious ceremonies of the inhabitants. Most importantly, Willa Cather represents this intricate exchange of place, people, and cultures through music. Music in Archbishop stands for the spontaneous, direct, and universal expression of feeling which blends ethnic variety into spiritual unity. It also represents what it always stands for: cultural attainment. Fittingly, in her novel about the founding of a civilization Willa Cather employs the symbolic reference which she consistently associates with human warmth and positive achievement and which, in Archbishop, distinguishes the ineffable character of Southwestern heterogeneous, yet harmonic, culture from all others. Music becomes the beautifully appropriate voice of the Southwest and of the heroic people who make up its spirit.


Father Latour's missionary excursion to the New Mexican territory is nothing less than a journey back to the origins of life. It partakes of the eternal return to the mythic center of history. For Willa Cather the Southwest is the “cradle of the Faith in the New World” (p. 4).4 As the first episcopal leader of that See, Father Latour will “direct the beginning of momentous things.” And the is very much aware of his sudden contact with historical starts. His mind, so long conditioned by the established tradition of Europe, immediately catches the sound and shape of this young, startling world. Indeed, everything suggests antediluvian order to his perceptive imagination. “The great plain spotted with mesas and glittering with rain sheets” calls to mind what “the first Creation morning might have looked like” (p. 100). So primordial is New Mexico that while standing on “a naked great rock in the desert” he feels out of his “own epoch” and remanded to “the stone age.”

It is here that the first music of the novel arises. When Father Latour takes refuge from a storm and enters an old, secret Indian cave, he hears nature's perpetual music:

Father Latour lay with his ear to this crack for a long while, despite the cold that arose from it. He told himself he was listening to one of the oldest voices of the earth. What he heard was the sound of a great underground river, flowing through a resounding cavern. The water was far, far below, perhaps as deep as the foot of the mountain, a flood moving in utter darkness under ribs of antediluvian rock (p. 132).

The experience is gradual. At first he feels a disturbing vibration in the cave, “like a hive of bees, like a heavy roll of distant drums,” but when his Indian guide opens the earth, Bishop Latour hears nature's full, bursting sound. And the sound of eternally flowing water voices the incipience of life; its murmuring rush is the simple and natural note to which the echoes in other living forms are keyed. This is its power and beauty and majesty.

The simplest echo of this primordial music comes from the wind, and the wind speaks for all of physical nature. This auditory harmony is first suggested in visual terms. Everything about this “gold earth” is pictorially concordant. Nature's parts “were not crowded together in disorder” (p. 95). New Mexico's “flat red sea of sand” with “light sprinkling of junipers” and masses of rabbit brush blends with the great rock mesa and “that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud” to form a “Gothic” outline, resembling a series of “vast cathedrals” (p. 95). Through the dunes the “boisterous” wind whirled “through the air all day” (p. 223). Its “warm gusts” “interpenterated” the air and the parts below. In short, the wind is nature in audible form.

The sound of the wind (indeed, all of nature) goes back to the first subterranean note. Water is the unifying element just as it is the vivifying element. All living forms are related through this common supply of nutriment. It subsists in geologic mystery below the ground and occasionally—“miraculously,” to use Willa Cather's word—emerges to feed the life above it.

All about it [a water-head] crowded the oven-shaped hills,—nothing to hint of water until it rose miraculously out of the parched and thirsty sea of sand. Some subterranean stream found an outlet here, was released from darkness. The result was grass and trees and flowers and human life; household order and hearths from which the smoke of burning piñon logs rose like incense to heaven (p. 30).

Water is found in the highest place just as it abides in the deepest. Father Vaillant, one time, sees a stream originating high in the mountains. It appears “like a thing alive” which flows through the “sunken fields and pastures” below. This particular stream is unique. It runs uphill, and its upward thrust strongly suggests water's transcendental power to unify the various levels of life which it feeds. Seeing the water rush up a precipice, Father Vaillant beholds “an ever ascending ladder of clear water, gurgling and clouding into silver as it climbed” (p. 167).

The mode of human life closest to this vital subterranean stream which miraculously appears above the ground is that of the Indians. They are very much a part of the land on which they live. Nature impinges on every aspect of their life. As it determines their basic needs, so everything the Indians do and make returns to those first exigencies. Form follows function in their architecture, pottery, and clothing. Indeed, it is this perfect unity between beauty and usefulness of Indian art which Willa Cather admires. To their higher needs nature is equally integral. The Indians, “who must share the universal human yearning for something permanent” (p. 99), find the utmost expression of immortality in nature and, in turn, express their own spiritual belief through pantheistic symbols and mysterious nature ceremonies.

Willa Cather conveys the dark, primitive Indian mind and the contribution which its spirit makes to Southwestern culture through music. Like their cults, Indian music is terrestrial, simple, and baffling. Cather keeps Indian music in the background, just as Indian beliefs remain unintelligible to the white mind. The music is faint, grave, and has a drum-like movement. There are “the religious dances at Laguna” for which Jacinto, Bishop Latour's guide and friend, periodically returns and of which the bishop knows nothing. In “The Legend of Fray Baltazar,” which recounts the life of a seventeenth-century decadent missionary and his destruction, the Padre hears the “singing murmur” of his executioners.

As the sun sank lower and lower, there began a deep, singing murmur of male voices from the pueblo below him, not a chant, but the rhythmical intonation of Indian oratory when a serious matter is under discussion (p. 114).

The fear-stricken man catches the singing sound of the pueblo mind but not the meaning of its puzzling movements. Its hum and buzz closes the circuit of communication to other races.

The surface rhythms of the Indian spirit which Friar Baltazar hears seem to issue directly from the earth, and the deep relationship between the Indian's “murmur” and nature's sound is forbidding as well as mysterious. When Father Latour enters the secret Indian cave, he is stunned almost to vertigo by a “dizzy noise” (p. 131). He feels an enveloping sound, “an extraordinary vibration” (p. 131), which is “like a heavy roll of distant drums” (p. 131) but which he cannot identify. Shortly, his Indian guide, Jacinto, leads him along a tunnel into the mountain and digs a hole so that the white man can hear the underground river. Bishop Latour's mythic sense explains “the dizzy noise” as a reverberation of this majestic and deep water which goes back in time to the earth's beginning. But inextricably part of this “extraordinary vibration” is the hum of a rattlesnake which the Indians secretly store, and its frightening sound apparently comes from “a little curious hole” (p. 133) which Jacinto “so carefully closed.” The bishop is unconsciously attracted to this spot and unable to keep his mind's ear and eye from it. During the night he wakens and tries to get another glimpse of the aperture, “But there against the wall was his guide, standing on some invisible foothold, his arms outstretched against the rock, his body flattened against it, his ear over that patch of fresh mud, listening; listening with super-sensual ear, it seemed, and he looked to be supported against the rock by the intensity of his solitude” (p. 134). This intermingling of water and serpent sounds has strong religious overtones, and clearly Willa Cather is emphasizing the remarkable (unintelligible) connection between Indian belief and nature and also identifying Jacinto's keen auditory sense with a heightened religious perceptivity. “Their country … was a part of their religion; the two are inseparable” (p. 298). And just as “the things they value most are worth nothing to us” (p. 137), so the significance of certain sounds which convey meaning to the Indian will be imperceptible to white men.

When Bishop Latour hears Indian music, he is once again struck by the curious intermingling of melody, ritual, religion, and body rhythm. First he hears “the deep sound of a cottonwood drum” (p. 233) beating softly. Then the priest sees Eusabio, an Indian friend, sitting before his house delicately beating the drum and singing in Navajo for two very small Indian boys who apparently are learning a tribal dance. Some inner rhythm seems to take hold of the four- and five-year-old boys because “without a word of instruction” they follow “the irregular and strangely-accented music” through “flowing, supple movements of their arms and shoulders, the sure rhythm of their tiny moccasined feet …” (p. 233). In the young Indians the rhythm of nature is made human.

The culture which comes from this country will inevitably draw from the strong Indian strain if that culture is true to its origins. Though by nature the red man is taciturn, he cannot help communicating his powerful identification with the earth. Father Latour recognizes and respects this relationship, and he knows that the Indians bring to bear on Southwestern civilization a special, spiritual rhythm, a kind of earthly rhythm in human form, which contains the story of racial experience of those intimate with the land.

If a bass vocal chant represents the traces of Indian tradition in Southwestern culture, then the banjo symbolizes the other native influence, the Mexican heritage. Both musical rhythms are similarly indefinite, spontaneous, and primitive; but where the Indian chant is mysteriously hushed and remote, the Mexican music is imposingly loud and nearly without control. There are delicate touches of gentleness in the playing of the banjo, but something of a frenzy dominates the music. Bishop Latour himself, whose tastes run toward the ordered and the subtle, finds the banjo music “more than a little savage.” On one occasion while the French cleric is visiting friends, a “strange yellow boy” appears with his banjo to entertain the guests.

After supper was over and the toasts had been drunk, the boy Pablo was called in to play for the company while the gentlemen smoked. The banjo always remained a foreign instrument to Father Latour; he found it more than a little savage. When this strange yellow boy played it, there was softness and languor in the wire strings—but there was also a kind of madness; the recklessness, the call of wild countries which all these men had felt and followed in one way or another. Through clouds of cigar smoke, the scout and the soldiers, the Mexican rancheros and the priests, sat silently watching the bent head and crouching shoulders of the banjo player, and his seesawing yellow hand, which sometimes lost all form and became a mere whirl of matter in motion, like a patch of sand-storm (p. 183).

In Bishop Latour's imagination, banjo music is very much the spirit of an undiscovered and untamed country. The unrestrained music calls to the pioneering priest's mind the territory's pressing need for order and discipline and direction. There are great energies and talents in New Mexico, and there is a great need to give its native passion a purpose and a form.

The banjo music, then, holds double metaphorical value: it represents New Mexico's attraction for the heroically adventurous and expresses the powerful and yet unharnessed spirit of its Mexican inhabitants. That temperament, as personified in Pablo, “the magician with his instrument,” is, again, a musical one. For all its recklessness and wildness the Mexican vigor is intensely human—perhaps exhaustingly human—and such a lusty spirit, so distinctly more assertive than the muted Indian strength, positively adds to the region's culture. The bishop repeatedly finds admirable examples of spiritual fervor and warmth in his Mexican associates.

There are also those of finer musical perceptions in Archbishop, and through their influence Southwestern life is brought in line with the more finished cultural tradition of Europe. The center of this improved sensibility is the Olivares' homes in Santa Fé. This little world is “filled with light and music” (p. 181). Presiding over this musical and elegant household is Doña Isabella, the most gracious and cultivated American in the novel. She “had done much to Europeanize her husband,” and she has done even more to refine Santa Fé. “Pretty and accomplished,” she introduces a “lavish style” into New Mexican life. “She spoke French well, Spanish lamely, played the harp, and sang agreeably” (p. 177). Her three languages correspond, of course, to the three cultural forces at work in the territory (American, Spanish, French), but the special cachet of her style is music. And her harp, the delicate counterpart of the banjo, is the symbol of the varied European traditions which meet in her home and which exercise an influence on New Mexican life.

It is at Doña Isabella's home that Bishop Latour hears Pablo sing, and it is on the occasion of his playing that Father Vaillant, eager to change the key of the evening, leads Señora Olivares to the harp. This evening she sings “La Paloma” (her repertoire consists of songs in three languages), which is her husband's favorite. It is the “last time the Bishop heard her sing” that song. Don Olivares dies a while later, and Doña Isabella silences her lovely music. Her deliberate abstention from music is Cather's typical gesture of sorrowful rebuke. It occurs in My Ántonia and One of Ours, and in Archbishop the silencing of musical expression signifies the same tragic condition which prevails in the earlier books: the fall of the world into disorder. Where the Olivares' household was once so graciously arranged, it is now, after the kind master's death, in sad disarray:

Chairs and window-sills were deep in red dust, the glass panes dirty, and streaked as if by tear-drops. On the writing-table were empty bottles and sticky glasses and cigar ends. In one corner stood the harp in its green cover (p. 190).

When certain ambiguities about the will are clarified and Don Olivares' wealth goes to its proper heirs, the household regains its old hospitable mood and musical ambiance. It sparkles with “the high tinkle” of the harp and with the sweetness of Doña Isabella's voice. The “little poésie” of which the Southwesterners have so little returns with all the charm and verve of its maker.


The music of the land, of its native and new inhabitants, marks the Southwest's individuality. But there is in the territory yet a higher and finer musical tone, and that marks its universality. Willa Cather sees more than a colorful chapter of American history in New Mexico's coming into its own as a region. For her, the founding of a cultural order here is a drama in little of the endless drama in big of humanity's struggle for honor. Among its inhabitants, Fathers Joseph Vaillant and Jean Marie Latour are chiefly responsible for New Mexico's becoming a part of man's cultural continuum. In their training, their taste, and their achievement they hold the finer tone. As characters they are distinguished by the improved musical sensitivity which Cather gives them and by the musical symbols through which she represents their heroic work.

Music, as we have seen, works in two symbolic directions in Archbishop. It is the concrete example of an abstraction, culture; and it represents something very personal within the characters. Music has a corresponding double function respecting the two missionaries and what their work signifies.

Father Vaillant personifies human warmth and vivacity. “He added a glow to whatever kind of human society he was dropped down into” (p. 230). Though he desires a secluded life, “he could not be happy for long without human intercourse” (p. 229). His work, which ranges geographically through the entire Southwest, is “work for the heart”; and with his particular sympathy for people, Father Vaillant manages firmly to establish his church wherever he goes. His great power is an inexhaustible love in which others can place their confidence, and this capacity accounts for his pioneering success. As she so frequently does, Willa Cather uses music to manifest this inner warmth. The paradox of his remarkable personality is that he is insensitive to external conditions but keenly aware of feelings. Cather observes about his first missionary days in America which were spent in Ohio:

The ugly conditions of life in Ohio had never troubled Joseph. The hideous houses and churches, the ill-kept farms and gardens, the slovenly, sordid aspect of the towns and country-side, which continually depressed Father Latour, he seemed scarcely to perceive. One would have said he had no feeling for comeliness or grace. Yet music was a passion with him. In Sandusky it had been his delight to spend evening after evening with his German choir-master, training the young people to sing Bach oratorios (pp. 229-30).

Musical interest evinces a rareness about his nature which our judging eyes miss, for his strength lies in an undetectable, but felt, rapport with others. Just as we always see nature's majesty but only rarely hear its vigorous spring, so too do we see the memorable signs of Father Vaillant's work but only occasionally know the driving ardor behind his achievement.

Bishop Latour is a very different person. He is quiet, scholarly, introspective. His response to music accords with his more abstract temperament. His mind naturally moves from the particular to the general, from the thing to the idea behind it; and this is precisely what happens when he hears music. Music either transports his imagination back in time or back in meaning; but always it has an associational, not a personal, power. During his early days in Santa Fé, the starlit evening in the New World suddenly prompts a devotional recollection of the Ave Maris Stella and “one of his friends at the Seminary” who used to intone it “so beautifully” (p. 36). Father Latour is refreshed by the remembrance of his youth, a remembrance which imaginatively returns him to the time of inspiration and friendship—the two great realities of his life. He enjoys recalling the song, but he enjoys the larger reminiscence more. Music is a bright part in the emotional penumbra of his imagination and memory.

On another occasion, music carries Father Latour further back in time than his own past. It takes him through the history of the musical sound which he is hearing. One morning he hears a bell play the Angelus, and at first the bell's ring suggests Rome and the chime of St. John Lateran:

Still half believing that he was lodged near St. John Lateran, he yet heard every stroke of the Ave Maria bell, marvelling to hear it rung correctly (nine quick strokes in all, divided into threes, with an interval between); and from a bell with beautiful tone. Full, clear, with something bland and suave, each note floated through the air like a globe of silver (p. 43).

Very soon this “beautiful tone” brings his mind eastward and deeper into history as the silver song hints of palm trees and Jerusalem. The bishop's response is altogether subjective, but subsequently he learns that his mental images have closely approximated historical fact. Santa Fé, it seems, owns a bell which dates to 1356 and to certain Spanish adaptations of Moorish traditions. Indeed, not only does the silver material have Eastern origins, but the devotional use of bells and the Angelus have their origins in venerated Eastern practices. In Santa Fé there is a living sound of a rich and complex history. For Father Latour its ring becomes the tocsin which signals the start of a new cultural order in New Mexico—an order which reaches as far back into history as “this silvery note had carried him.”

Meditating on the handmade wooden Virgin and the rich wardrobe which the Mexican women sewed for Her, Bishop Latour comes to recognize that much of the simple expression of feeling around him shares with all great art the common homage to something higher than itself. Such is his aesthetic vision: he conceives of art as a momentary arresting of an ideal.

These poor Mexicans, he reflected, were not the first to pour out their love in this simple fashion. Raphael and Titian had made costumes for Her in their time, and the great masters had made music for Her, and the great architects had built cathedrals for Her. Long before Her years on earth, in the long twilight between the Fall and the Redemption, the pagan sculptors were always trying to achieve the image of a goddess who should yet be a woman (pp. 258-59).

For the bishop, music, like all the arts, partakes of both the human and divine orders; and he, more so than anyone else in the novel, recognizes how Southwestern culture, however inchoate, participates in the infinite.

Father Latour's remarks on miracles disclose most clearly the penetrating power of his mind and that mind's aesthetic keenness. Father Vaillant takes a miracle to be “something we can hold in our hands and love” (p. 50), but the bishop does not regard the tangible manifestation as the miracle itself. For him, a miracle is “human vision corrected by divine love.” It is a tentative insight into an identity, an illumination.

The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always (pp. 50-1).

That he should discuss theology in aesthetic terms is significant because we see that religion and art offer the same understanding and satisfy the same higher needs for Father Latour. In Archbishop the flowering of the two is concurrent. When Jacinto breaks the earth and the bishop hears the earth's rush, the event is miraculous. His perception, made fine by understanding, allows him to hear “what is—always about us” the music of life's force and the ultimate harmony of life's parts.

Bishop Latour's dignity rests in his power to perceive into this harmonic reality; his good fortune is that he was born to the conditions which reflect that harmony in its Beginnings; his greatness is to have substantially contributed to that new life's development. His intimate attachment to this world keeps him in New Mexico when he could have retired to his native France. “In New Mexico he always awoke a young man” (p. 276). The land's power is miraculous, especially its “wind that made one a boy again.”

That air would disappear from the whole earth in time, perhaps; but long after his day. He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it. Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of the man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning! (pp. 276-77).

His new, young life comes about through a meeting of two restorative powers. In part this regeneration comes through the therapeutic effect of a nature understood and loved. The wind's whisper conveys this healing power. Also, the bishop's perceptivity is so finely improved with maturity that he lives in a sustained moment of hearing what is essentially there. He fulfills his dream of a death culminating a rich life. And more: he has heard the symphonic emergence of a new life—the oldest voice of the earth, a wind's whisper, a cottonwood drum, a chant, a banjo, a harp, the Angelus, a silver bell.


  1. E. K. Brown and Leon Edel, Willa Cather, a Critical Biography (New York, 1953), p. 254.

  2. Willa Cather, On Writing (New York, 1962), p. 9.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Death Comes for the Archbishop (New York, 1927). All references are to this text.

Lawrence Clark Powell (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4686

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 Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the French priest from the Auvergne who had come to New Mexico in 1851 and labored to civilize the vast episcopate until his death in 1888.

Every book has an inevitable time and place to be read. They were conjoined for me when I reread the book in a rocky garden in the foothills of the Santa Catalinas, overlooking Tucson and beyond to other mountain ranges—the Rincons, Santa Ritas, and Baboquivaris. It was a magical experience, as I brought to the book knowledge from the passing years. I, not the book, had changed.

Now I ask more of a book than bare bones of plot, narrative and characters. It must breathe, be chromatic, and full of murmurous overtones, so that it goes on pulsing, glowing and echoing after it is put back on the shelf. Willa Cather's is such a book. From my submersion in her life and work, I came to see the stages which led to Death Comes for the Archbishop. It does indeed rank in the highest realm of our literature.

Some have denied her authority as a Southwesterner. One knowing man of letters declared that her knowledge was gained from auto trips between the Harvey Houses in Lamy and Santa Fe. Obviously he did not know of her long familiarity with the region.

Because of the Archbishop, New Mexico has claimed Willa Cather Arizona has a prior claim. Winslow was her home for three months on her first visit to the Southwest in 1912. She went there to live with her brother, Douglass, who was a brakeman on the Santa Fe. Later she returned on long visits to Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Her work was cumulatively enriched by her Southwestern experiences.

Although her fame was established by those earlier, elegiac novels of the Nebraska prairie, O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and A Lost Lady, it was the Southwest that brought her genius to zenith. Her biographer, E. K. Brown, said: “The persistence and the diversity of the references to the Southwest suggest—what is indeed the truth—that the discovery of this region was the principal emotional experience of Willa Cather's mature life.”

The map of her life is wide and colorful. She was born in Virginia on December 7, 1873, and taken to Nebraska when she was ten, where her family and other Virginians formed a colony of pioneers among German, Scandinavian and Bohemian farmers. Christened Willela, she liked to be called Bill or Billy, and eventually changed her name to Willa. She was a tomboy, the oldest child in a large family. Her first interests were in nature and science. She said she intended to be a doctor, and sometimes jokingly signed herself “William Cather, M.D.”

At the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, an influential teacher diverted her to literature. Thus she was introduced to Stevenson, Maupassant, Flaubert, Mérimée, and Henry James. When she proved to be a fluent, perceptive writer, she became the drama and literary critic for local papers. This led upon graduation in 1895 to a newspaper job in Pittsburgh and then to teaching English literature in high school there. During the decade of her life in the birth town of Robinson Jeffers and Gertrude Stein, she kept on writing.

Isabelle McClung, the beautiful, art-loving daughter of a wealthy family, persuaded her parents (against their will) to let Willa live with her in a studio apartment in their home. From this haven came Willa Cather's first books, one of poetry, April Twilights (1903), and one of stories, The Troll Garden (1905). She and Miss McClung travelled together in Europe.

Willa Cather never married, although she did not lack proposals. She dedicated herself to her art—and to two women, Isabelle McClung and Edith Lewis. With the latter, a friend from the Lincoln years, she came eventually to share a home until her death. Masculine traits were strong in her. She was short and stocky and given to plain dress. Her hair was the color of bronze, her eyes blue-grey.

From Pittsburgh her destiny led to New York. Publication of The Troll Garden brought her into the ken of S. S. McClure, the foremost magazine publisher of the time. When the great muckrakers, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker, quarreled with McClure and quit his magazine in a body, the publisher began to recruit anew with the appointment of Miss Cather. Within three years she became the managing editor of McClure's.

She impressed those around her with her forceful ability. The young poet, Witter Bynner, joined the staff of McClure's, and years later in a review of three books about Willa Cather, he recalled an incident during their tenure on the magazine when a story in manuscript by Miss Cather, based on a friend's life, was judged by the editorial staff to be fraught with emotional peril for the friend if printed. She refused to withhold it. “I can hear her now, saying briefly, ‘My art is more important than my friend.’”

Her early stories of Pittsburgh and the East were influenced by Henry James and Edith Wharton. Prairie and Southwest lay below the horizon. The forces that brought them higher were set in motion by a meeting in 1908 when, on an assignment in Boston, Willa Cather became friends with Sarah Orne Jewett, dean of New England writers and author of The Country of the Pointed Firs. She was twenty-five years older than Miss Cather. Her pleasure in The Troll Garden was not heightened by the stories Willa Cather kept writing while managing McClure's.

Whereupon Miss Jewett wrote Miss Cather what was probably the most important letter the younger woman ever received. Its counsel turned her toward her ultimate fame.

If you don't keep and guard and mature your force, and above all, have time and quiet to perfect your work, you will be writing things not much better than you did five years ago. … Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the human heart. … To work in silence and with all one's heart, that is the writer's lot: he is the only artist who must be solitary, and yet needs the widest outlook on the world.

It is one thing to receive advice, another to embrace it. Although Willa Cather doubtless already knew it for the truth, Miss Jewett's was the confirmation she needed. This became her credo, and by adhering to it for the remaining thirty-nine years of her life, Willa Cather achieved greatness as a writer.

The first step toward it was that maiden journey to the Southwest, to Arizona in the spring of 1912. Even before she went there, however, the Southwest had appeared in her work in a story called “The Enchanted Bluff,” published in Harper's Monthly in 1909. Unlike the conventional tales Miss Jewett had warned her against, it went back to her girlhood and the local legend that Coronado had come as far as the prairies near Red Cloud, Nebraska, in his search for the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola. The story she wrote was of some boys camping on a sandbar in the river who fall to talking of the Mesa Encantada in New Mexico.

I believe that the immediate inspiration of the story was the controversy that had raged in the magazines and newspapers over whether or not the Enchanted Mesa had been inhabited; and particularly an article in Century Magazine by Frederick Webb Hodge called “The Ascent of the Enchanted Mesa,” with “Notes on Old Mesa Life” by Fernand Lungren, illustrated from vivid photographs by A. C. Vroman.

Winslow, Arizona, in the spring of 1912 was a rough division point on the Santa Fe, between Gallup and Flagstaff. It served Willa Cather as point of departure, by horseback to the Painted Desert and by train to Flagstaff, perhaps “deadheading” with her brakeman brother; and from there north to the Grand Canyon and south to Walnut Canyon and its prehistoric cliff dwellings. Remembered landscapes, especially of old cottonwoods, and Navajo hogans along the Little Colorado in a sandstorm, were eventually to appear in the Archbishop.

This was the Southwest before its transformation by the automobile. By one of those strange coincidences, this same place and time—Winslow in 1912—was to serve as the setting for Oliver La Farge's Laughing Boy.

It was not landscape, archeology, or history, however, that most excited Willa Cather. It was a man—a young Mexican from Vera Cruz named Julio, a singer of songs to his own guitar accompaniment. Julio took her to the Painted Desert and to a baile in the barrio. He was probably the only man ever to infatuate this strong woman. She poured out her feeling in letters to a friend at McClure's, urging her also to come to the Southwest and find herself a Mexican sweetheart.

She finally broke away, albeit reluctantly, and returned East; and yet she never forgot him. Years later, when someone asked her how Mabel Dodge Luhan could have married an Indian, Willa Cather replied, “How could she help it?”

This Southwest entrada was the great watershed in her creative life. She never returned to McClure's. Henceforth she was a novelist. She settled in Pittsburgh with the McClungs, and there the emotion of parting with Julio and reunion with Isabelle produced a “sudden inner explosion and enlightenment.” From that exaltation came O Pioneers!, to be followed by two other prairie masterpieces. She declared rightly that she was the first, in the words of Virgil (Primus ego in patriam mecum … deducam Musas) to bring the Muse into her country.

She moved back to New York in 1915 to share an apartment in Greenwich Village with Edith Lewis. Music and opera became a strong interest, and she wrote The Song of the Lark, a conventional novel based on the career of Olive Fremstad, the Swedish Wagnerian soprano—and on herself and her struggle to achieve independence and maintain integrity as a writer. It is not one of her best books. There is too much detail. In a revision years later, she cut it by 10 percent. Our interest here is the way she used her Southwest experience, including Julio, who appears as an old Mexican troubadour on tour in the East.

Next Miss Cather agreed to take a writing assignment in Germany for S. S. McClure. She and Isabelle McClung planned to go together. Old Judge McClung, who held the purse strings, said no. And so instead Willa Cather took Edith Lewis and set off again for the Southwest on her first visit to the Mesa Verde which, thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt, had been made a national park in 1906. The two women went by narrow gauge railroad from Denver to Durango, and thence by team and wagon from Mancos onto the Mesa. There for a week they camped in the park and had the nearly exclusive attention of the ranger. They also met the brother of Richard Wetherill; the latter was one of the two cowboys who had discovered the great Cliff Palace in 1888. Ten years later this Mesa Verde adventure became “Tom Outland's Story,” an inset in her novel, The Professor's House.

From the Mesa Verde the two women traveled by wagon over rough roads to Taos and spent a month there in a primitive adobe hotel run by a Mexican woman. They rode horseback to nearby villages, including Arroyo Hondo. This material was to give Death Comes for the Archbishop its concrete Southwestern imagery.

Upon her return to the East, Willa Cather was shocked by the death of Judge McClung and the breakup of the old home in Pittsburgh where she had first found the creative vein. An even worse blow followed. Freed of fatherly domination and with money of her own, Isabelle married. Her husband was Jan Hambourg, a foreign violinist. Willa was shattered. Writing became impossible. Again she sought solace in the West, in Taos.

And again she found healing in her art. She began to write. Back in New York she created the novel which shares with the Archbishop highest rank in the Cather canon. In My Ántonia, she did not repeat her mistake in The Song of the Lark of overfurnishing the story. “How wonderful it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window; and along with it, all the meaningless reiterations concerning physical sensations, all the tiresome old patterns, and leave the room as bare as the stage of a Greek theatre … for the play of emotions great and little.”

This is what she did in My Ántonia. All her gifts were fused in it: knowledge of the prairie, abiding love for its pioneer Bohemians, and mastery of her medium. She wrote prose it is true, but prose intensified by imagination to the level of incandescence. Though she may have been austere in person and mannish in dress, her writing was distinguished by feminine tenderness.

This was the highest point she had reached. At forty-five she was beginning to feel the ills of the body. World War I and Isabelle's defection left aching scars. Her stories and succeeding novels grew sombre. She sought writing havens at Jaffrey, a New Hampshire village, and on the island of Grand Manan in New Brunswick's Bay of Fundy. She traveled again in Europe. One of Ours, a war novel (and one of her weakest), won the Pulitzer Prize. Honors and royalties accrued. The Professor's House, with its interpolated Mesa Verde story, harked back to her university years. Two short novels, My Mortal Enemy and A Lost Lady, were studies in disillusionment.

The latter is the third of her prairie masterpieces. In it she gave a last look at the land and the railroading age that followed the pioneers. Although romantic sex is a thin and pale strand in her fabric, she could, when she chose to, quicken the reader's senses, the more so for what was merely implied. Such occurs when Mrs. Forrester and her lover emerge from a buffalo-robed rendezvous in the snowy cedar brake and the man returns to cut the boughs they had ostensibly gone for. One of the Blum boys had hidden by chance close to the sleigh and horses. This is what he saw:

He reached under the seat for a hatchet and went back to the ravine. Mrs. Forrester sat with her eyes closed, her cheek pillowed on her muff, a faint, soft smile on her lips. The air was still and blue; the Blum boy could almost hear her breathe. When the strokes of the hatchet rang out from the ravine, he could see her eyelids flutter … soft shivers went through her body.

As her fame grew, Willa Cather insisted on privacy. When writing a book, her door was locked, her telephone disconnected. She lived by Miss Jewett's injunction, presenting to the world a blank facade.

In 1920, irked by her Boston publisher's lack of flair in designing and promoting her books, she left Houghton Mifflin and sought out the rising young publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. He welcomed her, and until her death twenty-seven years later, hers were his distinguished Borzoi books. Last spring in Tucson while teaching at the University of Arizona, I persuaded Knopf to speak to my class on his life as a publisher. When I drew him out on Willa Cather, he recalled her interest in the details of her books and that it was she who wrote the blurb that appeared on the dust wrapper of Death Comes for the Archbishop. She was a lady of a very special kind, he said, now all but extinct. Loyalty was one of her great qualities; if she were on your side it was almost impossible for you to do anything that she regarded as wrong. And if she were not on your side, you simply couldn't do anything of which she approved.

Her experience with the motion pictures was similar to that of Harvey Fergusson's (also a longtime Knopf author). After an unsatisfactory adaptation of A Lost Lady, she refused to grant any more movie rights, even when the offers were high; and furthermore, her will forbade any movie, radio, and TV productions of her books. Only novels of action can be dramatized, she said; hers were chromatic books of feeling, mood and setting, and would be destroyed in the process. She also left the restriction that her letters were never to be published. They are finding their way into libraries—Yale, Newberry, Huntington, and Willa Cather Memorial Library in Red Cloud, Nebraska—where they may be read and paraphrased, but never copied nor quoted.

Although it seems most unlikely, it was D. H. Lawrence who was responsible for Willa Cather's return to the Southwest after an absence of nearly ten years, a return that resulted in her writing Death Comes for the Archbishop. Was it Knopf who brought them together? In 1924 when Lawrence and Frieda, en route back to their ranch from Europe, twice had tea with Miss Cather in her Greenwich Village apartment, they were Knopf authors. She promised to rejoin the Lawrences in New Mexico.

And so the following summer she returned to Taos and lived in the house that Mabel Dodge Luhan had built for the Lawrences. Tony Luhan drove her and Edith Lewis about the countryside, sitting in the driver's seat “in his silver bracelets and purple blanket, often singing softly to himself, while we sat behind,” Miss Lewis recalled in a memoir of her companion. They visited the Lawrences at their ranch on Lobo Mountain. That summer was a creative time for both Lawrence and Willa Cather, he completing The Plumed Serpent, she conceiving the Archbishop.

How did that conception come about? Preparation for it began with her knowledge of the French missionaries in the Southwest, gained from a priest on her first visit to the region, and then from reading and travel on her several returns. Finally, in that summer of 1925 while staying at La Fonda in Santa Fe where she could look out from her room on the noble statue of Archbishop Lamy, there occurred another of those “sudden inner explosions and enlightenments” that had yielded My Ántonia.

In seeking information about Lamy she had obtained an obscure book by a priest named William Howlett, privately printed in 1908 at Pueblo, Colorado. This was The Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Macheboeuf, who had been Lamy's vicar and lifelong friend. Enthralled by the book, she stayed up nearly all night reading the story of the old churchmen renamed in her story Latour and Vaillant. By morning, she had planned her book.

“From that time on,” Miss Lewis recalled in her memoir of Miss Cather, “it completely took possession of her, filled all her waking thoughts. She knew exactly what material she needed in order to write the story as she wanted to write it, and she seemed to draw it out of everything she encountered—from the people she talked with—old settlers, priests, taxi-drivers, Indian traders, trainmen; from old books she found in the various libraries in Santa Fe, and used to bring back to the hotel by the armful, and read in the evening; and from the country itself. We drove all over northern New Mexico, this time by automobile. She made notes occasionally about dates and facts she took from her reading; but I do not think she made any notes of things she herself encountered. She trusted to her memory to retain anything of real interest or importance.”

Paul Horgan, who has long been engaged upon a definitive life of Lamy, tells of coming inadvertently upon Miss Cather and Miss Lewis in lounging chairs on a La Fonda balcony, surrounded by books and papers, at work on the Archbishop. “… the nearer of the two ladies turned upon me a light blue regard of such annoyance and distaste at my intrusion that I was gone too quickly to take more than a sweeping impression of where I had been.” It was the only time he ever saw Willa Cather.

Writing the book, Miss Cather said, was

… like a happy vacation from life, a return to childhood, to early memories. As a writer I had the satisfaction of working in a special genre which I had long wished to try. As a human being, I had the pleasure of paying an old debt of gratitude to the valiant men whose life and work … gave me a feeling of close kinship with them.

She was wrong, however, when she declared that its writing took only a few months. Begun in New Mexico, it was continued that fall in New Hampshire and then in New York during the winter and spring. For purposes of her story she found it necessary to return the following summer to see for the first time the Mesa Encantada and Ácoma. She and Miss Lewis were detained for a week at Laguna Pueblo by cloudbursts which made the clay road south impassable.

Back at La Fonda, Miss Cather neared the end of her task. Before going into a hospital at St. Louis, Mary Austin offered Willa Cather the use of her empty home, La Casa Querida, as a quiet place to write. Miss Cather found it ideally suited to her needs. Later she inscribed a copy “For Mary Austin, in whose lovely study I wrote the last chapters of this book. She will be my sternest critic—and she has the right to be. I will always take a calling-down from my betters.”

The book was finished that fall during her only stay at the MacDowell Colony at Peterborough, New Hampshire. It had taken a full year and a half to write.

She knew that she had wrought a masterpiece. Upon delivering the manuscript to Knopf, she predicted that after he and she were dead, his son would be paying royalties to her niece. On this book alone she shrewdly asked, and was given, an extra one percent of royalty. Now, forty-five years after publication, Alfred Knopf is still paying royalties to her estate.

Although not a Catholic (she was converted in 1922 to the Episcopal faith) Miss Cather's book was ardently embraced by Catholics. Mary Austin was displeased that French rather than Spanish missionaries were portrayed. The author had failed to include an acknowledgement of her debt to Father Howlett's book which had been the skeleton for her work. When that aggrieved priest gently reminded her of the oversight, she contritely wrote a letter to the Commonweal, telling how she came to write the book and crediting Father Howlett for all she owed him. Her title came from one of the pictures in Hans Holbein's famous sequence, “The Dance of Death.”

In form and content, Death Comes for the Archbishop is like no other Southwest novel.

Miss Cather said in a letter:

I am amused that so many reviews of this book began with the statement, “This book is hard to classify.” Then why bother? Many more assert vehemently that it is not a novel. Myself, I prefer to call it a narrative.

It is a work wherein the creative imagination seizes certain facts about the people, the land and the life of the Southwest, and remoulds them in a new form on a higher level, and does this in language of crystalline simplicity. The frescoes of Puvis de Chavannes in the Pantheon in Paris inspired her to visualize the book as a tapestry peopled by a few contrasting characters. Her touch was delicate, strong and sure. The book's configuration is like a prismatic web.

Its appeal has always been wide. Once in the 1950s I sent President Robert Gordon Sproul an article on Southwestern literature which quoted J. Frank Dobie's tribute to Willa Cather. His reply came from a vacation cabin high in the Sierra Nevada. “I found what he had to say about Willa Cather especially interesting, having years ago enjoyed a similar experience. I was left somewhere in a hotel room with nothing else to read, and opened Death Comes for the Archbishop. I found this book full of spiritual vitamins and was refreshed by the beauty of its contents as well as its writing. And so Willa Cather was one of the first I recommended for an honorary degree when I came into the presidency.” She was awarded the LLD by the University of California on Charter Day, 1931.

Now twenty years had passed and I was rereading Death Comes for the Archbishop. Although I was not in New Mexico at the time, I knew that the land of Arizona had been in the diocese of the Archbishop and that it was there in Tucson that his Vicar had served before his final mission to Colorado. Savoring the book anew took me in memory to places I had once traced on the episcopal path—to the Little Colorado, Canyon de Chelly, Ácoma, Mesa Encantada, Laguna Pueblo, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Arroyo Hondo, up into Colorado to the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

Throughout this Virginian-turned-Nebraskan-into-Southwesterner's book, there is no false note, no wrong color. It is faithful to the land and the people. She brought to it a half century of living, loving, looking and learning, and its creation was the supreme point to which she attained as a writer. To many it is the benchmark by which Southwestern writing must be measured.

Willa Cather lived another twenty years and wrote several lesser books, notably Shadows on the Rock (1931), Lucy Gayheart (1935), and Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940). They were years of gradual descent.

A book is made with one's own flesh and blood. It is cremated youth.

As she burned herself away in her writing, she had less and less to give. She was ever generous with what she had. During the Depression she helped half a dozen families, including her brothers.

Life closed in on her. Her parents died, followed by Isabelle and her two dearest brothers, Douglass and Roscoe. After Isabelle's death, Jan Hambourg returned the letters Willa had written to his wife. Bundle after bundle they were burned in her Park Avenue apartment incinerator. One who knew her said that Willa Cather feared the betrayal in print of “the heat and the abundance that surged up in her.”

The second World War was a final blow. She stopped writing, leaving an unfinished story of the time of the Avignon papacy. This too was burned. Although never bedridden and lucid to the last, she knew that her end was near. On April 24, 1947 death came for Willa Cather.

She lies buried on a hillside in Jaffrey. Her gravestone bears these words from My Ántonia:

That is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great.

D. H. Stewart (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5202

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 Death Comes.

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 Saint Genevieve in my student days, I have wished that I could try something a little like that in prose; something without accent, with none of the artificial elements of composition. In the Golden Legend the martyrdoms of the saints are no more dwelt upon than are the trivial incidents of their lives; it is as though all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual experience, were of about the same importance. … Writing this book (the title, by the way, which has caused a good deal of comment, was simply taken from Holbein's Dance of Death) was like a happy vacation from life, a return to childhood, to early memories. (“On Death Comes for the Archbishop)”

Miss Cather was never shy about tackling the insuperable which perhaps explains why her peer in technical audacity, William Faulkner, regarded her highly. In our post-James/Lubbock era, the very idea of modelling a novel on a painting would seem to court disaster, since fiction lives temporally while the fine arts live spatially. To be sure, both Puvis de Chavannes' frescoes and Holbein's woodcuts exist as narrative series, but this in no way diminishes the danger that any fiction which imitates painting will become static.

We can assume, I think, that a writer as canny and stylish as Miss Cather recognized this danger at once. The question then is, what exactly did she imitate in these artists' works and how did she try to compensate for the obvious perils?

The best way to begin an answer (indeed, the best way to begin studying Death Comes) is to look at reproductions of Chavannes' frescoes and Holbein's woodcuts. I wish some of these could be included in every edition of the novel, because the diametrical opposition between the two artists' approaches to their material would forcibly remind every reader that explosive contradictions lie at the heart of the book—in style as well as meaning. This is not to say that Cather requires an illustrator's assistance any more than Sterne did Hogarth.

In form, Puvis de Chavannes stands so close to Cather that we might say he made painting démeublé. Especially in the Genevieve frescoes, he used legendary materials and sought a radical simplicity through which to express them. Like Cather, he refused to paint directly from nature, relying instead on memory. “I do not merely copy nature,” he often said; “I draw my inspiration from her.” He liked twilight tones, so that he places scene after scene at dusk, just as Cather makes many crucial events in Death Comes occur at sunset. To be sure, Cather often includes colours more vibrant—crimson and turquoise, for example—than any in Chavannes, yet the atmosphere she creates is one of “autumnal pensiveness” probably because the contemplative attitude of her Archbishop mutes everything and also because her very effort to build a “legend” presupposes the indefiniteness of eternity. Again like Cather, Chavannes had a predilection for “low skies” and solitary plains in his landscapes, but at the same time he achieved accent by emphasizing verticality—in tall, slender trees, masts and buildings. Presumably his intention was to superimpose a sense of religious elevation upon nature harmonized with men's activities, since he was painting the Christian origins of France just as Cather was describing Christian origins and a Christian rebirth in the American Southwest. Thus in Cather we also find mesas and tall trees upon the open, rolling terrain. It is not surprising to learn that both artists held Virgil in high esteem or that both preferred the linear clarity and the explicit planes of classical art. For both symmetry is essential, so that the central panel of Chavannes' frescoes is the climactic “Meeting of Saint Germain and Saint Genevieve,” while the central “panel” in Death Comes is Part V, the meeting between Fathers Latour and Martinez—centred squarely in the nine-part novel. (I shall return to the centrality of this scene.) Little wonder that Cather, in casting about for a vehicle in which to communicate her legend, should have remembered Chavannes' frescoes whose unifying theme, especially in the monumental “Genevieve Bringing Food to Besieged Paris,” is the bringing of faith (the food of life) to the people.

If the similarities between Cather and Chavannes are evident, her affinity with Holbein is no less obvious, however contradictory this might seem. Holbein's woodcuts, it will be remembered, virtually leap from the page. His jolly skeleton frolics hideously from scene to scene, tugging sleeves, pounding his drum, mocking, teasing in a perfect furor of annihilation. These frenzied bones wilfully flout ecclesiasticism, evangelizing Protestant heresy. Could anything be less appropriate to Cather's prim and tranquil pages?

In the first place, there are two plates in Holbein's series devoid of macabre irony and satire: in number 12, death comes for an archbishop; in number 22 for a priest. The skeleton takes the archbishop by the hand, urging him away from a scene in which shepherds lament their scattered flock—a scene bathed in the light of the setting sun pouring across a town nestled in barren mountains, one of which, in the distance, is crowned with a citadel. The landscape is New Mexican. Death, for once, is decent. His hour-glass stands on the ground unnoticed. He respects his man as Cather respects her Bishop.

As for the priest, Death almost neglects him. He leads a procession bearing the sacrament to the bedside of some dying man, while Death strides ahead playing sacristan with bell and lantern—his hour-glass tucked nonchalantly under his arm. A more appropriate illustration could hardly be found for Father Vaillant, Trompe-la-Mort, as he is called, who triumphed over death so many times, and who spent his life hurrying to dying Indians and Mexicans and finally miners in Colorado.

In the second place, there is a general congruity between Death Comes and Holbein's Dance of Death. Few readers note that Cather lists ninety-six specific deaths in the novel, excluding the “hundreds” of Navajos who perished from exposure and starvation when expelled from their reservation or the unnumbered dead in the Colorado mines. Of the ninety-six, fifty go together in the Navajo massacre of Don Jose Chavez's Mexican party, while Taos Indians murdered twelve Americans along with Governor Bent and lost seven of their own number in the retaliatory hanging. But this leaves twenty-seven fairly prominent individualized deaths. Moreover, the passing of these people varies ingeniously: humour, irony, horror, and acquiescence, for example, are all represented as they are in Holbein's woodcuts.

Of parenthetical interest is the last plate in Holbein's series: Death's escutcheon, topped by a crest of skeletal arms holding a rock above an hour-glass, and flanked by “supporters,” a man and woman usually thought to be Holbein himself and his wife. In the distance clouds roll above mountain peaks. It illustrates splendidly Cather's familiar ideal of family equilibrium as a momentary triumph over mutability.

Finally, it is appropriate to observe that in woodcutting, as in Cather's method of writing, all extraneous material must be cut away. Holbein's plates are “busier” than Cather's scenes, yet no one was more aware of the clean, expressive line than he; no one more attentive to gaining the desired end by the simplest means.

We have, then, by Cather's own admission, a combination of Holbein's dynamism and Chavannes' meditative calm: the ubiquity and vigour of death are often enhanced by tempestuous nature but always finally composed within the contemplative mood of the pastoral setting, the chief character (Latour), and the ordering principle of civilization and Christianity which he so ably represents.

This does not, however, describe adequately the unity of the novel. Nor does Cather's allusion to the Golden Legend help much; for saints' lives, almost by definition, dispense with the principles of aesthetic order which we conventionally demand. Making “all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual experience …, of about the same importance” violates every expectation we have about dramatic order in fiction. To take Cather at face value here will lead us, as it has many critics, to upbraid her for tolerating an episodic narrative, redeemed by no unifying idea except the dubious platitude that death comes for everybody.

Prior to her artistic models, Cather discovered inspiration first in her own characteristically intense response to the land and people of the Southwest, and second in Reverend Howlett's biography of Fathers Machebeuf and Lamy, pioneer priests in the area. In other words, she had the feel for “some kind of story,” and Howlett provided her with specific actions and characters, particularizing one story for her and thus enabling the feel to express itself. Mere emotional response plus some “facts” from reality do not, however, constitute art. They are the crude energy behind art. They may lead to a vivid and brilliant form of journalism but not to imaginative works. As Cather assures us in “The Novel Démeublé: Out of the teeming, gleaming stream of the present [the novel] must select the eternal material of art.” Her use of Puvis de Chavannes, Holbein, and the Golden Legend is precisely the record of her search for “eternal material.”


Just as there are two artists whose works form analogues to Death Comes, so there are, I think, two writers, only one of whom (actually the compiler rather than writer of the Golden Legend) Cather mentions. The other is Dante. That neither her critics nor her biographers have noted the analogy between the Divine Comedy and this novel is not surprising, though of course Cather's allegorical tendency has provoked general allusions not only to Dante but to Virgil, Spenser and Bunyan as well.

Only twice, to my knowledge, did Cather disclose the impact Dante made on her. The most striking reference is in an autobiographical passage in My Ántonia. The passage often escapes notice because Cather throws so much emphasis on Virgil's Georgics two pages later. What is important, however, is the fact that she knew her Dante and that, as everyone recognizes, she rarely forgot anything that impressed her when the time came to use it in her fiction.

I remember vividly another evening, when something had led us to talk of Dante's veneration for Virgil. Cleric went through canto after canto of the ‘Commedia,’ repeating the discourse between Dante and his ‘sweet teacher,’ while his cigarette burned itself out unheeded between his long fingers. I can hear him now, speaking the lines of the poet Statius, who spoke for Dante: ‘I was famous on earth with the name which endures longest and honours most. The seeds of my ardour were the sparks from that divine flame whereby more than a thousand have kindled; I speak of the “Aeneid,” mother to me and nurse to me in poetry.’ (Book III, Chap. 1)

This constitutes no proof that Cather actually used the Divine Comedy as a model for Death Comes. The proofs are internal, yet finally, I think, reliable because cumulatively they explain too much to be disregarded. There is, first of all, the way in which Cather divided her material: not only is the book divided into nine parts plus a prologue; the nine parts are subdivided into thirty-two units—giving a total of thirty-three. (It should be noted that, to make thirty-two, we must count both halves of Part I, Chapter 2—the only chapter in the book divided by a row of asterisks.)

This may be a coincidence, yet one is reluctant to ignore it because the Prologue, “In Rome,” which she apparently wrote after the novel was completed, contains marked similarities to the opening of the Divine Comedy. Three very imperfect men, Cardinals of the Church, have met together near Rome to hear an importunate missionary Bishop recommend that a thirty-five year old priest be made responsible for a new vicarate in the American Southwest. The Bishop meets them not in the congested Vatican but high up the Sabine hills in a granite-bound garden bathed in sunshine, and later they walk up and down an elevated promenade watching the stars come out.

The passage suggests a “frame” for the entire novel because the churchmen see Saint Peter's dome, “a flash of copper light” in the distance, just as Cather's hero contemplates his cathedral years later at sunset. More important, the three Cardinals suggest the leopard, lion and she-wolf (lust, pride and covetousness) of Dante's first Canto. They precede the symbol of reason, Virgil, who announces the advent of a redeemer, the Hound, just as Bishop Ferrand introduces Father Latour.

Clearly Willa Cather has done something curious to the materials at her disposal in Howlett's biography. Father Latour, unlike Father Lamy, is symbolically prepared for an odyssean journey through life, a journey conducted in the mountainous terrain of another hemisphere. There he will encounter infernal sins which he must conquer, if salvation is to be won, by faith, labour and the exercise of virtue. His victory will guide others to bliss. Cather's Comedy, because it is modern, unifies hell with purgatory and places both in “reality” instead of dream. Her paradise takes the form of a mental condition in the very last chapter of the novel where death is a beatific vision that recaptures life itself.


If seeing Death Comes this way is justified, then the order of the novel is more complex than the triadic division conventionally suggested by critics. To say that the first three parts describe Bishop Latour's (and his Vicar General, Father Vaillant's) exploration of the diocese, that the second three present challenges, reforms and consolidation, and that the last three celebrate achievement is probably accurate but at the same time over-simple. It fails, for example, to account for the fact that Part IX is divided into eight untitled units (unlike all earlier chapters) which would seem intended to remind us of the preceding eight Parts of the novel.

Forewarned by our Dante analogue to watch for patterns of sin and virtue, we see that the eight chapters of Part IX do not signify the eight Beatitudes but rather the seven virtues crowned by a revelation. One can supply titles and Dantesque parallels for the eight chapters as follows:

1. Faith: Father Latour lives in retirement cultivating his garden and training new missionary priests for the propagation of the faith. For him faith is now knowledge, as it was for Dante in Paradiso XXIV. Rose-violet and “sea-dark purple—the true Episcopal colour …” supply the proper visual imagery.

2. Charity: Latour, his health failing, returns in the company of his beloved “son,” Bernard, to live out his last days near his cathedral. Sangre de Cristo's “intense rose-carnelian …, the colour of the dried blood of saints and martyrs,” creates the image. (Where Dante goes temporarily blind for love—Paradiso XXV-XXVI—Father Latour's “love chapter” is radically visual.)

3. Hope: Latour gradually realizes that he has learned to prefer the New World to the Old. “In New Mexico he always awoke a young man; not until he rose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one's body feel light and one's heart cry ‘To-day, to-day,’ like a child's.” As in the “examination Cantos” of the Divine Comedy, so here hope has become fulfilment. The colour image is the “blue and gold” of morning, which combine as green.

4. Courage/Fortitude (soldiers of the faith—the Cross): Latour reminisces about early American missionaries who “threw themselves naked upon the hard heart of a country that was calculated to try the endurance of giants. … Surely these endured Hunger, Thirst, Cold, Nakedness, of a kind beyond any conception St. Paul and his brethren could have had … in that safe little Mediterranean world. …” The image is Father Junipero's story of the miraculous appearance of the Holy Family in the desert.

5. Prudence (teachers of wisdom—the Sun): the story tells of Latour's good counsel to imprudent Father Vaillant to set forth on their mission pilgrimage. The image is the account of Vaillant's funeral, attended by Father Revardy, himself a virtual corpse.

6. Justice (just rulers—the Eagle): Old Eusabio visits Archbishop Latour, provoking him to say to Bernard: “My son, I have lived to see two great wrongs righted; I have seen the end of black slavery, and I have seen the Navajos restored to their own country.” A double image: the Indian and the railroad.

7. Temperance (contemplative monks—Jacob's ladder): Latour refuses to intervene on behalf of persecuted Navajos because “in a Protestant country the one thing a Roman priest could not do was to interfere in matters of Government.” His discretion confirms him as a great Archbishop. Image: the Navajo Passover to Canyon de Chelly with its inaccessible cliff-dwellings, focussed on the picture of “a young Navajo woman, giving a lamb her breast until a ewe was found for it.”

8. The Beatific Vision: His heart slowly failing, Latour is attended by Magdalena, Bernard and the Mother Superior, while in the court Tesuque Indians, Eusabio, and the old servants keep the vigil. His last thoughts take him back to “a tip-tilted green field among his native mountains” when he forged a new Will in his comrade priest. His vision of eternity is precisely a recovery of the good life of service which began in that decisive moment with his friend. And the final image is the Archbishop's body lying in state before the high altar of his church.


While this parallelism with the Divine Comedy may be coincidental as well as incomplete, it is at least suggestive—doubly suggestive if we recognize that the seven virtues are roughly equivalent to major episodes in the first seven Parts of the novel, each of which represents an appropriate sin.

Pride is the universal fault, the root of all vice; and we should not be surprised to see it chastened by humility in the novel's hero at the very outset. Father Latour was under no compulsion to journey alone from his See to obtain credentials as Vicar Apostolic from the Bishop of Durango. His voluntary humiliation marks a triumph over pride which prepares him for the ascent up Purgatory. The journey is conspicuously similar to Christ's sojourn in the wilderness that preceded His ministry. Illustrations of faith abound: (a) Father Latour's “blotting himself out of his consciousness” to meditate upon Christ and in this way triumph over thirst, (b) the very existence of Christianity in so isolated a place as Agua Secreta, and (c) the miracle of Our Lady of Guadaloupe.

Part II, after a preliminary story (the gift of the white mules) illustrating a rudimentary form of charity, presents the most malicious and inhospitable character in the book, Buck Scales. His home is a combined Caina and Tolemea. Violence so pervades this episode that even our priests go armed—though they neglect to keep their powder dry and require the assistance of Kit Carson, the quintessential saintly lawman of the frontier. Ecclesiastical and secular charity are made to vie with each other in succouring persecuted Magdalena.

Sloth and prodigality walk hand in hand in Part III with two medieval libertines: real Father Gallegos and legendary Fray Baltazar. When we meet them, however, a hopeful young Indian, Jacinto, accompanies us. But the virtue of hope becomes absolutely essential later when we reach “the Rock,” Acoma, and confront Despair in the form of fifty or sixty worshippers at the mission church. Father Latour felt as if he were celebrating Mass at the bottom of the sea, for antediluvian creatures; for types of life so old, so hardened, so shut within their shells, that the sacrifice on Calvary could hardly reach back so far.”

If the mood of hopelessness is barely alleviated at the end of Part III by the green sprouts pitifully erecting themselves from the old peach stumps of Fray Baltazar's devastated orchard, Part IV plunges us into a spatial and temporal void, the negation not only of civilization but of man himself. While the passionate and active Father Vaillant lies ill with “black measles,” Father Latour encounters a dying tribe of Indians and later descends, seeking protection from an ice storm, into a cavern “shaped somewhat like a Gothic chapel.” Apparently it is a sacred place of the tribe, the sanctuary of an eternal fire where the Indians celebrate some primordial snake-ritual. The place smells evilly; it disturbs the ears to the point of vertigo with the tumult of hidden water resounding in an underground river. Courage meets terror in the face of the unknown, and Father Latour emerges shaken but victorious, as Dante emerged from Inferno.

In Part V, probably the most dramatic section of the novel, Father Latour meets avarice in the person of Father Marino Lucero, gluttony in the novitiate bastard Trinidad, and lust (carnal and political) in the Renaissance tyrant Padre Martinez. Martinez challenges the authority of his Bishop and threatens the Church's unity. The antagonism between him and Father Latour is both more personal and more dramatic than any other in the novel, and Cather reinforces parallelisms in their relationship in several ways. For example, to Martinez and Lucero she attaches the epithets “bull” and “horse” respectively. When ill, Lucero receives treatment from a veterinarian. Together, the two priests produce a monster, Trinidad, made up of equal parts of lust, gluttony, stupidity and impotence but motivated by the same brute energy that animates the chained Giants guarding nethermost Hell. Father Latour, on the other hand, is a saintly man who cultivates exquisitely civilized young French priests for the ministry.

Although they had nothing in common except love of authority, Martinez and Lucero are inseparable, waging a war of mutual recrimination. They remind one of Ugolino and Ruggieri in Antenora, suffering from the sin of treachery to their church, if not nation. Initially, of course, one recognizes that they comprise a pair diametrically opposed to Fathers Latour and Vaillant. Latour's prudent administration first curtails then conquers the schismatics. Nothing could make the opposition more obvious than their manner of dying: Martinez disobediently in schism, Lucero shriven but howling obscenities at his enemy; Vaillant's funeral, on the other hand, is a solemn festival undimmed by his recent fiscal irregularities, and Latour passes away silently, crowned with virtues, lost in a vision of immortal youth.

As Latour survived the negation of barbarism among the Pecos Indians and the seductive sensuality of old Catholicism at Taos and Arroyo Hondo, so in Part VI he triumphs with justice over envy and vainglory, represented by Don Chavez and Dona Isabella. After the spiritual storms of IV and V, these episodes seem almost trivial, and Cather presents them with appropriate humour. Here, after all, is modern Catholicism, long since grown respectable. Legal chicanery presides. The heroic conquest of heathenism, the turbulence of Reformation and Counter-reformation echo only distantly, and we ride easily in a slack-water of Christendom awaiting the ebb tide.

The last three parts of Death Comes are commemorative, introduced by the first chapter of Part VII which is an interlude devoted to the Virgin—following close upon the heels, it should be noted, of Part VI, Chapter 2, “The Lady,” which celebrates Dona Isabella as a mundane queen. No sin threatens this book (the blasphemous Smiths are minor), except perhaps an immoderate ecstasy on Cather's part over two ideals: an apotheosized lady (who elicits Sada's spectacular piety) and a “natural aristocrat;” that is Mary and Eusabio. In a sense the two temper each other, just as the two heroic priests do; for Mary is all passion and humility while Eusabio is all gravity like a “Roman general of Republican times.” These contrasts are reinforced in Part VII, Chapter 3 by the distinctions made between Latour and Vaillant in family background and temperament.

Part VIII reflects the condition of blessedness detailed in IX, Chapter 8. Its three great images are the yellow stone cathedral, the golden mountain in Colorado, and the Ark of the Covenant that Father Vaillant drives back and forth between the first two. Wherever civilized men go, they make gardens; the cathedral and its environs are meant to represent the best garden of all, the nearest approach to Eden possible in this fallen world. But as Cather hastens to warn us, commerce jeopardizes every Eden. It degrades man into an acquisitive beast. Its voice speaks from the penitentiary town of Leavenworth, not the penitential city of Peter. It builds Pandaemonium—prefabricated, meretriciously comfortable, artificially convenient, but ugly. So corrupt is the Denver gold-seeker that squalor satisfies him, and Father Vaillant goes begging from improvident Mexicans and Indians for money to build a Colorado church.

To retain the mood of fulfilment proper to Part VIII, Cather curbs the menace of commercialism by concentrating, in the final chapter, on the discipline of penitence through which Father Latour is prepared for his crown of stars. The spirit of contrition rectifies his momentary rebelliousness against God's plan which obliged him to spend his life in the wilderness. Then he imposes upon himself a penance: he gives Father Vaillant the mule Angelica and meditates upon the Virgin, prayerfully preparing himself for “Satisfaction” at the hands of “Blanchet” who blesses him. The process exactly reflects events on each cornice of Dante's Purgatory.


No doubt these comparisons made between Death Comes for the Archbishop and the Divine Comedy may be attempts to make accident intentional. Could we not exploit Pilgrim's Progress or The Faerie Queen to equal advantage and with equal credence? Perhaps so, were it not for the extraordinary prominence in the novel of Regina coeli. Except for the prologue (and of course, who needs Mary in Rome?), the Virgin Mother presides over the entire book. She is Vaillant's and Latour's Beatrice. The novel is inspired by Mary as surely as Father Joseph's life is conducted under Her special dispensation: “Auspice Maria!” becomes the only possible epigraph Cather could choose. It is this that explains the location of the book's spiritual climax in Part VII, Chapter 1, “The Month of Mary,” and that sanctions the dramatic climax midway, that is in Part V, where Mary is incorrectly worshipped, albeit with a passion that always makes heresy appealing.

Death Comes is an example of lay-Mariolatry of the kind espoused in Pre-Raphaelitism and recommended in Adams's Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. It is an example of the confusion of art with religion which Cather announced in The Professor's House and endorsed explicitly in her essay “Escapism.” There is, indeed, more than passing interest in this essay because of its reference to Dante. Miss Cather lists him among other great men whom she wishes to rescue from the “iconoclasts and tomb-breakers” of the twentieth century. They dispose of Dante “because he was a cryptogram and did not at all mean to say what the greatest lines in the Italian language make him say.” No more, I think, was Miss Cather cryptogrammatic in her borrowings from Dante—though to be sure she was reticent.

In ethical direction as well as in aesthetic order, Death Comes depends upon the romantic equation of art and religion. One can diagram the experience we have, retroflexively, with the novel in such a way as to explain Cather's own claim that it “was a conjunction of the general and particular.” (See diagram on page 259.)

What the diagram explains is that each episode contributes to our understanding of individual characters and through them to our understanding of the culture which defines and delimits them. Let us call this an example of mutual concentricity, the episodes behaving like drops of water that set up waves and counter-waves in a basin. And the basin, of course, is the art that contains the process. Beyond looms the nothingness of time, which we can equate with Death or Salvation depending on our own predilections. In any case, art supplants religion in providing the soul with cushions to shelter it briefly against extinction.

The diagram becomes suggestive both when we recognize its similarities to Dante's concentric universe and when we see how applicable it is to many works of art that purport to be religious. They try to exercise our imaginative transactions with eternity. Time may jerk along from episode to episode, but art unifies it briefly for us and God unifies it forever. The apparent contradiction between Cather's artistic models, Puvis de Chavannes and Holbein, is here reconciled.

What all this proves is not necessarily that Cather relied specifically on Dante but perhaps only that she practiced a form of writing shared in part by Dante. “The essence of such writing,” she claimed, “is not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in it—but to touch and pass on.” There is a verbal echo here of Virgil's advice to Dante concerning the Trimmers: “Let us not speak to them, but look and pass on.” To take this as Dante's credo would be rash, though it does characterize the haste and urgency of his dream-journey toward God.

All we can claim finally is that Miss Cather may have borrowed from Dante more than she admitted. In addition we can insist that the Dante-analogue gives an extra dimension to Death Comes for the Archbishop. This further explicates and honours a book already acclaimed for its mastery. Unfortunately, we must also concede that the novel, like Dante's poem, falsifies reality. For example, the cathedral which Miss Cather celebrates (Saint Francis in Santa Fe) is architecturally undistinguished. She minimizes the Catholic Church's dubious role in ruining native Indian cultures and exaggerates, as was her wont, the faults of the Anglo-Saxon. Nonetheless, the novel remains, like the Divine Comedy, ethically and aesthetically challenging.

James M. Dinn (essay date 1972)

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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 places, the people, the problems that he encounters in his early years in New Mexico, and finally a glimpse of his retirement, his contentment, his peaceful death. On this level the reader can praise the author for her historicity, her fidelity to sources, her topographical detail; or he can qualify his praise by an inventory of her derelictions in these spheres. Either is faint praise—as if a botanist praised a poet for the “accuracy” of his flower. Willa Cather's achievement on this level is the substratum of her work. It assures the literal credibility, the vivid sense of reality which entices the least romantic to trust the solidity of her fictive world. But to regard the Archbishop simply on that level is like responding to Walden as a literal journal. Very much like Thoreau, Willa Cather begins on the most prosaic level but offers a gradual initiation into lyrical flights of the spirit.

The timeless preternatural world she opens is not “afar off.” It interpenetrates the literal, historical world which we share with her protagonist. Entrance into it for Latour and for the reader does not depend upon our being transported but “upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always” (p. 50). This is Latour's idea of a miracle, and the miracle achieved by the novel. An examination of the novel's structure and its underlying myth should illuminate this elusive level.

Structurally, the miraculous is introduced in the novel's opening book, and unobtrusively pervades it. Because the very characterization of Latour de-emphasizes the miraculous, the reader's initiation is gentle and subtle. The cruciform tree is after all only a tree, and the discovery of Agua Secreta is occasion for gratitude but not for ecstasy. The reader smiles with the protagonist to envision how Vaillant might have responded to the same experiences. The restraint of Latour's piety is so disarming that one scarcely notes that he does after all consider the second event a miracle (p. 29).

The succeeding vignettes of Book I seem trivial enough. They seem to focus on Vaillant's soup and on an old bell. Yet, in each of these Latour's sensibility discerns and welcomes the presence of the past—even the non-Christian past. By Latour's own definition, cited earlier, this very discernment is a repeated miracle. The eyes of Latour, which are aesthetically as well as religiously refined are much more attuned than the impetous Vaillant's eyes to see “what is there about us always” (p. 50). Latour is consistently “sensitive to the shape of things” (p. 18).

The account of the apparition at Guadalupe affords a dramatic structural parallel to Latour's experience in the desert. It is another instance of the Virgin's manifestation to a traveler. The Bishop's response is no more skeptical than his exuberant friend's but it is tempered by his conviction that “where there is great love there are always miracles” (p. 50). For this man who finds “a thousand years of history” in his soup (p. 39), and the art of infidels in his church bell (p. 45), certainly it is legitimate to find the Virgin in his journeys as truly as in Juan Diego's. The structure of the book gently suggests this.

The enclosure of this first book within these parallel manifestations of the miraculous is a miniature reflection of the entire novel's structure. A story that Bishop Latour has heard “as a young man” is recounted in detail in the final chapter of his life. It is the account of how Junipero Serra when wandering hungry and thirsty in the desert enjoys the hospitality of the Holy Family. The Bishop suggests no reference to his own experience. But the climactic placement of the incident, and its striking similarity to the events at Agua Secreta are structural accents inviting the reader to associate the two experiences. And even Junipero's name teases the mind back to that cross-shaped tree, the juniper. “Living vegetation could not present more faithfully the form of the Cross” (p. 19). The curious rhetoric almost suggests the possibility that higher life (a human Juniper) might more adequately present the cross. And so these pivotal events at opposite extremes of the novel illumine one another and invite the fuller perception which Latour embodies.

The novel's structure further underlines the preternatural dimension by exploring evil in the very center of the novel (Book IV and Book V), and by devoting the climactic Book VII to Latour's personal internal struggle.

The stage for Book IV is set by Latour's experience at Acoma. The stony impregnability of the Indians on that rock depressed him profoundly. Subsequently he hears how in that very place one hundred fifty years before, the resident priest Fr. Baltazar had exploited the people and finally killed an Indian. This recital of an ancient evil finds close parallels in the account of Fr. Martinez and Fr. Lucero in Book V. Each of these men is still very much alive, and they afford proof of the continuing presence of evil in the clergy. All of these men have a love of power and authority. But each exemplifies a particular vice. Baltazar was addicted to pleasures of the table, Martinez to pleasures of the bed, and Lucero to pleasures of the purse. Baltazar the gourmet killed a servant who spilled his gravy; Martinez raped a prospective nun, incited a rebellion that ended in murder, and duped his followers into ceding him their land before they were executed; Lucero the miser lived in squalor, hoarded even the money his friend Martinez left for memorial Masses, killed the poor stranger who tried to rob him, and died preoccupied with his treasure.

It is by locating the incidents of Book IV precisely in the midst of these portrayals that Cather transforms the intangible horror of a cave and the rumored persistence of ancient snake rituals into an evocative sense of evil. This structural factor conveys the deepest level of the incident's significance.

Fundamentally, it is the Perilous Chapel experience, summarized by Jessie Weston. The questing knight seeks shelter from a storm in a strange chapel where he undergoes an adventure “in which supernatural, and evil forces are engaged.” In one version a Black Hand comes through a window, extinguishes the candle and rocks the building with its cries.2

In Cather's novel, the Bishop and Jacinto flee to a cave for shelter from a storm, but a cave “somewhat like a Gothic Chapel” (pp. 127, 131). Jacinto seals the window-like opening at the back of the cave (presumably to keep the snake from entering their chamber). And the cave is shaken by the thunderous roar of the underground river. The Bishop is so shaken by this mysterious experience that he always recalls it with horror (p. 133).

Book VII is the distillation of the Bishop's internal struggle and victory, conveyed with consummate artistry. It is the high-point of the Bishop's growth and the peak of the novel's unfolding. Its final pages must be the most delicate, controlled lyricism that Cather ever achieved. After the insights and the victories of the pivotal book, there remains only the cathedral to be built and death to be welcomed. The struggles are presented in a triptych—the garden, the church, the desert. In each of these settings Latour is framed in an extended moment of wrestling followed by illumination. He wrestles with loneliness in the spring garden, with his dark night of the soul in the December night, and with his memories in the spring desert. Each struggle ends with a heightened perception, a miracle by Latour's own definition, that captures transcendence in the sensate: a flight of pigeons in the sun, moonlight on the snow, man's relation to the earth and sky. The focal importance of this spiritual struggle is structurally illumined by its climactic placement and by the balanced ordering of its parts.

Supporting the structural focus is a configuration of images which coalesce in the myth of the questing knight and the related fertility of the land. The Perilous Chapel incident already discussed is central to a much larger pattern. The protagonist is first seen on horseback, alone, pushing across an arid wilderness. To describe his mission as a quest would be the literal truth. His devout veneration of the cross is knightly as well as priestly. And the description of his virtues is markedly chivalric.3 It begins like Spenser's description with gentleness, and it dwells especially on the all-embracing quality of courtesy: “Everything showed him to be a man of gentle birth—brave, sensitive, courageous. His manners, even when he was alone in the desert, were distinguished. He had a kind of courtesy toward himself, toward his beasts, toward the juniper tree before which he knelt, and the God whom he was addressing” (p. 19). His closest friend conceives of him in rhetoric that is itself chivalric, as “always the flower of courtesy” (p. 253). His quest has entailed a journey for which no one could give him directions because “no one had ever been there” (p. 21). His hardships have been archetypal ones: shipwreck, injury, wandering in a trackless wilderness, thirst.

The quenching of that thirst is symbolically the fulfilling of the quest. It is quenched by the hidden stream which Latour identifies with the blood of the Lamb (p. 31). He baptizes the children with the same water, letting them share in the cleansing power of Christ's blood. Closely linked in his mind is the blood of his predecessors—the Spanish friars who “watered with their blood” the Faith of these people (p. 32). Significantly, when Latour as an old man stops for the last time at the edge of Santa Fe (Holy Faith) to see the town at sunset, his young companion devoutly acclaims the tint of the red hills as the blood of Christ, and the Bishop again associates with that Blood the blood of the early martyred missioners. But this association has special relevance for him now because the red hills are the backdrop of the cathedral which he welcomes as his tomb. It is as if his own blood will now mingle with Christ's and the martyrs' to nourish the growing Faith. And this is the foreseen fulfillment of the quest on which he was sent. It is as if the land, the people, need his ultimate sacrifice to ensure their continued life. The missionary bishop in the novel's prologue had said it all so clearly: “That country will drink up his youth and strength as it does the rain. He will be called upon for every sacrifice, quite possibly for martyrdom” (p. 10). Because Latour's death is the full fruition of his life, he can smilingly diagnose the cause of his death: “I shall die of having lived” (p. 269). The Grail he finds is not an empty cup but a full sharing of its contents. This consciousness of the completed quest is expressed by Vaillant in the more romantic terms of realizing youthful dreams. In this mode he experiences the significance of their missionary lives. His final words to Latour in the novel, the final summary of their lives before they bless one another and separate, are words of exultation: “We have done the things we used to plan to do, long ago, when we were seminarians,—at least some of them. To fulfill the dreams of one's youth; that is the best that can happen to a man. No worldly success can take the place of that” (p. 261).

The final sentence affirms the sacredness of the mandate those youthful dreams imposed. It affirms the sanctity and transcendence of the quest as well as the joy of its completion. And Vaillant like Latour is prepared for death. “Whenever God wills, I am ready” (p. 261).

As Latour pursued his quest we rightly anticipate that the land ought to be enriched by his coming. If “the country will drink up his youth and strength as it does the rain” (p. 10), then it ought to yield something as a consequence. And sterility is only one dimension of the land's terror. Somehow it is unreal, a nightmare (p. 18). The mesa country is a vestige of primeval chaos, where the Creator had left his work unfinished (p. 95).

In this landscape the Indians move like fish through water, changing nothing. They even accommodate themselves to suit the land with startling consequences. Rather than humanize the land, they landscape themselves. Acoma is a grim example. The Indians there are as impervious and antedeluvian as their rock. Clearly in such a country one needs to be assertive; there is a challenge to complete the creation, to bring order out of the raw materials. There is a mandate to make the land fruitful.

For Latour, of course, the essential fruit, the coveted harvest is a matter of persons accepting the Gospel. And the contentment with which he surveys the lives around him in his latter days is sufficient indication that he finds the land coming to life. His regard for Fr. Serra must in our own perception be transferred to himself. His own “way through the wilderness had blossomed with little miracles” (p. 279). Repeatedly his refined perception had discovered “what is there about us always” (p. 50). He could see baptismal innocence even in the pagan symbol of lechery, or the touch of infidel art in his church bell. He saw the sanctity of old Sada in the cold church, and the beauty of Fr. Martinez's liturgy. He knew the beauty of the past and yet knew how to build for the future.

The theme of fertility is punctuated by the gardens. Not that they function as univocal symbols. Pascal's citation reminds us that, “Man was lost and saved in a garden” (p. 267). Baltazar had enjoyed a flourishing garden on the barren rock of Acoma which served only his own exotic tastes. He extorted a daily ration of precious water from the women of the village, and “he exacted a heavy tribute in labour” (p. 104). His garden was only a symbol of his power and sensuality. As such it was a gross parody of spiritual fertility. A mirror of the parody survived in the wild flowers at Acoma's base which are gaudy facsimiles of Easter lilies but actually rank and poisonous. “They looked like great artificial plants” (p. 98).

A completely natural garden of domesticated cactus plants sufficed for Fr. Jesus. It abounded in parrots which he raised to please his Indians. The simplicity of his garden reflected the genuine simplicity of his life. And his desire to please his people went hand in hand with a keen appreciation of traditions.

Latour embodied these same dispositions—a sense of the past, and a will to serve. Accordingly his gardening preserved the ancient tamarisks, and introduced fruit to balance the local Mexican's diet. It is his only recreation. And the luxuriance of his success is clearly in his case emblematic of the fruitfulness he has brought to this land. He buys a plot of land against the advice of all his friends—and makes it flourish. For him it is obvious enough that his quest entails arranging and recreating—completing God's work of creation in New Mexico.

The world into which Cather initiates the reader of Archbishop seems to be solid and historical enough. But if one allows full scope to her structural hints, and if her underlying myth makes its presence felt, the reader may be initiated into a much richer dimension which can invert his usual orientation. If he yields himself to its magic he may feel the full force of the miracle of refined perception, the real miracle of Death Comes for the Archbishop. And in its timeless power he may well enthuse that “the landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!” (p. 232).


  1. Willa Cather, Death Comes For the Archbishop (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), p. 17

  2. Jessie L. Weston. From Ritual to Romance (New York: A Doubleday Anchor Book, 1957), p. 175.

  3. Bernice Slote discerns a “motif of chivalry” in the novel, and “the courtesy of Spenserian knights” in Latour: Willa Cather, The Kingdom of Art, edited by Bernice Slote (Lincoln, 1966), p. 110.

Mary-Ann Stouck and David Stouck (essay date 1973)

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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 Cather's fiction, Death Comes for the Archbishop embodies both in its theme and in its form the final and perhaps most significant statement that the novelist was to make—namely, that only in the altruistic experiences of art and religion can man find any lasting happiness.

In his Library of Congress pamphlet entitled Willa Cather: The Paradox of Success,2 Leon Edel has shown to how great an extent the conservatism of Miss Cather's later fiction was the result of the author's personal failure in human relationships. In this pamphlet and in an essay on Willa Cather in his book, Literary Biography,3 Professor Edel describes Miss Cather's inability to achieve a permanent relationship with her close friend, Isabelle McClung and illustrates how this experience informs her novel, The Professor's House, with its underlying emotional drama of rejection and withdrawal. Professor Edel's analysis seems accurate enough, but he does not show that in The Professor's House and in all the novels thereafter Miss Cather transformed her personal dilemma into a more objective preoccupation with the problems of power and possession—both in terms of human relationships and in terms of their sublimated analogue, material possessions. Indeed, this theme was to culminate in the subject of slavery in her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl. In Miss Cather's earliest novels, protagonists such as Alexandra Bergson and Thea Kronborg are aggressive, creative characters whose drive for power is not viewed as insidious or limiting to the freedom of others. Rather it is a striving for perfection in the life's work they have chosen, whether taming the land or achieving excellence in art. However, in the novels written subsequent to Miss McClung's marriage, and particularly in the two previous to Death Comes for the Archbishop, there is a growing horror and despair at the prospect of human desire for power. In The Professor's House, Godfrey St. Peter is psychologically paralyzed by the vision of greed and ugliness around him bred by the unbridled urge to personal ambition; and in My Mortal Enemy the narrator is equally saddened by the spectacle of self-destruction that a vain and selfish woman brings upon herself. In Death Comes for the Archbishop this theme recurs, but it is examined this time from the perspective of one who has transcended personal ambition by means of dedication to the selfless ends of religion and art. The Bishop of the novel's title finds ultimate peace in the building and contemplation of his cathedral, in which religion and art are perfectly conjoined. Significantly we are told that Willa Cather herself experienced “unusual happiness and serenity” during the writing of this novel.4

The vision then that lies at the center of Death Comes for the Archbishop and that informs the novel through a pattern of self-conscious references is the renunciation of earthly power and ambition. In the Prologue the old missionary tells the cardinals that the Bishop of New Mexico “will be called upon for every sacrifice, quite possibly for martyrdom.”5 This theme recurs throughout the novel. As we are shown the Bishop and his vicar at work in their vast diocese, deprived of the amenities of civilized life and enduring numerous hardships to bring religion to the humble Mexicans and Indians, we are told of their instinctive wishes and of the kind of earthly life they would otherwise lead. Father Vaillant, whose physical body is so frail, would love to remain settled at one mission, but under his Bishop's guidance, he is continually moved to new regions. For the Bishop himself, a contemplative life enriched by esthetic pleasures is at the center of his earthly desires, but like his vicar he has disciplined his own wishes to the work of the Faith. Around them they see the priests who have followed their earthly, sensual ambitions—old Martinez, who has built up a realm of “lawless personal power,” and the miser, Father Lucero, whose dying thoughts are of his gold. Father Vaillant is also possessed of strong acquisitive instincts like Lucero, but everything he seeks is for the Church. We are told that Father Vaillant “was scarcely acquisitive to the point of decency”; owning nothing but his mule, Contento, he “… was like the saints of the early Church, literally without personal possessions” (p. 229). In renouncing earthly things the two priests develop an inner, spiritual style of living.

The theme of power and its relinquishment is developed in the novel through an examination of the nature of art, such that the ideal held up to us is a combination of the esthetic and the religious. Throughout the book we are made aware of numerous art objects upon which the Bishop, through whose consciousness they are always seen, reflects. These objects are not always religious, although most of them are, but they all have one thing in common: they are the products of long cultural traditions. They are in the widest sense the work of a people and thus, though they may have been made by a single artist, they transcend the whole question of private possession and individual ambition. They are art in the finest sense of the word. Consequently, whenever the Bishop contemplates one of these objects, he reflects upon the tradition which gave birth to it. In the little house of Benito in Hidden Water he examines the wooden figures of the saints on the shelf over the fireplace, and observes the fashion in which the Mexicans have adapted the saints of Europe to express their own needs and hopes: the figure of the Virgin wears “a black reboso over her head, like a Mexican woman of the poor” (p. 26), and St. Jacques has become Santiago, the patron saint of horses, in this land where horses are one of the most vital necessities. This cultural adaptation of an older tradition—the figure of the Virgin is compared to one in “the rigid mosaics of the Eastern Church”—is contrasted by the Bishop to “the factory-made plaster images in his mission churches in Ohio,” where images are a mass-produced feature of the economy and therefore cease to be art. Again, when the Bishop first awakes to hear the sound of the Angelus bell which Father Vaillant has resurrected from an old church basement, its sound conveys to him a “sudden, pervasive sense of the East” and of the Holy Land, though he has never been there; later he traces this feeling to the fact that the Spanish taught their craft of silver-working to the Mexicans, and were themselves taught by the Moors, so that the bell is a product of the oldest Christian and pre-Christian traditions. Rarely is an individual artist mentioned in connection with the art objects in the book: the wooden parrot of old Padre Jesus de Baca was bought from an old Indian whose ancestors brought it “from the mother pueblo” where it had been carved from “one of those rare birds that in ancient times were carried up alive, all the long trail from the tropics” (p. 87). The old Indian sold it to Padre Jesus only because “he was much indebted to him, and was about to die without descendants.” Even the little church of Laguna with its geometric decorations reminds us that art is the refinement of ages of custom, skill, and feeling, rather than the product only of individual power: “It recalled to Father Latour the interior of a Persian chieftain's tent he had seen in a textile exhibit at Lyons. Whether this decoration had been done by Spanish missionaries or by Indian converts, he was unable to find out” (p. 90).

The traditional and communal origins of art are emphasized in nearly all the descriptions of art objects in the book, from the silver toilet set given the Bishop by Don Olivares to the Indian blankets, “very old, and beautiful in design and colour,” hanging on the walls of his study. This de-emphasis of the individual's part in the act of creation is central to the theme of reunciation of earthly desires, since it is precisely in the act of creation that the sensation of power is strongest. The Bishop's closest approach to a spiritual crisis is resolved through a contemplation of religious artifacts; this leads him to a renewed renunciation of temporal power. The incident occurs in his encounter with old Sada, a devout Indian woman, who is a slave in a Protestant American family which does not permit her to attend mass or enter a church. The Bishop himself is suffering from a period of spiritual drought when he finds her late at night huddled in the church doorway, and together they go to pray in the Lady Chapel. The scene focuses upon Sada's reaction to the religious images on the altar which she has not seen for nineteen years: “Old Sada fell on her knees and kissed the floor. She kissed the feet of the Holy Mother, the pedestal on which they stood, crying all the while” (pp. 214-15). Through her reaction to the holy artifacts, the Bishop is able to reexperience religious ecstasy:

He was able to feel, kneeling beside her, the preciousness of the things of the altar to her who was without possessions; the tapers, the image of the Virgin, the figures of the saints, the Cross that took away indignity from suffering and made pain and poverty a means of fellowship with Christ. (p. 218)

This experience of the “holy mysteries” through the religious images brings the Bishop to the supreme realization of what the renunciation of earthly power and ambition means:

He received the miracle in her heart into his own, saw through her eyes, knew that his poverty was as bleak as hers. When the Kingdom of Heaven had first come into the world, into a cruel world of torture and slaves and masters, He who brought it had said, “And whosoever is least among you, the same shall be first in the Kingdom of Heaven.” This church was Sada's house, and he was a servant in it. (p. 219)

As the old woman leaves, the Bishop gives her a silver medal with the image of the Virgin on it, thinking “Ah … for one who cannot read—or think—the Image, the physical form of Love!” (p. 220). This chapter extends the concept of the art object to include the communal nature not only of its origins, but also of its possession, in the sense that art has a quality which makes it the property of all humanity, rather than of a single individual. Every work of art ought to be “the Physical form of Love.”

After this point in the narrative, art objects are seen by the Bishop primarily in terms of their value as spiritual consolation and inspiration. The wooden figure of the Virgin in his own church in Santa Fé, with her elaborate wardrobe of dresses and jewelry made by the local women and silversmiths, becomes an image of divine consolation in the loneliness he feels after watching Father Vaillant depart for Colorado. He thinks of the Virgin as “le rêve suprême de la chair” and he associates her with an esthetic sensibility: “A life need not be cold, or devoid of grace in the worldly sense, if it were filled by Her who was all the graces” (p. 258). The care which the poor Mexicans lavish upon the wardrobe of the wooden statue is a translation of their love into art, just as “Raphael and Titian had made costumes for Her in their time, and the great masters had made music for Her, and the great architects had built cathedrals for Her” (pp. 258-59). The little boots which the condemned Mexican boy makes for the statue of Santiago in his home town, as he awaits his execution, are also a kind of prayer for pity translated into art, and the Bishop's Cathedral itself is an image of his need for consolation and redemption as he lies dying: “He felt safe under its shadow; like a boat come back to harbour, lying under its own sea wall” (p. 274).

The concern with art as something which transcends individual power and ambition explains a passage in the Prologue which otherwise appears to be somewhat gratuitous. The Spanish Cardinal, Maria de Allande, relates to his guests (including Bishop Ferrand, who is pressing for his influence in naming Father Latour Bishop of New Mexico), an anecdote of how his grandfather lost a valuable El Greco to a begging friar from New Spain, who wanted it for his mission church. The Spanish Cardinal's main interest in Latour is whether he has “any intelligence in the matters of art” (p. 9) and might be able to recognize the El Greco if he came across it, and (presumably) return it to its owner. The worldliness of de Allande and his two fellow cardinals is clearly meant as a contrast to the religious zeal of Bishop Ferrand, but more than that, it is meant as an underlying contrast to Bishop Latour which operates throughout the narrative. For the Bishop is indeed a man with “intelligence in the matters of art,” a point which is often made in the course of the book. Apart from his characteristic reflections on the artifacts he encounters on his travels, we are told several times that he has a highly developed esthetic sense. After describing a gift from Don Olivares of silver toilet accessories “which gave him [the Bishop] so much satisfaction all the rest of his life” the author adds: “Doña Isabella once remarked that her husband always gave Father Vaillant something good for the palate, and Father Latour something good for the eye” (p. 179). When Doña Isabella returns to New Orleans the Bishop purchases her sideboard and dining table and enjoys the silver coffee service and candelabra which she gives him for remembrance. In this respect he is often contrasted with Father Vaillant, who has little eye for art and even less interest. The religious images he is most closely associated with are the colored illustrations and medallions which he gives to the Indians (and takes to Rome to have blessed in such vast quantities by the Pope), and his interest in objects like the Angelus bell is purely confined to their religious function. He has little patience with the Bishop's appreciation of the artistic tradition which lies behind the bell, and his response is typical: “I am no scholar, as you know,” said Father Vaillant rising. “And this morning we have many practical affairs to occupy us” (p. 45).

A similar contrast between the two priests occurs when the Bishop takes Father Vaillant to visit the hill from which the rock for his cathedral is being quarried and discloses to his friend his plans for the building. When he discusses the Romanesque tradition of which the Cathedral is to be part, Father Vaillant's reaction is again a typical concern with practicalities rather than esthetics: “Father Vaillant sniffed and wiped his glasses. ‘If you once begin thinking about architects and styles, Jean! And if you don't get American builders, whom will you get, pray?’” (p. 243). It matters little to him “whether it [the Cathedral] was Midi Romanesque or Ohio German in style” (p. 245) and his implied criticism—“I had no idea you were going in for fine building, when everything about us is so poor—and we ourselves are so poor” (p. 244)—brings us to a concern with whether the Bishop is in fact creating an artifact for the same reasons that the Spanish Cardinal desired his El Greco—selfish and worldly reasons—or whether his love of art is of a different order. The Bishop himself voices this concern:

I could hardly have hoped that God would gratify my personal taste, my vanity, if you will, in this way. I tell you, Blanchet, I would rather have found that hill of yellow rock than have come into a fortune to spend in charity. The Cathedral is near my heart, for many reasons. I hope you do not think me very worldly. (p. 245)

The answer to the question of motivation is never really in doubt, however, and the Cathedral is the central, ideal artifact of the book, communal in origin through its relation to European architectural style and through the many hands involved in building it and communally owned, in the sense that it belongs to the Mexican people. This point is made particularly in the description of the way the Cathedral compliments its setting. “Either a building is a part of a place, or it is not,” the French architect tells the Bishop; “Once that kinship is there, time will only make it stronger” (p. 273). That the Cathedral was built to answer other than egotistic or worldly needs is suggested in the contrast between the “spiritual gold” of the rock from which the church is made and the material gold of the Colorado Rush which reduces men to such inhuman conditions in the remainder of Book Eight. A further contrast emphasizes the integrity of the Bishop's motivation when he notes that “This hill is only about fifteen miles from Santa Fé; there is an up-grade, but it is gradual. Hauling the stone will be easier than I could have hoped for” (p. 244), we recall the ill-fated church of Friar Baltazar on the Rock of Ácoma, for which “every stone in that structure, every handful of earth in those many thousand pounds of adobe, was carried up the trail on the backs of men and boys and women” (pp. 102-03), and the huge beams of the roof were hauled by Indian labor from forty or fifty miles away.

The religious estheticism of the Bishop is contrasted to the worldly, acquisitive attitude to art of the Spanish Cardinal in the Prologue, and the Cathedral embodies both material beauty and spiritual integrity. But the conflict between art as personal pleasure and art as selfless service to an ideal which the Bishop discerns in himself is perhaps less easily resolved in terms of the Faith than, for instance, Father Vaillant's conflicting desires for the settled life of a parish priest and the active life of a nomadic missionary. Father Vaillant resolves this conflict without a backward glance by devoting himself against his inclination to a life of travel among the rough mining towns of Colorado, but for the Bishop the struggle is a continuing one, no doubt because Willa Cather recognized the ambiguous nature and motives of art. The Bishop too is made to realize this for he tells Father Vaillant that, in terms of the renunciation of worldly success, “you are a better man than I. You have been a great harvester of souls, without pride and with out shame—and I am always a little cold—un pédant, as you used to say. If hereafter we have stars in our crowns, yours will be a constellation. Give me your blessing” (p. 264). The slight distinction drawn here between the Bishop and Father Vaillant makes us reflect again upon the nature of art—whether it is to be experienced largely in terms of pleasure, as a sublimated form of personal power, or in terms of its social function and moral significance. The Bishop's Cathedral resolves the conflict; it is an art object which is not only communal in origin and function, but which is also created in the service of an ideal of which the basis is the negation of self in God. Miss Cather herself was not, in the strictest sense, a religious writer, but religious art suggested to her the possibility of the esthetic experience as the great source of an enduring happiness.


  1. A bibliography is not really pertinent here, but a couple of recent titles suggest the specialized interest in the novel's form: Clinton Keeler, “Narrative Without Accent: Willa Cather and Puvis de Chavannes,” American Quarterly, 17 (Spring 1965), 119-26; Curtis Whittington, Jr., “The Stream and the Broken Pottery: The Form of Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop,McNeese Review, 16 (Spring 1965), 16-24.

  2. Leon Edel, Willa Cather: The Paradox of Success (Washington: Library of Congress, 1960).

  3. Leon Edel, Literary Biography (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957), pp. 56-81.

  4. Edith Lewis, Willa Cather Living (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953), p. 144.

  5. Death Comes for the Archbishop (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), p. 8. All page references are cited from this edition.

Floyd C. Watkins (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10773

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 Indians with the probable collusion of the Mexican priest five years before, and hears about the great Indian rebellion of 1680. And most of the episodes of Death Comes for the Archbishop involve almost this much cultural and racial interchange.

Willa Cather was not native to the religions or the people of the Southwest. She was not herself Catholic; in 1922, five years before she published Death Comes for the Archbishop, she had become an Episcopalian; but she knew Catholic priests in the Southwest.2 She first visited the country of The Archbishop in 1912, but she began her extended visits there in 1925. She spent summers in New Mexico, stayed for weeks in the places she wrote about (a month at Taos, more than a month the next summer), camped in the outdoors, traveled by wagon,3 did research in Denver4 and in general became an adopted southwesterner as much as she could.5 She learned the fauna, the flora—primroses, fireweed, butterfly weed, rainbow flower (pp. 165, 233)—the history, and the people. She read numerous books about the region and studied history, archaeology, folklore, and anthropology. In The Archbishop she retold stories in a manner very close to that of the previous tellers of the tales. She followed the biography of one of her two priests so closely that the author “gently reminded” her that she had forgotten to acknowledge her indebtedness.6 She paraphrased and briefly quoted historians and official documents and did not acknowledge using them either. Also, some of her episodes are invented.

The tones and the events in The Archbishop are as varied as the peoples. The history of the Southwest records violence, treachery, bloodshed, and trickery of Indians, Mexicans, Spaniards, and Anglo-Americans. But along with violence there are many other modes or manners: serenity, magnificence, benevolence. The book also is one of the most devout stories written in the twentieth century. It is sometimes meditative but never psychological in the manner of James or of Faulkner. Often the tone seems nearly sentimental or legendary. There are stories of elemental struggles: the necessity of taking refuge from marauders on a flat-tabled rock like the Enchanted Mesa, or the people of Ácoma carrying water almost straight up a cliff with only handholds and toeholds to cling to. Most of the time Willa Cather treats the violence somewhat generally and at a distance, but some of the episodes clearly represent the worst of the old West.

The tranquil mood of The Archbishop is impressive; it is much easier to describe it than it is to know how Willa Cather created it. Despite danger, vigorous exertion, and strenuous conflict with evil, the calmness and serenity of the Jesuit priests and some of their parishioners dominate the narrative. On the whole, the other cultures are more admirable than the Anglo-American. The lowly are more worthy than most of those in high places. “The Mexicans were always Mexicans, the Indians were always Indians. Santa Fé was a quiet backwater, with no natural wealth, no importance commercially” (p. 286). In contrast, those hunting gold under Pike's Peak, and by implication American frontiersmen, comprised “a great industrial expansion, where guile and trickery and honourable ambition all struggled together” (p. 286). Much of the mission of the two priests derives from hostility between peoples, and much of the interest of the book springs from the mingling of cultures.

The tone and the technique of The Archbishop are unusual for fiction in the twentieth century. Willa Cather was trying to create something like a martyrdom of a saint such as is found in The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine. “The essence of such writing is not to hold the note,” she explained, “not to use an incident for all there is in it—but to touch and pass on. … In this kind of writing the mood is all the thing—all the little figures and stories are mere improvisations that come out of it.”7 This kind of fiction is at the furthest extreme from the dramatic situation in fiction and from the psychological introspection of stream of consciousness. It is story and mood rather than dramatic enactment or mental analysis. In a legend “historical fact may either be developed or disfigured by popular imagination”8 or by Willa Cather's creative imagination. The book is more legend than novel. Like traditional legends, The Archbishop mingles fact and fiction and narrates both as fact; many of the particular legends derive from an oral tradition; and Willa Cather's legend is a culmination of other legends which have grown by accretion.9 There is little despair, anguish, anxiety, uncertainty. Both priests resemble the saint of an old legend, who “is the truly perfect man. He must have all the virtues, and be free of every fault. His wisdom must be such as exceeds human powers.”10 The episodes and situations have in common some of the following characteristics: religion, miracles, heroism, violence, death, love, simplicity. Many of the legendary stories in The Archbishop have typical folk situations—the death of a miser, the problems of a lady who refuses to tell her age, the saving of a good woman from a murderous husband, the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary to a poor neophyte.

These are unusual events and stories for a novel, a genre of literature which (in our time) has usually been philosophical, complicated, and analytical. The Archbishop goes just as far as modern fiction can in moral and religious example—indeed, further than some kinds of novels can. It has the directness of explicit folk wisdom. Legendary and exemplary, it retains plausibility by its use of diverse cultural characteristics and by depicting the evils confronted by the priests. It qualifies its portrait of saints by depicting one of the protagonist priests as a man of gentle humor and the other as reticent and even somewhat cold. The Archbishop is something like a romance, “an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things.”11 The actions of the two bishops are “marvelous,” but they are themselves human beings. Northrop Frye's description of the romance is applicable to Willa Cather's book, but to apply it exactly would be an exaggeration. “The ordinary laws of nature,” he writes, “are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us are natural to the heroes of romances.”12The Archbishop stands just a little closer to the form of a novel than that.

Although characters besides the two priests in The Archbishop are seen externally, the connections between God and nature, man and nature, and race and nature are intimate. The Catholic sees God in nature as the southwestern Indians have always seen the supernatural in the strange phenomena of the mesas, mountains, canyons, caves, deserts, springs, and rivers of the Southwest. Indeed the first section of Willa Cather's account of Father Latour's mission in America is called “The Cruciform Tree,” and “living vegetation,” the father thinks, “could not present more faithfully the form of the Cross” than the tree does (pp. 18-19). Father Latour and Father Vaillant have different views of nature. Father Latour sees God in nature, “but his dear Joseph must always have the miracle very direct and spectacular, not with Nature, but against it” (p. 29). Father Latour meditates on the meanings of natural phenomena and the implications to the Indian and to the Christian. When he sees the mesa of Ácoma, a great rock almost square in shape, he wonders why man first thought of “living on the top of naked rocks like these, hundreds of feet in the air, without soil or water” (p. 97). From other tribes of Indians and then from the Spaniard, the Ácoma Pueblo found sanctuary on the rock. With human and religious understanding the bishop is able to turn immediately from the pagan meaning to the Christian: “The rock, when one came to think of it, was the utmost expression of human need; even mere feeling yearned for it; it was the highest comparison of loyalty in love and friendship. Christ Himself had used that comparison for the disciple to whom He gave the keys of His Church” (p. 97).

Nature in The Archbishop is not altogether benevolent and romantic. The two priests endure the terror and suffering of thirst in the desert, a blizzard that kills their mounts and drives them into a cave, and arduous travels over long spaces and high mountains. Nature in the Old World was “worn to the shape of human life,” but the early Spanish missionaries in the New World “threw themselves naked upon the hard heart of a country that was calculated to try the endurance of giants” (pp. 277-78). One may step from adversity to safety and beauty in a moment. Father Latour stands on a “wavy ocean of sand” and looks down at “a green thread of verdure and a running stream” which his horse and mule have scented and discovered. “This ribbon in the desert … was greener than anything Latour had ever seen, even in his own greenest corner of the Old World” (p. 24). Adversity, safety, beauty—and mystery, especially in association with the Indians' “old road of fear and darkness” (p. 211). Caught in a snowstorm in the mysterious ceremonial cave of the Pecos Pueblo, Father Latour stoops to a narrow “fissure in the stone floor” and listens “to one of the oldest voices of the earth …, the sound of a great underground river, flowing through a resounding cavern” (p. 130). Such a natural wonder is not implausible in the Southwest; much of the course of the Cimarron River is underground in New Mexico.13 But the river is a supernatural wonder also because of its association with the terrible storm outside the cave, the mysteries of the Pecos cave itself, the Indian guide Jacinto, and a Jesuit father.

The local colorist creates an exaggerated nature to emphasize the quaintness and strangeness of his characters and their remoteness; his descriptions of any ugliness in nature are melodramatic; the beauties of nature appear in a polysyllabic vocabulary and saccharine imagery. Willa Cather's nature, in contrast, is simple, somewhat biblical, somewhat pastoral, certainly in the mood of a legend. At Taos “there was a religious silence over the place” (pp. 150-51). Nature is associated with the character of a people and described from the perspective of the character who sees it. The tamarisk tree, the favorite of Father Joseph, has “feathery plumes of bluish green” (p. 202). It helps Willa Cather to create a Mexican homestead. “The family burro was tied to its trunk, the chickens scratched under it, the dogs slept in its shade, the washing was hung on its branches. Father Latour had often remarked that this tree seemed especially designed in shape and colour for the adobe village” (p. 202).

The lyrical meditations of Father Latour are one of Willa Cather's major accomplishments in the book. They establish his character, create a mood, and quietly reveal his sincere reverence. He and Willa Cather see the Southwest as a “brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky” (p. 232). Nature for the father also has domesticity; and in his old age after he has retired as archbishop, his cottage, the place where he put it, and his garden reveal his serenity, his age, his joy in fruits, and his knowledge that the old may still be fruitful. He chooses a “place in the red hills spotted with juniper” (p. 266). The feature he likes most is an ancient “apricot tree of such great size as he had never seen before. … The apricots were large, beautifully coloured, and of superb flavour” (p. 266). The cottage and its surroundings are images of his declining years. He dies in the exile of New Mexico away from his native Auvergne because of the southwestern air, which “would disappear from the whole earth in time, perhaps; but long after his day” (p. 275). Thus Willa Cather has united the archibishop and his world.

The Archbishop is a religious book and more specifically a Catholic book. “The longer I stayed in the Southwest,” Willa Cather wrote the year she published it, “the more I felt that the story of the Catholic Church in that country was the most interesting of all its stories.”14 The faith provided the form of the legend, the only two constantly reappearing characters, many of the episodes which fill out the action, and the standard for individuals and cultures. For some the Church furnishes a simple and optimistic world. One Mexican child believes that the priest is sent to her village directly by God as an answer to her father's prayers (p. 25). Willa Cather does best with her bishop and her vicar. The other characters have some of the generality and remoteness one would expect of an author foreign to the culture of her book. People and cultures are measured in terms of Jesuit Catholicism. Father Martinez of Taos is a vigorous man and a good creation for the legend, but to the extent that he contradicts Catholic ideals he is religiously wrong. A lack of harmony with Catholic or religious ideals also reveals a lack of harmony between peoples and cultures. The two Jesuit fathers follow their beliefs so much that they become ideal heroes of romance and legend. Such specific affirmation of human and religious values by ideal characters is extremely rare in our time. Their perfection is unique, but also a little flawed as fiction, a little sentimental, faintly suggestive of the ways of the local colorists.

Although Willa Cather could be a dust-covered camper in the Southwest, she seems always to have retained some preference for the niceties of European civilization. She admires the French urbanity of Father Latour, whose “manners, even when he was alone in the desert, were distinguished” (p. 19). Mexican art, Indian tradition, ancient stories of the Spanish Fathers, the aristocratic society of Santa Fé—several aspects of life in New Mexico provide some of the arts and refinements of the Old World, but the moments when the two French priests can dream of being at home in Auvergne are cherished. Thus the French meal worked on so hard by Father Joseph and described so much by Willa Cather is a little heady. In occasional lapses The Archbishop becomes somewhat patronizing to the characters usually admired. “Certainly it was a great piece of luck for Father Latour and Father Vaillant, who lived so much among peons and Indians and rough frontiersmen, to be able to converse in their tongue now and then with a cultivated woman” (p. 177) like Doña Isabella. Furthermore, Willa Cather is on occasion daintily aware of the foul body odors of a group of common New Mexicans (p. 193).

That moment of time when the design for The Archbishop flashed into the author's mind was governed by Catholicism. She was reading a biography of a bishop written by a bishop, W. J. Howlett's Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf, D.D.: Pioneer Priest of Ohio, Pioneer Priest of Colorado, Vicar Apostolic of Colorado and Utah, and First Bishop of Denver.15 In Willa Cather's workshop the materials of this old-fashioned biographical laudation were turned into her legend. Father Machebeuf became Father Vaillant, and Father Jean Baptiste Lamy became Father Latour. In the manner of a good artist she followed her source closely and still adapted it to her own purpose. Although the active and colorful Machebeuf is the central figure in the biography, Willa Cather chose the calmer and more meditative Lamy for the prototype of her main character. Machebeuf's biographer left Lamy and followed his subject into Colorado; Willa Cather stayed on in New Mexico, where Father Latour heard stories of his friend. For the account of Father Latour's death, she found only one paragraph in a history of the Church in the Southwest.16 She closed her legend and impressively depicted the archbishop's retirement and death by creating his peaceful mental reflections. She describes him selecting a site for his cottage and puttering in his garden. After he becomes sick and returns to Santa Fé, he sits looking at the cathedral he has built, remembers the places and friends of his youth, instructs a younger priest about the Southwest, and recalls at length legends about Father Junipero, remembers the youth and the funeral of his friend Father Joseph, reflects on the sufferings of the Navajo Indians and their chief Manuelito.

On the whole Willa Cather makes few changes in the history by Salpointe and the biography of Machebeuf. The parallels are numerous: the bishop's trip to Santa Fé, the difficult journey through Texas. Machebeuf's missionary work in Colorado, the life in Ohio, the visit to the pope, Machebeuf-Vaillant's begging for the Church, especially the begging from Mexican women for the Anglo-Americans in Colorado, the relationship between Machebeuf-Vaillant and the sisters who are in a convent in France, the lives of the two priests in France, their departure to be missionaries, the physical appearance of the priests, the theory of “rest in action,”17 the enlistment in the French military service, the acquiring of the white mules (actually bays),18 and so on and so on. Willa Cather adapts her materials in many ways; she adds descriptions of places and emotions, creates her own style altogether, omits, invents, quotes, drops the strictly chronological approach and creates character through reminiscence, composes private prayers a biographer would never know, changes a factual sentence into a lengthy meditation, describes personal experience in great detail derived from a photograph, and in general does whatever she can to make the book a true legend of her Catholic priests and the Southwest. She was able to use fact and to sacrifice fact for her artistic designs.

The Catholicism of the two priests is best seen not merely in their characters but also in their confrontation of a wide variety of Catholics and Catholic legends, churches, painting, figures, stories, and factions. Only three episodes primarily involving Catholics and Catholicism are mainly invented. Imaginary events and real events are chosen for their religious and historical representativeness and for a variety of effects in the legend. The invented sections are the story “Hidden Water” very early, “The Legend of Fray Baltazar” of the pueblo of Acoma, and most of the story of the miserliness of Padre Lucero.

“Hidden Water” (see above) presents early in the novel the terrors of thirst in a southwestern desert, the constrasting beauties of an oasis, the simplicity and reverence of the lowly and isolated Mexicans, and the ministrations of a good priest to them. Willa Cather's entire source is an objective statement in Howlett that Bishop Lamy made a journey of fifteen hundred miles to see the bishop of Durango. To begin her legend she chose the natural miracle of “The Cruciform Tree” and the account of the bishop's ministrations to his people: “This settlement was his Bishopric in miniature; hundreds of square miles of thirsty desert, then a spring, a village, old men trying to remember their catechism to teach their grandchildren. The Faith planted by the Spanish friars and watered with their blood was not dead; it awaited only the toil of the husbandman” (p. 32).

“The Legend of Fray Baltazar” tells of the relationship between a dissolute and tyrannical priest and his murmuring Indian parishioners at Ácoma. The “proud old Spaniard” prepares an extraordinary feast and invites padres from other pueblos. When an Indian serving-boy spills “rich brown gravy” on one of the diners, Baltazar hits the boy on the head with a pewter mug and kills him. The Ácomas “rid their rock of their tyrant” by throwing him over “the most precipitous cliff” (p. 113). Willa Cather has created her own individual legend of one kind of typical missionary-parish relationship in the Southwest. The priest who succeeds Baltazar Montoya is “a native Mexican, of unpretentious tastes,” and a legend of the past has shown a change in history with the simplicity and violence of an old fairy tale. A padre was forced to leap from Ácoma.19 But he survived with the aid of an umbrella.

When Bishop Lamy arrived in New Mexico the native Mexican priests resented him, denied his authority, and continued the practices the bishop condemned. Willa Cather selects three actual priests to represent the historical conflict. One of these is Father Marino Lucero (based on Father Mariano de Jesus Lucero), who appears only briefly in history and biography20 and who is excommunicated “for irregularities and schismatical tendencies.” He became an ally of Father Antonio José Martínez in setting up a separate church, which Willa Cather calls the Holy Catholic Church of Mexico (p. 159). She adds substantially to the story of Lucero. Probably she invents her additions to history, but some of the life of Lucero may be based on folklore. She provides him with a daughter, Conceptión Gonzales, to give flesh to his violation of his vow of celibacy; and she demonstrates his materialism by making him the most extreme of misers. Simple tales of particular types of men are common in folklore—the lazy man, the miser, the fighting man, and so on. Lucero prides himself on his avarice, “the one passion that grew stronger and sweeter in old age” (p. 161). When a robber tries to steal his money, the priest kills him and, “covered with blood” rushes out “to arouse the town” (p. 163). This legend ends with Lucero's melodramatic deathbed scene. He repents and sends for Father Joseph, but spends his thoughts on his money. He asks why God “did … not make some way for a man to protect his own after death” (p. 168). In the way of folk, watchers hope that at the moment of death he will see the world beyond and reveal something to them. His words in Spanish are addressed to his rival: “Eat your tail, Martínez, eat your tail!” (p. 171). The watchers believe that he has seen Martínez in hell. Lucero is a sorry piece of humanity, but the stark melodrama is qualified by the patience of the watching Mexican women.

Two other historical priests besides Lucero appear in The Archbishop. Howlett's biography presents a dramatic confrontation with Father Machebeuf facing the Reverend J. M. Gallegos and expelling him from his church in Albuquerque.21 Willa Cather here describes the scandalous life of her gambling, hunting, dancing, drinking priest: “he would still dance the fandango five nights running, as if he could never have enough of it” (p. 82). Father Latour finds him “engaging … as a man” but “impossible” as a priest (p. 84). The Archbishop is on the whole a very happy book, and the merriment, even if it is a priest's, helps to establish that tone.

Willa Cather invents with Lucero, selects with Gallegos, and records and fills out history with Padre José Martínez of Taos. Father of a son after he became a priest, he argues against celibacy and for sin, eats and drinks “generously” (p. 145), feeds his cats “carelessly from his plate” (p. 144), keeps a disorderly house, foretells an early death for Latour if he begins a campaign of reforms, and establishes his own independent church when he is excommunicated. But he is not a simple villain; he is attractive, and he has admirable talents. “The Bishop had never heard the Mass more impressively sung than by Father Martínez. … Rightly guided, the Bishop reflected, this Mexican might have been a great man” (p. 150). But he is not rightly guided. He brings disorder into the Church, and that violates the entire mission of Latour. The men who selected him had said that the chosen bishop would have to be “a man to whom order is necessary—as dear as life” (p. 8). And in those terms the disorder in Martínez's house “was almost more than … [Father Latour's] fastidious taste could bear” (p. 144).

Although some writers have defended history's Father Martínez,22 some historians paint his career almost as black as Willa Cather does. “His power over his parishioners was absolute,” a historian of the Southwest writes, “and his hatred of Americans and American institutions was recognized by all.”23 He had five children by his housekeeper, and they were “provided for in his will.”24 In general, Willa Cather adopts the worst political and religious view possible for Martínez, but makes him personally attractive in some ways. Certainly other admirable things in the Catholic Church in the Southwest offset her evil Mexican priests. Many invented details of the priest's personal life make him more real than Lucero or Gallegos. As Father Latour goes to his bed for the night, he is “annoyed … exceedingly” when he sees “a bunch of woman's hair that had been indolently tossed into a corner when some slovenly female toilet was made in this room” (p. 149). Besides the bishop's fastidious reaction, Willa Cather has created in this one image the lechery of Padre Martínez and the domestic disorder of his home.

Fiction can use rumor as fact even when defenders of the historical figure are annoyed at the certainty. In a notorious rebellion in Martínez's Taos in 1847 the Indians and Mexicans revolted against the new American government in New Mexico, killed Governor Bent of the territory and scalped him, and killed, as Willa Cather says, about a dozen other whites (p. 140).25 Martínez's contemporaries and many historians believed that he was one of the principal instigators of the violent rebellion. Cather not only asserts his definite guilt but also invents additional villainy for her corrupt priest. He promises to save the lives of the rebellious Indians who were “sentenced to death … if they would deed him their lands, near the pueblo” (p. 140). He goes off on a visit, and “the seven Indians were hanged on the appointed day” (p. 140).

Willa Cather lightens the tone of her story of Martínez by creating a comic character who is involved in one of the most sensational societies in the Catholic Church in New Mexico—the Penitentes. The lecherous and gluttonous candidate for the priesthood, Trinidad Lucero, whose kinship in the Martínez household is left intentionally vague, has failed in his attempt to be one of the Penitentes. They are a flagellant order who have themselves scourged and subjected to many kinds of cruel and unusual punishments. Latour contemplates stopping the extravagances (p. 155), but neither Latour nor Lamy succeeded in stopping the flagellations. Rumors were that the crucifixions sometimes caused death.26 Society members continued their secret practices into the twentieth century, and there may have been crucifixions when Willa Cather was visiting the Southwest.27 Flagellations may be sexual in intent, perhaps, as well as religious. Trinidad regards the serving girl in a “greedy way” (p. 145), and he also “carries the heaviest crosses to the highest mountains, and takes more scourging than anyone” (pp. 148-49). Martínez, himself a native of Abiquiu, the center of the Penitentes society, describes Trinidad's sufferings with a humorous and degrading simile: “He comes back here with his back so full of cactus spines that the girls have to pick him like a chicken” (p. 149). And Trinidad's flagellant career comes to a farcical end. Tied to a cross with ropes, “he is so heavy that after he had hung there a few hours, the cross fell over with him, and he … said he would bear as many stripes as our Saviour—six thousand. … But before they had given him a hundred, he fainted” (p. 154).

Many religious things in the Catholic Church in New Mexico and Arizona in The Archbishop offset the evils of some of the priests. Besides the goodness of the Church in the portraits of Vaillant and Latour, there are the symbolic physical beauties of Church things, the accomplishments and the martyrdoms of the early Spanish missionaries, the love of God among some Indians and many Mexicans, and legends of miracles in the New World. The goodness of the Catholic Church in The Archbishop overshadows the evil and the violence. Indeed, it is in part the suffering which reveals the goodness. Shortly before his death, Father Latour recalls how “those early missionaries threw themselves naked upon the hard heart of a country that was calculated to try the endurance of giants” (p. 278).

Besides suffering deprivations and martyrdom, the early fathers were great builders, or at least they persuaded the Indians to erect magnificent churches. Father Latour is himself a master builder. Always Willa Cather succeeds in creating a sensitive relationship between the priest and the sensuous things in his life. The bishop rides over the “hills in every direction” before he finds “one yellow hill among all these green ones” (p. 241) to furnish the stone for his church. He selects a French architect to design “the first Romanesque church in the New World” (p. 243). Father Vaillant questions the building of a fine church “when everything is so poor” (p. 244). Father Latour, perhaps more contemplative and reverent and less charitable than his friend, replies, “The Cathedral is near my heart, for many reasons. I hope you do not think me worldly” (p. 245). The church is central in the bishop's meditations in his old age. He admires its close relationship to its place. It is “of the South” (p. 271), a part of the place where it is built, and “once that kinship is there, time will only make it stronger” (p. 272). Neither Willa Cather nor her bishop ever contemplates any cultural disparity between the Midi Romanesque architecture in a city of predominantly Mexican and Spanish origins. The character of the priest determined his choice of architecture. In Santa Fé there was some objection to the cathedral on cultural grounds. “I was very much distressed,” Mary Austin wrote, “that she had given her allegiance to the French blood of the Archbishop; she had sympathized with his desire to build a French cathedral in a Spanish town. It was a calamity.”28

An old bell found “in the basement of old San Miguel Church” brings one art of the Old World to the New. Its rich historical backgrounds and its “beautiful tone” as it rings the Ave Maria cause Father Latour to sense “something Eastern, with palm trees—Jerusalem, perhaps, though he had never been there” (p. 43). Father Vaillant tells a legend of how the people of a Spanish city besieged by the Moors pledged to St. Joseph to make a bell of “all their plate and silver and gold ornaments” (p. 44). The date on the bell, 1356, and all the other information about it Willa Cather found in Howlett's biography.29 Indeed, Howlett's legend is more filled with details than Willa Cather's. Her accomplishment is the creation of the lyrical meditations of the bishop as he awakens to the sound of the bell.

The ancient history of the Catholic Church in the Southwest has provided not only martyrdoms but also miracles for Willa Cather's legend. Once Father Latour has gone to Mexico to establish proof of his authority, returned, and settled down in his home, Willa Cather writes of the bell and a miracle to establish the mood and the religious theme of The Archbishop. She tells the story of the appearance of the Virgin to Juan Diego, “a poor neophyte of the monastery of St. James” in 1531 (pp. 46-7). As proof of her appearance and her request that the bishop build a church where she appeared, she gives Juan roses at a time when roses are out of season, and miraculously she causes a painting of the Blessed Virgin to appear on his wretched tilma, “a mantle … of coarse vegetable fibre” (p. 48). One of the native priests has been to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and he comes to tell Father Latour about it. Willa Cather presents without significant change the details of the story as she learned them from a source.30

The Archbishop ends as it began, with miracles. Three stories are told about Father Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary to Mexico and California in the eighteenth century.31 Once “a mysterious stranger appeared” and showed Father Serra how to ford a river; again a horseman saved him from thirst in the desert (Willa Cather changed a gift of a loaf of bread for hunger to a gift of pomegranates for hunger and thirst); and the Holy Family provides a home for an overnight stay in a desert. Cather adds dimensions to the character of her old archbishop as he recalls (in a tale of much greater length than that in the source) in his last days the warmth of Father Junipero's affections for the Christ Child: “from the moment he entered the house he had been strangely drawn to the child, and desired to take him in his arms. … After prayers … he did indeed stoop over the little boy in blessing; and the child had lifted his hand, and with his tiny finger made the cross upon Father Junipero's forehead” (p. 282).

The Mexicans in The Archbishop represent a wide variety of characters, classes, and religions. Two of the priests in the early days of the Church are Baltazar, the high-living, fleshly, courageous, corrupt priest, and Ramirez, the church builder. The Mexican group she admires are the primitive villagers, such as those at Agua Secreta. To portray the aristocratic and wealthy Mexicans of old Santa Fé, Willa Cather chose the Olivares family, who are probably a composite portrait of a number of people. The mysterious Doña Isabella Olivares is not unlike Kit Carson's Mexican wife, Josefa Jaramillo, sister to the wife of Governor Bent. Her musical accomplishments may be derived in part from Mrs. Julia Miner, who is also the source for Mrs. Harling in My Ántonia. In some ways Doña Isabella and her husband resemble Captain and Mrs. Forester in A Lost Lady. Doña Isabella gives a party, and Fathers Latour and Vaillant attend. They admire her Old World sophistication, her sexuality, beauty, mysterious past, musical accomplishments, entertaining, and her refusal to testify in court about her age until she has to do so to protect money her husband had willed to the Church. Certainly the Olivares party is a social and a narrative change of pace after the encounter with Martínez and the story of the death of Lucero.

The Mexican people are in many ways the most admirable culture described in The Archbishop. It is a happy and “a friendly world, where by every man's fireside a welcome awaited” the priests (p. 277). Unlike the Anglo-Americans especially, the Mexicans have a past like an Old World culture. The well at the village of Agua Secreta reminds Father Latour of an image of a Roman river goddess at a well-head where “later the Christian priests had planted a cross” (p. 32). The Mexicans enjoy rooster-pulls and cock-fighting and foods and wines. They forget their prayers because they cannot read, but they retain a simple faith. Father Joseph believes “it was people like them our Saviour bore in mind when He said, Unless ye become as little children. He was thinking of people who are not clever in the things of this world, whose minds are not upon gain and worldly advancement” (p. 206). The Mexicans are not thrifty and materialistic like the Anglo-Americans.32

In religion the Mexicans are “fickle” (p. 117) and narrow-minded (p. 27) and demonstrative. Women throw shawls in the path of the bishop and kiss the episcopal ring. In France that would be “highly distasteful. … Here, these demonstrations seemed a part of the high colour that was in landscape and gardens, in the flaming cactus and the gaudily decorated altars,—in the agonized Christs and dolorous Virgins and the very human figures of the saints. He had already learned that with this people religion was necessarily theatrical” (p. 142). The art in Mexican churches and homes expresses the individual relationship between the folk artist and the figures that he represents.33 Father Latour is interested in “the wooden figures of the saints, found in even the poorest Mexican houses. … He had never yet seen two alike” (p. 28). Folk art is superior to the manufactured images of plaster which he remembers in American churches in Ohio. And the episcopal home shares with the images a handmade quality. “The thick clay walls had been finished on the inside by the deft palms of Indian women” (p. 33-4), and the furniture is handmade. In the village of Chimayo the people frequently make new boots for “a little equestrian image of Santiago” (p. 249), and the “little wooden figure” of the Virgin has been carried in a procession in her honor since two hundred years before the bishop's time. Willa Cather describes even a physical relationship between the Virgin and those who love her. “She was their doll and their queen, something to fondle and something to adore, as Mary's Son must have been to Her” (pp. 256-57). Willa Cather attributes to Mexican art the same qualities Ruskin admired in architecture: “every building of the Gothic period differs in some important respect from every other.”34 Strangely, the individuality of Mexican art is Christian in the same way as a Gothic cathedral. Christianity's “exhortation is: Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do” (p. 221). Even the imperfections that are shown “in every touch” create love and uniqueness.

To represent the violence latent in some of the passionate Mexicans, Willa Cather turned to history for the character of the swashbuckling Don Manuel Chavez. Except for the description of his appearance and his emotions at the Olivares' party, nothing in The Archbishop expands or contradicts history: his descent from Castilian knights, his fighting the Navajos, even the “seven arrow wounds, and one shaft clear through his body” (p. 185), and his escape as the sole survivor of fifty-one men (thirty-one according to one authority).35 Willa Cather's account is close enough to one unacknowledged source to be termed paraphrase.36 There is considerable ironic contrast between the good Father Latour's quiet reflections and the fierce warrior Chavez, between former Navajo-killing and a quiet parlor party, between Chavez and his rival Kit Carson at the same party, between Chavez and the uniformed American soldiers whom he hates.

The greatest diversity in culture of any one race or people of the Southwest is found among the Indians. There are families of tribes, legends, languages, and religions, but every tribe has its own cultural uniqueness. On the whole the Indians remain less known and more mysterious than the other peoples of The Archbishop. Probably their inscrutability is attributable not only to their secrecy and character but also to the difficulty of getting to know them. Willa Cather knew at least one Indian well,37 but she was not an anthropologist like Elsie Clews Parsons, and many of the best anthropological studies of the Southwest like Miss Parsons's Pueblo Indian Religion had not been published when The Archbishop was written. Partly because of the form of the legend and also perhaps because she did not know Indians intimately, Willa Cather's treatment of Indian culture in The Archbishop is more general and less detailed than Scott Momaday's in House Made of Dawn. Eusabio taps a drum and sings a song. Navajo songs were available in writings of anthropologists before 1927, but Willa Cather did not quote Eusabio's. In a sense it is convenient for her that Indian ways are comparatively unknown to her bishop. She has a plausible reason for being general or vague in her account of Indian life.

“The Mass of Ácoma,” Book III of The Archbishop, is really a cultural tour of the pueblos between Santa Fe and Acoma, and parts of the next two books are stories of southwestern Indians. Father Latour's visit to Ácoma shows how the Indians who lived on mesas “had found the hope of all suffering and tormented creatures—safety” (p. 97). The story of Fray Baltazar Montoya at Ácoma not only recounts the story of a corrupt priest who exploits the Indians but also depicts the suffering and the great patience of the Indians before they are at last provoked to violence. The narrative of the conflict between the pueblos of Laguna and Ácoma over a worn-out religious painting of Saint Joseph shows a blend of ancient superstition and Christian reverence. The Pecos tribe in The Archbishop as in history preserves the mysteriousness, the occult, and even the evil of ancient Indian religions. A story of the Pimas, on the other hand, shows the adaptability to Catholicism of southwestern Indians and their reverence. The Taos Pueblo Indians accept the Catholicism of Padre Martínez but also revolt as so many tribes did against the Spanish in 1680 and then again revolt against American rule in the 1840s. Martínez' account of Popé's planning the Indian rebellion against the Mexicans in 1680 in Taos is accurate history. Willa Cather's assertion that he “sealed himself up for four years and never saw the light of day” (p. 151) is, I believe, an invention to add atmosphere and make the story more sinister. Father Latour's journey to visit his Navajo friend Eusabio and his memories of his talk with the Navajo chief Manuelito represent the pastoralism of the Navajo shepherds and their sufferings when the Americans forced them to live for a time on a reservation.

Father Latour does not know the Indian as well as he knows the other cultures of his people. His many and conflicting views of the Indians38 derive from his encounters with different kinds of tribes, but his interpretations of Indian culture also vary according to his moods. At one time he is “convinced that neither the white man nor the Mexicans in Santa Fé understood anything about Indian beliefs or the workings of the Indian mind” (p. 133). When he is going through one of his “periods of coldness and doubt,” he feels that the Indians in his territory will travel “their old road of fear and darkness, battling with evil omens and ancient shadows” (p. 211). During mass at Acoma he thinks of the Indians as “antediluvian creatures … types of life so old, so hardened, so shut within their shells, that the sacrifice on Calvary could hardly reach back so far” (p. 100; see also pp. 92, 103). Father Latour also admires Indian qualities. He thinks of “how kind the Indian voice could be when it was kind at all; a slight inflection made one feel that one had received a great compliment” (p. 91). He admires the Indians' adjustment to nature. When Navajos leave a campsite they are “careful to obliterate every trace of their temporary occupation” (p. 233). They wish to live with the “great country,” to respect it, not to “disturb the landscape.”39 White men wish to “‘master’ nature, to arrange and re-create” (p. 234). Instead of having the Indian's “caution and respect” for nature, the white man wishes “to assert himself in any landscape” for his ego and for materialistic exploitation (p. 233). Father Latour seems to regard most whites as guilty of the kind of aggrandizement Willa Cather associates with Anglo-Americans like Buck Scales, the southern Smiths who have made a peon of the poor woman Sada, and Wick Cutter of My Ántonia.

Without exception Willa Cather's narratives about particular tribes are based on actual geography, history, and culture. She selects carefully, makes no attempt to give a full account, occasionally fills out a character or a story with invention, and changes however she wishes. One of the most intriguing legends of the Indians of the Southwest is the story of the Enchanted Mesa. Its inhabitants climbed up and down a stairway until a great storm destroyed their access while the people were working their fields on the plain below. The legend is that two women who were sick and could not go to the fields were left to starve on top of the Mesa.40 In Willa Cather's brief paragraph she writes that the “people had perished up there from hunger” (p. 96). She omits the anguish of the survivors who watched the women from the plain below and creates a story of the death of an entire people.

The patient Indians of Ácoma build an elaborate church for Padre Ramirez, carry dirt for the cemetery, and labor in the rich garden of Fray Baltazar Montoya. Willa Cather tells how Fray Baltazar “was never done with having earth carried up from the plain in baskets” for his “deep garden” (p. 104). Within the invented story of Baltazar (see above) Willa Cather describes the picture of St. Joseph, a gift from the King of Spain. Ácoma has had no drought since the portrait came. The pueblo at Laguna wishes to borrow it, “but Friar Baltazar had warned them never to let it go” (p. 107). In fact, the Ácomas did lend the picture, probably later than Willa Cather's story, and they were able to get the picture back from Laguna only after they had won a lawsuit. Willa Cather has worked a part of the actual story into her invented story to create religious reverence to offset the corruption of Baltazar. Also the story indicates how the Indian temperament, like the Mexican, attached itself to things, especially to sacred objects and painting or art.

Willa Cather chose the Pecos tribe to represent the mysteries of Pueblo Indian religion. Father Latour visits the Pecos Pueblo although, as Willa Cather indicates in a footnote, “the dying pueblo was abandoned” several years before the bishop came to New Mexico. Apparently she wished the advantages of the well-known historical and anthropological backgrounds of the Pecos Indians and did not wish to use an invented name with their lore. She was thus trapped into her curious and rather pedantic documentation. Caught in a storm, Jacinto takes the priest to the Pecos cave. Incidentally, admitting the priest is an indication of great trust. These are the same people who come to the Jemez Pueblo in House Made of Dawn. Momaday calls them by their Indian name, Bahkyush. Father Latour is confronted with the Pecos mysteries but in such a confusing way that he hardly knows what he is seeing. He has heard that the tribe “guarded an enormous serpent which they brought to the pueblo for certain feasts. It was said that they sacrificed young babies to the great snake” (p. 123). In the cave he smells “a fetid odour, not very strong but highly disagreeable” (p. 127). The clue is slight, but unmistakably the priest is in the presence of the snake.41 A “fetid smell” also comes from the enormous rattlesnake Jim kills in My Ántonia (p. 47). Later the trader Zeb Orchard tells of a Pecos girl who came to his house for safety because of her fears that the men “were going to feed her baby to the snake” (p. 136). Anthropologists believe that the Pecos did keep such a snake, and there were stories of human sacrifice.42 Willa Cather was familiar with Charles F. Lummis's debunking of the story by pointing out that the “very grandfather of all rattlesnakes could no more swallow the smallest baby than he could fly,”43 but she preferred legend and imagination to reality. Also, there are fossils of extinct rattlesnakes which were large enough to swallow a baby.

The story in The Archbishop about the ceremonial fire which had “never been allowed to go out, and had never been revealed to white men” is authentic anthropology (p. 122).44 Serving the fire, Willa Cather writes, “sapped the strength of the young men appointed to serve it,—always the best of the tribe” (p. 122). Like the tone of her writing about many of the Indians, her account of the tribe of Pecos Indians is elegiac here. Jacinto's actions in the cave are ceremonial and inscrutable. He moves sticks from one place to another without building a fire, gathers stones and puts them in “a hole … about as large as a very big watermelon” (p. 128), closes up the hole with stones, then builds a fire, and shows Father Latour a crack where he can hear “the sound of a great underground river” (p. 130). The cache anthropologically derives from sacred and ceremonial objects which were kept both in a wall niche of the kiva and in a cave.45 The association of the mystery of the river with the Pecos is, I believe, Willa Cather's own invention used to magnify the supernatural mysteries with a natural wonder. In the story of the bishop's visit to Agua Secreta and this sound of the underground river she represents the awe of desert people at oases and water and seemingly miraculous events associated with water.

The Navajos, one of the tribes written about most in The Archbishop, are sheepherders; they live a more pastoral life than the agricultural Pueblo Indians. Father Latour visits his Navajo friend Eusabio and stays in a “solitary hogan” for three days of “reflection” before he calls home his friend Father Vaillant. At the end of the novel Willa Cather describes Father Latour's death from the point of view of a physician and Father Latour's Catholic friends. Immediately before that, the last section of the archbishop's meditations recreated his memories of the persecution of the Navajos, “when they were being hunted down and driven by thousands from their own reservation to the Bosque Redondo, three hundred miles away” (pp. 292-93). The bishop's “misguided friend, Kit Carson, … finally subdued the last unconquered remnant of that people” (p. 293). Willa Cather stresses the peace, the suffering, and the traditions of the Navajo. She establishes a friendship between Father Latour and Manuelito, one of the Navajo chiefs. The last thought of the archbishop is that “God has been very good to let me live to see a happy issue to those old wrongs. I do not believe, as I once did, that the Indian will perish. I believe that God will preserve him” (p. 297).

Willa Cather's Navajos are not merely a representation of history but also a particular interpretation of history. One historian regarded the Navajos as deceitful and more troublesome to the American government “between 1850 and 1860 than all the other New Mexico Indians combined.”46 On the other hand, a distinguished commission appointed in 1867 to study the Indian problems said, “Our wars … with Indians had been almost constant, and they unhesitatingly affirmed that the government had been uniformly unjust toward the Indian.”47 The destruction of the crops and livestock is agreed on by Willa Cather and all the historians. The chief Manuelito “brought in his stock; there were about 50 horses and 40 sheep. He said—‘Here is all I have in the world. See what a trifling amount. You see how poor they are. My children are eating roots.’”48 Willa Cather condenses and quotes: “Two years ago I could not count my flocks; now I have thirty sheep and a few starving horses. My children are eating roots” (p. 296). History's Manuelito was ruined by alcoholism.49 Willa Cather's remains heroic to the end. The Archbishop presents a noble Manuelito as an image of Father Latour's accomplishments in his southwestern world.

The Indian's association between tradition and religion and place in The Archbishop is embodied in the Canyon de Chelly, the dwelling place of the Navajo gods (p. 294). The canyon was a traditional residence, and until the coming of the Americans it was “inviolate” (p. 293). Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom have asserted that “no authoritative work on the religion and mythology of the Navajos supports her proposition that their gods dwelt in the canyon.”50 One contemporary of the Navajo conflicts, however, has said that they lost “several places traditionally sacred” to them.51 But perhaps little it matters. Willa Cather has created a place in the spirit of the Indians and of her characters. Besides adding religious dimensions by making the canyon the home of the gods, Willa Cather adds the Indian origin myth associated with Shiprock, which she places north of the Canyon de Chelly. The rock looks like “a one-masted fishing-boat. … Ages ago … that crag had moved through the air, bearing upon its summit the parents of the Navajo race from the place in the far north where all peoples were made,—and wherever it sank to earth was to be their land” (p. 295). There is a Ship Rock in Arizona, but the legend is not associated with it, and it is not close to the Canyon de Chelly. She strengthens the Navajo tradition by moving a legend associated with Shiprock in New Mexico and a rock in that shape to Arizona and by having Manuelito tell the story to the bishop.52

On the whole Willa Cather's portrait of her Indians is idealized and romanticized. She shares the twentieth-century social concern about the long and violent abuse of a people. But the Indians of The Archbishop are not the traditional noble savages of some nineteenth-century American fiction. They are mysterious, inscrutable at times, more civilized than the Indians of Cooper's forests and prairie. And they are themselves violent. Willa Cather does not create as much blood and gore as there was in some nineteenth-century writings about Indians and the frontier. Nor does she present as much killing as there was in the Bent Rebellion or in Popé's great Indian rebellion of 1680. She does describe how Fray Baltazar recalls how “the old Padre at Jamez had been stripped naked and driven on all fours about the plaza all night, with drunken Indians straddling his back, until he rolled over dead from exhaustion” (p. 112). The priest at Jemez was killed in this fashion but first the Indians tied him naked to the back of a hog and sent him careening through the pueblo before they rode him with spurs until his death.53 Comparisons of The Archbishop with historical accounts show usually more selection than invention. Use of more details might have created distractions, ruined the form of the legend, and lost the focus upon the story of the two central priests. Essentially and finally the things in the legend are used to create the character of the two missionaries more than the priests are used to provide a cultural tour of the Southwest. That is not, however, to diminish the importance of the cultures in the least.

The Anglo-Americans of The Archbishop, like some of those in My Ántonia, are presented in the least depth of any people, with the poorest cultural backgrounds, and with some of the most intense melodrama. Indeed, the design of The Archbishop may derive from Willa Cather's interest in the ancient and multiracial cultures of the Old World (like those of the immigrants in My Ántonia) and of one of the oldest parts of the New World. There are some good Anglo-Americans in The Archbishop. Zeb Orchard is “honest and truthful, a good friend to the Indians.” But his mother's anti-Indian racism has almost destroyed him. She would not agree to his marrying a Pecos girl, and so he “remained a single man and a recluse” (p. 134). The American soldiers and the Yankee traders do good things. When the bishop first arrives in New Mexico, they send “generous contributions of bedding and blankets and odd pieces of furniture” (p. 33).

Although Kit Carson “did a soldier's brutal work” (p. 294) in his war against the Navajos, he is a good Anglo-American but not a very well realized character. Willa Cather's Kit is genteel, “pure and noble,” as he had been characterized by “a series of biographers.”54 Her old Indian fighter has “a capacity for tenderness,” and Father Latour feels a quick glow of pleasure in looking at the man” (p. 75). Kit's wife has “lustrous black eyes and hair”—symbolizing all the passion of a Latin or Mexican lover—and she greets the priest with “quiet but unabashed hospitality” (p. 154)—symbolizing all the purity of a maidenly wife. Although the Carsons are walk-on characters, their perfections make them unbelievable.

Most of the Anglo-Americans in The Archbishop are as bad as the Carsons are perfect. The “degenerate murderer, Buck Scales,” attempts to kill Fathers Latour and Vaillant. Magdalena married him because “to Mexican girls, marriage with an American meant coming up in the world” (p. 72). He is so depraved that he murders his own three children “a few days after birth, by ways so horrible that she could not relate it.” (p. 72). The Mexican woman Sada comes at night to pray “in the deep doorway of the sacristy” (p. 212); she “was slave in an American family. They were Protestants, very hostile to the Roman Church, and they did not allow her to go to Mass or to receive the visits of a priest” (p. 212). A Yankee trader deceives Father Vaillant in a horse trade (p. 54). Americans have poor taste in architecture. The churches in Ohio are “horrible structures” (p. 242), and indeed Father Latour remembers “ugly conditions of life in Ohio, … the hideous houses and churches, the ill-kept farms and gardens, the slovenly, sordid aspect of the towns and country-side” (p. 228). A murder that follows a cockfight enables Willa Cather to make two adverse comments about Anglo-Americans. Ramón Armajillo kills the owner of the defeated bird because he had killed Ramón's rooster. Ramón's “American judge was a very stupid man, who disliked Mexicans and hoped to wipe out cock-fighting” (p. 250). Ramón is himself Mexican and a religious craftsman who makes “tiny buckskin boots … for the little Santiago in the church at home” (p. 250). Father Vaillant pursues Willa Cather's prejudices when he reflects on the Anglo-Americans he will meet as a missionary to the gold miners of Colorado. The “criminals would hardly be” like the lovable Ramón (p. 250).

And later they are not. They are materialistic, and they save their money to invest in sawmills and mines, not to give to the church. On the contrary, the Mexicans give if they have “anything at all” (p. 259). They contribute money “to pay for windows in the Denver church” of the Anglo-Americans. The greedy Americans are so busy searching for gold that they will not even plant gardens (p. 260). In The Archbishop Americans on the whole are a sorry class; they are the weakest aspect of the book, stick figures whose creator has denied them their humanity.

Willa Cather's failure with the characters of her own race and culture is a minor flaw in a book that is a remarkable accomplishment in part because she richly portrays the lives and cultures of other peoples. She has created a credible and rich world for her bishop, and despite occasional sentimentality and melodrama, she has written in The Archbishop a genuinely religious fiction in an age with little belief, especially in fiction. Although the novel is episodic in its treatment of the people and the events in the lives of the priests, the episodes come together in the unity of a geographic region, the Southwest. The lives and the moods of the two priests form a unity even in the diversity of events and cultures. Death Comes for the Archbishop is not only different from Willa Cather's other works, but it is also unique as a devout legend in twentieth-century fiction.


  1. Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (New York, 1957). All parenthetical references in the text are to this edition.

  2. James Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art (New York, 1970), pp. 225, 219.

  3. Willa Cather, “A Letter from Willa Cather,” Commonweal 7 (November 23, 1927): 714.

  4. Mildred R. Bennett, The World of Willa Cather (Lincoln, Neb., 1961), p. 222.

  5. Woodress, pp. 217-20; Edith Lewis, Willa Cather Living (New York, 1953), pp. 96ff.

  6. Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom, Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy (Carbondale, Ill., 1962), p. 212.

  7. Cather, “A Letter,” p. 32.

  8. Hippolyte Delehaye, The Legends of the Saints: An Introduction to Hagiography, trans. V. M. Crawford, introduction by Richard J. Schoeck, 1907 (Notre Dame, 1961), p. 10.

  9. See H. Newstead, “Legends, Medieval,” New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, 1967), 8: 610.

  10. The Golden Legend of Jacobus De Voragine, translated and adapted from the Latin by Granger Ryan and Helmut Ripperger (London, 1941), p. x.

  11. Clara Reeves, The Progress of Romance through Times, Countries, and Manners, quoted in Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative (New York, 1966), p. 6.

  12. Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), p. 33.

  13. Fred S. Perrine, “Military Escorts on the Santa Fé Trail,” New Mexico Historical Review 2 (April 1927): 179, n. 7; John D. Lee, “Diary of the Mormon Battalion Mission,” ed. by Juanita Brooks, New Mexico Historical Review 42 (October 1967): 282.

  14. Cather, “A Letter,” p. 173.

  15. Pueblo: Colorado, 1908. This source and many other sources for the novel were first discovered by the Blooms.

  16. Jean Baptiste Salpointe, Soldiers of the Cross: Notes on the Ecclesiastical History of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado (Albuquerque, 1967; originally published 1898), p. 275.

  17. Howlett, p. 29.

  18. Willa Cather knew of two white mules like Contento and Angelica, but Mexicans owned them, not the priests (letter to Carrie Miner, April 29, 1945; Howlett, pp. 216-17).

  19. Earl R. Forrest, Missions and Pueblos of the Old Southwest (Cleveland, 1929), p. 167.

  20. Ralph Emerson Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexican History (Albuquerque, 1963; facsimile of 1911 and 1912), 2:339.

  21. See also ibid., pp. 331-32.

  22. Forrest, p. 92; Oliver La Farge (with the assistance of Arthur N. Morgan), Santa Fé: The Autobiography of a Southwestern Town (Norman, Okla., 1959), p. 44.

  23. Ralph Emerson Twitchell, The History of the Military Occupation of the Territory of New Mexico from 1846 to 1851 by the Government of the United States (Chicago: Rio Grande Press; originally published 1909), pp. 287-301.

  24. M. Morgan Estergreen, Kit Carson: A Portrait in Courage (Norman, Okla., 1962), p. 124.

  25. Twitchell, Military Occupation, pp. 124ff.

  26. Salpointe, p. 163.

  27. Forrest, p. 206.

  28. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Willa Cather: A Memoir (Philadelphia, 1953), p. 235.

  29. Howlett, pp. 174-75.

  30. Cleve Hallenbeck and Juanita H. Williams, Legends of the Spanish Southwest (Glendale, Calif., 1938), pp. 289-293; Twitchell, Leading Facts, 2:153; Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies; or, The Journal of a Santa Fé Trader, in Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels, 1748-1846 (Cleveland, 1905), 20: 38ff.; Death Comes for the Archbishop, pp. 46ff.

  31. Probably Willa Cather found the stories in Francis Palou, Life of Ven. Padre Junípero Serra, trans. J. Adam (San Francisco, 1884), pp. 12-13, 21-22; they are also recounted by Maynard J. Geiger, The Life and Times of Fray Junípero (Washington, D.C., 1959), 1: 84, 85, 154.

  32. Sister Lucy Schneider, “Cather's ‘Land-Philosophy’ in Death Comes for the Archbishop,Renascence 22 (Winter 1970): 81.

  33. On Mexican art see Richard Giannone, Music in Willa Cather's Fiction (Lincoln, Neb., 1968), p. 199.

  34. John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, in The Works of John Ruskin, 10 vols. (London, 1904), 2: 181.

  35. Charles Fletcher Lummis, A New Mexico David and Other Stories and Sketches of the Southwest (Freeport, N. Y., 1969), p. 197.

  36. Twitchell, Military Occupation, pp. 287-301.

  37. Lewis, p. 142.

  38. See Bloom and Bloom, p. 231.

  39. Maynard Fox, “Proponents of Order: Tom Outland and Bishop Latour,” Western American Literature 4 (Summer 1969): 111-12. Schneider, pp. 81-82.

  40. Lummis, A New Mexico David, p. 52.

  41. Alfred Vincent Kidder, “Pecos, New Mexico: Archaeological Notes,” Papers of the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology 5 (1958): 227.

  42. Kidder, p. 228; Lummis, Mesa, Cañon and Pueblo (New York, 1925), p. 148.

  43. Lummis, Mesa, p. 148.

  44. Forrest, p. 103.

  45. Kidder, pp. 232, 234, 235.

  46. Twitchell, Leading Facts, 2: 303.

  47. Ibid., p. 434.

  48. Lawrence C. Kelly, Navajo Roundup: Selected Correspondence of Kit Carson's Expedition Against the Navajo, 1863-1865 (Boulder, Colo., 1970), p. 165.

  49. Lt. James H. Simpson, Navajo Expedition, ed. by Frank McNitt (Norman, Okla., 1964), p. 197.

  50. Bloom and Bloom, p. 216.

  51. Frank McNitt, Navajo Wars: Military Campaigns, Slave Raids and Reprisals (Albuquerque, 1972), p. 265.

  52. New Mexico: A Guide to the Colorful State, American Guide Series, new edition by Joseph Miller (New York, 1962; originally published 1940), p. 341.

  53. Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Arizona and New Mexico, 1530-1888 (New Mexico Foreword by Clinton P. Anderson; Arizona Foreword by Barry Goldwater [Albuquerque, 1962; facsimile of the 1889 edition]), p. 182, n. 10.

  54. Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge, 1950), p. 85.

John J. Murphy (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3845

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 responding to these experiences with a more cultivated sensibility. Beyond this local or national type are similarities to the heroes of classical literature, particularly Aeneas, whose destiny was to shape a new culture in Italy by transplanting the home gods of Troy. Thus Archbishop Latour reflects Cather's cyclical view of history, in which the American experience repeats the European, and our West the larger West.


Jean Marie Latour is introduced wearing buckskin like Natty Bumppo, although the far western setting of the novel demands an equestrian hero like the Virginian. Cather opens with “a solitary horseman, followed by a pack-mule, … pushing through an arid stretch of country somewhere in central New Mexico.”2 This horseman is atypical, however: “Under his buckskin riding coat he wore a black vest and the cravat and collar of a churchman” (p. 19). Even aside from his calling, he is unusual: “His bowed head was not that of an ordinary man,—it was built for the seat of a fine intelligence. … There was a singular elegance about the hands below the fringed cuffs of the buckskin jacket. Everything showed him to be a man of gentle birth—brave, sensitive, courteous. His manners … were distinguished.” Cather presents us with the cultivated counterpart of the naturally attractive hero described by Wister's narrator at the beginning of The Virginian: “in his eye, in his face, in the whole man, there dominated a something potent to be felt … by man or woman.”3 Wister's tall stranger and Cather's young priest are knights-errant in the wilderness, rescuing those in need, righting wrongs, bringing law to lawless regions.

The Virginian's exploits range from pranks to gun duels, but there is always decency about them. The rescue of Molly Wood from the river, while a humorous situation, is of a maiden in distress, the kind of affair Natty Bumppo specialized in in the New York forests. The Virginian's role in lynching the cattle thieves is of more serious dimension, a haunting episode leading to tears for his old friend Steve. This and the famous gun duel with Trampas jeopardize his relationship with Molly, but he is forced into them by the corrupt condition of Wyoming law. In trying to justify the hero's actions, Judge Henry explains to Molly, “We are in a very bad way, and we are trying to make that way a little better until civilization can reach us” (p. 314). Even the Wyoming bishop cannot really condemn the Virginian's action under the circumstances.

New Mexico too is in a bad way, and Latour has to contend with similar lawlessness. “The Lonely Road to Mora” episode combines the hero's rescue of the female in distress and a situation of self-defense. After the terrified Magdalena warns the priests about the murderous Buck Scales, Latour draws his pistol on the outlaw. When Magdalena escapes, Latour watches over her until the buckskin-clad, conventional Western hero, Kit Carson, takes her home to his wife. In a more amusing vein, and more befitting a courtly type, is Latour's administering to Isabella Olivares during the difficulty she has admitting her age. Latour's confrontations with the wayward native clergy make him a kind of frontier lawman forced to compromise in imperfect situations until the appropriate time for action. Rather than “lose the parish of Taos in order to punish its priest” (p. 157), he allows the excesses of Father Martinez to continue until he can get a strong replacement. Martinez, Gallegos and Lucero, a trio of clergymen as lawless as any company of cattle rustlers, challenge the new bishop's authority by practices as varied as political intrigue, gambling, hoarding money and siring children. Patiently but firmly, Latour replaces them, although Lucero and Martinez organize a rival church of their own.

Cather's hero shares with Natty Bumppo concern over the exploitation and destruction of the land by new settlers. Natty complains that white men's explorations “always foretell waste and destruction”4 and demonstrates less wasteful Indian methods of hunting and fishing. Latour is sensitive to the Indian respect for nature: “it was the Indian's way to pass through a country without disturbing anything. … It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it. … They seemed to have none of the European's desire to ‘master’ nature, to arrange and re-create. They spent their ingenuity in the other direction; in accommodating themselves to the scene in which they found themselves” (pp. 233-34). Just as Natty laments the sacrificing of New York forests for the ugly, jerry-built structures of Templeton, Latour is disturbed by the proliferation in Santa Fe of “flimsy wooden buildings with double porches, scrollwork and jack-straw posts and banisters painted white” (p. 271), which destroy the setting of his golden Romanesque cathedral. He is forced to contend with the confusions of life brought about by the discovery of gold in Colorado, where wandering prospectors and their followers crowd into the mountains, pollute the water and succumb to fever. Latour assigns these Colorado problems as the special task of Father Vaillant, who eventually becomes the bishop of Denver.

Also, Latour's Indian companionships associate him with Cooper's hero. Natty's lifelong friendship with Chingachgook and his relationship with Uncas and Hist have their parallels in Latour's dealings with Jacinto and especially the Navajo leader Eusabio. Like Natty, Latour is able to communicate with Indians. At Laguna, he talks with Jacinto about Indian names and legends. The Navajo Eusabio becomes Latour's friend for life, and his desert home the place Latour visits during a period of spiritual aridity. The two men share Christianity, concern for the welfare of the Navajos, and a respect for each other reminiscent of Natty and Chingachgook. The nobility of both relationships and the silent intercourse characterizing them are suggested in a meeting between Eusabio and Latour after the death of Eusabio's son: “At first he did not open his lips, merely stood holding Father Latour's very fine white hand in his very fine dark one, and looked into his face with a message of sorrow and resignation in his deep-set, eagle eyes” (p. 221). The scene recalls Natty's attempt to comfort Chingachgook at the grave of Uncas, when he declares, “Sagamore, you are not alone,” and Chingachgook grasps his hand with warmth of feeling.5

Celibacy and perpetual boyhood also characterize the Western hero. Natty Bumppo's refusal to involve himself with Judith Hutter and his foolishness in the unequal affair with Mabel Dunham illustrate the bachelor aspect Wister ridicules in the story of the rooster fleeing Judge Henry's ranch because of a fear of petticoats. The Virginian himself decides to move on when the community begins to fill with young marrieds and a school is contemplated:

“… Well if this hyeh Territory is goin' to get full o' fam'ly men and empty o' game, I believe I'll—”

“Get married yourself,” suggested Mr. Taylor.

“Me! I ain't near reached the marriageable age. No, seh!” [p. 42]

This reminds us of Huck Finn's constant efforts to avoid the complexities of society by moving on, by lighting out for new territory to escape that “cramped up and smothery” feeling in conflict with the easy freedom of the raft, where one floated “wherever the current wanted,” where one could throw off the restraints of civilization and go naked, “day and night.”6 The threat marriage and domestic life represent to the perpetually boyish Western hero is most clearly dramatized in Crane's “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” when gun-happy Scratchy Wilson desists from his constant pistol dueling with Sheriff Jack Potter when confronted with the news of Potter's recent marriage. Wilson calls off the feud, muttering “Married!” Wilson “was not a student of chivalry; it was merely that in the presence of this foreign condition he was a simple child of the earlier plains.”7

Wilson seems an extreme case beside Latour, whose celibacy is a condition of his religious vocation; nevertheless, the churchman leads a bachelor life like typical Western heroes and most Cather heroes. Near the end of the novel, when the elderly Latour grows homesick for New Mexico while visiting Clermont, we are made aware of this boyhood existence, now a kind of reward for a life of service: “In New Mexico he always awoke a young man; not until he rose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one's body feel light and one's heart cry ‘To-day, to-day,’ like a child's” (p. 275). The Old World could not bestow this youth, but the wind of the “light-hearted mornings of the desert, … that wind … made one a boy again. He had noticed that this peculiar quality in the air of new countries vanished after they were tamed by men and made to bear harvests.” This resembles the Virginian's hankering after an undomesticated territory without schools. The atmosphere of freedom becomes necessary for Latour: “he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it. Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!” (pp. 275-76).


Latour is a variation of the typical Western hero, and his life spans the epoch of far-western expansion: “he had come with the buffalo, and he had lived to see railway trains running into Santa Fe” (p. 273). Yet, Cather takes us beyond the world of Leatherstocking and the American West. Death Comes for the Archbishop opens in the gardens of a villa in the Sabine hills, beneath which Rome spreads before a setting sun, the dome of St. Peter's the distinctive feature on the horizon. The discusson concerns bringing the order of the Roman Church to the vast New Mexican territory. Besides two references to the romances of Fenimore Cooper, one of the discussants, a New World missionary, is referred to as “an Odysseus of the Church,” and he compares the job to be done in New Mexico to cleaning out an Augean stable. The American West is thus given classical perspective and Cather's priests the status of classical heroes. As a missionary of Roman law and order, Latour suggests Aeneas. There are surprising resemblances between them. Although Cather might have been aware of the Virgilian aspect of Latour's ship-wreck in Galveston harbor, the fated dimension of his tasks and his communication with the world beyond are unmistakable similarities.

Aeneas' destiny is to bring about the Roman peace, when, as Jupiter foretells, “the age of violence [shall] be mellowing into peace.”8 Unlike the typical American Western hero, Aeneas is not confused about being on the side of civilization. Hector charges him in a dream to save the holy things and gods of Troy and plant them in an Italian home (II, 291-97). Despite the jealousy of Juno and the stumbling blocks she sends his way, Aeneas manages to fulfill Jupiter's prophecy. His mother Venus is always there to help him, of course, to maneuver a friendly reception in Carthage, to direct him to the golden bough, to cure his wounds before the final contest with Turnus. As discussed over dinner by a few ecclesiastics, Latour's destiny seems hardly so awesome: “He will have to deal with savagery and ignorance, with dissolute priests and political intrigue. He must be a man to whom order is necessary—as dear as life” (p. 8). However, a mysterious world operates here too. In “The Lonely Road to Mora” incident, for example, the warning given the priests by Magdalena “seemed evidence that some protecting power was mindful of them” (p. 70). Cather's inclusion of the stories of miracles like Guadalupe, where the Virgin appeared to Brother Juan, requested a church to be built and imprinted her portrait on his coarse garment, suggests manipulation by the other world. Latour's experience with the peasant Sada before the Mary altar in “December Night,” when “The beautiful concept of Mary pierced the priest's heart like a sword,” is essentially a visitation from above: “He received the miracle in [Sada's] heart into his own, saw through her eyes …” (p. 218). A few chapters later he takes Vaillant to the golden hillside from which his Romanesque cathedral will be built and explains how he discovered this singular hill by chance, when he had to divert his route due to a washout. “Oh, such things are never accidents, Jean,” responds Vaillant (p. 242). The rescue of Latour in the red-hilled desert through the discovery of the pastoral oasis of Aqua Secreta is given supernatural dimension by Cather's balancing this episode with the one in which Junipero Serra is entertained by the Holy Family in the desert.

Confrontation with the other world is not always beneficent, however. Aeneas is frequently tortured by Juno and her lackeys, especially during the war with the Rutulians, about which Venus complains to Jupiter:

Now Juno is dredging up the Underworld—a province Hitherto unexplored—and has suddenly loosed Allecto On the earth, to spread delirium through the Italian towns.

[X, 39-41]

Also, Aeneas himself suffers chilling experiences in the underworld during his search for his father Anchises. After entering a dark cave, he witnesses the shapes of Death, Agony, and War, and unfortunate souls occupying places of mourning and punishment, those experiences Dante would employ in his own great poem, which D. H. Stewart has applied to Cather's novel.9 The self indulgence of Gallegos, sensuality of Trinidad, avarice of Lucero, and lusts and seductions of Martinez, accompanied by the heresy and discord sown by the latter two, provide Latour with underworld experiences and enough opposition to require heroic effort. The diabolical dimension of this crew is suggested in the death scene of Lucero, when, surrounded by candlelight, he perceives Martinez in torment and utters his last words, “Eat your tail, Martinez, eat your tail!” (p. 171). Even the vanity of Doña Isabella has other-worldly ramifications, since it jeopardizes the building of the cathedral, symbol of the success of Latour's mission. However, Latour feels most at a loss when confronted with the superstitions of the Indians. “Snake Root” includes material on the ceremonial fire and snake worship, practices confirmed by Jeb Orchard and by Latour himself when, in the foul-smelling cave, he witnesses Jacinto flattened against the rock and listening at the oval hole in the rear wall. “The Mass at Acoma” contains both aspects of Latour's difficulties. While the Indians cluster about him in their shawls and blankets, he feels threatened and ineffectual: “He felt as if he were celebrating Mass at the bottom of the sea, for antediluvian creatures; for types of life so old, so hardened, so shut within their shells, that the sacrifice of Calvary could hardly reach back so far” (p. 100). He begins to long for the comfort of his own tradition: “He was on a naked rock in the desert, in the stone age, a prey to homesickness for his own kind, his own epoch, for European man and his glorious history of desire and dreams” (p. 103). The Acoma legend of Fray Baltazar, the final part of this book, is a compendium of most of the excesses of the native clergy.

In addition to the missionary dimension and the influence of other-worldly supportive and opposing forces, there are specific qualities of character shared by Aeneas and Latour. Wendell Clausen has pointed out the piety of Virgil's hero, his awareness and acceptance of fate, even when the cost is loss of almost every human attachment.10 When compared to Odysseus or Achilles “Aeneas is almost devoid of passion or personality,” “seems curiously inert,” and “more burdened by memory than any other ancient hero.” His “actions may be described as valiant, patriotic, devoted; but more and more he becomes the hero who acts in some other and higher interest, like a priest.” All these qualities describe Latour, who, firmly, but knowing pain and terror, had decided to leave his native France for missionary work in the New World. Perhaps a greater sacrifice for Latour occurs when, beyond mid-life, he relinquishes Father Vaillant for the Colorado missions. He had recalled Vaillant from Tucson because he wanted his companionship, yet he suggests to his vicar the need for a priest at Camp Denver. Latour is disappointed at Vaillant's enthusiastic willingness to leave Santa Fe: “he was a little hurt that his old comrade should leave him without one regret. He seemed to know, as if it had been revealed to him, that this was a final break; that their lives would part here, and that they would never work together again” (p. 252). At this point he confesses his motives for recalling Vaillant: “I sent for you because I felt the need of your companionship. I used my authority as a Bishop to gratify my personal wish. That was selfish, if you will, but surely natural enough. We are countrymen, and are bound by early memories” (p. 253). These words suggest both the burden of memory and the sadness of what duty demands, and, as he returns home from his leave-taking from Vaillant, Latour reflects on these demands: “He was forty-seven years old, and he had been a missionary in the New World for twenty years—ten of them in New Mexico. If he were a parish priest at home, there would be nephews coming to him for help in their Latin or a bit of pocket-money; nieces to run into his garden and bring their sewing and keep an eye on his housekeeping” (p. 255). However, back in his study he successfully transforms his loneliness into something positive: “It was just this solitariness of love in which a priest's life could be like his Master's. It was not solitude of atrophy, of negation, but of perpetual flowering” (p. 256).

Latour's lack of passion, bordering on coldness for some readers, and the difficulty he has making friends are more than compensated for by the presence of supporting characters. In effect, Cather's method is to embody in others the qualities in which her hero seems deficient. Martinez rather than Latour is her passionate character; however, Martinez was “like something picturesque and impressive, but really impotent, left over from the past” (p. 141). Next to Latour, the buckskin-clad Kit Carson is the typical adventurer, the more legendary hero of the frontier, but Carson proves brutal in his treatment of the Navajos and is dismissed as “misguided” (p. 293). Vaillant is warmer, more popular and more active than Latour, who in his humility feels inferior to his vicar. This is obvious when he requests Vaillant's blessing before one of their separations: “Blanchet, … you are a better man than I. You have been a great harvester of souls without pride and without shame—and I am always a little cold—un pédant, as you used to say. If hereafter we have stars in our crowns, yours will be a constellation. Give me your blessing” (pp. 261-62). Latour feels that his somewhat quieter work in Santa Fe pales beside the more aggressive and celebrated mission in Colorado. However, Vaillant's work depends upon Latour, for he was responsible for Vaillant coming to the New World, had “to forge a new will in that devout and exhausted priest” (p. 299), and directed his missionary work, including Colorado.

Clausen concludes his consideration of Aeneas by noting Virgil's “perception of Roman history as a long Pyrrhic victory of the human spirit” and his suggestion of a less than optimistic view of Rome's future by having Aeneas depart from the underworld through the gate of ivory, the gate of false dreams. Cather's comments about the failure of the twentieth-century priests of New Mexico to respect the old mission churches and their decorations and her generally pessimistic view of the outcome of Western pioneer endeavor cast Latour's accomplishments in similar light. Maybe this is why her novel is, from beginning to end, riddled with the light of the setting sun. Yet, there is something everlasting in those “fearless and fine and very, very well-bred” qualities of her hero. Her combining of the Western tradition and the classical tradition and the perspective of death from which the novel is written suggest Latour's timelessness. Facing death, when life reveals itself as “an experience of the Ego, in no sense the Ego itself,” he acquires an insight outside of “calendared time”: “He sat in the middle of his own consciousness none of his former states of mind were lost or outgrown. They were all within reach of his hand, and all comprehensible” (p. 290).


  1. Willa Cather On Writing (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), pp. 6-7.

  2. Death Comes for the Archbishop (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1971), p. 17. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  3. Owen Wister, The Virginian, A Horseman of the Plains (New York: Pocket Books, 1956), p. 6. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  4. James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer; or, The First War-Path, A Tale New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1892), p. 44.

  5. The Last of the Mohicans, A Narrative of 1757 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1892), p. 442.

  6. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Scully Bradley, Richard C. Beatty, and E. Hudson Long (New York: Norton Critical Editions, 1962), pp. 96-7.

  7. Stephen Crane: Stories and Tales, ed. Robert W. Stallman (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1955), p. 285.

  8. The Aeneid of Virgil, trans. C. Day Lewis (Garden City, New York: Double-day Anchor Books, 1952), p. 21 (I, 291). Subsequent references are to books and lines of this edition.

  9. “Cather's Mortal Comedy,” Queen's Quarterly, 73 (1966), 244-59.

  10. “An Interpretation of the Aeneid,The Aeneid/Virgil, trans. John Conington, ed. Wendell Clausen (New York: Pocket Books, 1965), pp. vii-xv.

David Stouck (essay date 1982)

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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 people of the Southwest, but how she experienced the country for herself at first hand during several sojourns there. What I will suggest in this paper is that the rhetorical occasion underlying the composition of Death Comes for the Archbishop is that of travel writing, the oldest form of narrative indigenous to North America, and that when we view the book in this way we can appreciate more fully not only its formal characteristics but the living, dramatic texture of its content as well.

Altogether Willa Cather made six trips to the Southwest before Death Comes for the Archbishop was published in 1927. The first trip, in the spring of 1912, was to Winslow, Arizona, where she visited her brother Douglass, an employee of the Santa Fe railroad. She and her brother made many trips about the country, including a visit to Walnut Canyon where she saw for the first time the ruins of Indian cliff-dwellings. On this trip she met some of her brother's friends who were Mexicans and drove around the country with another of her brother's friends who was the Catholic priest at Winslow. The latter told her about the country and its people and related to her many of the old Spanish and Indian legends that still survived.

She went to the Southwest again in 1914, travelling as far as New Mexico, but we have little record of the trip. The following year, 1915, she went with her companion, Edith Lewis, who in her memoir gives us a good account of their adventures in a part of the country that was not yet very much travelled; for as Miss Lewis explains, “the distances were too great, the roads too rough … and there were few hotels.”3 The big adventure in 1915 was visiting Mesa Verde. They stayed a week at a government camp, and during their explorations with an untrained guide they got lost in Soda Canyon for several hours. That summer they also went on to Taos where they explored the country either on horseback or by driving a team. It was better than travelling by automobile, says Edith Lewis:

[this way one] was able to note all the contours of the land, all the detail; the streams, flowers, trees, rocks, and any traces of human habitation. It was necessary to be on the alert for every landmark, otherwise we were likely to lose our way on those long drives and horseback rides through unknown country. Each Mexican village had its own identity and setting, did not look like all the other Mexican villages. Each little church had its special character, its own treasures. [p. 100]

In 1916 they went back to New Mexico for an even longer stay, visiting Santa Fe, exploring the Espanola Valley, and meeting the Belgian priest, Father Haltermann, at Santa Cruz. Many of the experiences of these trips would eventually emerge in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Miss Lewis gives as examples their visit to Arroyo Hondo (the parish of the miser Father Lucero in the book), and their taking refuge from a hailstorm in a poor Mexican hut (an experience which emerges as “The Lonely Road to Mora” and the story of Magdelena and Buck Scales).

Willa Cather and Edith Lewis made two more trips in 1925 and 1926. Cather went back to New Mexico with no definite idea in mind for writing a novel, but in Santa Fe, after reading W. J. Howlett's Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf, the idea for a book about the Southwest came to her very quickly. Thenceforth her travels were made with a purpose—to gather facts and dates for the book. She and Edith Lewis drove all over northern New Mexico gathering as much information about the country as they could. They stayed for two weeks with Mabel Dodge Luhan, whose Indian husband, Tony Luhan, drove them about the country to some of the almost inaccessible Mexican villages hidden in the Cimarron Mountains. On this trip to the Southwest they also made a visit to the Cañon de Chelly, where they got lost and where their car broke down. They had troubles again the following summer when they returned especially to visit Acoma. To reach this mesa pueblo they had to take the Santa Fe train to Laguna and there hire a car to go to Acoma thirty miles away. They only planned to stay one night in what were very poor lodgings. Edith Lewis writes:

The hotel turned out to be the roughest and dirtiest we had ever stopped in. The poor, overworked woman who kept it never had time to sweep it—there were great clods of earth on the carpets. The windowpanes in our bedrooms were broken in jagged holes, and burnt matches and cigarette papers were scattered all over the floor. The only bathroom was down a flight of stairs and at the end of a long, dark corridor. All the food in the hotel came out of cans, including the milk and butter. [pp. 144-45]

The night's stay was prolonged to a week; there were heavy rains every day and the road to Acoma was impassable for a car. But Lewis tells us that these times of inconvenience and prolonged waiting were experiences which brought Cather closer to her subject. Being temporarily lost in Soda Canyon, having to put up with wretched lodgings, these were exactly the experiences that were the reality of her missionaries' everyday lives.

It was as a traveller, a tourist, that Willa Cather came to write Death Comes for the Archbishop. The substance of this book was not mined from that material she referred to as her “cremated youth,” but came directly from her experiences as a visitor to the Southwest. She was not a stranger to this kind of writing, for in 1902, when she made her first trip to Europe, she wrote a series of travel letters that were published in the Nebraska State Journal.4 In writing the Archbishop Cather drew heavily on her own direct observations of the country—its landscape, its moods, its seasons. She drew much from historical sources such as Charles F. Lummis's Mesa, Cañon, and Pueblo and Ralph Emerson Twitchell's Leading Facts of New Mexico History.5 She also probably gleaned a good deal of information from local histories and travel guides; Edith Lewis tells us that she borrowed a lot of old books from the Santa Fe libraries.6 The book, however, which gave a focus to her work, Howlett's Life of Father Machebeuf, was a history based on a form of travel writing. Howlett found the substance for his biography in the letters written by Father Machebeuf (the prototype for Father Vaillant) to his sister, Mother Superior Philomène, and to others of his youthful acquaintance in France. Howlett tells us near the beginning of his book: “we shall find that Father Machebeuf was a good letter writer. He was then young, and everything he met with was a new experience. His friends were interested in him, and as curious to know his experiences as he was willing to write them. He was aware of the wonder with which they would read in France of the things in America, so different from what they had ever seen, and hence, that great wealth of detail in all his correspondence.”7 Dozens of these letters are translated and inserted into Howlett's biography. Cather herself remarks on the letters and says “at last I found out what I wanted to know about how the country and the people of New Mexico seemed to those first missionary priests from France. Without those letters in Father Howlett's book to guide me, I would certainly never have dared to write my book.”8 As a traveller writing about a strange country, Willa Cather sought a parallel literary source. Consequently the rhetorical conventions and formal properties of travel writing are an important dimension to Cather's narrative.

Travel books have always been written both to inform and entertain. The mode of travel writing is largely documentary, realistic—one can assume that the experiences being recounted are true. Except for reversing the order of the two priests' deaths (in actuality Father Lamy, prototype for Father Latour, died first) Willa Cather, through her careful research and first-hand experience of the country, has remained literally faithful to the story of the two missionary priests. Within this documentary frame travel books were expected to entertain with accounts of remote and wonderful places, strange customs and marvels. Indeed the rhetorical occasion underlying travel writing is the author's desire to describe for his audience at home the foreign places and societies that he has visited. This is what inspired Father Machebeuf to give in his letters such detailed accounts of his experiences in the Southwest, of peoples and places that he knew were so different from what they had ever seen. Cather retains that same assumption about the function of her narrative. She was in part recreating the historical reality of those French missionary travellers in the Southwest; she was also recounting her own experiences as a traveller in that part of the country.

The traveller's fascination with a unique landscape and with the nature and customs of an ethnically different people is one of the central interests throughout Death Comes for the Archbishop. The Bishop's travels through his great diocese provide Cather with the occasion to describe those places she herself has enjoyed in all their individuality—Isleta, whitewashed with gypsum, “gleaming white across a low plain of grey sand,” Acoma, on top of the mesa, set in the clouds, Laguna with its wide pastures and richly decorated buildings, Arroyo Hondo, the pink adobe town in a sunken river chasm. Cather describes these places as novelties, as wonderful curiosities, for an audience that would need considerable detail in order to picture the place. The extraordinary setting of Acoma and the unearthly landscape surrounding it are described at great length.

In all his travels the Bishop had seen no country like this. From the flat red sea of sand rose great rock mesas, generally Gothic in outline, resembling vast cathedrals. They were not crowded together in disorder, but placed in wide spaces, long vistas between. This plain might once have been an enormous city, all the smaller quarters destroyed by time, only the public buildings left,—piles of architecture that were like mountains. [p. 94]9

The Acoma mesa itself, we are told,

was about ten acres in extent … and there was not a tree or a blade of green upon it; not a handful of soil, except the churchyard, held in by an adobe wall, where the earth for burial had been carried up in baskets from the plain below. The white dwellings, two and three storeyed, were not scattered, but huddled together in a close cluster, with no protecting slope of ground or shoulder of rock, lying flat against the flat, bright against the bright. … [pp. 99-100]

Father Latour is depressed by what he feels is the antediluvian character of life on the rock. His experiences always depend on his perceptions as a traveller, noting the uniqueness and alien character of the places he visits. In the description of Arroyo Hondo Cather incorporates the very motion of travel as Father Vaillant, known in life as El Vicario Andando (the Travelling Vicar) comes to this curious place. Here is Cather's account.

One approached over a sage-brush plain that appeared to run level and unbroken to the base of the distant mountains; then without warning, one suddenly found oneself upon the brink of a precipice, of a chasm in the earth over two hundred feet deep, the sides sheer cliffs, but cliffs of earth, not rock. Drawing rein at the edge, one looked down into a sunken world of green fields and gardens, with a pink adobe town, at the bottom of this great ditch. The men and mules walking about down there, or plowing the fields, looked like figures of a child's Noah's ark. Down the middle of the arroyo, through the sunken fields and pastures, flowed a rushing stream which came from the high mountains. … Evening primroses, the fireweed, and butterfly weed grew to a tropical size and brilliance there among the sedges. [p. 165]

All of Cather's descriptions are rich in local detail. Reading Death Comes for the Archbishop, one learns about the vegetation of the country—the piñon, juniper, rabbit brush, greasewood brush, the way pines and aspens grow together. The shrubs and plants are not just named but are described in detail, in exactly the manner a travel writer sends his account of curiosities back home. Here, for example, is a description of wild pumpkin:

It is a vine, remarkable for its tendency not to spread and ramble, but to mass and mount. Its long, sharp, arrow-shaped leaves, frosted over with prickly silver, are thrust upward and crowded together; the whole rigid, up-thrust matted clump looks less like a plant than like a great colony of green lizards, moving and suddenly arrested by fear. [p. 88]

In this account, only the last image has a literary or poetic aspect; the rest is the report of a traveller who tries to be botanically accurate in his description. In the same detailed way Cather describes the topography of the Southwest—the mesas with their cloud formations overhead, the sand hills, the deserts and arroyos—and its peculiarities of weather—the sand storms, cloudbursts, hot days and cool nights. With equal curiosity she describes the various Indian tribes and their way of life threatened with extinction. The Bishop on his travels observes that the pueblo Indians always whitewash the inside of their adobe houses, hang fox pelts, gourds, and red peppers on the walls. They eat beans and squash and meat cooked with chilis; they hold corn bread cooked with squash seeds a delicacy. The reader learns about the Pecos Indians and their supposed worship of a great snake in a mountain cave; and about the Navajos, their nomadic way of life and the political injustices they have endured. All this information of ethnological interest belongs to the travel content of Cather's narrative.

Death Comes for the Archbishop also reflects its proximity to travel writing in its form. It is of course a life, a biography of the two priests, given a certain stylized treatment according to saint's legend which, as Cather put it, was the reverse of dramatic treatment, “something without accent.” But the saint's legend does not fully account for the digressive and frequently anecdotal nature of the book's narrative structure. Long passages describing landscape and ethnic customs, tales of local interest, philosophical meditations, and character portraits are formally alien to the saint's legend. This mixed kind of writing on the other hand is the very stuff of travel literature, where the tale of a journey unifies the most diverse materials. In travel writing the linear basis of the narrative is so strong that any amount of digression and excursus is admissable without risk to coherence. (Thoreau's Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers for example is almost entirely digression.) The two priests on their missionary journeys through the Southwest provide a structure to which all sorts of descriptions, anecdotes, legends, character sketches, and inset tales adhere.

Cather's narrative method, like the travel writer's, is to move freely between the dramatic action of journeying and exposition on various topics of interest to the sojourner. The prologue establishes travel as the dramatic focus of the book. From the viewpoint of European civilization, New Mexico appears a vast, remote, and sometimes dangerous place, still in many ways a mystery. The priests' journeys partake of the oldest function of travel, that of discovery. In “Book One” Cather continues the dramatic aspects of journeying with Father Latour, who has already been shipwrecked in order to reach his diocese, now lost in the desert. The Bishop's ordeal of thirst and possible death is resolved when he comes to the Mexican settlement of Hidden Water. The action of the narrative then gives way to a lengthy exposition on the life of this remote village. The Bishop is a traveller as well as a priest and his visit to Hidden Water includes a description of its pastoral setting, the houses and food of its inhabitants, the annual progress of their lives, a history of their settlement dating back to the eighteenth century, and a description of their religious images and beliefs. This movement between the dramatic content of travel and lengthy expository digression is one of the fundamental elements of structure in the narrative. Another good example is the Bishop's journey to Taos to confront Padre Martinez with his abuses of clerical authority. The dramatic momentum of this scene is diverted by a description of the landscape around Taos, an account of the Indians there, and a biography of Martinez.

When Willa Cather wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop, travel writing had ceased to serve the need for accounts of strange, newly discovered regions. Indeed New Mexico by the 1920s was a settled part of the United States. But in going back in time eighty years she was writing about a place that was still being discovered, so that the rhetorical structures of travel writing are integral to the time and setting of her narrative. Cather instinctively observes the conventions of the travel writer, taking great pains for example with itinerary, explaining exactly how the priests travel from one part of the diocese to the next (what roads were available, what obstacles), accounting as well for their journeys to France and Rome, how they took the overland Santa Fe trail to St. Louis where the western routes began. In so doing Cather was situating her narrative in the oldest tradition of North American writing, one pioneered by Bradford, Byrd, and Bartram, and furthered by Irving, Thoreau and Twain. It is a tradition of writing which has shaped and influenced the American novel, for travel has always been one of the most important metaphorical resources in American art. Cather is not alone in making fiction out of her travel experiences. The Archbishop belongs with Melville's Typee, Omoo, and Redburn, and with Howells's Their Wedding Journey and A Chance Acquaintance. These are all narratives in which the symbolic significance of journeying itself is as close as one comes to plot.10

The question to be asked, however, is whether Death Comes for the Archbishop actually yields further meanings when viewed in the context of travel writing. This reading places emphasis on the importance of the book's tourist interest, the descriptions of New Mexico life and landscape, and it accounts for the mixed modes of writing, the digressive and associative structure of the book where journey is plot. But the travel theme also draws attention to the importance of the book's religious vision. One of the essential structures in travel writing is the return home. But in Death Comes for the Archbishop neither Father Latour nor Father Vaillant returns to France to live out his old age. “Home” for the priests is the next world; all of life here on earth is viewed as a sojourn. In this light the action of the book is the journey to heaven (the journey being accomplished in the book's title), in advance of which the two priests labor so that God's will might be done on earth. This vision informs those heightened moments in the narrative when details of the landscape suggest a larger spiritual drama: a twisted juniper suggests a crucifixion tree, a flock of goats brings to mind the Apocalypse, the Cañon de Chelly is seen as an Indian Garden of Eden. Once again Cather was adapting to her own ends one of the important features of travel writing. In a scene evoking a sense of the sublime, the traveller no longer gathers information, but experiences what Samuel Johnson called “local emotion,” something beyond sensory evidence. Johnson writes that “whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.”11 In the Archbishop this contemplative mode which co-exists with the action of travelling directs us to a vision of the next world and the spiritual dimension of human existence.12

In the light of travel writing we are able to understand the Bishop a little more fully. Travel writing eschews psychological analysis or explanation of character. There are fine portraits and character sketches to be found in travel writing (Cather's Padre Martinez, Kit Carson, and Doña Isabella, for example, are splendidly realized), yet because the viewpoint is that of an alien or outsider there is no attempt to explain characters within the context of their communities. The Bishop is the book's central consciousness and it is through his eyes that most of the narrative is seen.13 He calls himself an exile and though he loves his vast diocese he is also a man who feels emotionally cold and alone. In travel writing loneliness is the one emotion that prevails. Fear, anger, joy are temporary and do not strike deeply, for the traveller is outside the context of his emotional life. Loneliness, on the other hand, is the essential condition of the traveller's state.

Loneliness and despair, however, are not the emotions that the book leaves with us. We feel instead the happiness of purpose and accomplishment. The Archbishop does not return to France, but he nonetheless completes his voyage. His purpose as a traveller has been to see the New World in terms of the Old (to Christianize the Southwest), but he has also been modified by his experience. The New World has made him feel free and perpetually young. The light air of the Southwest is one of the reasons he does not go back to France:

He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it. Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning! [pp. 275-76]

Perhaps here we come as close as possible to Cather's own happy feelings about the country she loved to travel and the book she so enjoyed writing.


  1. Willa Cather On Writing (New York: Knopf, 1949), p. 12.

  2. Ibid, pp. 3-13.

  3. Edith Lewis, Willa Cather Living (New York: Knopf, 1953), p. 100. All quotations from Lewis are from this text.

  4. These letters were collected and edited by George N. Kates and published under the title Willa Cather in Europe: Her Own Story of the First Journey (New York: Knopf, 1956). They are available in a more accurate text in The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews 1893-1902, selected and edited with a commentary by William M. Curtin (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), pp. 889-952.

  5. See Edward A. and Lillian D. Bloom, Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962), p. 209.

  6. Lewis, op. cit., p. 140.

  7. William Joseph Howlett, The Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf (Pueblo, Colorado, 1908), p. 60.

  8. Willa Cather on Writing, p. 8.

  9. Death Comes for the Archbishop (New York: Vintage, 1971). All quotations are from this text.

  10. There is a valuable discussion of travel writing as fiction in Janet Giltrow's “Speaking Out: Travel and Structure in Herman Melville's Early Narratives,” American Literature 52 (March 1980), pp. 18-32.

  11. Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), p. 148.

  12. Interestingly, George N. Kates singles out the meditation as an integral part of Cather's travel letters from Europe. See Willa Cather in Europe, pp. 14-15; or The World and the Parish, p. 896.

  13. In “Willa Cather's Archbishop: A Western and Classical Perspective,” Western American Literature 13 (August 1978), pp. 141-150, John J. Murphy relates the Archbishop to Aeneas, one of the oldest travellers of western civilization, whose task was to shape a new culture by transplanting to Italy the home gods of Troy.

Margaret Doane (essay date 1985)

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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 order of a garden, and both eventually see the events of their lives as having little to do with their essential selves. This isolation and reserve does not make the two men unlikable, however, for both arouse our empathy and admiration. Cather had a great gift for characterization, for establishing readers' sympathy with characters, for drawing characters with complex and contradictory natures. In speaking to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant about My Ántonia, Cather

set an old Sicilian apothecary jar, … filled with orange-brown flowers of scented stock, in the middle of a bare, round, antique table.

“I [Cather] want my new heroine to be like this—like a rare object in the middle of a table, which one may examine from all sides.”4

Indeed, this statement—that her characters are “rare object[s] … one may examine from all sides”—valuably might be made about most of Cather's central characters. Certainly the bishop and the professor are people to whom readers are greatly drawn and for whom we have great sympathy; yet, Cather's genius for characterization allows us to see the two men from all sides, to examine their love of art as well as their difficulties in dealing with an everyday world.

Jean Marie Latour and Godfrey St. Peter are reserved, intellectual observers of the societies around them. Each is generally the central consciousness of his book; readers see events and people from the point of view of the professor and the bishop. This point of view is from outside the central societies of each work; the names of the men alone suggest aloofness (Napoleon Godfrey St. Peter) and a traveler rather than a participant (Latour). Neither is an integral part of the society he observes: St. Peter abhors the materialism he thinks marks modern life and retreats from “the ambition and greed that surround him and that threaten the values by which he has always lived,”5 and Latour attempts to learn about the Indian and Mexican cultures of the Southwest without generally interfering in others' customs. In addition to a detachment from their societies, each man retreats by temperament from others. Latour describes himself as “always a little cold”;6 omniscient statements mark him as “of a fine intelligence, … open, generous, reflective … and somewhat severe” (p. 16), and another bishop calls him “a man of severe and refined tastes, … [and] very reserved” (p. 12). St. Peter believes that “reserve about one's deepest feelings: keeps them fresh,”7 and his lectures and love of opera show he is intelligent and refined. Both temperament and beliefs about their roles in society keep each man somewhat aloof from his culture.

The two men also seek solitude from others and seem to need much time for contemplation. Godfrey St. Peter works in his attic study because it is “the one place in the house where he could get isolation, insulation from the engaging drama of domestic life” (p. 26); he is sure to have everything he needs upstairs, for should he “journey down through the human house he might lose his mood, his enthusiasm, even his temper” (p. 27). Bishop Latour, finding a small settlement that has saved him from death in the desert, says Mass for the residents but then, “feeling a need for solitude,” takes a walk to contemplate his mission and his deliverance (p. 29). When his Indian friend Eusabio's son dies, the bishop visits but spends three days in solitude and reflection (p. 223) about his need for Father Vaillant. Each man highly values solitude, for it gives each time to think and to make sense of the world around him.

Both St. Peter and Bishop Latour are inclined to be intellectual rather than emotional in their dealings with others; each is somewhat obtuse in human interactions. When Lillian St. Peter confronts her husband about his withdrawal from her, her question is phrased rhetorically (“Just when did it begin, Godfrey, in the history of manners—that convention that if a man were pleased with his wife or his house or his success, he shouldn't say so, frankly?”), yet he gives her a historical account of the beginnings of such practices.8 St. Peter is imperceptive about others' feelings, and he is frequently amazed9 by them; he is “amazed” Augusta wanted to be more than a sewing woman (p. 23), surprised that Rosie is frightened of him when he is sarcastic (p. 60), amazed (p. 135) by Mrs. Crane's desire for money, and astonished and amazed (p. 94) that Lillian would like to have defied the changes of time. Latour, also, is occasionally obtuse in dealing with others' emotional needs. Father Vaillant has laboriously set up an ancient bell to delight the bishop; the priest has brought the bell up from a basement, erected scaffolding, and taught a Mexican boy to ring it properly for Latour. Vaillant waits eagerly for the bishop's response; the superior muses about the history of bells (pp. 44-45) rather than thank his friend. Vaillant “sniff[s] … complain[s]” and asks questions “impatiently” (p. 45); clearly, he has been hurt by Latour's intellectualism. The bishop is equally abstract at Christmas dinner; Vaillant has labored over the meal “all afternoon” (p. 36), but when Latour tastes the soup, he proceeds to wonder about the traditions and history involved in making the soup rather than commenting to his now-frowning friend (p. 38).10 Neither the bishop nor the professor is likely to win a prize for sensitivity to others in these instances.

Each man sets a value on his inner life that prevents him from acting at times when action is appropriate or demanded. “The aesthetic impulse must be subordinated to and work within a moral framework” (Randall, p. 274), yet this subordination sometimes does not take place for the two men; their actions do not match their philosophies. St. Peter believes the Cranes should get money for aiding Tom Outland but has not actively sought help for them, believes that Augusta should have a financial loss made up to her but does not aid her, believes his family does not get along but withdraws from them. Latour, while frequently forceful, sometimes retreats to inaction. For him, confrontation is seen as inexpedient (pp. 157-58, 216), yet he usually eventually acts—to remove errant priests, to watch over Magdalena, to go to a sick Father Vaillant. A puzzling scene highlighting the quality of his own inner life and the lack of need for action, in his value system, in maintaining this contemplative state occurs in his interaction with Sada. On a bleak December night, the bishop is extremely depressed and withdrawn; he is in a “[period] of coldness and doubt which … occasionally settled down upon his spirit and made him feel an alien” (p. 211). He goes to the church at midnight and there finds a very old Mexican woman, Sada, who is a slave in an American family. Sada's wonder and zeal renew the bishop; “never … had it been permitted him to behold such deep experience of the holy joy of religion” (p. 218). Latour might have brought about Sada's release: her “owners” “had no legal title to her” (p. 215), and public opinion is much against her slavery. She is “owned” by lower-class Americans, part of a “small group” of Protestants who are already performing mildly mischievous acts against the Catholics. Although the “owners” are Protestants and Latour is eager to avoid trouble, some pressure undoubtedly could have been exerted against the family since they actually do not own Sada. The scene with Sada is especially ironic since the previous one showed Magdalena, a former captive of sorts, radiantly moving about the bishop's garden. One would have hoped that Latour would desire the same happiness for Sada, who has unknowingly given him so much; however, he does nothing for her but experiences for himself one of the most deeply moving religious moments of his life. For both Latour and St. Peter, the quality of their inner lives seems independent of the actions they have performed. Each is certainly aware of the outer world and can be fed or discouraged by it, but neither seems to feel a continuing need to act; their esthetic lives are not necessarily dependent on their actions in the everyday world.

Art and religion are of paramount importance to each of the men in his maturity; each seeks order and beauty as representative of the best in life. Professor St. Peter tells us this directly as he lectures to his students:

As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. … Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.

With the theologians came the cathedral-builders; the sculptors and glassworkers and painters. They might, without sacrilege, have changed the prayer a little and said, Thy will be done in art, as it is in heaven. (pp. 68-9)

To have art and religion is to experience “life … [as] a rich thing,” to find a measure of happiness otherwise elusive. This happiness the professor attempts to achieve in his relationship with Tom Outland, a student and friend who “became St. Peter's surrogate, a person whose life formed a living ideal that restored to the professor a corresponding sense of uniqueness and value.”11 Through Tom, the professor comes to see the Blue Mesa and Cliff City as representative of beauty and order; they become for St. Peter a symbol of esthetic worth in much the same way that Latour comes to value his cathedral. In admiring the future site of the cathedral, then a magnificent yellow hill of stone “something like the colonnade of St. Peter's” (p. 242), the bishop sighs contentedly at the prospect of the “first Romanesque church in the New World” (p. 243); although “everything about … [Latour and Vaillant] is so poor” (p. 244), Latour tellingly says that he “would rather have found that hill of yellow rock than have come into a fortune to spend in charity” (p. 245). The art of the future cathedral blends for him into a fitting tribute to God; for him, as for Godfrey St. Peter, art and religion are very much the same.

The professor and the bishop also share a love of nature, the physical landscape, and gardens. Each man greatly values his garden and carefully cultivates it as an enclosed space that blooms under his direction; for St. Peter, his “walled-in garden had been the comfort of his life” (p. 14), while it is the bishop's “only recreation” (p. 200). Each values the landscape dearly; the love of nature brings about major life decisions for each man. For St. Peter, it determined his choice of professorship; Hamilton was not the best college to offer him a job, but he chose it because “it seemed to him that any place near the lake was a place where one could live” (p. 31). He associates the lake with beauty and freedom, and it determines “a part of consciousness itself” (p. 30). Nature becomes so important to him that he is “only interested in earth and woods and water”; he sees nature as “Desire under all desires, Truth under all truths” (p. 265). Early in his life, nature had been St. Peter's source of inspiration; while observing beautiful peaks and golden sunsets off the coast of Spain, “the design of his book unfolded in the air above him” (p. 106). He felt that the “design was sound. He had accepted it as inevitable, had never meddled with it, and it had seen him through” (p. 106). Nature is clearly an inspiring and determining force in St. Peter's life; it plays an equally strong role in Latour's. The archbishop returns from the Old World to retire in the New because he misses the air of New Mexico so much. The wind renews him and makes him a “boy again”; Latour

did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it. Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning! (p. 277)

The French archbishop has indeed come to love the land and, like Godfrey St. Peter, sees in it youth and beauty and freedom.

St. Peter and the archbishop alter their perspectives on life at the ends of their books; each sees the events of his life as being of lessening or no importance. The dying archbishop sees life as “an experience of the Ego, in no sense the Ego itself” (p. 292); he comes to view the mistakes of his life as “unimportant,” and “calendared time … had already ceased to count for him” (p. 293). A reminiscing Godfrey St. Peter views his life as a Kansas boy as “the realest of his lives,” and believes all the years between had been “accidental and ordered from the outside” (p. 264). He sees his marriage, daughters, and career as “not his life at all, but a chain of events which had happened to him” and “had nothing to do with the person he was in the beginning” (p. 264). He becomes a “primitive,” a lover of nature only; he recalls his old grandfather, outwardly oblivious to the world, but—St. Peter now thinks—actually “lost in profound, continuous meditation” about his early life (pp. 266-67). The dying archbishop, too, resembles the old Napoleon Godfrey, and he appears to have a failing mind when actually “it was only extraordinarily active in some other part of the great picture of his life” (p. 293). Such disengagement from life seems to be what Cather addresses in “Light on Adobe Walls”: she hypothesizes that artists sometimes outgrow their art and turn instead to a sensual love for the countryside or to “wrangling with abstractions and creeds”; they give up a “game of make-believe, of reproduction.”12 For Cather, such detachment seems natural, and her archbishop and professor eventually see their acts as having little to do with their essential selves.

It is possible to find even more parallels between St. Peter and Latour, and it is possible to so structure a discussion that some of the parallels lessen. One might, for example, argue that while both men value nature, the professor sees it simply (pp. 265-66) while the bishop, particularly in the cruciform-tree episode that opens the first book, tends to intellectualize about it. While the two garden, St. Peter does so to work “off his discontent” (p. 15) while Latour does it for recreation. Both are gourmets, both could be seen as celibate (St. Peter has his own room), both love youth. One might argue that both have a love of order or have difficulties in dealing with women, yet examples abound that make such parallels uneasy ones. While both men generally seek order (Latour is “distressed” at the “incongruous American building[s]” [p. 271] that come to surround his cathedral, and is marked as “a man to whom order is necessary” [p. 7]), St. Peter sometimes shows little concern about it, as when his manuscripts and Augusta's patterns interpenetrate (p. 22). While both men seem to have some difficulties in interacting with women (St. Peter is amazed by them); Latour, although “annoyed … exceedingly” at finding some women's hair in a guest room (p. 150)13 and dismissing “with a shrug” a story of a pure girl debauched by Father Martinez (p. 158), nevertheless shows a high degree of kindness to Magdalena. Each man does have an exceedingly dear friendship with a male, yet Bishop Latour's Father Vaillant is a very active man while Godfrey St. Peter's Tom Outland has his “happiness unalloyed” (p. 251) only when he is alone.

This desire to be alone, to live an engaging life of the mind, most unites Bishop Latour and Professor St. Peter. Aspects of the character of each move readers; the perceptions of the two men about art and religion, about their physical and intellectual worlds, about their desire to reach the ideal mark them as engaging and sympathetic characters. Yet, in the complex and contradictory nature of this apothecary-jar portrait, Cather allows us to see St. Peter's and Latour's limitations: the scene with Sada is true, as is the bishop's loyalty to Eusabio; the beauty of the cathedral is real, as is Latour's preference of the “hill of yellow rock … [over] a fortune to spend in charity” (p. 245); St. Peter's awe of Tom's Cliff City is true, as is his unintended cruelty to Lillian at the opera; his zeal for youth is real, as is his detachment from “the human house” (p. 27). Intensity in one aspect of life costs in another; while “commitment to the moral life … very frequently does necessitate the sacrifice of beauty” (Randall, p. 274), commitment to beauty also very frequently does necessitate the sacrifice of a moral life. A detachment from others, a “lack of passion, bordering on coldness,”14 an “aesthetic impulse … [unsubordinated to] a moral framework” (Randall, p. 274) are some of the almost inevitable consequences of the struggle for an inner life of high intellectual and esthetic quality.


  1. The book was called a “narrative” by Cather in “On ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop,’” in Willa Cather On Writing (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949), p. 12.

  2. James Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art (New York: Pegasus, 1970), p. 222.

  3. David Stouck, “Cather's Archbishop and Travel Writing,” Western American Literature, 17 (May 1982), 3-12.

  4. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Willa Cather: A Memoir (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1953), p. 139.

  5. David Stouck, Willa Cather's Imagination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975), p. 100.

  6. Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), p. 264.

  7. Willa Cather, The Professor's House (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1925), p. 48.

  8. For a discussion of St. Peter's view of women, see Margaret Doane, “In Defense of Lillian St. Peter: Men's Perceptions of Women in The Professor's House,Western American Literature, 18 (February 1984), 299-302.

  9. Susan Rosowski, “The Pattern of Willa Cather's Novels,” Western American Literature, 15 (February 1981), 258.

  10. John H. Randall III, in The Landscape and the Looking Glass: Willa Cather's Search for Value (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960), p. 268, comments that these passages can be used to show Latour's interest in the esthetic significance of the soup and the bell.

  11. Patrick J. Sullivan, “Willa Cather's Southwest,” Western American Literature, 7 (1972), 32.

  12. In Willa Cather On Writing, pp. 125-26.

  13. Cather's priests do not seem fond of finding women's hair; Augusta's priest spoke against wigs, saying “it was getting to be a scandal in the Church, and a priest couldn't go to see a pious woman any more without finding switches and rats and transformations lying about her room, and it was disgusting” (p. 24).

  14. John J. Murphy, “Willa Cather's Archbishop: A Western and Classical Perspective,” Western American Literature, 13 (1978), 149.

Jean Schwind (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7216

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 biographer, E. K. Brown, shortly before her death: Death Comes for the Archbishop was not only her best book but the book she found most pleasure in writing and re-reading.3 That Cather regarded this novel so highly is not surprising, for it clearly represents a culmination of the experiments in literary pictorialism which Cather pursued throughout her career, from Alexander's Bridge (Cather's first novel, which she described as her “studio picture”) to such mature later works as The Professor's House (with its unusual narrative composition inspired by Dutch genre painting).4 More specifically, Death Comes for the Archbishop perfects the painterly methods of spatial composition Cather first explored in the simple juxtaposition of two separate stories—“Alexandra” and “The White Mulberry Tree”—in O Pioneers!5 In an interview published in Bookman in 1921, Cather explained O Pioneers! in pictorial terms that vividly anticipate Death Comes for the Archbishop. Working to “develop a kind of writing” suited to the vast silence and space of the western frontier, Cather discovered a model for her new narrative form in the spatial dynamics of still-life arrangements:

From the first chapter [of O Pioneers!], I decided not to “write” at all … in order to make things and people tell their own story simply by juxtaposition, without any persuasion or explanation on my part. Just as if I put here on the table a green vase, and beside it a yellow orange. Now, those two things affect each other. Side by side, they produce a reaction which neither of them will produce alone. … I want the reader to see the orange and the vase—beyond that, I am out of it. Mere cleverness must go. I'd like the writing to be so lost in the object, that it doesn't exist for the reader. …6

The vases and oranges in Death Comes for the Archbishop—the multiple religious legends, biographical sketches, and historic and fictional stories within the novel's nine books—are juxtaposed like a series of implicitly related but individually isolated pictures. Dispensing with the narrative manipulations that would connect her diverse characters and scenes into a single, continuous story or plot, Cather allows the “things and people” in this novel to “tell their own story” through the appositions of her spatial design.

The story that Cather tells through the strategically juxtaposed “things and people” is immediately suggested by her Prologue (“At Rome”), in which Cather hints that pictorial art informs the subject as well as the style of her novel. Essentially, the Prologue introduces Cather's story of Archbishop Latour as a story about the artistic perception of a painterly “arranger” or composer.7 Pictorial art not only dominates the central action of the Prologue as a major topic of the discussion among the prelates who meet to appoint a vicar for New Mexico, but it also composes and frames the scene where the action takes place. Cather emphasized this pictorialism in her most important published comments on the novel. In a well-known and frequently quoted letter to Commonweal and in a later, less familiar, article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Cather acknowledged that the title, Prologue, and narrative style of Death Comes for the Archbishop were all inspired by pictures. In Commonweal Cather claims that she titled the novel after Dürer's “Dance of Death” series of woodcuts. She further explains that the purposefully undramatic style of her narrative is an attempt to capture in prose the effect of Puvis de Chavannes' murals:

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 Saint Geneviève in my student days, I have wished that I could try something a little like that in prose; something without accent, with none of the artificial elements of composition.8

Cather conveniently forgets a great deal in writing this, a circumstance that in itself is evidence that her ideas on composition and design developed as she worked out the formal nature of her novels. Cather's first references to French muralist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes in reviews written for two Pittsburgh newspapers suggest that she did not always admire the flat linearity and muted tones of Chavannes' “unaccented” murals. Particularly interesting in light of her later comments on Death Comes for the Archbishop is Cather's review of Pearl Craigie's Schools for Saints in the Pittsburgh Leader. Nothing that Craigie's novel is “singularly lacking in directness and continuity” because the incidents of her plot are “loosely strung together with small regard for their relative importance,” Cather proceeds to criticize Craigie for creating the effect she later described as the goal of her own “best book.” Schools for Saints, Cather complains, reads like a prose version of a painting by Puvis de Chavannes: “Mrs. Craigie seems never to have dreamed of subordinating any one part of her story to throw another into bolder relief. … She does not attempt to make all the threads of her rambling plot strengthen each other for her own purposes. Her characters … sit about in individual isolation like the figures in Puvis de Chavannes' canvases.”9

Criticizing Craigie for her loosely connected incidents and her undramatic evenness of tone, Cather provides an excellent description of her own narrative “without accent” thirty years before Death Comes for the Archbishop was written. If Cather's admiration for the subdued monotones and friezelike spatial constructions of Chavannes' murals was evidently an acquired taste, the very different art that shapes the Prologue of Death Comes for the Archbishop points to the significance of her aesthetic conversion. The opening of Cather's novel is colored not by the dull shades of Chavannes' murals but by the rich crimsons and scarlets of a more conventionally “composed” canvas. As James Woodress has recently observed, several years after she acknowledged that her narrative method in Death Comes for the Archbishop was influenced by Chavannes' “Life of St. Geneviève,” Cather pointed to a more obscure French painting as the principal source of her Prologue. In an interview with Harold Small of the San Francisco Chronicle, Cather remarks that the opening scene of the novel was inspired by an anecdotal painting by Jehan George Vibert (1840-1902):

It was a painting … that made the first scene of that story for me. A French painter, Vibert, once did a precise piece of work in the manner of his day called “The Missionary's Return.” It showed a gorgeously furnished room with cardinals in scarlet, sitting at ease with their wine and speaking to them, telling of the hardships and glories of missionary work in some far part of the world, a pioneer priest, his garments dull and worn out, but his face all alight.10

Significantly, Cather's memory of Vibert in the Chronicle interview is triggered by a comment about her use of El Greco in the Prologue. Cather's Prologue generally recreates the scene of Vibert's painting: a company of cardinals linger over after-dinner wine as they listen to a visiting missionary from America. Father Ferrand, the missionary bishop in Cather's scene, does not entertain his audience with colorful stories of the “hardships and glories of missionary work,” however. Instead, he presses the business the company has met to discuss, urging the appointment of Jean Latour to the newly created vicarate in New Mexico. Laughing at Ferrand's persistence, the host of the dinner, Cardinal de Allande, asks if Latour is a man of “intelligence in matters of art” (p. 11). Allande proceeds to explain his question with the “little story” of his great-grandfather's lost El Greco.

Some years ago, Allande recalls, a Franciscan priest from New Spain begged his grandfather to donate a painting to decorate his mission church at Pueblo de Cia. Evidently trusting that the uncultivated taste of the “hairy Franciscan” would lead him to choose an inferior work, Allande's grandfather invites the priest to select any painting in his gallery. To the old man's dismay, the missionary chooses the masterpiece of his collection, a “young St. Francis in meditation” by El Greco. The missionary silences his benefactor's protests with a reply that later became a saying in Allande's family: “It is too good for God, but it is not too good for you” (p. 12). Cardinal de Allande ends his story by observing that the missionary church at Pueblo de Cia had since been destroyed. While letters from the bishop in Mexico informed him that there was no evidence that the painting had been saved, Allande admits that he continues to hope the St. Francis might have survived in “some crumbling sacristy or smoky wigwam.” If the new vicar is a man of discernment in art, the Cardinal concludes, he might keep the El Greco in mind.

Cather mentions El Greco in her Chronicle interview in a humorous note about the trials of authorship. Dozens of letters from readers who believed they had found the El Greco in their basements or attics convinced Cather that she had made a mistake in using the name of a real artist in her story of Allande's “lost treasure.” Cather's “mistake” is important, however, because El Greco emphasizes the significant way she revises the painting that inspired her Prologue. Substituting the plein air setting of Allande's mountain terrace for Vibert's “gorgeously furnished” dining room, Cather tacitly links the scene of her Prologue to the scene of El Greco's painting. The “mere shelf of rock” where the four clerics dine beneath the upper terrace of the Cardinal's villa evokes the traditional setting of paintings portraying St. Francis in meditation, a stone grotto in the hills of Assisi.

The connection between Allande's “hidden garden” on a rocky ledge of the Sabine hills and the grotto of his lost “St. Francis in Meditation” is reinforced by Cather's careful composition of her opening scene. The Prologue of Death Comes for the Archbishop is visually presented as a framed picture. Twin balustrades—one protecting the clerics from the “steep declivity” beneath the shelf of rock where they dine, the other twenty feet above them, along a hilltop promenade—are connected by a vertical stairway, forming a frame for Allande's hidden garden like the picture frame that encloses the stone grotto in El Greco's “St. Francis.”

The significance of the pictorial framework that structures Cather's Prologue is illuminated by the literary framework of Cardinal Allande's reference to “smoky wigwams” in the Southwestern desert. As he dismisses the missionary bishop's gentle correction (“Down there the Indians do not dwell in wigwams, your Eminence”), Allande explains that his vision of life in the American West is framed by the “romances of Fenimore Cooper”: “I see your redskins through Fenimore Cooper, and I like them so” (pp. 11-13).

If the arid Southwest desert contradicts the picturesque forest landscapes of Cooper's fiction, it still more radically deviates from the classical conventions of the art that frames Cather's Prologue. The difference between the pastoral vista of “soft and undulating” countryside which the four priests admire from their shelf of rock and the world “cracked open into countless canyons and arroyos” which is the principal topic of their discussion is the difference defined by Archbishop Latour in the final book of the novel:

The old countries were worn to the shape of human life, made into an investiture, a sort of second body, for man. There the wild herbs and the wild fruits and the forest fungi were edible. The streams were sweet water, the trees afforded shade and shelter. But in the alkali deserts the water holes were poisonous, and the vegetation offered nothing to a starving man. Everything was dry, prickly, sharp … (pp. 277-78).

Like the cave that surrounds St. Francis as if it were a protective shell or “a sort of second body,” the niche-like space of Allande's lower terrace is a vivid image of the “safe little Mediterranean world” Latour contrasts to the hostile desert. Sheltered by overarching oaks, surrounded by fruitful orange trees and grape vines, and illuminated by a gentle golden sunlight that glows across “shining folds of country … with a ruddiness as of much-multiplied candlelight,” the Roman landscape of Cather's Prologue is composed in the pastoral tradition defined by the golden arcadias of Claude Lorraine and Nicholas Poussin (p. 4).

The pastoral landscape Cather depicts at the opening of Death Comes for the Archbishop underscores the importance of Allande's seemingly irrelevant question about Latour's “intelligence in matters of art.” While Father Ferrand wonders aloud how a “discerning eye” for art could possibly be of use to the vicar of a desert, throughout the dinner Ferrand himself has portrayed Latour as an artist who will “order” or compose the landscape of New Mexico (p. 8). Characterized by the “sense of proportion” and sensitivity to the “logical relation of things” that distinguish French “arrangers” from the more scientific “classifiers” of Germany (p. 9), Latour is presented by Father Ferrand as the ideal artist for a country still waiting to be “arranged … into a landscape” (p. 95).

The disparity between the “dry, prickly, [and] sharp” world that awaits Latour in New Mexico and the “soft and undulating” countryside of “In Rome” vividly defines the challenge confronting Latour as the artist appointed to compose “fiercely hostile” canyons, mesas, and plains into a landscape. Contrary to Allande's hope that Latour will “keep … El Greco in mind” as he orders his new vicarate, Latour's success as a “great organizer” clearly depends upon his ability to put El Greco completely out of mind (p. 13). A country without rivers of sweet water or the natural shelter of picturesque trees and grottoes, Latour's landscape demands a repudiation of the established frameworks of art El Greco's “St. Francis” represents. To create a landscape where “Spanish bayonet, juniper, greasewood, [and] cactus” take the place of “spreading ilex oaks” and verdant pastures, Latour must invent an art antithetical to the pastoral tradition that shapes the “safe little Mediterranean world” of Cather's Prologue.

Cather's comments on her use of pictorial art in Death Comes for the Archbishop imply that the transition from the Prologue to the nine books of the novel proper is a movement from Jehan Vibert to Puvis de Chavannes. The version of “The Missionary's Return” that Cather presents in the conventionally framed and composed scene of Allande's dinner party is succeeded by a narrative like the murals of Chavannes, “with none of the artificial elements of composition.” In contrast to the brilliant colors and illusory depth of “The Missionary's Return,” Chavannes' St. Geneviève panels are distinguished by emphatic flatness in both composition and color. Chavannes not only dispenses with the foreground-to-background spatial recessions that would give three-dimensional depth to his paintings, but he also complements his flattened perspective with a color scheme of flat monotones. Cather's passing reference to the “pale, primeval shades of Puvis de Chavannes” in an art review published in 1900 accurately describes the Pantheon panels, which she first saw in Paris in 1902.11 Marked by an evenly subdued, grayish tone that avoids strong contrasts or vivid colors, Chavannes' four-panel “Life of St. Geneviève” shares the stony pallor of the marble frieze that surrounds it.

Cather retrospectively explained her attempt to imitate Chavannes' paintings in prose as an effort “to do something in the style” of medieval saints legends.12 More important to understanding Death Comes for the Archbishop on its own terms, however, is the explanation of artistic form that Cather immediately provides in the opening of the novel proper. Book I, “The Vicar Apostolic,” introduces Bishop Latour in 1851, three years after the meeting in Rome which decides his appointment to the New Mexican vicarate. The opening scene of the book presents Latour traveling alone on horseback “through an arid stretch of country somewhere in central New Mexico” (p. 17). On his way back to Santa Fe from Durango, where he has gone to receive papers verifying his episcopal authority, Latour has mistakenly strayed from the Rio Grande road. The landscape of the Bishop's lost wandering is portrayed through Latour's eyes, eyes which are “sensitive to the shape of things”:

The difficulty was that the country in which he found himself was so featureless—or rather, that it was crowded with features, all exactly alike. As far as he could see, on every side, the landscape was heaped up into monotonous red sand-hills, not much larger than haycocks, and very much the shape of haycocks. One could not have believed that in the number of square miles a man is able to sweep with the eye there could be so many uniform red hills. … They were so exactly like one another that he seemed to be wandering in some geometrical nightmare; flattened cones, they were, more the shape of Mexican ovens than haycocks—yes, exactly the shape of Mexican ovens … (pp. 17-18).

“Featureless” in its lack of distinct landmarks and “monotonous” in its pervasive clay coloring and uniformly “flattened” shapes, the design of Latour's landscape is a graphic image of the design of the narrative “without accent” that it introduces. In contrast to her later account of the “legendary” style of Death Comes for the Archbishop, at the outset of the novel itself Cather roots her experiment in form not in literary history but in the landscape of the American Southwest. Cather instantly reinforces the suggestion implicit in the scene of Latour's “geometrical nightmare” in her description of Santa Fe. The image that dominates Latour's memory of his first view of Santa Fe—a mental picture of poplars swaying “like gracious accent marks” against carnelian-colored hills (p. 22)—explicitly links narrative and visual art in a way that suggests a vital connection between Cather's plain narrative style and the “featureless” desert plain she depicts.

Throughout Death Comes for the Archbishop Cather identifies the Chavannesque “flatness” of her prose as an attempt to meet the challenge that she defines in her Prologue: abandoning the “splendid finish” of Old World pastorals, the spare art of Death Comes for the Archbishop reflects the indigenous nature and culture of a country “still waiting to be made into a landscape.” Cather provides an explicit metaphor for her attempt to embody in prose the “monotones” of Latour's desert in her portrait of Eustabio, Latour's Navajo friend. Described as the “landscape made human,” Eustabio represents the experiment of Death Comes for the Archbishop in miniature; in her narrative as a whole as in her characterization of Eustabio in Book VII, Cather strives to embody landscape in art. “Unobtrusive” in demeanor and distinguished by a “quiet way of moving,” Eustabio incarnates the emphatic “flatness” of Cather's unobtrusive, uninflected narrative voice. Similarly, the Navajo's unhurried pace mirrors the novel's slow movement. En route to Santa Fe with Eustabio as his guide, Latour is surprised that the Indian “stopped so often by the way,” seemingly unconcerned about reaching their destination in good time (p. 232). Through her numerous narrative digressions, Cather follows the missionary journeys of Latour and Vaillant with the same timeless pace that marks Eustabio's journeying in a world outside the “march of history” where “no wagon roads, no canals, [and] no navigable rivers” facilitate travel, and where countless “stony chasms” positively impede it (pp. 199, 7).13

Insofar as she represents her unhurried and unaccented prose as a response to the timeless and “featureless” Southwest landscape, Cather presents Death Comes for the Archbishop as a fictional autobiography. “Sensitive to the shape” of the unfamiliar landscape and life-styles of New Mexico, Cather's Latour is a self-portrait of the artist who, as the narrative “composer” of the novel, develops new forms and conventions to match the “shape of things” in the new world she depicts. The connection between Cather and Latour is most evident in the “geometrical nightmare” that introduces Latour in Book I. The way Latour carefully revises his initial description of the endless red hills dotting the desert sand instantly suggests that Cather's novel is the portrait of an artist who “designs” or composes as Cather does, according to the changing “shape of things.” While at first Latour observes that the monotonous hills are the shape and size of haycocks, minutes later the significantly changes his terms of comparison: “Flattened cones, they were, more exactly the shape of Mexican ovens than haycocks—yes, exactly the shape of Mexican ovens, red as brickdust and naked of vegetation except for small juniper trees” (p. 18). Shifting from haycocks to clay ovens, Latour abandons an image derived from the fertile, cultivated landscape that Cather presents in her Prologue and adopts a metaphor rooted in the native life of his vicarate. Unlike European haycocks, “Mexican ovens” wonderfully capture the indigenous heat, color, and sterility of New Mexico. Like many later metaphors of Latour's subjective vision and Cather's more objective descriptions (such as the yellow hand of the native banjo player in Book VI, which loses all form and becomes a whirl of matter in motion “like a patch of sandstorm” [p. 183] or the raindrops Latour considers to be “the shape of tadpoles” in Book II, a comparison that alludes to the Navajo legend of the frog who created rain [p. 64]), Latour's image of hills like Mexican ovens represents a conscious attempt at taking a strange new world on its own terms.14 Like Cather, Latour recognizes the truth in Padre Martinez's warning about the dangers of imposing “French fashions” or European forms upon his new diocese. Latour will never succeed in building a “living Church” in the Southwest, Martinez cautions his bishop, unless he resists the temptation “to introduce European civilization” there (p. 148).

If the transition from haycocks to ovens points to Latour's general recognition of the need to revise old-world “fashions” to reflect New World realities, the Santa Fe cathedral more specifically defines Latour's revisionary art in terms of the novel's Roman Prologue. Latour's major work of art and a symbol of the wider “living Church” that he leaves behind at his death, the cathedral is significantly identified not with the church of Rome but with the schismatic church at Avignon. When Bishop Latour takes Father Vaillant to the golden hill where he sees his cathedral in potentia, Vaillant remarks that the yellow stone is “something like the colonnade of St. Peter's” (p. 242). Correcting Vaillant, Latour points to the same historical precedent that Martinez cites when he rebels against Latour's authority and establishes a dissenting church. The rock is more like that of “the old Palace of the Popes, at Avignon,” Latour insists, than like the marble of Bernini's Vatican colonnade. He concludes that the “right style” for such rock can only be the plain Romanesque of Southern France (pp. 242-43).

The schismatic church evoked by the cathedral's ochre stone implies that Latour's ecclesiastic art represents a breach with the official church of the novel's Prologue. The nine-part design of the novel proper provides an important key to the nature of Latour's “schism” with Rome. More than any of her other novels, Death Comes for the Archbishop exemplifies the “flawless art” which Cather defined in a tribute to Sarah Orne Jewett: in this novel, as in Jewett's best fiction, “the design is the story and the story is the design.”15 Cather calls attention to the formal design of Death Comes for the Archbishop at the end of Book I. As Robert Gale first noted, the nine-book structure of the novel corresponds to the nine tolls of the Angelus bell that awakens Latour on the morning after he returns from Durango:

He recovered consciousness slowly, unwilling to let go of a pleasing delusion that he was in Rome. Still half believing that he was lodged near St. John Lateran, he yet heard every stroke of the Ave Maria bell, marvelling to hear it rung correctly (nine quick strokes in all, divided into threes, with an interval between). … Before the nine strokes were done Rome faded, and behind it he sensed something Eastern, with palm trees,—Jerusalem, perhaps, though he had never been there (p. 43).16

As a metaphor for the story in the nine-part design of Death Comes for the Archbishop, the “Ave Maria bell” not only suggests that Cather's portrait of Latour is related to the Marian imagery that pervades the novel, but it further suggests the dynamic pattern that organizes that imagery. In the nine books that chronicle his career as the architect of a “living church,” Latour moves from the Immaculate Virgin of contemporary Rome to an acceptance of the human mother beloved by his poorest Mexican parishioners. In other words, Latour's changing perception of the woman Cather ruefully described as the “leading lady” of her novel is an index of the respect for native traditon that distinguishes a “designer” like Latour from such imposers of European frameworks as Fray Balthazar, the Spanish missionary who builds a loggia and an enclosed cloister garden on the Ácoma Mesa as if he were “hung on a spur of the Pyrenees” (p. 102). Cather deftly develops her portrait of Latour in Death Comes for the Archbishop through opposing images of Marian devotion (the Blessed Virgin of the official Roman church versus the Holy Mother of Latour's native Mexicans), and the pattern of this imagery suggests the extent to which Latour is himself shaped by the desert plains, mesas, and mountains that he shapes “into a landscape.”

The opposing Holy Mother-Blessed Virgin emphases of the Mariology that informs Cather's portrait of Latour are introduced in consecutive sections of Book I, “Hidden Water” and “The Bishop Chez Lui.” In the “mother-house” of the Mexican settlement of Aqua Secreta, Latour examines a mantlepiece Virgin which he finds “much more to his taste than the factory-made plaster images in his mission churches in Ohio”:

The wooden Virgin was a sorrowing mother indeed,—long and stiff and severe, very long from the neck to the waist, even longer from waist to feet, like some of the rigid mosaics of the Eastern Church. She was dressed in black, with a white apron, and a black reboso over her head, like a Mexican woman of the poor (p. 28).

Unlike the snow-white virgins of Ohio, the brightly painted Mary of Aqua Secreta is physically sensate (she is dressed like a doll, as if she were susceptible to cold) and emotionally vulnerable (she is a “sorrowing mother,” and not a marmoreal goddess).

Latour's attraction to the human Mary of Aqua Secreta indicates his sensitivity to native forms and traditions that oppose the “European civilization” he ostensibly represents as a vicar of Rome. The Old World orthodoxies challenged by the “sorrowing mother” of Hidden Water are compressed in the image of transcendent female divinity which dominates “The Bishop Chez Lui.” Writing letters as he awaits the Christmas dinner being prepared by Father Valliant, Latour pauses to admire the twilit night framed within the “deep-set window” of his study. The evening star that illuminates Latour's framed vision—Venus shines so brilliantly “that she seemed to bathe in her own silver light”—reminds him of a song he once sang in the Auvergne seminary, “Ave Maris Stella” (p. 37).

Unlike the Aqua Secreta Madonna, which resembles a Byzantine mosaic, the stellar Virgin of Latour's hymn is Roman (“Ave Maris Stella” is Latinate both in its language and in its mythic source: “Maris Stella” is a Catholic Venus). The east-west opposition of these two Marys critically clarifies the course of Latour's reverie at the end of Book I. The Aqua Secreta Madonna is tacitly linked to the “pervasive sense of the East” which overcomes Latour when he hears the Angelus ringing. “Maris Stella,” on the other hand, is tied to the vision of Rome that fades from Latour's mind with each succeeding toll of the bell. Latour's Angelus dream thus traces a psychic journey as significant as all the missionary journeys of the novel. In the course of his dream, Latour moves from Rome to Santa Fe in sensibility; he arrives in Santa Fe imaginatively as he arrived physically the evening before his reverie. In short, the progression of the Archbishop's dream defines the evolving art of his governance. Far from imposing “French fashions” on his new vicarate, Latour is so deeply moved by the “shape of things” in New Mexico (the “sorrowing mother” of Aqua Secreta) that he gradually surrenders the traditions of his beloved Auvergne (“Maris Stella”).

The radical difference between the celestial Virgin of Latour's hymn and the peasant Madonna of his parishioners points to the heresy of the Archbishop's regard for the native traditions of his diocese. The second stanza of “Ave Maris Stella” describes this difference most succinctly. After an opening supplication to “heaven's fairest portal,” Latour's hymn pays tribute to Mary with a clever play on words:

Taking that sweet Ave
Erst by Gabriel spoken
Eva's name reversing
Be of peace the token.(17)

Praising Mary as a diametric “reversal” or revision of sinful Mother Eve, Latour's hymn elevates the “very human” Madonna portrayed by Mexican artisans into a realm of absolute divinity. Exempt from the human mortality and sinful “fetters” of Eve's descendents, the heavenly Virgin of “Ave Maris Stella” is not the common woman worshiped in New Mexico but is instead an ethereal “lady.”

Cather stresses the importance of Latour's divine “lady” in her story of Dona (“Lady”) Isabella. The design of the novel formally relates Dona Isabella, the woman who provides the title and the focus of the second section of Book VI (“The Lady”), to the empedestaled stone statue of the “Lady Chapel” in the corresponding section of Book VII (“December Night”).

The connection between the structurally paralleled stories of Lady Isabella and Latour's December night in the “Lady Chapel” is illuminated by the transitional chapter which links them. Titled “The Month of Mary,” this intervening chapter of Book VII shares the thematic focus of the chapter which follows it, “December Night”: the May-December sections of Book VII are paired stories about special seasons of devotion to Mary. The brief historical note at the opening of Book VII provides an essential context for understanding these paired Marian stories and their relationship to the story of secular Lady Isabella. Describing the problems in church administration caused by the Gadsen Purchase of 1853, the opening paragraphs of Book VII insist that the following chapters must be considered within the context of “external events” directed by contemporary “authorities at Rome” (p. 199). The Gadsen Purchase generally sets the stage for both “The Month of Mary” and “December Night.” The illness that allows Father Vaillant to spend May in a special devotion to Mary for the first time since his arrival in the Southwest is a result of his fatiguing trip to a conference in Mexico convened by Rome to redefine diocesan boundaries according to the new national boundaries between Mexico and the United States. Vaillant's subsequent departure to work among the natives of Latour's new territory in Arizona accounts for Latour's acute loneliness in “December Night.” An “external event” more immediately relevant to Vaillant's May devotions and Latour's December “period of coldness and doubt” than the 1853 Purchase, however, is a roughly contemporaneous doctrinal pronouncement issued by “authorities at Rome,” the 1854 encyclical that made the Immaculate Conception an article of faith.

Never mentioned by name, Pius IX, the Pope at the time of Latour's tenure as bishop, is nevertheless an important presence in Death Comes for the Archbishop. The unification wars of the Italian Risorgimento, which drove the Pope from Rome a few months after the summer dinner meeting of Cather's Prologue, are evoked throughout the novel (pp. 13-14, 229, 246). Further, the Prologue explains Cardinal de Allande's retirement from Vatican politics as a quiet protest against certain “reforms of the new Pontiff,” vaguely suggesting an essential opposition between Pius IX and his predecessor, Gregory XVI, the pope Allande served faithfully until his death in 1846. Cather's historically accurate portrayal of Gregory as the greatest missionary pope of the nineteenth century indirectly suggests that the papal reform Allande regards as an “impractical and dangerous” reversal of Gregory's pontificate somehow impedes the missionary work that Gregory so zealously fostered (p. 5). The specific reform of Pius IX that discourages Latour's church-building is implied both by the setting of “December Night” and by the “important conferences at the Vatican” where Latour hears the story of Vaillant's first papal audience with Gregory (p. 229). Set “one night about three weeks before Christmas,” the story of Latour's vigil in the “Lady Chapel” with the peasant woman Sada is tied to the newly proclaimed feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), the major subject of Latour's Vatican conference.

Long a matter of Catholic dispute, the belief that the Virgin Mary was without original sin from the moment of her birth or conception finally became church dogma in the mid-nineteenth century. Almost immediately after he was elected pope in 1846, Pius IX began to take steps toward defining the Immaculate Conception of Mary as official doctrine, efforts which culminated in a special conference of world bishops in 1854. In the encyclical that grew out of the conference, Ineffabilis Deus, Pius proclaimed that “the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin in the first instant of her Conception … has been revealed by God and must, therefore, firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.”18

This particular “reform of the new pontiff” explains the significance of Latour's rapid movement away from Rome in the reverie inspired by the Angelus bell in Book I. To design a church which conforms to the “shape of things” in his new world, Latour must repudiate Rome's stellar “lady” and accept the more earthbound woman of Aqua Secreta. In light of the immaculately “reformed” Mary of Pius IX, Latour's efforts to build a “living church” on a foundation of the indigenous Mexican traditions represented by Aqua Secreta's “earthy” Madonna constitute an opposition to the Bishop of Rome as radical as the open schism declared by Padre Martinez. The seemingly “irrelevant” story of Dona Isabella is central to Death Comes for the Archbishop because Latour's role in exposing Isabella's ladylike deceptions dramatizes the completeness of his repudiation of Rome's ideal woman.19 Latour's actions in the court case brought against Isabella Olivares pointedly subvert the Marian “reforms” of the papal court in Vatican City.

A “childish” Southern lady who would rather lose an inheritance than admit to the age and maternity of a mature woman, Dona Isabella is presented as a secular counterpart of the Vatican's immortal Virgin. The denial of nature implicit in the art of Isabella's dyed blonde ringlets is the essence of the Immaculate Mary purified of Eve's mortal life proclaimed by Pius IX (p. 176). Both the Blessed Virgin of Rome and the First Lady of Santa Fe incarnate the “desire to ‘master’ nature” which Latour identifies as the distinguishing feature of European culture (p. 234). Specifically, in refusing to admit her age Dona Isabella embodies a desire to master time that parallels the imperial mastery of space asserted by heroes of the American Southwest from Coronado to Kit Carson (pp. 123, 293). Comic though it is, the court battle provoked by Isabella's lies about her age is crucially important because in the decisive part that he plays in exposing Lady Oliveras, Latour begins building his native church by rejecting the cornerstone of Western civilization: he repudiates the “desire to ‘master’ nature” which makes Isabella a latter-day Ponce de Leon (a sixteenth-century seeker of eternal youth) and akin to Coronado and Carson (who “master” frontier space as Isabella attempts to master time).

Latour becomes involved in the Olivares dispute because the interests of his church are at stake: the will contested by the Olivares brothers includes a bequest to the building fund for the new cathedral. Succeeding with gentlemanly diplomacy where Father Vaillant's outraged scoldings fail, Latour persuades Isabella to admit her fifty-odd years in a “cruel” scene that dramatically reverses the “reforms” of Pius IX (pp. 190-93). While the Bishop of Rome translates his Lady from the “sinful and sullied world” into the divinity of heaven, the Bishop of Santa Fe catalyzes an opposite metamorphosis in harp-playing Isabella. Latour comples Santa Fe's angel of the harp to descend to the realm of “earthy” life and human mortality.20

The trial that transforms Dona Isabella from an eternal nymph into a middle-aged woman thus effectively highlights the schism with Rome implicit in the pictorial composition of Death Comes for the Archbishop. The “ashen” and pale flesh colors dominating the final portrait of a lady which Latour paints to win the trial recall the earthy, gray monotones of Puvis de Chavannes in a way that emphasizes Latour's aesthetic distance from the brilliantly colored scene in the Prologue (p. 189). Abandoning the pure crimsons and whites of the Prologue's framed “Missionary's Return,” Latour adopts the “primeval shades” of the sun-bleached desert. While Latour fails to discover Allande's lost El Greco “in some crumbling sacristy or smoky wigwam,” the whole of Death Comes for the Archbishop insists that this failure is a measure of his artistic achievement. Latour succeeds as an artist precisely because he neither seeks nor finds the “safe little Mediterranean world” of El Greco's “St. Francis” in New Mexico. Failing Allande, Latour becomes the artist or architect of a vital church because he sensitively adopts the shade and shapes of his new world.21


  1. Willa Cather to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, August 17 [1927], Univ. of Vermont Library, TS. 42.

  2. Alfred A. Knopf, “Miss Cather,” in The Art of Willa Cather, ed. Bernice Slote and Virginia Faulkner (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1974), pp. 209-10.

  3. Cather to Fisher, [December 8, 1926], Univ. of Vermont, MS. 41; Cather to E. K. Brown, [October 7, 1946], Newberry Library TS.

  4. Cather cells Alexander's Bridge her “studio picture” in “My First Novels (There Were Two),” in On Writing (New York: Knopf, 1949), p. 91. She describes the Dutch genre paintings that inspired the inset structure of The Professor's House in “A Letter on The Professor's House” (On Writing, pp. 31-4). Cather's on-going interest in the literary uses of the compositional forms and iconography of visual arts is further suggested by her description of Shadows on the Rock as a “series of pictures” like Watteau's delicate pastels (Wilbur Cross, “Men and Images,” rev. of Shadows on the Rock, Saturday Review [August 22, 1931], p. 68; Cather, Letter to Cross, Saturday Review [October 17, 1931], p. 216); her account of the story “Two Friends” as a Courbet painting (E. K. Brown, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, completed by Leon Edel [New York: Avon, 1953], p. 222); and her prominent reference to Jules Breton's painting “Song of the Lark” in the title of her third novel.

  5. Cather's account of the two stories that suddenly “came together” in her mind to form O Pioneers! is related in Elizabeth Sergeant, Willa Cather: A Memoir (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1963), pp. 90-2; and in Edith Lewis, Willa Cather: A Personal Record (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska, 1953), pp. 83-84.

  6. Latrobe Carroll, “Willa Sibert Cather,” Bookman, 53 (1921), 214-16.

  7. Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (New York: Vintage, 1955), p. 9. All further references are to this edition and are cited within the text.

  8. Cather, Letter, Commonweal (November 23, 1927), p. 714. With one notable substantive change, this letter is reprinted in On Writing, pp. 3-13. In her original letter, Cather claims that the source of her title was “Dürer's Dance of Death”; when she included the letter in On Writing, the reference was changed to “Holbein's Dance of Death” (p. 11). It seems likely that the correction was Cather's. As D. H. Stewart has pointed out, Holbein's series of woodcuts depicting a jolly, skeletal Death summoning people from all walks of life includes a scene where Death comes for an archbishop (Stewart, “Cather's Mortal Comedy,” Queen's Quarterly, 73 [1966], 244-59). The pictorial sources of Death Comes for the Archbishop are also briefly described by Clinton Keeler, “Narrative Without Accent: Willa Cather and Puvis de Chavannes,” AQ, 17 (1965), 119-26.

  9. Cather, “Books and Magazines,” Pittsburgh Leader (January 7, 1898), p. 13; reprinted in The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, ed. William Curtain (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1970), II, 571.

  10. Harold Small, San Francisco Chronicle (March 23, 1931), p. 19, as quoted in James Woodress, “The Genesis of the Prologue of Death Comes for the Archbishop,AL, 50 (1978), 474.

  11. Cather, “A Philistine in the Gallery,” Pittsburgh Library (April 21, 1900), pp. 8-9; reprinted in World and the Parish, II, 764.

  12. Cather, Letter to Commonweal, p. 714.

  13. Cather reflects on the deliberately slow pace of Death Comes for the Archbishop in a letter where she said that she liked to think of the book as “a narrative that moves along in a straight line on two white mules that do not hurry themselves” (Cather to Norman Foerster [May 22, 1933], Univ. of Nebraska, as quoted in James Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art [Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1970], p. 220).

  14. For the legend behind Latour's vision of frog-shaped raindrops, see Franc Johnson Newcomb, Navaho Folk Tales (Santa Fe: Museum of Navaho Ceremonial Art, 1967), chapter 13, “Frog Creates Rain.”

  15. Cather, “Miss Jewett,” in Not Under Forty (New York: Knopf, 1936), pp. 77-8.

  16. Robert Gale, “Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop,Expl, 21 (1963), Item 75.

  17. “Ave Maris Stella,” from The Roman Breviary (New York: Benziger, 1964), pp. 154-55, as quoted in Richard Giannone, Music in Willa Cather's Fiction (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1968), p. 196.

  18. Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus (Acta Pii IX 1.1:616), as quoted in E. D. O'Connor, “Immaculate Conception,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967 ed., VII, 381.

  19. Representative of the critics who have regarded Dona Isabella as an irrelevant digression from Cather's main story of missionary church-building are David Daiches, Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1951), p. 114, and John Randall, The Landscape and the Looking Glass (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1960), p. 287.

  20. Isabella's harp not only emphasizes her aspirations to angelic immortality but also sharpens the pointed self-mockery in Cather's portrait of Madame Olivares. This section of the novels ends with a musical finale as Isabella plays and sings “Listen to the Mockingbird” (p. 195). The bird's joke is on Cather. Like Isabella, Cather chronically lied about her age. While she claimed to have been born in 1876, Cather family letters fix the date in as December 7, 1873. Leon Edel discusses Cather's birthdate and notes the connection between Isabella and her author in “Homage to Willa Cather,” in The Art of Willa Cather, pp. 185-98.

  21. I am grateful to Professor Kent Bales for help in revising this essay.

Merrill Maguire Skaggs (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4713

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 dismal maze,” no exit from the briar patch of mutual injuries and defeats which lovers and mortal enemies inevitably inflict on each other.

Yet before My Mortal Enemy was even past the galley proof stage, Cather was busily at work on Death Comes for the Archbishop, a novel that transcends both nightmares and triangles. In fact, the second novel of her most significant twelve months as a writer remains a masterpiece of passionately won serenity. In contrast to My Mortal Enemy, it is her most compelling tribute to the possibilities of human achievement, the constructive potential of human commitment, and the enduring value of human institutions and relationships. How Cather could apparently sink to such despair, then rise immediately to such heights of affirmation—that is a riddle to meet Sphinxian standards. I should like to begin by sketching the outlines of an answer to this question, before moving on to other riddles concerning the Archbishop as a whole. From the beginning, however, I must acknowledge that attempting any answer will suggest Hawthorne's unpardonable sin—by prying into the deliberately hidden secrets of Cather's heart.

Practically, one must look for the essential Cather in her books. She destroyed as many letters as she could and forbade publication of any correspondence left extant. The books she polished and controlled were to be the only material available to her readers. No matter how zealously Cather covered her biographical tracks, however, she still left records of what she was thinking and suffering within the novels she published. Three crucial novels in her development appeared in three consecutive years—The Professor's House in 1925, My Mortal Enemy in 1926, and Death Comes for the Archbishop in 1927. By tracing Cather's development of a cluster of themes in these three novels, we can make an educated guess regarding our central riddle. While the first two novels seem negative and pessimistic, we can find in them Cather's attempt to reach the bottom of her private slough of despond and to transform in into her own deep and pure Walden pond.

In The Professor's House. Godfrey St. Peter summarizes for a history class his life's wisdom: “Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course).”2 St. Peter adds his opinion that the two have given man “the only happiness he has ever had,” and that modern science has not added a single significant item—neither a new sin nor a new pleasure—to the human horizon. Then, with his eight volumes of American history completed, and feeling without satisfaction that his life's work is finished, he concludes that if he lives into the future at all, he must learn to live without joy and without desire. Finding himself in a closed room which has been poisoned by escaping gas, he chooses not to open the window to fresh air. At what seems the moment of his death, however, he reflexively rises to his feet and then collapses. His fall is heard by his old servant Augusta, who rescues him.

Cather stated that The Professor's House was about “letting go with the heart.”3 Her ambiguous phrase seems to suggest both giving up and also jumping in or committing oneself with one's heart—taking a leap of faith. Such a leap, we surmise Cather knew as well as Kierkegaard, St. Augustine or Jonathan Edwards, is not an act of the rational intellect but of the emotions. At least what saves St. Peter is not the highly trained rational faculties which have already surrendered, but his visceral responses, aided by Augusta, who has more wisdom and religion, if not more learning, than he. This elderly servant cares for Godfrey, observes his unwilled movements, hears his silent cry, and drags him without delay to purer air.

St. Peter does breathe purer air at last, and discovers through his unwilled reflexes that he will continue to live, albeit without joy or desire. Though he knows intellectually that true pleasure must derive from art or religion, however, neither seems to sustain him as he faces his future. His knowledge does not seem to reassure his creator, either; for novelists and professors do learn eventually that saying something doesn't mean understanding it with the heart. Cather's next novel appears to bubble up from the bottom of the pit and witnesses to her deepening despair.

My Mortal Enemy leaves no room for hope in reference to human relationships. Its tangle of loves and hates provides no glimpse of lasting happiness for any way of life or human type. Male and female, young and old, married and single, professional and helpmate—all finally do little but injure and sustain injury.

At the end of My Mortal Enemy the heroine Myra Henshawe appears to glimpse the possibility of succor when she announces with characteristic passion, “in religion, seeking is finding.”4 It helps at this point to recall that Cather must also be remembering, as she fashions Myra's pronouncement, what St. Peter concluded before her: art and religion are the same thing in the end. For Myra, pretending to seek religious solutions to the hated facts she must face about her own mortality, is actually seeking a strategy through art, not religion. She simulates the scene on Gloucester's cliff from Shakespeare's Lear, then sets up an apparent death scene, expecting the gods to rescue her as they did Gloucester. Though she throws herself away with the same abandon as Gloucester, however, the scripted rescue does not materialize. She dies.

What Myra has done in her last hours is to place her faith and hope in literary art which she believes can show her a way to doublecross fate, to hedge her bets, and to prolong her own life. What she fails to account for is the presence of Nellie Birdseye, one of her loving friends and mortal enemies, who guesses where she is and what she is up to and then decides to let Myra play it her way and die. Nellie, however, has a final lesson to learn as well. For as she reflects on Myra's last moments she concedes that Myra has finally accomplished a heroic and successful act: Myra has willed to live until she could see the dawn.

Of course, like any great creative artist, Willa Cather plays all the major roles in her own dramas. She is therefore not only Myra and Oswald Henshawe but also Nellie Birdseye, the cold and deceptive observer. As Myra, Cather turns to art as her religion, to prolong an increasingly painful and diseased body and spirit; for Myra uses both art and religion as tricks to fend off death. Then as Nellie does, Cather sees the trick, rejects it, and kills off that part of her driven self which Myra represents, the part which had such a passionate capacity for joy and desire. After jettisoning Myra, however, all Cather is left with is Nellie Birdseye.

It is as if, having told the tale, turned up the cards like a gypsy fortune teller, and taken the trick, Nellie Birdseye, the cold observer with the chilled heart, herself has no life left worth living. She no longer has anything to lose, nor anything to sustain her except that last desire to live long enough to see a dawn. So the Birdseye observer in Cather tries the trick Myra has played. Cather's life at this point not only imitates art; she imitates her own art. Knowing with St. Peter that art and religion are the same thing in the end, she tries Myra's artful literary strategy and looks to religion as she hurls herself into the void. With nothing worth preserving left to lose, she affirms that art and religion are the same thing—passionate attempts to understand mystery. She chooses to believe that through art one can find a religious purpose, can reencounter joy. Then abandoning all other hope, she takes her leap of faith off her own Gloucester's cliff. The trick works. She seeks and she finds the state of mind which can create, miraculously, the masterpiece that lives as Death Comes For the Archbishop.

In the first chapter of the Archbishop, Latour is wandering in a triangle-dominated geometrical nightmare of a desert, sick and faint. His soul cries, “I thirst.” The pain of that thirst is like Christ's on the cross. Being a priest who is “sensitive to the shape of things,” Latour can recognize the symbolic significance of a tree shaped like a cross. He can also relate his own suffering to the form of significant suffering. Thus, when he surrenders himself to the symbols his heart knows are valid (for the heart has reasons which the mind knows not), when he “lets go with the heart”—both giving up as the Professor does and also taking a leap of faith as Myra does—he is saved. He kneels to pray, submitting to the final logic of his own life and imminent death, and his exhausted mount sniffs water. Thus he is carried—moving always in nature—to relief.

This first chapter introduces every philosophical question the novel seems to exist to explore: what is man, what is faith, what is significant form, where is hope, what is miracle, what are the repercussions of desire, where does one find art, in what forms does art reside, and finally, how do desire, art, form, faith and miracle contribute to the ongoing of life, to continuity? As a moving treatment of such universal issues, as well as her answer to her own needs at this point in her life, Death Comes for the Archbishop becomes Cather's miracle and her masterpiece.

That the heart has its reasons unknown to the intellect is a truth articulated most memorably by Pascal, who is identified in the last chapters as the Archbishop's favorite writer.5 Pascal, a fellow citizen of Bishop Latour's hometown, is the one he quotes often to his students. In this ostensibly casual, though repeated, reference, Cather adds a significant resonance not treated by other critics to her work. For both as a person and as a thinker, Pascal provides a model for this novel's protagonist. For example, as a historical figure Pascal distinguished himself first in geometry and devised significant theorems about both cones and triangles. His Essai pour les coniques “demonstrates the properties of conic sections considered as perspectives of the circle, and provides a basis for the deduction of all conic properties by means which include a famous theorem, to the effect that if any hexagon is inscribed in a circle, the pairs of opposite sides intersect, respectively, in three points which are all on one straight line.”6 Pascal's projective geometry, according to Brome, touches esthetics, as well as mathematics, because it is concerned with perspective.7 Further, Pascal also did pioneer work in the mathematics of probability and in fact devised “Pascal's Triangle” as a way to understand occurrences otherwise necessary to attribute to blind chance.8

Cather's novel opens with the troubled archbishop wandering lost in a featureless country or rather one “crowded with features, all exactly alike” (p. 17). Full of “conical hills” in which “every conical hill was spotted with smaller cones” (p. 18), the landscape's “red sand hills … the shape of haycocks” are “so exactly like one another” that Latour seems to be wandering in “some geometrical nightmare” (p. 18). Cather insists, “The hills thrust out of the ground so thickly that they seemed to be pushing each other, elbowing each other aside, tipping each other over” (p. 18). They confuse Latour, and he must close his eyes against “the intrusive omnipresence of the triangle.” Like Pascal, however, Latour is a man “in a thousand” (p. 19). He can recognize in a natural object such as a juniper tree “the form of the Cross,” and as Pascal once wrote, “The perceptions of our senses are always true.”9 Latour, like Pascal though unlike Myra Henshawe or Godfrey St. Peter, is wise enough to kneel and surrender willingly to his God. In such a surrender lies his salvation: “Empowered by long training, the young priest blotted himself out of his own consciousness and meditated upon the anguish of his Lord. The Passion of Jesus became for him the only reality; the need of his own body was but a part of that conception” (p. 20).

Having endured the cross, Latour gains the crown and rises to new life. By submitting within this geometrical nightmare, he transcends it. Conical hills are again referred to when Joseph leaves for Colorado (p. 253) and, finally, Latour's cathedral rises from such hills with a purpose so strong it was like action (p. 272). Latour himself blends into the cone-shaped hills as much as his cathedral does. For Cather implies about lives what Latour accepts about architecture: “either a building is part of a place or it is not” (p. 272).

Pascal's solution of geometrical problems in mathematics becomes for Cather an analogy or image for Latour's solution of a problem in philosophy. For Cather, having read Pascal and knowing something about his achievement, appears to have plucked from his mathematical work an image she could use regarding her hero's faith. The paired but opposite elements of his circumscribed and anxiety-producing triangles intersect in such a way as to map a straight line, a purposeful action based on a faith. And knowing Pascal helps readers understand the line of Latour's spiritual development which Cather is tracing.

Pascal the believer and geometrician furnishes more than a personal parallel to Latour, however. He also furnishes a key to the singular structure of this novel. Pascal's Pensées begins with an explanation of “The difference between the mathematical and the intuitive mind.” In the one, we are told, “the principles are palpable, but removed from ordinary use.” In the other, “the principles are found in common use, and are before the eyes of everybody.”10 Pascal explores at length the difference between the human types while he respects both kinds. What the first of his Pensées does for the Cather reader, however, is to offer another explanation for Cather's decision to build this particular novel around two protagonists, both sympathetically presented, though they are opposite each other: Latour represents Pascal's mathematical, as Vaillant represents his intuitive, mind.

Cather's two equally admirable priests, Latour and Vaillant, are opposites in almost countless ways. Latour is a man of reflection, for example, while Vaillant is a man of action. Latour is careful and thoughtful while Vaillant is impulsive. Latour loves a few very well while Vaillant is sympathetic with many people. Latour is an organizer while Vaillant is a builder and proselytizer. Latour is an aristocrat while Vaillant is a baker's son. Latour is a scholar and Vaillant is a preacher. Latour gardens while Vaillant cooks. Latour identifies with the Indians while Vaillant identifies with the Mexicans. Latour finds building a cathedral work for the head while Vaillant seeks lost souls “without pride and without shame” (p. 262). Latour tries to curb excesses while Vaillant uses lax means for good ends. Latour acts expediently while Vaillant is dogmatic. Latour dies once of having lived and dies quietly as Indians squat silently in the nearby courtyard, while Joseph cheats death repeatedly and then attracts thousands to the funeral which is not unlike a circus. Such a list of differences, though already long, could be extended much further. But what is important is that Cather, like Pascal, accords her opposites equal respect; she concedes that neither is perfect and that each needs the other to function effectively.

Cather's choice of two opposite but equally worthy protagonists (though finally the Pascal-like Latour is the more important and central figure, as so many have asserted) is reflected in still another structural device. For Cather begins her novel twice, first with a prologue and then with a first chapter. The two openings—like intersecting triangles—begin Cather's own interesting study in perspective with paired yet opposite sentences, which provide the points of intersection through which one can map a novel's straight purpose.

The Prologue's opening sentence contains eight or ten (depending on how one counts) words or phrases which point toward important themes. In pleasant summer twilight (spared the glare and heat of the earlier sun), three Cardinals, privileged princes of the Church, survey a much cruder missionary from America as they dine luxuriously in a garden overlooking the safely domesticated Sabine Hills while keeping Rome in full sight.

Now consider the opposite but parallel first sentence of chapter I: “One afternoon in the autumn of 1851 a solitary horseman, followed by a pack-mule, was pushing through an arid stretch of country somewhere in central New Mexico.” Hour, season, light, motion, landscape, number, occupant, emotion, location and effect are all antithetical to the opening of the Prologue; yet the kind of information given in the two sentences is exactly parallel. Both beginnings are equally important, though they remain exact opposites. Thus Cather sets up her structural perspectives from her two beginnings, and retains that structure till both protagonists die admirably at the end.

Further, from the “splendid finish” mentioned in the Prologue, to the “purpose as strong as action” which the cathedral has just begun to serve in the final chapter, Cather's structure appears as clear and carefully controlled as a geometrical figure. To be clear, however, it does not have to be simple, as the memory of Pascal's hexagon inscribed within a circle prods us to recall. In fact, several familiar explanations of her structure remain helpful. For example, her episodes move along without her “holding the notes,” as if they were panels from such a saint's legend as Puvis de Chavannes once painted of Saint Genevieve.11 Or the novel's nine books parallel the nine strokes of the bell when the Angelus is rung correctly.12 Both of these “keys” quickly open up the novel, without necessarily admitting the reader to all of its chambers. Or to use another metaphor, once one recognizes the complexity of Cather's mind and the structure it devises in this book, one does not expect a single geometrical figure to summarize her plan. One may well demand, however, that the figures enclosed in her whole circle intersect at some point, even providing in the intersecting points the base of a straight line toward some dominating theme.

In the Prologue we are told that “every sacrifice” and “quite possibly martyrdom” may be demanded of the missionary bishop to the Southwest (p. 10). In the first chapter, we see Latour suffering a thirst so intense it replicates “the anguish of his Lord” and becomes “the only reality” (p. 20). Throughout the novel, Latour artfully and painstakingly builds his life in the desert as carefully as if it were a cathedral; that artfully constructed life, like a cross-shaped cathedral, suggesting both intensest trial and intensest triumph, eventually rises from the surrounding conical hills “with a purpose so strong that it was like action” (p. 272). Given the care with which Cather builds these associations in her text, it surprises us neither that Latour's life contains as many trials as a cathedral contains stations of the cross, nor that its exquisitely-crafted triumphs are part of its treasures.

Latour's life stations of the cross begin as he experiences the lostness in his desert in which he has every evidence that God has forsaken him. He is rescued by the instincts of his mount, only to discover another “station” at Aqua Secreta. For in this “Bishopric in miniature” hidden in the middle of “hundreds of square miles of thirsty desert” (p. 32), Latour finds an ignorance so dense that the occupants can hold only one idea in their minds at one time. These natives illustrate for him the intensity of the needs he must meet as well as the quietly hidden sources of his own refreshment.

As he continues from station to station, not all the Bishop's days are filled with tribulations. He shares a restorative Christmas dinner with Father Joseph, hears the Angelus rung miraculously well on a beautiful bell, and even receives a beautiful mule for his future travels, thanks to Vaillant's zeal. But on the road to Mora he comes near being murdered, and soon thereafter, in visiting Father Jesus de Baca, he encounters the remnants of a faith which precedes even his own and therefore seems more “basic” than his. Further, Latour confronts superficial frivolity in Gallegos of Albuquerque, Indian superstition and religious intractability at Laguna, pride and personal ambition in the inappropriate church built at Ácoma, Nature's threat to “swallow him up” in Jacinto's snake cave, undisciplined lechery and sloth in Father Martínez of Taos, and avarice and the lewd speech of Lucero. Still later, Doña Isabella Olivares teaches him something about personal vanity, the terror of aging, and his own cruelty. And Joseph's absence leaves him periodically prey to periods of coldness and doubt and to the recognition that Joseph returns his love much less intensely than Jean gives it. The discovery of gold beneath Pike's Peak doubles his responsibilities as well as expanding his territory, just as he begins to get his first territory organized; and when he finally survives all these ordeals, Latour must face, for having lived, death itself—extinction as ultimate reward. Truly, in his life he endures as many painful trials and representative tests as his Master did. In enduring them, he incorporates them into his “living sacrifice” as Jesus and his worshippers have been required to do. “Either a life is part of a place or it is not,” we might paraphrase the bishop's architect. Yet truly, his life, as much as his cathedral, symbolizes his diocese, his faith, and his mission.

Seeing Latour's life as a structure which he methodically builds allows one to understand why Cather places such stress, in the prologue, on the need for the new bishop to the Southwest to have intelligence in matters of art. Obviously Cather believes in the sacredness of art, for she places some art object in every parish and significant location within Latour's huge diocese. Death Comes for the Archbishop, in fact, is not only an artwork itself; the novel functions like a museum or gallery containing other art of which the greatest work is the portrait of Latour. The whole book becomes Cather's enclosing cathedral.

From the beginning, Latour's taste defines excellence. Rescued, he is immediately interested in “the wooden figures of the saints, found in even the poorest Mexican houses,” which are “much more to his taste than the factory-made plaster images in his mission churches in Ohio” (p. 28). But because his taste is exquisite, Latour displays “a kind of courtesy toward himself, toward his beasts,” and toward all objects, even in the desert (p. 16). Upon his return, he chooses his study for its “agreeable shape” and lives in a kind of sacred artwork, perfumed by piñonwood smoke which smells like incense. Much later still, he receives a present which will be good for the eye, as Joseph is given something good for the palate. In all these ways, in fact, Cather calls attention to the importance of beauty, of beautiful art objects and decorations, and of the Archbishop's ability to appreciate them.

Religion is certainly a major source of beauty and art here, so much so that religion itself comes to seem, by the end, the highest art of any culture. Thus the novel leads to a deep respect for all religion, as for all sincerely functional and indigenous forms of art. Truly, in this novel, “art and religion, they're the same thing in the end.” As Padre de Baca's parish christianizes the ancient parrot, so the Ácoma Indians paganize the painting of St. Joseph. But both artworks remain vital symbols because they are integral parts of a surrounding culture.

Finally, art and religion are not only the same thing. Both art and religion are forms of miracle. In fact, a central theme of this—as of Cather's next novel, Shadows on the Rock (1931)—is the nature of miracle. Jean Latour and Joseph Vaillant understand miracle in different and opposite ways, Joseph's miracle always running against, as Jean's occurs within the predictable bounds of, Nature. Both, like Pascal before them, nevertheless recognize that miracles occur, and more often than many think. As Joseph says, “miracle is something that we can hold in our hands and love” (p. 50), and as Jean confirms wisely, “Where there is great love there are always miracles” (p. 50).

Finally this book, built as carefully as a cathedral, presents the lives of two dedicated men in a reverent and therefore artistically and religiously satisfying way. It leaves the reader, in fact, with two opposite conclusions, either of which may summarize the novel: they are just men, after all, and that is enough; or they are just men, finally, and that is a miracle. But the ultimate miracle, one we can hold in our hands and love, is the novel that exists with a purpose as strong as action and witnesses that Cather's artful spirit has risen to new life, through faith.


  1. Willa Cather: Her Life and Art (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1970), p. 213. The facts of Cather's life at this period are also provided by Woodress' biography: “By December [of 1925] she was back on Bank Street working like a steam engine and happy” (p. 212). “Willa Cather's next novel was My Mortal Enemy, published in the fall of 1926, but … written more than a year earlier—before her day of wrath had completely passed. … But of all her works, it has the most obscure provenance. … one can only conclude that she was reluctant to discuss the materials that went into this book” (p. 213). “[S]he may have seen in Myra Henshawe a glimpse of what she might have come to if she had not had her art to sustain her. It was not long after this that Elizabeth Sergeant was astonished to have Willa Cather ask if she thought psychoanalysis might do her any good. Nothing came of this inquiry, however, but My Mortal Enemy seems to have provided a final catharsis. By the time the book was published, she had retreated into the past and was well along with Death Comes for the Archbishop” (p. 216).

  2. The Professor's House (New York: Knopf, 1959), p. 69.

  3. Stouck, quoting Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, reminds us of the note Cather wrote in a copy of the The Professor's House which she gave to Robert Frost: “This is really a story about ‘letting go with the heart but most reviewers seem to consider it an attempt to popularize a system of philosophy.” David Stouck, Willa Cather's Imagination (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1970), p. 100.

  4. My Mortal Enemy (New York: Vintage, 1961), p. 94.

  5. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927; rpt. New York: Knopf, 1959), pp. 267, 276. Hereafter all references will be cited in the text.

  6. J. H. Brome, Pascal (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965), p. 48.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Brome, p. 49

  9. Blaise Pascal, Pensées/The Provincial Letters (New York: Modern Library, 1941), Pensee # 9, p. 7.

  10. Pensées, pp. 3-5.

  11. Clinton Keeler, “Narrative Without Accent: Cather and Puvis de Chavannes,” American Quarterly, 17 (1965), 119-26.

  12. Robert L. Gale, “Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop,Explicator, 21 (1963), 75.

Patrick W. Shaw (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6168

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 crisis of gender identity which Cather suffered as a child and which revealed itself in her patronymic “William Cather” years of cross-dressing resulted in a sexual dichotomy that in the words of Susan Gubar “was profound enough to inform not only the themes but even the structures of her mature fiction” (465).

Indeed, we see just how profound Cather's sexual dichotomy was when we view Magdalena Scales, Isabella Olivares, and old Sada against the background of a narrative dominated by historically based and consciously selected males. Juxtaposing these women in this fashion, Cather realizes a metonymic conveyance which Kenneth Burke defines when he distinguishes between poetic realism and scientific realism. In “poetic realism,” Burke says, “states of the mind as the motives of action are not reducible to materialistic terms,” as they are in scientific realism, and “the basic ‘strategy’ in metonymy is this: to convey some incorporeal or intangible state in terms of the corporeal or tangible” (Grammar 506-507). The women and the symbolism that attaches to them are the “corporeal” manifestation of Cather's psychosexual ambiguity and of the underlying sociosexual, matriarchal-patriarchal conflict in a narrative superficially dominated by traditional patriarchal males. To elucidate this metonymic process, we need first to discuss the women on a plane where events are factually verifiable and where Cather consciously directs her women's actions.

Magdalena Scales is the first of the women to appear. Prior to Magdalena's introduction (68), Cather portrays priests in general and Latour especially as determined, devout, and persevering. She uses garden and sanctuary images to accentuate his holiness. Once she has accustomed the audience to this particular mode of perception, however, she introduces Magdalena in contrasting desert squalor to mark an entirely different angle of vision—she literally dichotomizes the view, as it were. Existing in primitive survival conditions, Magdalena has silently witnessed her husband, Buck Scales, murder travelers and even her own infants. Because of her devotion to the Church, however, she cannot ignore the imminent murder of priests who have been driven by the storm to her hovel. Jeopardizing her own life, she mimes a warning to Latour and Vaillant that Scales intends to kill them. Unlike most clerics and more in keeping with western tough-guy heroes such as Kit Carson, Latour carries a pistol with which he could easily control the unarmed miscreant and save the woman in distress (Murphy). Instead, the priests flee on their precious white mules; and only when they are out of range of being “shot in the back” (70) does Latour ironically lament Magdalena's fate: “Poor woman! [Scales] will suspect her and abuse her, I am afraid” (70). They then ride on into Mora, where Cather reemphasizes their selfishness by having two refugees from the storm “put out of a bed in order that the Bishop and his Vicar could get into it” (70). While the priests sleep comfortably, Magdalena eludes death and reaches Mora so battered and dirty “that the priests could scarcely recognize the woman who had saved their lives the night before”(70-71). Just prior to the Magdalena episode, Latour speaks eloquently about his religion and the Church. He concludes that “The Miracle” of the Church is that it makes our perceptions finer “so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always” (50). That Latour's perceptions are so quickly clouded by self-absorption that he fails to recognize his “savior” in Magdalena is acutely ironic, and diagnostic of the entire episode.

To perpetuate this altered and far less flattering view of Latour, Cather makes the second of the three women someone who is the diametrical opposite of the poor Spanish peasant. Magdalena is characterized as “half-witted” and “stupid” (68), a characterization which later proves imprecise but which helps excuse her blind devotion to the Church and to priests who are willing to sacrifice her life to save their own. Isabella Olivares, however, is a blonde “Kentucky girl” (176), multilingual, wealthy, urbane, and sexually active. A girlhood education in a French convent has failed to inhibit her, so that as an adult she has no logical excuse for her theological gullibility or for allowing herself to fall prey to patriarchal control. As we recall, Isabella has recently been widowed. To claim her late husband's estate, she must admit to being old enough to be the mother of their aging daughter Inez. Utilizing spatial irony, Cather places Doña Isabella's chapter immediately after the episode of the miserly priest Lucero, who dies a terrible death because of his greed in accumulating $20,000. Don Antonio Olivares' estate is worth exactly ten times this amount. With this numerical “coincidence” and spatial proximity, Cather emphasizes the irony of Doña Isabella's being torn between rapacious brothers-in-law and Latour, who insists that she claim her inheritance so that he may collect his promised share and thus realize his “one very keen worldly ambition; to build in Santa Fé a cathedral” (176).1 Unlike Lucero who sublimates his erotic desires by accumulating gold, Doña Isabella—with her loves in El Paso, New Orleans, and among the household staff—is explicitly sexual and perfectly willing to sacrifice the money to maintain the secret of her true birth date. In seeking to preserve her erotic self, she follows the preservation instincts of the biological being, an impulse certainly as legitimate as the greed which compels Latour and which makes him uncomfortably similar to Lucero. Even Latour admits that forcing her publicly to proclaim her fifty-three years is “cruel” (193), but he nonetheless prevails in his demand that Isabella do what she must do to get the money. Though Doña Isabella—like Magdalena—accepts the treatment without rancor and graciously acquiesces to the priest's wishes, the laughter which concludes the episode may be as much in mockery as in joy.

Cather does not, however, want to paint Latour as a man without conscience or integrity. He has these qualities in large measure, and that he too often compromises both is part of the reason why he increasingly experiences “periods of coldness and doubt” which leave his soul “a barren field” (211). Appropriately, it is a women who intercedes to restore his faith; but once again in his dealings with her, Latour proves himself more selfish than altruistic. Magdalena has saved Latour's body, literally; Doña Isabella has saved his church; and now old Sada will save his soul. Unlike Isabella, Sada's physical self is totally enslaved. Only her spirit is free to soar. As in the Magdalena episode, wherein the priest's cowardice is overlooked in the glare of Buck Scale's excessive brutality, and in the Doña Isabella episode, wherein the brothers-in-law's avarice overshadows Latour's more subtle acquisitiveness, Cather ironically masks Latour's subsequent “cruelty” by exaggerating the villainy of the Smiths, to whom Sada is enslaved. The Smith family objects to Sada's Catholicism, forbids her contact with the church, and makes her sleep “in a woodshed” (212) in the winter. In a way that is typical of the attitude already established in his relations with the previous two women, Latour acts cowardly or at least indifferently toward Sada. Informed by a “pious neighbour woman” (215) that action should be taken to help Sada, he replies that “it was inexpedient to antagonize” (216) the Smiths, whom he fears will make additional trouble for the church. Though the Church has ignored her problem for years, Sada has remained devout, maintaining the “pure goodness” that shines from her “countenance” (212). When she finally visits Latour in the church, an ironic reversal of roles occurs, for Latour draws from the bond woman “the holy joy of religion” (217) he has been unable to reinstate in himself and unwilling to cultivate in her. Sada redeems him spiritually, and perhaps even prevents his suicide; and the sharpest irony of the episode is that after she has restored his faith, he sends her back to the terrible Smiths while he remains in the church secure in “the peace in his own soul” (219). The Sada story was Cather's favorite episode from the novel, the only one she allowed to be excerpted and printed as a separate “Christmas” book (Cather, 1933). Isolated from the total characterization of Latour, which adumbrates the portrait we get from his treatment of the woman, the anticlerical ironies of the Sada story are especially pronounced. Cather's allowing the publication may well have been one of her little jokes on an audience too ready to sentimentalize and oversimplify her art and purpose.2

What do we learn from locating the women on the literal plane of the narrative design? We learn that even on this conscious and relatively uncomplicated level of her artistic processes, Cather reveals her ambiguous attitudes. On the one hand, she clearly wants to admire the priests she borrows from historical narratives—in fact we might argue that a weakness of her fictional narrative is her too-close adherence to historical documents at the expense of dramatic action. Just as clear, however, is the fact that the women she inserts into this seeming paean to partriarchy do not enhance the character of the priest she set out to glorify. On the contrary, Magdalena, Isabella, and Sada show Latour (and his vicar Vaillant) to be more seriously flawed than devout men of God should be. Just as important, we learn too that while the priests come from fact, the women emanate from Cather's imagination, her psyche. We know that Latour and Vaillant have their factual coordinates in Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy and Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf.3 However, no similar coordinates have yet been found for the three women, though the biographical elements of Cather's fiction have been carefully examined. James Woodress, for instance, after discussing the various historical records from which Cather borrowed to create Latour, Vaillant, and many of the other males such as Kit Carson, concludes that the rest of the novel “came from Cather's invention” (401). This fact-imagination division is a significant dichotomy in Cather's narrative design, for it leads us to the realization that the women-priest relationship is the objective epitome of the conflict between Cather's conscious and unconscious motives, the conflict between that which Cather's intellect (grounded in history) told her should be and that which her psyche told her was. To elucidate this point, we must move from “surface structure” and make the somewhat risky transition into what F. K. Stanzel refers to as the “deep structure” of narrative, where authorial intent “can be made visible only with the help of theoretical operations” (15-16).

The argument we hope to make “visible” via theory is that the men of fact and the women of imagination are the artistic coordinates of Cather's psychosexual ambiguity, which is our main focus. Our argument is based on two interrelated premises. First, Cather was a lesbian whose imagination was shaped by a male-dominated and repressive frontier milieu during the early decades of the twentieth century. Second, working contrary to theorists such as Freud, Cather emphasizes the matriarchal archetype rather than the patriarchal archetype as the foundation of psychological disorders. The first premise has been adequately substantiated by previous commentators and will receive no further defense.4 The second will be elucidated in context when appropriate.

As Loretta Wasserman recognizes, Cather chose the nineteenth-century, frontier milieu in an attempt to relocate her sexuality “in a kind of time apart, where actions have no particular cause or consequence” (356). Indeed, one of the interesting things about Cather's artistic processes is the way she seeks an apt metaphor by which temporal events can be spatialized. With such spatiotemporal distancing she hoped to alleviate the painful dilemma which Roy Harvey Pearce refers to as “that radical opposition which has obsessed so many major American poets. It is the opposition between the poetic and the anti-poetic—between the self … and a reality which is not part of that self but must be brought into its purview, composed, and so (as it were) re-created” (380). This “radical opposition” between her poetic self and the reality of the literal world in which she found herself is what Cather tries to reconcile in Death Comes for the Archbishop. With Latour she comes as close as anywhere else in her fiction to “re-creating” a viable resolution to the dilemmas posed by her same-sex eroticism amidst a frontier society which may never have heard of Freud, but which adhered to his basic assumption that the only proper mode of sexual behavior was insertion of the male penis into the female vagina.5 Unable to accept such limited, patriarchal definitions of eroticism, Cather dreamed of escaping—as E. K. Brown notes—to such a life as Latour leads. She dreamed of such escape not only because Latour is a “personality extraordinarily fine and cultivated” (Brown, 254) but also because his intimacy with Vaillant is freed from the heterosexual lifestyle which Cather was constitutionally unsuited to follow and artistically unable to replicate.6 The priests' relationship affords her a safe method by which the preferred homoeroticism can be depicted without incurring the ire of a shocked public: removed to the long ago and far away and blessed by the authoritative if not infallible church, “Jean Marie” and “Joseph” can sleep together, eat together, argue and discuss without having to apologize for the lack of heterosexual contact and the absence of progeny.7 It is the ideal relationship Cather envisioned, free from intersexual conflicts and maternal obligations; and though we can hardly ignore the irony of her turning to the super-patriarchal Catholic Church for her models, we nonetheless can appreciate the emotional elements that caused her to displace her lesbianism in the priestly “marriage.” We must appreciate equally, however, the commensurate guilt Cather probably experienced as a result of the sexual unorthodoxy which she sublimated and unconsciously objectified in Latour-Vaillant.

Very much a child of her patriarchal prairie environment, Cather was caught in the dilemma Naomi Weisstein defines when she notes that “what a person does and who she believes herself to be, will in general be a function of what people around her expect her to be, and what the overall situation in which she is acting implies that she is” (395). Driven by an experientially-based logic joined to an incompatible artistic sensibility, Cather sought some form of psychosexual rapprochement.8 That is, in her own mind she needed some method by which to reconcile her lesbianism and its implicit rejection of childbearing with the reality of her society which valued females almost solely on the basis of how successful they were in childbearing and child rearing. If she had been successful in making her fiction (the manifestation of her “poetic self”) the instrument of such reconciliation, she would manifest in that faction a counter image of the homoerotic, non-regenerative sexuality depicted in the priests. Since this counter image would function as her “antipoetic” or public self, shielding her private homoerotic self from calumny, it would most likely be displayed in dramatis personae who were the archetypal personifications of womanhood: the conventional passive, obedient, sexually orthodox “good girl,” content in her roles as wife, mother, nurturer of family, or whatever other roles the prairie fathers assigned her. As Kenneth Burke argues in another context, if traditional heterosexual women were within Cather's creative power, either positively or negatively, they would be “objectively, structurally, there” as part of the narrative design (1941, 279). In the presence of such fictive women, consequently, we could feasibly theorize that Cather had worked through her guilts to fashion in her imagination a “public” feminine model which conformed—in Weisstein's phrase—to what “people around her expect[ed] her to be.” If she could have manifested the traditional heterosexual, childbearing female in her fiction, the type of female that she herself was not, we would have evidence that her private self had made peace with her public self.9 Psychosexual balance between the feminine and masculine impulses would be more or less verifiable, and the argument that Cather resolved her gender conflict prior to the mid-1920s might well be substantiated.

Yet, no such traditional, heterosexual women are significantly characterized in Death Comes for the Archbishop. On the contrary, Magdalena, Isabella, and Sada are “traditional” only in their passivity in the face of masculine authority; and even that acquiescence, as we have seen, is a guise Cather uses consciously and ironically to reform our view of the righteous clerics. As for being mothers and nurturers, though Cather grants at least two of them verifiable hetero-sexuality, the women distinguish themselves by the degree to which they reject those roles. In each case of the three literal women and even with the omnipresent “Mary,” children are dead, denied, or nonexistent. Magdalena's babies have been murdered by their biological father, with no significant protest from a mother who will later risk death to save priests she does not know; Doña Isabella, to protect her true age and erotic appeal, refuses to admit she has a child; and Sada is childless. This failed motherhood is, in fact, one of the few common factors uniting females who are erotically, economically, and ethnically disparate. The most plausible explanation for these nontraditional, nonmaternal females is that in the mid-1920s Cather was still struggling to alleviate the suffering caused by her inability to coordinate the masculine and feminine selves.10

Aside from the women per se, the narrative offers additional evidence of this sexual ambiguity and Cather's struggle to manage the resultant problems. Evidence of the ambiguity ranges from fundamental double entendres to elaborate image clusters. The most obvious of several double entendres occurs when the promiscuous Isabella Olivares becomes enthralled by a banjo-playing house boy who is “a magician with his instrument” (178); and the somewhat less overt sexual imagery of the landscape is typified by hills which are “conical” like breasts yet which “thrust out of the ground,” and by “naked” juniper trees which are distinctly phallic but have feminine “cleavage” (18). Even the Virgin Mary has a certain androgyny. One statue of her is described as “long and stiff and severe, very long” (28). The most noticeable instance of complex, ambiguous psychosexual symbology, however, is the cave in Book IV, and it is the cave we will use as our example of focus.

Not surprisingly, in keeping with the psychosexual ambiguity underlying its creation, the cave symbology is contradictory. Cather once again uses spatial irony by situating the cave as the central image of a section entitled “Snake Root,” where the dominant concern is the Pecos Indians's sacrificing babies to a monstrous rattlesnake. Though the connection between the snake imagery and the cave scene initially appears tenuous, both emanate from the paradoxical birth-infanticide motif and the related ritualistic eating motif previously establshed in the narrative. The serpent's eating the mothers' infants is simultaneously phallocentric and connotative of large mouths and ingestion. In a clever if somewhat gruesome transference of this image, Cather goes on to describe the cave in distinctly reptilian terms: a “mouth-like opening” consisting of “two great stone lips, slightly parted and thrust outward,” an “orifice” with a “throat” (127). When Latour and Jacinto enter the cave, they therefore duplicate the image of the infants being swallowed by the serpent. The background symbology of the infanticide (i.e., the Indians sacrificing infants to the huge rattlesnake) and the foregrounding of the men entering the cave thus function in coherent but nonetheless dissimilar ways.

Just as apparent as the serpent-phallic-ingestion symbology, however, is the mouth-vulva, homoerotic symbology of the “great stone lips thrust … outward.” This imagery connotes oral sex, both osculation and cunnilingus, and is thus predominantly female. Freud, fixing the traditional view, is quite explicit in discussing the lips-to-vulva preference of lesbians. He points out that while “the sexual aims” of female homosexuals are diverse, “contact with the mucous membrane of the mouth seems to be preferred.” When this preference is transferred to the genitalia, Freud judges it “perverse” (562). Conditioned by prairie ethics which condemned same-sex eroticism, a bias Freud upholds, Cather's unconscious cannot entertain this lips/vulva association for long, and quickly diverts it. With the entrance of Latour and Jacinto into the cave, the lips-vulva symbology shifts to a more traditional heterosexual form and simultaneously connotes penetration of the vagina and reentrance into the womb. Equally ill at ease with this image, which is foreign to her psychic orientation, Cather soon alters the images once again to show Latour and Jacinto “crawl[ing] out through the stone lips, and dropp[ing] into a gleaming white world” (132)—a symbolic rebirth. From one point of view, such ritualistic rebirth presupposes destruction of the old self, an act of psychic emancipation precipitated by sexual ambivalence such as Cather overtly evidenced in her cross-dressing and which indicates a desire to be reborn as a member of the opposite sex.11

That Latour and Jacinto enter the cave together in the first place suggests the schizophrenic self trying to reunite, while the schism between the two selves is signified by Jacinto's reverence for and Latour's fear of the cave. Though it literally gives him life (as do Magdalena and the other women), Latour views everything about the cave with “extreme distaste” (127). The powerful subterranean river, an extended symbol of the life force or passion suggested by the symbolically feminine cave, especially horrifies him. Jacinto, on the other hand, is at ease with the cave and stays awake to listen at the “curious hole” that opens in the wall of the cavern and conveys the mysterious sounds of the river (131). In this particular instance, Jacinto with his patience in tending the fire, feeding Latour, and generally catering to his needs definitely represents feminine or maternal elements. In light of our theory that Latour is a reification of major elements in Cather's homoerotic but suppressed self, it is plausible to suggest that his response to the cave and the flowing water is a projection of Cather's distaste for those menstrual functions which marked her irrevocably as female and which precluded her ever making a successful transition into masculinity. Jacinto, on the contrary, with his traditional maternal concerns, personifies the conflicting reverence she felt for or the respect she had been conditioned to show to those same biological processes.

The entire complex of contradictory, ambiguous symbology surrounding the cave episode is a notable example of the cognitive dissonance that marked Cather's thinking. Yet out of the complexity, one clear point emerges: the literal process of birthing and maternity disturbed Cather. We see this disturbance in her choice of such negative terms as “glacial” and “fetid” (127) to describe so obvious a womb symbol as the cave and in her making her alter-ego Latour so fearful of the fallopian image suggested by the curious opening in the cave wall. This opening connects the world of the living to the transcendental life force implied by the dark, subterranean river. On the other hand—reiterating a point we made earlier about Cather's inability to present traditionally maternal females—a lesbian writer who had come to terms with her nontraditional sexuality and who was free from the guilts attached to homoeroticism would probably not be so squeamish about the oral sexuality implied by the cave-vulvamouth image cluster. The absence of that freedom from guilt is in many respects the key. Surrounded by social pressures which denied non-regenerative sexuality and relegated females to subservient roles as breeders and caretakers, and no doubt acutely influenced by her adoration of her own father (Woodress 413-14), Cather could not bring herself to advocate any action which flagrantly opposed patriarchal standards. If in one image she denies the maternal role with a “glacial” cave that implies a barren womb, she must quickly compensate for that betrayal of the feminine obligation as defined by patriarchal standards. Consequently we have the paradox of the frigid womb giving birth to Latour and Jacinto, the children of her unconscious who embody the very patriarchal-matriarchal battle she hopes to resolve. They are the extraordinary twins of her psychic confusion: one the emissary of arch-patriarchal tradition, the other a pagan free as the New Mexico snow, but both absolved via their masculine gender from literal maternal obligations.

Realizing this elemental confusion, we realize too that with the cave we have a synecdochic representation of Cather's own fragmented sexuality.12 The cave, along with the double entendres and the sexually ambiguous landscape in Death Comes for the Archbishop, illustrates a point Ed Cohen explores in an insightful article which deals with the homosexuality of Oscar Wilde: even if a text does not explicitly depict same-sex behavior or use homoerotic terminology, it nonetheless can function quite adequately to depict the conflict between the heterosocial demands and the artist at odds with the conventional hegemony (803). Cather probably would not like the comparison with Wilde, but Cohen's point holds true for her text as well as Wilde's.13

In juxtaposing the super-patriarchal Catholic priests and the subservient women, Cather manifests the matriarchal-patriarchal conflict that lay at the heart of much of her personal, artistic confusion. Simply put, she could not reconcile her divided sexual impulses. Moreover, by using the Catholic church and its sacramental ritualism as the controlling image cluster in her narrative, she depends upon a pure instance of ritualistic eating, which Freud termed “totemism” and linked to the patriarchal heritage but which Burke more logically associates with the matriarchal because of the emphasis upon nourishing (Philosophy 274).14 That Cather is fascinated by the ritualistic feeding of infants to snakes, a practice which fuses the maternal reproductive instinct with the patriarchal demand for control and sacrifice, further illustrates her perplexing sexual impulses and correlates with the denial of motherhood we see in Magdalena, Isabella, and Sada. Further still, by surrounding the corporeal women with the mythic Virgin Mary, Cather poetizes a real desire to find a woman who fulfills the maternal obligation while remaining free of the penisin-vagina syndrome. At the same time, her emphasis on the Virgin Mary as quintessential mother shows Cather's awareness that the primordial impulse to bear children is both biologically and mythically validated. Moreover, she shows also that maternal affection is an essential adjunct to that childbearing impulse, else the species disappears just as the infanticidal Pecos Indians disappeared. On the other hand, however, she cannot easily accede to that predestined feminine obligation of motherhood. Consequently her females—who otherwise have admirable traits—are forbidden the motherly affection that accompanies the unfettered maternal instinct. As we recall, Magdalena, Isabella, and Sada each in one way or another reject their motherly duties. In short, the women of Death Comes for the Archbishop appear as a later manifestation of those impulses Cather was repressing when as a child she adopted the masculine persona. As Susan Gubar notes, such cross-dressing masks a feminine self-hatred, “for the male facade or persona may be an attempt born of shame to deny, hide, or disgrace the female self” (485).

Cather's famous “William” period, therefore, was far more than a child's rebellious charade. It was a manifestation of the masculine self rejecting the feminine body, a psychic dichotomy incompatible with psychological integration. Nurtured by a supportive but dominant, forceful mother in a patriarchal society in which women were molded into traditional subservient roles, Cather early felt the conflict of gender and just as early internalized the problem. The society upon which she depended for sustenance and camaraderie had limited respect for art and less tolerance of sexual ambiguity, and even as a child, she “was already beginning to feel that the conventionalism of Red Cloud was a denial of life itself, a network of caution, evasion and negation” (Brown, 47). During the final years of her life, sick and inactive, she retreated into the past, where like Latour awaiting the release of death, she “sat in the center of [her] own consciousness” (290). Damned to be both artistic and homoerotic in a society suspicious of both, Cather was tormented from first to last by the trap biology and environment had sprung on her. Her resultant dilemma manifests itself in interesting psychoanalytic coordinates, some as overt as the post-pubescent transvestism and others as subtle as the iconoclastic women we encounter in Death Comes for the Archbishop.


  1. The typical view of Latour's cathedral is expressed by Mary-Ann and David Stouck, who see the cathedral with its traditional design and communal intent as expressing altruistic motives and emblematizing Latour's moral excellence. See “Art and Religion in Death Comes for the Archbishop.Arizona Quarterly, 29 (1973), 293-302. A less flattering appraisal is offered by E. A. Mares, who points out that Father Lamy was in fact a money-oriented Archbishop who alienated the people of New Mexico with his tithing demands and whose French cathedral thus stands more as a symbol of his French distaste for the Spanish adobe structures preferred by the populace. Mares refers to Death Comes for the Archbishop as “a historical and social anachronism tragically flawed by the narrowness of its ethnic and cultural biases” (60). See E. A. Mares, “Padre Martinez, Defender of the People.” New Mexico Magazine (June 1985): 57-60.

  2. Such sentimental/oversimplified approaches still plague Cather criticism. Marilee Lindemann puts interesting nomenclature to the problem when she refers to the “Convent Critics” and “Postcard Critics” who continue to place Cather into landscapes—both psychical and physical—which do not do justice to the “vast and varied terrain of her fiction” (15). “Con-Quest or In-Quest? Cather's Mythic Impulse in Death Comes for the Archbishop,Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletter, XXXI, 3, (Summer 1987), 15-18. F. K. Stanzel complains generally that such narrow approaches “schematize the narrative action in a way which fails to do justice to the particularity and complexity of the individual narrative work” (46).

  3. Cather's well-known use of Archbishop Lamy and Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf is documented in E. K. Brown, pp. 250-53. See also Edward A. and Lillian D. Bloom, “The Genesis of Death Comes for the Archbishop,American Literature, 26 (1955).

  4. An articulate discussion of Cather's lesbianism is Phyllis Robinson's Willa: The Life of Willa Cather. Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1983. Though writing a “popular” biography, Robinson honestly confronts an essential factor of Cather's life which was until recently politely ignored. Sharon O'Brien's The Emerging Voice (1986), borrowing from Robinson, breaches the final barriers set up by those who denied Cather's homosexuality.

  5. Freud is unequivocal on this point: “The union of the genitals in the characteristic act of copulation is taken as the normal sexual aim. It serves to diminish the sexual tension and to quench temporarily the sexual desire …” (563). The Calvinist/patriarchal edict of no-pleasure-but-procreation clearly underlies Freud's thinking. His statement has of course been challenged. Though hardly thorough, perhaps the best known radical reappraisal is Carl Wittman, “Gay Liberation Manifesto,” in Radical Psychology, pp. 453-470.

  6. That Latour is Cather's “secret self” or alter ego is hardly a new idea. Cather's own account of her fascination with Latour and the Catholic Church in frontier New Mexico is well known (Willa Cather on Writing [New York: Knopf, 1949] 9f) and references to the Latour-Cather identification appear in numerous different contexts. No one insofar as I know, however, uses the identification in so explicitly a psychosexual sense as I suggest here.

  7. The feminine-masculine nomenclature is apparent in Latour's and Vaillant's names, and the fact that Latour is attractive and Vaillant almost grotesquely ugly is another example of the paradoxical and unreconciled emotions Cather experienced as a result of her homoeroticism.

  8. This dichotomy emanates from the fact-imagination division we see earlier in our discussion of the historically-based priests and the imagination-based women. For further discussion of the traditional patriarchal or phallocentric attitudes which fix creativity or intelligence in females as sinfulness which must be punished, and the subsequent effects of those attitudes upon creative women, see Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

  9. The use of fiction to expiate homoerotic guilt or to present it literarily in a socially acceptable guise is not unique to Cather. Somerset Maugham, E. M. Forster, and especially Oscar Wilde come to mind as witnesses. For a discussion of Wilde in this capacity, see Ed Cohen, elsewhere cited.

  10. I use the terms “masculine” and “feminine” with the awareness that they are not as distinct as they may at first seem. Freud was correct when in Contributions to the Theory of Sex he noted the “It is necessary to make clear that the conceptions, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, whose content seems so unequivocal to the ordinary meaning, belong to the most confused terms in science” (Writings 612). In the same discussion, he theorizes that the “libido” may be either male or female and suffer accordingly when failure to distinguish the two occurs; and while I have purposely avoided Freud's sometimes confusing nomenclature, I remain indebted to his insights concerning sexual ambiguity.

  11. Both Freud and Burke discuss symbolic rebirth and trace it to childhood sexual ambivalence, when the child cannot identify clearly with either parent and consequently develops no distinct male or female identity. The child thinks the dilemma can be solved by becoming both father and mother, something which in turn entails destruction of the old self in order to be born as a new self. Burke feels that such “assigning of a new lineage to one's self” can be accomplished only if accompanied by both symbolic matricide and symbolic patricide. See Burke, Philosophy, 275f. Cather does not limit such rebirth themes to Death Comes for the Archbishop. In My Ántonia, for instance, we see rebirth images aplenty, beginning with plants and animals emerging from the earth and culminating in Antonia's extraordinary ability to reproduce. Interestingly enough, Cather also uses a huge rattlesnake in My Ántonia as part of her psychosexual symbology.

  12. Essays exploring the external qualities of Cather's landscape are common. Sister Lucy Schneider, C. S. J., “Artistry and Instinct: Willa Cather's ‘Land-Philosophy,’” College Language Association Journal, 16 (1973), 458-504; and William Howarth, “The Country of Willa Cather,” National Geographic Magazine, 162 (1982), 71-93, suggest the range of this topic. Significantly, however, very few commentators have explored the internal landscape of Cather's own psyche—the way she transforms the external landscape into a projected image of her psychosexual processes, as she does with the cave. Leon Edel, in analyzing The Professor's House, does discuss Cather's psychosexual fascination with cave images. See Stuff of Sleep and Dreams: Experiments in Literary Psychology, New York: Harper & Row, 1959; 1982.

  13. Coincidently, Cather—upholding the prairie hegemony—wrote a scathing review of Lady Windemere's Fan, a year before Wilde was put on trial for promoting homosexuality. See The World and the Parish, vol. I, pp. 89-92.

  14. For Freud's discussion of the “feast” qualities of the totemic syndrome, see Totem and Taboo, especially chapter 4 (Writings 909-14).


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Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives and a Rhetoric of Motives. Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1962.

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1941.

Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. 1927. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.

Cather, Willa. The World and The Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902. Ed. William M. Curtin. Lincoln: UP of Nebraska, 1970.

Cohen, Ed “Writing Gone Wilde: Homoerotic Desire in the Closet of Representation.” PMLA 102 (1987): 801-813.

Freud, Sigmund. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. A. A. Brill. New York: The Modern Library, 1966.

Gubar, Susan. “Blessings in Disguise: Cross-Dressing as Re-Dressing for Female Modernists.” Massachusetts Review (Autumn 1981): 477-508.

Murphy, John J. “Willa Cather and Catholic Themes.” Western American Literature, 17 (1982): 53-60.

O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961.

Stanzel, F. K. A Theory of Narrative. Trans. Charlotte Goedsche. London: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Wasserman, Loretta. “The Lovely Storm: Sexual Initiation in Two Early Willa Cather Novels.” Studies in the Novel 14 (1982): 348-358.

Weisstein, Naomi. “Psychology Constructs the Female: Or, the Fantasy Life of the Male Psychologist,” Radical Psychology. Ed. Phil Brown. New York: Harper & Row, 1973: 390-420.

Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.

Frederick Turner (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11417

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 equivalent, say, of a chile pepper magnet, which the gift shop also offers. It is not. Just as for many Gerald Cassidy has caught the image of the Southwest's magic, so for thousands of readers Cather's New Mexico novel has captured the human emotions evoked by the region's landscape. The shop clerk at La Fonda said it was “probably our number-one seller,” a status confirmed at other bookstores down San Francisco Street. At Los Llanos Book Store they told me that only John Nichols outsells Cather's novel about Father Latour, and farther west on the street, Lynne Moor, owner of Collected Works, said that Death Comes for the Archbishop was “probably our most consistent seller.” Hardly a day goes by, she continued, “that we don't sell at least one copy.”

Many tourists do not wait to buy Cather's novel until they get to Santa Fe but read it in preparation for a New Mexican vacation. One middle-aged New England couple told their Santa Fe hosts they'd read passages of it to one another as they drove across the country. For such travelers Death Comes for the Archbishop is far more than a fine work of fiction. It is at once a guidebook, an authoritative work of history, and, deeper, a legend: a narrative in which a place and all its history are imaginatively expressed.

The immediate inspiration for the book came to Cather in the summer of 1925 when she and her companion, Edith Lewis, decided to spend that season in New Mexico. Though she had long since made the acquaintance of the New Mexican countryside, Cather felt far more comfortable in the city of Santa Fe, then in its halcyon days as a writers' and artists' colony. She and Lewis set themselves up at La Fonda, a brand-new establishment that had replaced the historic Exchange Hotel on the same south-eastern corner of the Plaza. Less than 200 yards east on San Francisco Street rose the golden facade of St. Francis Cathedral, and through its mismatched bell towers you could see the red hills dotted with dark green clumps of piñon and juniper and beyond, the fathomless blue of a high-plains sky. In front of the cathedral, beneath a locust tree, stood the life-size bronze statue of Bishop Jean Lamy who had dreamed the cathdral into solid reality. Adjacent to the cathedral were the Bishop's old residence and the gardens he had created and lovingly tended. The branches of the imported fruit and nut trees nodded over the adobe walls at walkers in the dusty streets.

Among those who passed beneath the stern gaze of the bronze Bishop none was more alive to the potential implications of the figure in its setting than the little woman in long full skirts who more and more frequently passed that way on her town walks. The Bishop's face interested Cather. It seemed, she later declared, “something fearless and fine and very, very well-bred—something that spoke of race.” She wondered more and more purposively about him, then came across a biography of Joseph P. Machebeuf, Lamy's vicar general, which gave in rich and suggestive detail the lives of these two Auvergnats who in the three decades from 1851 changed the diocese of New Mexico from a paper fiction to a functioning reality. One hot night the writer stayed up until dawn reading Father Howlett's The Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf, and it would not be too much to suppose that the next day she looked upon Santa Fe and its environs with new eyes. For more than ten years she'd wanted to write a book about this region, and now she had a subject around which her feeling for New Mexico and the Southwest might cohere, as a French Impressionist landscape coheres around a girl's diaphanous parasol or a red rooftop.

In that summer of 1925 Santa Fe was hardly the tiny, low-slung adobe village Lamy and Machebeuf had first seen in August, 1851. Architecturally the town was in transition, vestiges of Western frontier frame buildings vying with bulky Victorian and Queen Anne structures and with the vogue of Spanish-Pueblo Revival. Across the shade-dappled plaza from La Fonda, for instance, La Casa de los Conquistadores, a large movie theatre and garage complex in the Spanish-Pueblo style, stood surrounded by undistinguished four-square brick buildings. Still, for all the substantial changes of three-quarters of a century, there remained around the city's margins plenty of hints of the place as Lamy had known it.

In search of these myself, since I wanted to understand what Cather had to work with as she began to think about her book, I called on Margaret Pond Church, a noted New Mexican writer. In 1925, she was just a twenty-year-old girl from the country who came to Santa Fe for supplies and socializing. She had warned me on the phone that she hadn't ever met Willa Cather and didn't think much of her work. But she agreed to see me—as much, I suspected, to set me straight about Cather as anything else.

When I asked her what Santa Fe was like in 1925, she arose from the table at which we were seated, went into another room of her apartment, and returned with a loose-leaf notebook. “I can't answer your question better,” she said at last, “than to read you a poem I wrote then. It's called ‘Warning,’ and it'll give you a sense of what this place looked like and felt like then.”

Indeed it did. Of the advent of spring in Santa Fe, Church wrote:

Orchards had awakened
On every valley-slanted hill; through every field
Wild plum ran riverward like a blown fire;
And over the walls of our ancient gardens
Pear trees lifted candle-white spires of bloom
Toward the sky. Our narrow crooked streets
Were flinging before us around every curve
Some unexpected beauty. Petals rippled
Along the mad rush of the acequia;
And there were children entering the cathedral
With crisp white frocks, and blossoms in their hair.

“It was rural,” she said when she'd finished reading, glossing her own lines. “There were orchards everywhere. There were little adobe houses with real people living in them, tending their gardens and fields and goat herds. Upper Canyon Road was alfalfa fields on both sides. Acequia Madre ran then because it was necessary as an irrigation ditch. Palace and Don Gaspar were the only paved streets, and the altitude and the population were just about the same: 7,000. Now when I want to wow people, I tell them I used to ride my horse down Palace Avenue and sell vegetables on the Plaza. Can you imagine that?” She smiled indulgently at me as at a child. “Now,” she added with brave sigh, “I live in the heart of a tourist ghetto. But I look out at the wall of that house there and pretend it's a canyon wall.”

So, despite all the changes from the Bishop's time to her own, it appeared as if Cather had had that distinctly rural feel to start with. She also had, of course, the cathedral and its mountainous backdrop, the Bishop's residence and gardens, and his beautiful little retirement residence in the Tesuque hills. Best of all, she had the largely unaltered landscape through which Lamy had ridden, carrying with him the burden of his lonesome responsibilities in this unknown outpost.

At some point during the summer of 1925 Cather received an invitation from Mabel Dodge Luhan to visit her up in Taos, and though Cather could be bluntly unsocial, this time she accepted. Luhan gave Cather and Lewis the Pink House on her property, decorated with a drawing of a phoenix by its former inhabitant, D. H. Lawrence. Cather had said she'd only spend a day or so but ended up spending two weeks. The reason was Tony Luhan, Mabel's Pueblo Indian husband. In him Cather found the guide she wanted to the northern New Mexico country. Tony Luhan drove Cather and Lewis west into the country associated with Lamy's rebellious priest, Father Martinez. He drove them east into the high, remote Spanish villages of the Sangre de Cristos. He showed them the rich farming lands of the Española Valley. And everywhere he took them he had some small, laconic, but revealing thing to say about place and the life lived in it; everywhere he provided introductions to native dwellers who told their own stories to the writer avid for the fullest sense of the land through which her hero had moved.

Cather and Lewis came back the next summer, again establishing themselves at La Fonda and again going north to Taos and Tony Luhan. Cather subsequently told her friend, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, that in the summer of 1926 she'd left the manuscript of her new novel behind in a New York vault. But the writer Mary Austin claimed Cather finished it this summer at her house in Santa Fe.1 Certainly Cather visited Austin often in these months, walking from La Fonda to Austin's rambling adobe home at the foot of what was then called “Cinco Pintores Hill” (Five Painters' Hill). And there is an autographed copy of the first edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) inscribed by the author to Mary Austin, “in whose lovely study I wrote the last chapters of this book.” Wherever she finished it, the book was for Cather a positive joy to write, and both Elizabeth Sergeant and Edith Lewis testified to the seeming ease of its composition, the serene mood in which Cather worked on it. Willa Cather herself called the writing of it “a happy vacation from life, a return to childhood, to early memories.”

On its surface that remark seems an odd one: Cather's childhood had nothing physically to do with New Mexico or the Southwest. Actually, the remark is paradoxical and leads us, as perhaps Cather intended, to an understanding of the significance of this region to her life and work.

As a writer Cather's supreme strength is her sensitivity to place. Indeed, it was said of her by a long-time friend that she cared as much for places as she did for people, a trait that might help to explain that rudeness she could occasionally display. The sensitivity was the result of a childhood dislocation: in 1883 in her tenth year Cather was taken from the ancestral home near Winchester, Virginia, to south-central Nebraska where her father joined his parents and brother who had emigrated there. The contrast between the old home and the new one was shocking to the girl, and suddenly all the smallest details of the home place came indelibly to mind while at the same time she was made acutely aware of all those new, alien features of the prairie. It was as if she were now overwhelmed by a feeling for two landscapes.

The new country, she recalled in afteryears, “was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand. I was little and homesick and lonely and my mother was homesick and nobody was paying any attention to us.” “I would not know,” she said on another occasion, “how much a child's life is bound up in the woods and hills and meadows around it, if I had not been jerked away from all these and thrown out into a country as bare as a piece of sheet iron.” In what many regard as her master-work, My Ántonia (1918), Cather writes of the advent of a Virginia-born child to the Nebraska prairies. It isn't a country at all, young Jimmy Burden thinks, “but the material out of which countries are made.” He feels as if he has left the world behind him and is now in some other, foreign sphere, without markers, without the comforting old feature of mountain ridges against the sky, without resident spirits. Between the empty earth and the equally empty sky, the boy feels “erased, blotted out.”

Since the latter part of the eighteenth century Cather's people, the Cathers and Boaks, had farmed the Back Creek country of Virginia. Willa was born in her grandmother's house, and all about her in her youngest years were the signs and symbols of tradition, of things in place, of the old ways. The earth itself had been prepared by her ancestors, and their bones, gone back to that earth, enriched the life of succeeding generations. A sense of history—familial, communal, regional—was part of the air she breathed. History had happened here and helped to tell the natives who they were: Stonewall Jackson, for instance, had ridden these very roads. Then suddenly, as it must have seemed to the ten-year-old girl, all this was gone. Suddenly she was in the middle of a vast expanse of rough red grass across which the west wind blew with a wearing constancy. In place of the ancestral home there was now a lone-standing farmhouse with no near neighbors. There was no graveyard with its familiar slabs telling the old story of generations and continuity. There was only the tiny post office christened Catherton to remind the newcomers of civilizations as they had known it. In that first Nebraska year the Cather family did not even live in the little village of Red Cloud—where the pangs of transition might have been somewhat eased—but in the unopened country to the northwest.

Here was a land that, as Cather's character puts it, wasn't even a land yet, by which the author meant that to the newcomers it had no history, no associations, no legends they knew. It was a land seemingly without a language, without its indigenous songs, and it was so terrifically different from Virginia that neither the Cathers nor the small colony of transplanted Virginians around Catherton could bring the old songs to bear on the problems of life in a new place: they simply didn't fit. By Babylonian rivers, sang the Psalmist, we wept when we remembered Zion, and though our captors required a song of us, we asked, “how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?” For the Charles Cather family with its strong Christian background, this passage might often have come to mind in those first Nebraska months.

But, of course, in a large way the predicament was hardly peculiar to the Cather family. It was a microcosmic recapitulation of the American pioneering experience: how to sing the old songs in a strange land. Some never learned, while others never acknowledged that they cared, and a later Nebraska writer, Mari Sandoz, would brilliantly assess the effects of life without song, calculate with her own life the cost of the effort to sing. But for Willa Cather life without song was unendurable, a mean and brutish existence that could hardly be called human. Besides, this land, whatever else it was, was simply too big and powerful to be met without the mediating presence of a language, and she set out early to devise her own.

At the very least, she could set herself against the new land and sing a song of stubborn resistance, refusing to be blotted out, erased between sky and unmarked horizon of grass. So, early on she identified herself with the village rebels of Red Cloud, those dreamers and poetic types who in their own ways were trying to sing. She became one of them, a mannishly dressed intellectual, critical of local xenophobic ways and apt to champion unpopular causes such as scientific rationalism and vivisection. When she began publishing fiction, a theme of a number of the early stories is the tension between the new, unsung land and its would-be singers.

In The Troll Garden (1905), Cather's first collection of stories, there appeared “A Wagner Matinée,” a tale of two artistic types on the Nebraska frontier. Clark, the narrator, has escaped Nebraska for Boston, but a letter from his aunt, who has not, brings back to him

the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and grim as a wooden fortress; the black pond where I had learned to swim, its margin pitted with sun-dried cattle tracks; the rain-gullied clay banks about the naked house, the four dwarf ash seedlings where the dish-cloths were always hung to dry before the kitchen door. The world there was the flat world of the ancients; to the east, a cornfield that stretched to daybreak; to the west, a corral that reached to sunset; between, the conquests of peace, dearer-bought than those of war.

Clark remembers himself in that unrelieved setting, a gangling farmboy, tutored and patiently encouraged by his aunt, sitting at her parlor organ and fumbling through his scales with stiff, reddened fingers. Subsequently, when Aunt Georgiana pays him a visit in Boston, they attend a Wagner matinée. At its conclusion, as the crowd flies chattering and laughing from the bright hall, Aunt Georgiana bursts into tears, sobbing to Clark that she doesn't want to leave, for to do so is to go back—back to the black pond, the cattle-tracked bluffs, the tall, warping house that to her lies just beyond the concert hall.

Even grimmer is “The Sculptor's Funeral.” At some point in their friendship, Cather told Elizabeth Sergeant that when she went back to visit her family in Nebraska she could never stay very long: she was afraid of dying in a cornfield. Sergeant thought that a peculiar phobia and said so. You wouldn't understand, Cather wrote her, because you haven't seen those miles of fields. There is no place to hide in Nebraska, she said. In “The Sculptor's Funeral” Cather allows herself to imagine a kind of cornfield death for a sculptor who has apparently escaped his prairie origins and has, indeed, achieved fame in the East. Yet in death he is brought back to stranded little Sand City where the townspeople who hated him in his escape and success file past his defenseless face in ultimate triumph and judgment. Yet Cather can't quite let them have that triumph, pass that judgment. She creates a dipsomaniac town lawyer who will pass the final judgment—and not on the dead artist but on the town that hated him. “There was only one boy,” the lawyer says over the coffin,

ever raised in this borderland between ruffianism and civilization who didn't come to grief, and you hated Harvey Merrick more for winning out than you hated all the other boys who got under the wheels.

Then he essays a sort of Sand City Anthology, describing the early, failed ends of those boys of bright promise who became drunks or arsonists or who were gunned down in gambling houses.

These early fictions suggest a truth about their author: that she had yet to come to truly creative terms with her home territory. True, she loved the great, shaggy plains, stained as if with wine. But there was a good deal of resentment, even hatred, mixed with that love, a resentment of the meanness of small-town life, of the endemic xenophobia, the hardness of living that the land exacted of its pioneers. Her life and attentions were still very much elsewhere—the East, Europe—and she could not yet write about home with any empathy.

In 1908 she met someone who had. She was introduced to Sarah Orne Jewett whose stories of small-town life in southern Maine were models of what could be done with such apparently unpromising material. The older writer must have sensed in Cather and her work a familiar artistic predicament, that of a talent in danger through neglect of its roots. In December of that year she wrote Cather an extraordinary letter, telling her that her talent would wither and die if she didn't dig deeper into her own life and memories and write out of that secure, unassailable place.

It is tempting—and dangerous—to say the letter was decisive for Cather. Such a conclusion makes neat literary history but specious biography. Still, it is a suggestive coincidence that the very next year Cather published a story that drew in a fundamentally different way on her Red Cloud years. In “The Enchanted Bluff” Cather recalled the long-ago days when with her brothers she would lie out on a small sandy spit in the Republican River and talk of legends, of faraway places, and of future travels out into the great, waiting world. A consistent subject of talk in those lazy but intense days was Coronado, who some thought had traveled this far into Nebraska seeking his gilded cities. Cather chose to think he had done so, had in fact passed along this very watercourse, and in the story this speculation leads to the legend of New Mexico's Enchanted Bluff and of a tribal tragedy that occurred there in the prehistoric past. None of the story's characters has ever seen the Enchanted Bluff, but the legend is so compelling that all swear they'll visit it someday. At the story's end the narrator describes his return to the town of his youth and a talk he has with one of those youthful companions who swore to go to New Mexico. None of us, the narrator concludes, “has ever climbed the Enchanted Bluff,” and though there is here a whisper of the familiar, failed ambitions of the small town characters that Cather had written of before, this is not the dominant mood of the piece. Instead, the writer has gone beneath the old resentments, reaching toward a more generously inclusive memory of a time and a place, that quiet place of which Jewett had written. The mood is gentle and somberly reflective, and in the midst of the story, like a brilliant spot of sunshine, is that legend of the Southwest.

She first saw the region in 1912. Like the characters in her story, Cather had been longing to see that sun-filtered land out of which the misguided Coronado had come to die of a broken heart on the great plains. Her favorite brother, Douglass, who had dreamed with her of Coronado, was now working for the Santa Fe railroad and living in Winslow, Arizona. In April Willa went out for a two-month visit.

Winslow itself was a disappointment, a gritty little railroad town in which the only buildings of any distinction were the line's division head-quarters. The high winds of a Southwestern spring hurled sand, the black gravel of the yards, and all manner of rubbish through the unpaved streets. Douglass lived with two other men, and his sister took an immediate dislike to one of them, so living conditions in the smallish house were difficult. Cather began taking target practice with a pistol and wrote a friend she was beginning to fear she might turn the gun on Mr. Tooker, the man she disliked. The only compensation the town had to offer her was its Mexican section on the wrong side of the tracks, and Cather began going over there for relief and instruction: the looks of the residents there intrigued her as did their ways and music. To be sure, there was a romanticism and exoticism mixed with her interest in the Mexicans, but there was something more, for she saw that these people had achieved a kind of triumph over the trashy impoverishment of their circumstances. As always, she admired this.

But it was the countryside beyond Winslow that drew her far more than anything the town could offer. The land was in fact far more stunning than her grandest expectations of it. She rode out into it as often as she could, either on horseback or in horse and wagon. Sometimes she stayed out camping for days at a stretch. She followed the Little Colorado northwestward toward the San Francisco Mountains, looking for cliffdweller ruins said to be somewhere along it. At Walnut Canyon in the San Franciscos she did see the Anasazi ruins, and the impact was as powerful as the land itself. Here was something that took you out of yourself and your petty concerns, much as did the cathedrals of the Old World. Here was history, more ancient even than the monuments of Europe. Together, the rocks and the rock city opened a depthless American dimension to the alert imagination.

At the end of her stay she crossed into New Mexico, found Albuquerque and its setting a more luminous version of the country between Marseilles and Nice, wandered up to Santo Domingo Pueblo. There the radical otherness of the country and its indigenous cultures hit her: all this had nothing to do with her; it was utterly foreign; she didn't belong here. Beside the Rio Grande a suddenly bitter wind blew through her, and she turned back toward the East. For the moment, anyway, the encounter with the Southwest had been too overwhelming.

But its effect on her proved decisive for her work. Seeing that magnificent landscape and the ancient cultures that fit into it like bones in a body, she saw her own Nebraska landscape in a new way, a perspective neither the East nor Europe had provided. She had fallen in love with the Southwest, and, as always, love inspired imagination. More, it had provoked memory. True, the Anasazi ruins and the living pueblos had nothing to do with her in a direct blood sense. But in a larger, generic way they had everything to do with her: they were a part of the history of the human race, and they spoke profoundly of the often difficult accommodations human cultures must make with their environments. These cultures were ancient songs in their land, and her admiration both for the land and its cultures thrust her back on her own past. “Life began for me,” she said, “when I ceased to admire and began to remember.” The Southwest taught Willa Cather that the “mission of man on earth is to remember. To remember to remember” (Henry Miller's words again). And so she turned back to her memories of Nebraska, to herself as she had been then, to recollections of childhood friends, to the stories of pioneer lives, the songs obscurely embedded in those lives.

In O Pioneers!, published the year after her first Southwestern encounter, the new feeling for Nebraska is expressed in the strong and enduring figure of Alexandra Bergson who is neither defeated nor embittered by the land but nurtured by it. “For the first time, perhaps,” Cather writes of her, “since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning.

It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before.

That face is, of course, Alexandra Bergson's, but it was now also the author's. And just as Alexandra is successful in creating a bounty out of her portion of the prairie, so Willa Cather would now strive to create an enduring literary harvest out of her portion of the Nebraska earth: Primus ego in patriam mecum … deducam Musas, “‘for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.’” Thus My Ántonia's Jim Burden translates the line from Virgil's The Georgics, and as if to make the point unmistakable, Cather has him go on to explain that “patria” here means, “not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighborhood … where the poet was born.” Virgil wants, Jim Burden says, to bring the Muse “to his own little ‘country’; to his father's fields, ‘sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.’” Nor was this a mere intellectual platitude, for in My Ántonia Cather indeed brings the Muse to her country, sings the songs of that time and place, illumines the sharp truths of prairie life. The justly famous passage in the novel describing a plow magnified by sunset into a heroic dimension is the fitting symbol for her large and ambitious intention. No longer resentfully estranged from the prairies, Cather now felt absorbed by them and had discovered that this was a unique species of happiness.

So, she owed the Southwest much, and it may be that almost from the first she had intended to honor the region in a work of art. Perhaps conscious of the need to steep herself in the land, its history and moods, she went back to it again and again—1914, 1915, 1916, and then again in the significant summers of '25 and '26. And during these years the region kept appearing more and more insistently in her work, like the spread of sun across the landscape: a reference to old Mexico in O Pioneers!; a long section inspired by the Walnut Canyon ruins in The Song of the Lark in which the heroine's temporary salvation is to be absorbed by the land and its ancient history, a telling reversal of what Cather had once feared from the Nebraska landscape; speculations about Coronado in My Ántonia; and the wonderful set-piece, “Tom Outland's Story,” in The Professor's House. By this time she was wholly ready for Death Comes for the Archbishop, which would help to explain the ease of its composition.

To be sure, not all are as pleased with Cather's Southwestern novel as she apparently was and as are those thousands of tourists who rely on it so trustingly. Some critics find it considerably inferior to My Ántonia, O Pioneers!, or The Professor's House, precisely because it is so loving a tribute to the region. Cather here, the arguments runs, was so in love with the Southwest that she surrendered her imagination to history and geography, and the result is an inferior work of art. At the History Library of the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, I talked about this with Orlando Romero, the research librarian. “I love Willa Cather's other work,” he said, shaking his head, “but not that. It's as if she became enamored of the ‘Blue Sky’ school of writing—all that romanticism about the country and the quaint customs of the natives.” Romero also vigorously objected to the geographical and historical inaccuracies of the novel and led me to a stinging attack on these in a back issue of the New Mexico Quarterly.

There are, in truth, several instances where Cather took liberties with history and geography. In the passage, for instance, where the Bishop and Father Vaillant visit the site from which the Bishop will quarry the stone for his cathedral, Cather provides directions that would almost certainly place the site at La Bajada, the high ridge south of Santa Fe on the Albuquerque road. In fact, as Cather well knew, the stone was taken from a hill near the little village named after Bishop Lamy. There is the lone yellow hill from which the stone was taken, and atop its steep slopes near the westward prow are some of the great golden blocks, stacked and still waiting for the trip down the cut to the railroad siding below. Cather had to pass the hill each time she arrived in or left New Mexico since Lamy was the nearest train station to Santa Fe. The point is obvious: Cather transported the hill from its relatively prosaic setting to a far more dramatic one at La Bajada because as a novelist it suited her to do so. The gain for her was artistic, the loss in geographic literalism unimportant.

There are a few other instances of this sort in the novel, but they are as insignificant, and those who place their trust in Death Comes for the Archbishop as a guide to the region are right to do so, for far more important than the few liberties she takes with geography is Cather's ability to evoke the land, its spirit, and the effects of these on travelers and natives alike. Her description of the landscape on the Bishop's return to Santa Fe from a springtime missionary trip into Navajo country, for instance, remains one of the most superb and sharply detailed in the large canon of Southwestern literature. The sky, she writes here, was as “full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still”—precisely that contrast that causes the traveler in the Southwest to stand at emotional attention. And, she goes on,

there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one's feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!

Montana may currently advertise itself as “Big Sky Country,” and the sky is big there. But in the Southwest the sky sometimes seems all there is and everything below somehow trivial. Even the mountains and mesas appear adrift in it. Death Comes for the Archbishop is full of this sense of sky: sunsets, cloud shapes, the constant brush of wind. Here is a felt, home truth about this place, and beneath this, Cather's few geographical liberties are also trivial.

But what of the novel's alleged historical inaccuracies? If we assume here that even the unfriendly critics would grant the novelist license to invent and embroider character and incident, what could these inaccuracies amount to? That Cather altered both the content and tone of some of the incidents of the Bishop's life is undeniable, as is the fact that she invented others. In the main, however, she stayed faithful to such sources as she had, chiefly Father Howlett. But if Death Comes for the Archbishop is truly that place legend many believe, it ought to be so true that it is beyond both history and historiography; it ought to include these and raise them to another power.

The essence of the claims against the novel's historical accuracy is that the Bishop was never the hero Cather made him. Mary Austin was the first to say it. That doyenne of Santa Fe's artistic and literary culture of the 1920s was offended that Cather should have given her talent and allegiance to a man who arrogantly trampled on the Indian and Hispanic cultures he found when he assumed his New Mexican duties. The symbol of this, Austin felt, was St. Francis Cathedral, a French Romanesque structure utterly out of character with its setting. The cathedral, according to Austin, was a constant affront, and had the effect of intimidating native New Mexicans. She was not the last to say this, and to those holding this view, it is apt that the Bishop's statue—the same that so inspired the novelist—should literally be standing atop the rubble of the old parish church that served as the Bishop's seat when he first entered Santa Fe in 1851.

There evidently was something imperious in Lamy's manner, something haughty and disdainful in his attitude toward local ways. Paul Horgan, his biographer, gives Lamy's fairly brutal census of his diocese as he found it in 1851: 68,000 Catholics, 2,000 heretics, 30,000-40,000 infidels. Lamy judged Hispanics to be congenitally inferior to Anglos in intellect and incredibly lax in their sexual conduct, and his treatment of the rebellious Taos priest, Father Antonio Jose Martinez, smacks of this prejudice. The native styles in architecture he found primitive and ugly, and almost from the first he dreamed of a French-style cathedral to replace the Santa Fe parish church he thought little more than a “stable of Bethlehem.”2

Just as Cather could not have missed knowing where the cathedral's stone came from, so she had to have known of Lamy's imperiousness. Yet when she suddenly saw her Southwestern book, she couldn't help but see him as its hero, for in his life she saw once again the drama of the artistic sensibility isolated on the frontier from nurturing sources and forced to improvise ways by which it might sustain itself. This, of course, was her own story as she saw it and as she had been compulsively rewriting it in all the years since she'd left Red Cloud for the wider world. No wonder then that she gave her allegiance to the French priest, sympathized with his dreams, his monument, and ignored much of the local controversy that clung to his robes.

But had this been all, Death Comes for the Archbishop would not be the book it is. The difference between the book we have and the book that might have been is simply—and wonderfully—that just as the author surrendered to the spirit of the Southwest, so does her hero. True, he is occasionally imperious, and he candidly announces that his mission in the great diocese is to reform the lax and scandalous practices of both clergy and laity. There are also some practices of Indians and Hispanics that the Bishop finds impenetrably mysterious, even vaguely repellant. But Cather makes the Bishop assent finally to the indigenous peoples and, more, to their land of living.

He finds a special sort of joy in the wooden santos of the Hispanics and develops a genuine respect for their faith that remained steadfast through all the years when the region was almost wholly cut off from any sustaining contact with the Church. He respects, too, the ancient traditions of the Indians, senses that behind his friends, Jacinto and Eusabio, there are long, rich histories he will never know but which inform their every action. He admires their ability to accommodate themselves to any situation, an ability less sympathetic observers mistake for indolence but which the Bishop sees as “inherited caution and respect.” It was as if, the Bishop thinks, “the great country were asleep, and they wished to carry on their lives without awakening it; or as if the spirits of earth and air and water were things not to antagonize and arouse.”

We are told this characteristically formal Frenchman finds the odor of burning piñon delicious, the hand-shaped contours of adobe walls and sills pleasant and reassuring, the cloud formations and ceaseless sky-change awe-inspiring. Climbing up to Acoma, the Sky City, the Bishop is caught in a thundershower. From beneath a sheltering rock, he looks out over the “great plain spotted with mesas and glittering with rain sheets” and thinks that the “first morning of Creation might have looked like this. …”

These are not, it hardly need be urged, the sentiments of one who holds himself stiffly aloof from the life of his place of work, and though they are perhaps not truly the sentiments of Bishop Lamy, they are a significant source of the enduring appeal of the novel Cather wrote. And, as if to seal her hero's surrender to the land, Cather devotes considerable space to his years of retirement when he lived and worshiped in his little residence in the Tesuque hills, surrounded by his fruit trees and with an amazing view of the blue Jemez Mountains to the west.

He might have retired to his beloved Auvergne and died there, Cather tells us, gathered to his fathers. Instead, he chose to stay on in what was still very much a rough frontier. The reason, Cather says, is that the land wouldn't let him go. Indeed, he had tried to go back, but “in the Old World he found himself homesick for the New. It was a feeling he could not explain; a feeling that old age did not weigh so heavily upon a man in New Mexico as in Puy-de-Dôme.” In New Mexico, Cather continues,

he always awoke a young man; not until he rose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one's body feel light and one's heart cry “To-day, to-day,” like a child's.

There may somewhere be a finer single description of the special feel and quality of this place, but to those fortunate enough to have experienced the thrilling promise of morning on the high plains of the Southwest, this will do.


New Mexico and eastern Arizona are plentifully dotted with sites associated with Death Comes for the Archbishop. Most are quite specific, though a few are only generally identifiable, like that verdant village, Aqua Secreta, the Bishop stumbles upon in the red hills below Albuquerque in the novel's opening scene. William Lumpkins, a New Mexico native, recalled driving cows along the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque more than half a century ago when there were a number of tiny settlements down that way. “That may be one,” he said, “that's just disappeared.” But if you wanted to experience the hot sensory deprivation that can come from an encounter with an unfamiliar stretch of semi-desert, you could on a summer's day get off on a side road around Socorro or Belen and wander a bit through the red dirt, junipers, and piñons.

There are a few narrow, twisting roads through the Sangre de Cristos, and these would give you a sense of the rainy ride the Bishop and Father Vaillant take toward the village of Mora. The region is still as lonely and sparsely populated as when Cather described it, and the fierce, hard-bitten mountain villages up there appear to the traveler the appropriate setting for the Penitentes whose practices the Bishop wisely lets alone.

At Pecos there are the ruins of the ancient pueblo where the Bishop and Jacinto spend an anxious night on a mission to rescue Father Vaillant, ill in a mountain village; and a bit farther north, up the canyon cut by the Pecos River, there is a cave at the tiny post office of Terrero that may well have given Cather the idea for the secret cavern that shelters Latour and Jacinto when they are caught in a blinding snowstorm.

And, of course, there is the Santa Fe area, seat and center of the Bishop's career. The cathedral gardens the Bishop so assiduously planned and cultivated are almost gone now, and in place of the pond he created by diverting a portion of the Santa Fe River there is nothing but a dry, wheel-rutted parking lot. Pointing out to me the original layout of the place, Brother Rick of St. Francis Cathedral said the bulldozing of the gardens had been a sort of temporal godsend. “They'd become a weed-patch,” he told me as we stood there in the bright morning, “and over against that wall was the hangout for the winos.” A small square of enclosed lawn is all that remains of the gardens. Within it Brother Rick showed me the remnant trees of old husbandry: almond, apricot, walnut, pear, apple, and a twisted old quince leaning wearily against a wall. In a corner of the lawn, shrouded by grasses and plants, are the stones of the old parroquia (parish church) that made way for the Bishop's Romanesque cathedral.

The back road north from Santa Fe is called the Bishop's Lodge Road and leads to his retirement residence in the Tesuque hills. Once, Cather writes, the Bishop was riding in that direction and followed a stream through the hills until he came out beneath a rocky ledge into a perfect little bowl, filled with warm sun and crowned with an apricot tree of “such size as he had never seen before. It had two trunks, each of them thicker than a man's body, and though evidently very old, it was full of fruit.” The site is now part of the Bishop's Lodge resort where the Thorpe family, which owns the resort, has carefully preserved the old tree though frost killed it several years ago. One afternoon there Mrs. Thorpe stood on the stone patio of the Bishop's little residence and chapel and said she sometimes liked to imagine what the view from this place must have been like before the resort's buildings blocked all but a beguiling blue glimpse of the Jemez Mountains forty miles to the west. You can't ignore the buildings, it's true. But if you were to follow the stream a bit eastward along its course through the boulders, scrub oak, junipers, and grand cottonwoods and then retrace your steps, you could easily imagine Cather's hero picking his meditative way along here, then being suddenly surprised by the sunny bowl and its great tree. Out in that same sun, surrounded by the blue air and the birds' songs, and with the Bishop's trees in leaf, you yourself might be pardoned for exclaiming aloud, “Today, today,” like a child.

One spring, I took the Bishop's long trip into Navajo country, described in the section called “The Great Diocese.” In terms of the novel's design and verisimilitude, Cather evidently wrote this chapter to give readers a vivid sense of the vastness of the Bishop's diocese and of the corresponding vastness of the administrative and spiritual challenges he faced as Vicar Apostolic. In writing it she drew on her formative encounter with the Southwest in the spring of 1912—more than reason enough for me to follow the trail of author and character out from the Bishop's cathedral to that stand of cottonwoods on the Little Colorado in Arizona where Father Latour spends several days as the guest of his Navajo friend, Eusabio.

E.K. Brown, one of Cather's more perceptive critics, points out that many of the novel's significant scenes occur near sunset, as if Cather too, like so many other travelers in the Southwest, found that hour's colors the distillation of all the region's visual treasures. So on a Sunday at sunset I stood under the Bishop's stern face as it caught the dust-yellowed light winnowing up San Francisco Street, and then in my car I swung out of town heading for La Bajada hill where Cather makes the Bishop find the stone for this cathedral. Spring had come late this year, preceded by day after day of high winds, snow squalls, raw weather, but once on the road beyond the city I could see the sure, small signs of the new season on the land: green shoots beneath the gray smother of winter, the shocking chartreuse of willows along the watercourses, runoff in the arroyos.

Albuquerque had delighted Cather, but the enthusiastic descriptions she wrote of it to friends seemed now to refer to some other place than the ugly sprawl with its toy metropolitan center mocked by the long thrust of the Sandia Mountains, and I was happy to clear the city to the west and point toward Navajo country. Here the road lifted into a long, gradual rise, and over its crest, the city dropped from view and memory both, the country suddenly got bigger: the land was spread into ever more generous folds, the vistas lengthened, and there was less and less of the human-made to suggest scale. Twenty miles west of Albuquerque you would have no suspicion that so large a city existed on the other side of a hill, and in this new amplitude I felt truly on my way, beginning to take a traveler's simple, direct pleasure in the swiftly lengthening shadows, the sharp geometry of the mesas that stood against an amethyst sky like the designs of Indian blankets. By full dark I was in Navajo country at Gallup, that place of terminal sorrow, and looking for a motel on the western edge of town I caught in my headlamps the inevitable, twisted forms of Indian drunks outside the Crazy Horse Bar.

The next morning was one of those classic New Mexican mornings: a bladelike cleanness to everything and a hundred miles of windless blue in any direction you looked. Rolling toward Winslow my thoughts were all of Cather, of her seeing this for the first time. Crossing the Little Colorado just east of Winslow, my eye briefly followed its braid of tamarack, Russian willow, and cottonwoods, wondering how far up that stream Cather had gone to where she'd encountered that memorable cottonwood grove within which she places the Bishop in the hogan.

Winslow itself was still what it was in Cather's time, a railroad town, and the Santa Fe line's division headquarters were still the handsomest buildings around. In their airy offices I cajoled the superintendent's assistant into looking through what are called, without the slightest irony, the company's “skeleton records” for anything on Douglass Cather. The assistant was skeptical, a whey-faced, slump-shouldered young man with scant use for history or literature, especially such arcane reaches of them as my errand evidently involved. He obliged me, but I felt as I watched his quick rifflings through the brittle brown cards that he wasn't going to be extravagantly thorough. Maybe he surprised us both by turning up the skeletal remains of Douglass Cather, discharged, so the file said, for having overstayed a leave of absence. But there was no address on the card nor any other information, and subsequent searches at the library and town hall failed to reveal records that might have told me where Douglass had been living when his sister came out for that visit in 1912. In any case, for me as for Cather the real lure lay north of town on the reservation.

In the main office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Leupp Boarding School, a broad-backed Navajo woman mumbled aloud the alien words of a memo she was typing, and waiting to speak with the principal, I had the leisure to read over her shoulder the faculty names of the Chart of Academic Locations: Bedoni, Yazzie, Cody, Begay, Tsinijinnie, Nrbitsi, Redhair, Becenti, Wilson. … Next to it on the wall was a carefully lettered sign on apple-green construction paper that read: “Whether we are educators or students the success of our educational efforts depend [sic] on our belief in our own excellence and our willingness to transform our beliefs into action.”

The principal, an Anglo man in his thirties, had, like Cather before him, been captivated by this land and its native people. Influenced by the spirit of social uplift of the American Sixties, he had come out here to “share the dream of a bilingual, bicultural education,” as he put it to me while we ate lunch with the students in the school cafeteria. But he had not, he said, been prepared for the visual and spiritual lure of this place. The land had seduced him, he said, taken him in, but even more than this, he had come to feel the spirit of the place, expressed in the various aspects of native religious practices, including those of the Native American Church, which is a force among reservation Navajos. Even the shape and traditional ceiling pattern of the hogan had finally spoken to him, had taken him into a sort of large and impersonal embrace in which he felt his personal problems subsumed, as indeed Cather's Bishop comes to feel when he brings his burdens to Navajo country and feels them drop away in the presence of the people, their herds, their great, silent place. “I was troubled when I came out here,” the young man was telling me, “I see no reason now to deny that. But when I finally began living in a hogan seventeen miles from school, things began to come around. I'd get out there [to the hogan] and lie on my back and look at that peaceful spiral of ceiling logs, and I'd think, ‘Well, everything's really all right. Everything's the way it's supposed to be.’ Now I'm building a hogan for my family.”

He had kindly arranged a tour for me of that portion of the reservation likely to have been visited by Cather in 1912, and I arose early that morning feeling like a hunter bright for his prey. The TV was predicting sharply soaring temperatures—upper 90s in the valleys—and it seemed as if summer might come to these high plains without benefit of spring. But it wasn't so. Opening the door I found the morning mild and bright with that light, dry quality to its wind that made the old Bishop feel a young man again.

My guide for the day was Mal, a weather-winkled man in his late fifties with alert eyes and hair bright as bird feathers. A native of the Pacific Northwest, he'd eventually tired of the eternal weep of those skies and had moved south to work on the reservation. Mal had graduated from high school, but in the Korean War he had time on his hands and discovered that he really couldn't read. He taught himself, laboring, Conradlike, through a few pages of literature each day, gradually becoming not only a proficient reader but a voracious one, devouring all of Steinbeck (“my favorite”) and Theodore White (“completely changed our views of politics”) as well as a great miscellaneous lot of history and fiction. No Cather here, but he was sympathetic to my desire to trace her probable movements and in particular to find that grove of cottonwoods along the river. He thought he knew the spot. But first, inter alia, he wanted to give me a rolling tour of this corner of the reservation; he knew much of its recent history and thought I'd find it absorbing.

Indeed I did, though perhaps not quite in the way my guide had intended, beginning with the moment when we jounced in Mal's pickup into a wash on the west bank of the Little Colorado and arrived at the desolate site of a World War II Japanese internment camp. Mal was eager to show me this exotic bit of the local past, point out the tatterdemalion cemetery from which over the years almost all the bodies had been removed by relatives. Those left behind without kin to care had no markers to their unmerited misery. He was eager, too, to show me the outlines of their clever ditching and diking system whereby they'd diverted the river into their rice paddies. And still, he told me, in the local monsoon season (a Southwestern joke for the infrequent, tempestuous cloudbursts of July and August) the green shoots would come up here and there, as though they would be the slender markers of what many would just as soon forget.

When I was moved by the desolation, the melancholy aspect of this place—the two of us standing in the wind that thrashed the cemetery's rubbish—to observe that such a place was a blot on our history and a betrayal of our most cherished national ideals, Mal shrugged. He'd seen “gooks” in Korea, and his shrug and his eyes said he'd seen a lot more besides. Well, he came back, “War makes people do funny things. I guess they [the Americans] felt the threat.” He, too, seemed suddenly saddened, but not by the significance of the place. It had been five years since he'd been down here, “and just look at it! They [the Navajo] don't care. They come down here to get stone from the old buildings to use at home. Seems to me they ought to have the decency to leave it like it was.”

Whether this was a preservationist's sentiment or a comment on the Navajo—or both—was unclear, but an oblique amplification came a bit later. We were headed now for the stretch of the Little Colorado Mal felt confident must be the place Cather had in mind for her character's stay among the Navajo. “I was a real liberal years ago,” Mal was saying, “but boy, am I ever a radical conservative now! They say it's age does that to you, and maybe it is. But [down-shifting here with a small grunt to meet a rocky hump] I'll tell you what: when I got down here and saw what that give-away program was doing to these people—that's when I changed my thinking.

“We've ruined these people we've made them so dependent. Why, do you know, they're so dependent on us they'll actually come into the school office and ask us to make their phone calls for 'em! They're really just like children. You have kids: how long did it take them to learn to make their own calls? My solution? Turn 'em loose. Make 'em Americans.”

On our way down to the river we had to skirt several Navajo ranches, each with its hogan, a few animals, the inevitable pickup, and, occasionally, a couple of teenagers, the boys in ball caps. Here and there as if hurled from a great height were red outcrops of sandstone, some as fantastic and twisted as constructions poured by a seaside child. Under the red rocks at noon the shadows were as blue as air. In previous days as a school administrator, Mal used to come this way looking for runaways. On this corner of the reservation it was the logical place to look since just below on the river there were two good swimming holes. “We'd just go down there and wait,” he said with twinkling eye, “and if they weren't there then, they would be sometime. Now they don't even bother to go swimming.”

We arrived at the river and the cottonwood grove. “There aren't too many stands like this along the river hereabouts,” Mal said, “so I'd have to guess this is the one she was thinking of. Read me that passage again.” And I did so while we sat in the truck, reading how Father Latour and his guide, Jacinto, come down here to visit Eusabio who lived with his “relatives and dependents, in a group of hogans on the Colorado Chiquito; to the west and south and north his kinsmen herded his great flocks.” Eusabio gives his guest a solitary hogan sitting apart from the group, and there the Bishop spends several meditative days. Above the hogan, Cather writes, towered the cottonwoods, “trees of great antiquity and size—so large that they seemed to belong to a by-gone age.” The trees “rose out of the ground at a slant, and forty or fifty feet above the earth all these white, dry trunks changed their direction, grew back over their base line. Some split into great forks which arched almost to the ground; some did not fork at all, but the main trunk dipped downward in a strong curve, as if drawn by a bow-string. … The grove looked like a winter wood of giant trees, with clusters of mistletoe growing among the bare boughs.”

As a girl living on the treeless prairie outside Red Cloud, Cather would anxiously scan the distance when the family made periodic trips into town for supplies, searching for the first dark spires that were the Lombardy poplars planted as windbreaks and the cottonwoods that grew along the Republican. Here again in another treeless expanse she met the cottonwoods, and surely they must have spoken to her of the other place where she had dreamed of the Southwest and bright-armored Coronado.

The passage finished, we walked out into the warm sun and toward the grove, Mal warning me to watch for rattlers. Here had been the site of the first school on the reservation, and its remnant walls still poked up stubbornly here and there amid a slowly dissolving litter of cookstoves, wheel hubs, shattered glass. In summer in such a grove the leaves would make a fine, constant clatter in the wind that sweeps unimpeded over the plains to the west, but now there was silence under boughs that showed only the sprouts of spring. Mal told me he and his girlfriend, Jan, often came down here on summer afternoons to sit in the shade of the big, old trees and listen to them. “There's a peace here,” he said at last with what I found a surprising softness. And I thought again of Cather, escaping the gritty little town down-river, and of her Bishop, too, both finding here a somber sort of peace, “favorable for reflection, for recalling the past and planning the future.” Here the Bishop writes long letters to old friends in France, sitting in his hogan that was “isolated like a ship's cabin on the ocean, with the murmuring of the great winds about it” and the air without “the turbid yellow light of sandstorms.” This house, Cather writes, “was so frail a shelter that one seemed to be sitting in the heart of a world made of dusty earth and moving air.”

Cather based her narrative of the Bishop's long trip on a similar one Bishop Lamy had made in fall 1863 and has her hero come down to the Navajo country from the north, through the Hopi village of Oraibi. She doesn't say how he goes back to Santa Fe, but I assumed he retraces his route, and so in an early afternoon I climbed the newly paved Oraibi road that follows the ancient trail northward. Looking back from the crest, I could see what the travel-stained Bishop might have: the river, the faraway mountains, the table-flat plain. I had had my own brief encounter below with the land, the reservation, with Cather, too, and her Bishop who at moments had seemed as palpable as the people I'd met. Looking at the greening twist of the river through the dry land I saw again Cather's small, stout figure, her close-cropped hair, bonnet snugged hard against the blowing sand, driving on out of sound of Winslow's freight whistles and iron wheels to some rendezvous with the land and her own long imaginings of it.

Halfway to Oraibi I saw to the west a deserted hogan sitting off by itself and on impulse turned toward it. Unlike the one loaned the Bishop, this one wasn't in use. It had been abandoned by death or dislocation or some other cause I would never know, but its door was open, and I entered it thinking of both the Bishop and the young school principal finding a day's-end peace in regarding the slow swirl of ceiling poles about the skylight. The floor here was not earth but concrete, and there was half a child's bike along a wall, its frame a rusted canary yellow. Wasps hung about the skylight, their long, delicate legs dangling like parachute lines. Plainly, this hogan's service was over, and it was going on into another stage.

The concrete was cool beneath me as I lay gazing into that octagon of blue. Barred light fell in slats across my legs through the spaces in the roof poles. The wasps stayed up high, drifting against the peeling gray of the wood, then silhouetted against the open air.

What had gone on in here, what confused or purposeful efforts to stand fast against threatening changes, what tides of blood, memory had been contained by the slumping walls about me now, this little fortress in the midst of a world grown strange? And above it then as now was the incongruous sameness of a sky that looked on the old and new with a tolerant indifference. …

When I awakened, the blue octagon had grown paler, the barred light no longer fell across my legs but lay curled for evening at the eastward door, and arising, I saw the shadows arrowing away, the afternoon fled.

At Oraibi I gave a ride to a Laguna Pueblo man married to a Hopi woman and living out here now. This, he said, as we passed the miles in conversation about the weather, had been a dry spring. “I don't know what we're going to do this summer. I've got my garden in, but it if doesn't rain some more this spring, well. …” He said he'd dug a six-foot hole “for my trash, you know. And it was just dry all the way down.” He shook his head as I let him out at his small cinderblock house hard by the road.

Eastward toward Window Rock there were junipers with trunks as thick as a man's waist; they appeared as files against a sea of sage that in the lengthening light was literally stunning as I whipped through mile after mile of it. There were a number of new hogans under construction, suggesting that hereabouts, at least, there might be a revival of traditional concerns. In the sunset I saw a ballgame on a diamond without grass, bases, or backstop, the lithe, high-shouldered figures of the players etched against the rough red dirt. At roadside, a young woman twirled a bright silk sash waiting to cross. Up ahead, a clubfooted boy waved down a car and caught a ride. Two small boys herded sheep in the waist-high sage, the sun coming now in a last blinding slant over the tops of the bushes and through the dust slowly rising from beneath the oily hooves of the flock. The boys trailed after the sheep, whacking occasionally at the sage with switches. Just outside Window Rock I was reminded of the prints in the offices of the Santa Fe at Winslow when I saw a Navajo woman in the traditional wide, full skirt, astride her horse and surrounded by her sheep.

Fast-food hamburgers and a six-pack kept me company from Gallup on the night ride to Santa Fe, and topping the long hill west of Albuquerque, I was given the illusion of a city simply jewelled in night and a thousand incandescences. Seeing it so, I was ready to believe it might have been Marseilles or Nice.

Back in Santa Fe and down again at the cathedral, I parked on a side street, and then, undetected, climbed the solid statue of the Bishop to pass my hand, wonderingly, over those features that had said so much to a writer more than half a century ago. Past midnight on a weekday there were but a few rumbling riders still abroad in the streets, and as I climbed down from the pedestal the lights of one of them played across me. And maybe I, too, for that instant excited a sort of wonder.


  1. Father Angelico Chavez, historian of St. Francis Cathedral and author of My Penitente Land, told me he'd always heard that Cather was staying with Austin at one point and that when the latter went on vacation, Cather stayed on at her house and appropriated for her novel some notes Austin had been gathering on Bishop Lamy.

  2. It may be that Lamy has been posthumously paid back for such attitudes. Though his statue guards his cathedral, the diocese does not make a cult figure of him, and his tomb within the cathedral is no more prominent than those of his successors. Recently the church gave its approval to the destruction of the remains of the large formal gardens the Bishop brought into being behind the cathedral, and his episcopal residence has been torn down.

Ann W. Fisher-Wirth (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6954

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 novel grows in particular from Cather's four other finest works, with which it forms a sequence: My Ántonia (1918), A Lost Lady (1923), The Professor's House (1925), and My Mortal Enemy (1926) (omitting One of Ours, published in 1922). Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) is both a culmination and a reversal of these earlier novels.

On December 27, 1922, Willa Cather and her parents were confirmed in the Episcopal Church by Dr. George Beecher, Bishop of Nebraska. This was partly a social gesture on Cather's part; Episcopalianism was newly established and very fashionable in Nebraska. But partly, too, it was a reflection both of Cather's increasing conservatism—her increasing desire to fill her life with tradition and ritual—and of her intensifying spiritual longing for a haven, a sanctuary, something to set against what she was coming to see as the tragedy of human experience: the cruelty, anguish, and bleakness of life and love in the world.4

Cather's writing always betrayed a keen sense of loss. At the center of her fiction—particularly in the works I am concerned with here—is the story of the Garden and the Fall. The lives of most of the major characters enact a recurrent tragic pattern, a pattern of dispossession, exile, and longing. For Jim Burden, Niel Herbert, Marian Forrester, Godfrey St. Peter, Tom Outland, and Myra Henshawe, adulthood is a time of failure, disappointment, dejection, sexual guilt, or sexual sterility; their lives seem summarized either by Robert Frost's line “Nothing gold can stay” or by Emily Dickinson's “A loss of something ever felt I.” Part of this pattern involves the characters' search for the moment or act that constitutes their origins: either a timeless moment of wholeness, an Edenic moment shortly preceding exile, or a moment which, viewed retrospectively, plunges the character into time and guilt and itself marks the beginning of the Fall. Then, in Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather echoes and reverses every single one of these moments of origins. To recognize this is to see how fervently Cather wants to affirm the possibility of redemption. “Man was lost and saved in a garden,” the Bishop thinks near the end of his life, quoting his “fellow Auvergnat, Pascal” (267).

Jim Burden's life powerfully enacts the story of dispossession. He comes to Nebraska at age ten and on his first morning there has an experience of bliss and plenitude as he sits with his back against a pumpkin in his grandmother's garden. “Nothing happened,” he remarks. “I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more” (Ántonia 18). But the rest of the novel records his inexorable movement away from that moment. He leaves the garden at the outer edge of the settled prairie for Black Hawk, Black Hawk for Lincoln, Lincoln for New York. He passes from childhood to the repressions and confusions of adolescence, to the sterility of adulthood; as the novel's Introduction tells us, he ends up unhappily married, childless, a lawyer for one of the great railroad companies that so avidly develop—that is to say, obliterate5—the open prairies. During the course of the novel, he has what seem at first to be two additional Edenic moments, but one—with the hired girls down by the river, just before he leaves Black Hawk for Lincoln—is marred by thoughts and talk of death, loss, and sexual confusion; and the other—with Ántonia and her children in the orchard—is marred by the knowledge that the garden he stands in, rich with apples in its triple enclosure, is not his home but hers. Homeless, he travels restlessly from West to East and East to West, and makes a home at last only in art that immortalizes “the precious, the incommunicable past” (372), recording the story of the woman who has never been “my Ántonia.”

A Lost Lady, Cather's great study of carnal guilt and carnal beauty, begins with a literal fall. Ivy Peters, the novel's psychopath, has blinded a female woodpecker. Trying to catch it to put it out of its misery, twelve-year-old Niel Herbert falls from a tree, breaks his arm, and is rescued by the enchanting Marian Forrester, a mother/Muse figure with whom he soon falls more or less in love. The rest of the novel, seen through Niel's eyes, chronicles Mrs. Forrester's fall through a series of men: from her husband Captain Forrester, a man of godlike calm, a man like a tree or a mountain; to her first lover, the virile, wolflike Frank Ellinger; to her second lover, the loathsome, reptilian Ivy Peters. It chronicles as well her husband's fall from nearly mythical vision and power as one of the early pioneer founders of the Burlington railroad, to physical incapacity, near poverty, and death; and the fall of the morning world, the rose-filled marshes and open prairies, along with the rise of men like Ivy Peters. Then, in a movement that is echoed and reversed at the end of Death Comes for the Archbishop, the narrative moves back in its final pages to search out the moment of origins in an even earlier literal fall. Marian Forrester invites a group of town boys to dinner in an effort to teach them social graces and after dinner tells them of the time long ago when she first met Captain Forrester. Hers is a story of woundedness, of pain and need that issue in human love. A beautiful young woman, already marked by sexual scandal, she fell in that long-ago time from a cliff in California and landed in a tree with both legs broken. Captain Forrester found her, carried her to safety, cherished her, wed her, took her home to his gardens in Sweet Water. And there she began her long, slow fall again.

Desolation pervades The Professor's House, a novel that describes not only the loss of paradise but also, and more terribly, the loss of desire itself, of what Cather calls the ability to conjugate the verb “to love” (264). Godfrey St. Peter, a middle-aged professor at a midwestern university who is feeling the bleakness attendant upon completing his life's work—a vast history of the Spanish explorers—and whose own family relations are increasingly fraught with jealousy, fatigue, and tension, turns in a season of spiritual destitution to thoughts of the most gifted student he ever had, a young man named Tom Outland. Long before, Tom had appeared out of a mysterious past in the South-west, had entered the professor's garden one day bearing priceless Indian artifacts and a pocketful of turquoises, clear and blue as the desert skies. He had become the Professor's student, had become engaged to the Professor's beautiful daughter Rosamond, had invented a gas that promised to revolutionize aviation, and—in a semisuicidal gesture, before he could marry the daughter or develop the invention—had gone off to die in the First World War. Now, years later, the Professor reads Tom's diary, and in the inset “Tom Outland's Story” we learn that Tom's despair was the result of his discovery of Blue Mesa. For just a moment, this abandoned and untouched Indian settlement slept above him in the crystalline air, in the “calmness of eternity” (201); once he told his secret, however, he set in motion the chain of events that brought about the depredation of the city and his own fall into sorrow. Musing upon Tom Outland's life, Godfrey St. Peter concludes that for him, too, the truth is that “he was solitary and must always be so” (265). There is the moment on the mountain, and the endless fall. Tom dies young; the Professor survives his own near-suicide to gaze without hope or delight at a darkening future.

Though these three novels describe a Fall or a series of Falls, there is also in each one an alternate vision: a powerfully presented natural mode of being, or—rare in Cather's fiction—a note of felix culpa. Jim Burden, of course, shares his novel with Ántonia. Fecund, spontaneous, nurturing, not so much sexual as maternal, she is Cather's greatest exemplar of natural being. Jim's is the story of a Garden and a Fall, but Ántonia's is the story of an abiding Garden. Known only through Jim's narrative, she yet surpasses and eludes it, for her mysteries are not Edenic but Eleusinian. In A Lost Lady, Cather presents not an alternate mode of being but rather a final reversal of feeling. Niel, who has judged Marian Forrester harshly and withdrawn his allegiance from her when he discovers her affair with Ivy Peters, comes in this most emotionally mature of Cather's novels to realize at last that the beauty Marian Forrester represents is inseparable from carnality, from the body. Cather comes close to forgiving, even affirming, sexuality in this novel. Having lost her, Niel learns to value Marian Forrester: “When he was dull, dull and tired of everything, he used to think that if he could hear that long-lost lady laugh again, he could be gay” (71). And finally, even in The Professor's House there occurs a note of felix culpa in the person of Louie Marsellus, the worldly and rather showy Jew who marries Rosamond St. Peter, gains access to Tom Outland's invention, and develops it into a fortune. He begins as the novel's antihero but comes to suggest a heroism counter to Tom's and possible in the postlapsarian world, based as it is not on purity and solitude but on emotional generosity and sexual love—what Louie himself calls the “fantastic unreasonableness” of passion (170). His love, not Tom's, makes Rosamond, the “rose of the world,” bear fruit; by the end of the novel she is pregnant, but—so deep is the book's despondency, its stoical acceptance of life without delight—the knowledge of new life affects St. Peter not at all.

My Ántonia, A Lost Lady, and The Professor's House, then, offer counterthemes, however muted, to the theme of dispossession; My Mortal Enemy does not. This novel bears, I think, the most direct relation to Death Comes for the Archbishop: I believe that through her identification with Myra Henshawe, Cather burns herself out.6 This underrated novel, with its exquisite presentation of sexual passion, is the cry of a soul in torment. It is also Cather's most courageous—or most desperate—attempt to affirm life as intensity, as freedom, defiance, and drama. Greatly in love, the young heiress Myra Driscoll defies her uncle, elopes with Oswald Henshawe, and is disowned; one moment of origins in My Mortal Enemy is that legendary moment when, as narrator Nellie Birdseye comments, “Love went out of the gates and gave the dare of Fate” (17).

Another moment of origins, easily overlooked the first time through, occurs during the funeral of Myra's uncle, John Driscoll. The description of the funeral is important, for in this passage we see an expression of the desire to cheat death of its victory, a desire which within a year issued in Death Comes for the Archbishop. “I myself could remember his funeral,” Nellie Birdseye says, “though I was not more than six years old when it happened.” Driscoll's financial support of the church is amply repaid, on his death, by the opulence of the occasion: the high altar blazes with candles; the choir is filled with masses of flowers; and Mass is celebrated by the bishop and “a flock of priests in gorgeous vestments.” Then, in a splendid gesture of enclosure, “when the pall-bearers arrived, Driscoll did not come to the church; the church went to him. The bishop and clergy went down the nave and met that great black coffin at the door, preceded by the cross and boys swinging cloudy censers, followed by the choir chanting to the organ. They surrounded, they received, they seemed to assimilate into the body of the church the body of old John Driscoll. They bore it up to the high altar on a river of colour and incense and organ-tone; they claimed it and enclosed it.” Indeed, as Nellie says, it seemed as if John Driscoll had “escaped the end of all flesh; it was as if he had been translated, with no dark conclusion to the pageant, no ‘night of the grave’ about which our Protestant preachers talked. From the freshness of roses and lilies, from the glory of the high altar, he had gone straight to the greater glory, through smoking censers and candles and stars” (Mortal Enemy 18-19).

Myra's life is marred by poverty and jealousy; giving all for love brings her bitter disappointment. In a final splendid gesture, she dies alone at dawn, a runaway once again, on a wild head-land overlooking the Pacific Ocean.7 The pain that brings her to this point is nearly overwhelming. Nor, since its cause is ineffable, can it really be articulated. Myra herself says, “I should have stayed with my uncle. It was money I needed. We've thrown our lives away” (75)—but she would have been no happier had she sacrificed love to stay with old John Driscoll; her account of her own life seems insufficient. Nellie Birdseye comes closer when, remembering Myra listening to the “Casta diva” aria from Norma, she thinks of that “hidden richness in her,” that “compelling, passionate, overmastering something for which I had no name” (48).

Myra dies alone with “my mortal enemy” (95). Such, Cather seems to say, are the wages of passion, for Myra's mortal enemy seems to be both her husband—who loves her devotedly—and her own desirous spirit and body.8 Myra has gone forth, away from home, church, and father; consumed by “two fatal maladies” (74), she is at liberty to suffer and to die. John Driscoll, in contrast, creates a haven for himself. Headstrong and ruthless like Myra, he nevertheless stakes his fortune on forms of safety and closure, and Cather comes perilously close, in the passages I have quoted, to suggesting that with sufficient belief and sufficient fortune donated to the church, John Driscoll can escape death. Myra is Cather's heroine—but the cost is too great, the discoveries too painful. Out of Myra Henshawe's defeat Cather creates Jean Marie Latour; out of the agony of My Mortal Enemy she creates the luminous calm of Death Comes for the Archbishop.

The heart of this book, then, is Cather's meditation on Last Things. What is the way to live, since one must die? What is the way to avoid Myra Henshawe's torment? In her essay “On Death Comes for the Archbishop,” Cather comments that its title came from Holbein's Dance of Death.9 The reference is revealing, for in this series of woodcuts upon the medieval theme, the Bishop alone goes to his death with serenity, humbly following Death across a landscape which, in its simplifications, resembles the landscape of Cather's novel. There is his flock, frightened and scattered; he has been a faithful pastor. There are the church on the hill and the setting sun, which accrue rich symbolic value for Cather. And across this landscape, as much at one with his death as the setting sun, moves the dignified, patient Bishop.

Jean Marie Latour dies with similar poise. At the end of a long, rewarding life he dies peacefully “of having lived” (Archbishop 269), surrounded by friends, in the shadow of the artifact which will enclose him and immortalize him, his Cathedral. As he lies dying, his thoughts circle back to his life's moment of origins. As in A Lost Lady, the narrative of this moment has been delayed; but whereas there we learn of a Fall, here we learn of a Fulfillment. The moment comes to Cather from her primary source, William Joseph Howlett's life of the “pioneer priest” Joseph P. Machebeuf (who is represented in the novel by Father Vaillant). Howlett mentions the moment only in passing; but Cather, by placing it in the dying Archbishop's memory, by allowing her whole novel to build toward it, underscores its importance. Latour remembers the morning he and Joseph Vaillant ran away from their families and village to sign up as missionaries to the New World; as he remembers Vaillant's anguish, he drifts out of his dying body to enter that long-ago moment: “In reality the Bishop was not there at all; he was standing in a tip-tilted green field among his native mountains, and he was trying to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eyes by the desire to go and the necessity to stay. He was trying to forge a new Will in that devout and exhausted priest; and the time was short, for the diligence for Paris was already rumbling down the mountain gorge” (299).

As in My Mortal Enemy, Love goes out the gates and gives the dare to Fate. Here, however, the bid is for sacrifice, celibacy, discipline, redemption; in this moment the priests are born into their missionary endeavor and die to the fallen world. Leaving their homes, they journey to a terrifying landscape, a hell of “countless canyons and arroyos, fissures in the earth which are sometimes ten feet deep, sometimes a thousand” (7). But though their earthly journey seems to be an exile, faith enables them to dwell in the realm of origins. This is the significance, for instance, of the cruciform tree before which the Bishop worships at the beginning of the novel. Lost in the desert, nearly dead of thirst, concerned for his mission, Latour comes across this tree that sanctifies the landscape. He commends himself to Christ and then, as if by miracle, stumbles upon a tiny settlement called Agua Secreta, a garden by the side of living waters.

Thereafter, with few exceptions, the Bishop moves at east upon the earth, creating the shapes of redemption out of this vast inimical wilderness: a diocese, a cathedral, a garden. He acts but does not change; his experience in time attests not to exile and loss but to centeredness and possession. Even his parting from Vaillant causes him only a few moments of loneliness; briefly he indulges in human reflections, “such reflections as any bachelor nearing fifty might have” (255). But as soon as he turns away to the solitude of his own room, he seems, in Cather's words, “to come back to reality, to the sense of a Presence awaiting him.” His solitude becomes a “perpetual flowering,” for his human needs are met by “Her who was all the graces; Virgin-daughter, Virgin-mother, girl of the people and Queen of Heaven: le rêve suprême de la chair” (256).

“The supreme dream of the flesh …” Death Comes for the Archbishop has been called regressive and escapist; some critics feel it marks Cather's abdication from human conflict and desire and her cultivation of fantasies of safety.10 Others praise its luminous prose, its deep response to history, its characters and landscape, and call it Cather's greatest work.11 My own response is mixed. It is a radiant book, less a novel than an act of prayer, an act of centering and composing the self, a ceaseless meditation.12 Its desire seems the same as the desire of traditional Ignatian meditation, as Louis Martz describes it in The Poetry of Meditation: to awaken and direct emotion for purposes of devotion (36ff.). Its structure also loosely resembles the structure of Ignatian meditation, in which the debotee passes from a composition of place to an analysis of the significance of the scene composed, and thence to colloquy, in which the aroused and perfected will expresses its devotion. The episode of the cruciform tree, for instance, constitutes Cather's—and Latour's—composition of place, the creation of a setting appropriate for meditation, a setting that enables the devotee to focus his thoughts upon one aspect of doctrinal truth about the nature of God, the nature of man, and their interrelationship. Nearly dead of thirst, Latour turns his attention from his own anguish to remind himself “of that cry, wrung from his Saviour on the Cross, ‘J'ai soif!’ … Empowered by long training, the young priest blotted himself out of his own consciousness and meditated upon the anguish of his Lord. The Passion of Jesus became for him the only reality; the need of his own body was but a part of that conception” (Archbishop 20).

Latour's meditation here reaches its own state of colloquy; it also composes the scene for the book's long meditation. The miraculous sign of the cruciform tree and the subsequent discovery of Agua Secreta set the seal upon Latour's further actions; the moment reveals the landscape as redeemed once and for all, and the book spells out the ramifications of this truth. Finally, near the end of his life, Latour enters a state again resembling Ignatian colloquy, a free outpouring of devotion—although in this case, the entity with which he communes seems to be his own inviolable and sacrosanct self rather than a God conceived of as Other and therefore longed for. Thus, colloquy here is not impassioned but serene: “He was soon to have done with calendared time,” Cather writes. “He sat in the middle of his own consciousness; none of his former states of mind were lost or outgrown. They were all within reach of his hand, and all comprehensible” (290).

Cather describes Death Comes for the Archbishop as “in the style of legend,” inspired by the frescoes of the life of Saint Geneviève painted by Puvis de Chavannes. She describes it also in terms of hagiography: “In the Golden Legend the martyrdoms of the saints are no more dwelt upon than are the trivial incidents of their lives; it is as though all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual experience, were of about the same importance.”13 One of the book's beauties is the way in which, lovingly and calmly, Cather depicts the world sub specie aeternitatis. Soup, bells, mules, the birth and death of civilizations—all have their place in the order.

However, particularly when one compares the Bishop with the Indians, whose presence becomes increasingly important in the book, it is difficult at times to tell whether Latour represents the bliss of self-surrender in devotion or the opposite bliss of fantasies of the omnipotent self. As he nears death, for instance, Cather writes, “More and more life seemed to him an experience of the Ego, in no sense the Ego itself” (289-90).14 In a way this resembles the mystic's “cosmic consciousness,” as Karl Shapiro describes it: like the mystic, the Bishop enters a “state of moral exaltation [and] enhanced intellectual power,” experiencing “elevation, elation, and joyousness, and a conviction of immortality” (31-2). But the Bishop's state of mind differs importantly from the mystic's in that his bliss derives not from “a sense of identification with the universe” but rather from a sense of the absolute indestructibility of the self. Paradoxically, then, the Bishop seems to aggrandize precisely the state of consciousness opposed to cosmic consciousness: the “consciousness of oneself as distinct from all other objects and beings in the universe” (Shapiro 31).

It is, of course, difficult to distinguish the serenity of connection to the universe from the serenity of fantasies of omnipotence—and it is true that near the end of his life Latour feels deep accord with the Spanish martyrs whose way prepared his own, with the Navajos, with the clear blue desert air that “whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning” (276). Nevertheless, Latour's presence is very different from that of the Indians, who “pass through a country without disturbing anything … pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or birds through the air” (233); the Zuñi runners he sees one day, for instance, vanish unforgettably, “their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried flight” (235). Theirs is the true cosmic consciousness, the knowledge of union with all that is. Latour's is the tower of the self; he dies (like old John Driscoll) with “no night of the grave,” translated immediately into his artifact, his immortality, his Cathedral.

Closely allied with this focus on the ego and its preservation is Cather's rejection, through and for Latour, of a sense of darkness. Sunlight irradiates the book—the clear high skies, the “blue and gold” of morning (276). As Susan Rosowski points out, Death Comes for the Archbishop is founded on a pattern of belief anything outside of which threatens the believer; at least twice Latour is shaken by his encounter with “materials that predate form and … a people who exist outside Calvary's sacrifice” (Voyage Perilous 173). At Ácoma, for instance, he preaches to Indians who seem to represent “types of life so old, so hardened, so shut within their shells, that the sacrifice on Calvary could hardly reach back so far.” When he blesses them and sends them on their way, he feels only “inadequacy and spiritual defeat” (Archbishop 100). But though Cather mentions this despair, the book cannot really accommodate a sense of shadows. Nor can it accommodate a sense of the body, the secret, sexual body; in Death Comes for the Archbishop—in marked contrast to some of the earlier novels—the body is the one thing Cather, through her Bishop, seems to want most to deny.15

Once again as he moves about the land the Bishop loses his composure. Caught in a sudden snowstorm, he is led by his Indian guide Jacinto to a secret cave high in the side of a mountain, the entrance to which suggests “two great stone lips, slightly parted and thrust outward.” Cold and dank, the cave is filled with “a fetid odour, not very strong but highly disagreeable” (127). It is a mighty place, an Indian place of worship. It gives onto a yet more secret cave, very small, and inhabited (it is rumored) by an enormous serpent. Beneath it rushes a “great underground river … a flood moving in utter blackness under ribs of antediluvian rock … a great flood moving with majesty and power” (130). The river hums and roars like the blood in the body, or like Being itself; the serpent sleeps; the cave abides—and the Bishop responds to this landscape with revulsion. “It flashed into his mind from time to time,” Cather writes of this occasion, “and always with a shudder of repugnance quite unjustified by anything he had experienced there. … the cave, which had probably saved his life, he remembered with horror” (133).16

Cather's Mariolatry and her treatment of female characters in Death Comes for the Archbishop suggest that she shares the horror. Like millions of Christian believers, she finds in Mary the image of female divinity. In the story of the broken old bondwoman Sada—a story she liked so well that she had it reprinted separately for Christmas—Cather writes movingly of Mary as mother and intercessor, and seems to allude to her own pain too when she comments that “only a Woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer” (217). But Cather's aggrandizement of the humble, cringing Sada as the type of “pure goodness” (212) suggests that Mary, in this book, is the dream of a flesh that would eschew itself. The impression is strengthened by Cather's presentation of the story's other two female characters. The first is Magdalena, a Mexican girl who marries a “degenerate murderer” named Buck Scales (77); who nearly dies under the yoke of a marriage in which as soon as her babies are born, they are killed in ways too horrible for her to relate; but who regains youth, beauty, and wit once she escapes her husband and goes to live in the convent. The second is Doña Isabella Olivares, the woman the Bishop calls upon to “make a little poesie in life for us here” (192). She is indeed charming and sexually alluring, but she comes to seem pathetic when, in an incident Cather presents as amusing, she would rather forfeit her dead husband's estate than tell the truth about her age. Terrified of time, age, and death, she attests to the perils of basing one's female identity upon one's sexuality. Far better, in terms of this novel, to emulate the Virgin Mary, woman without the darkness or the odor, woman without desire, need, or stain.

Just at the end of the book, Cather tells an inset story of the Navajos, the loss and restoration of their Canyon de Chelly. Her handling of this narrative reveals both the great beauty of her vision in Death Comes for the Archbishop and the dangers of that vision. As the Bishop lies dying, he thinks not only of his own moment of origins, that moment when he and Vaillant stood on the mountain road and accepted “l'invitation du voyage” (285), but also of the restoration of the Canyon de Chelly to the Navajos. For a time, American policy was to drive the Navajos from their own ancestral lands to the “Bosque Redondo, three hundred miles away on the Pecos River. Hundreds of them, men, women, and children, perished from hunger and cold on the way; their sheep and horses died from exhaustion crossing the mountains. None ever went willingly; they were driven by starvation and the bayonet; captured in isolated bands, and brutally deported” (293). Their lands too were laid waste; Kit Carson (elsewhere one of this book's heroes) followed “the last unconquered remnant” into the Canyon de Chelly, “spoiled their stores, destroyed their deep-sheltered corn-fields, cut down the terraced peach orchards so dear to them. When they saw all that was sacred to them laid waste, the Navajos lost heart. They did not surrender; they simply ceased to fight, and were taken” (293). But then, as if by miracle, the American government admitted its mistake, and after five years of exile the Navajos were allowed to return.

On first reading, it seems that Cather has introduced utterly extraneous material right at the end of her novel. But of course the story is not extraneous at all; in Cather's vision it offers that all-but-impossible thing, a return to the Garden.

In 1875 the Bishop took his French architect on a pack trip into Arizona to show him something of the country before he returned to France, and he had the pleasure of seeing the Navajo horsemen riding free over their great plains again. The two Frenchmen went as far as the Canyon de Chelly to behold the strange cliff ruins; once more crops were growing down at the bottom of the world between the towering sandstone walls; sheep were grazing under the magnificent cottonwoods and drinking at the streams of sweet water; it was like an Indian Garden of Eden. (297)

The story is very beautiful, but as it functions in Death Comes for the Archbishop, the sense of closure is too complete. For one thing, as has been pointed out, “no authoritative work on the religion and mythology of the Navajos supports [Cather's] proposition that their gods dwelt in the canyon” (Bloom and Bloom 339). For another, even in Cather's telling of the story, the history of the Navajos is filled with irrevocable losses. Yet here she ignores these losses. In this second Eden man walks with his gods, and woman suckles a lamb: “Man was lost and saved in a garden” (267). Placing it as she does at the end of Death Comes for the Archbishop, stressing its analogy with Eden, Cather seems to offer the Navajo story, against her own bitter knowledge, as assurance to the heart's deepest longing that all which has been lost will be restored.


  1. The best example is the Bishop's hair-raising but quickly concluded encounter with Buck Scales. A partial exception is the episode in the Stone Lips cave (discussed below).

  2. E.g., the execution of Father Baltazar at Ácoma, and the capture, near-death, and stunning escape of Manuel Chavez from the Navajos offer not present threats but rather (as Jim Burden says of the story of Pavel and Peter) the “peculiar and painful pleasure” of vicarious participation in violence long completed (Ántonia 61).

  3. Examples are the conflict with Father Gallegos, only briefly alluded to, and the far greater conflict with Father Martínez, who sets up a church in schism at Taos and whose power is broken only with his death.

  4. In her Prefatory Note to Not under Forty, Cather comments that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts” (v). The feeling had several causes, preeminent among them World War I and what Brown calls that beginning “estrangement from modern American life that was to grow more acute as [Cather] grew older” (171). But I argue that an overpowering sense of loss surfaces earlier, in My Ántonia as the “burden” of Jim Burden, and intensifies in the novels that follow until Cather attempts to transform a sense of loss into a sense of possession in Death Comes for the Archbishop.

  5. This is my own interjection, not Cather's. However, the tendency of epic to turn into elegy occurs as early in Cather's fiction as her first “real” novel, O Pioneers! (1913). “This is all very splendid in its way,” Carl remarks to Alexandra upon returning to the farmland after an absence of sixteen years, “but there was something about this country when it was a wild old beast that has haunted me all these years. Now, when I come back to all this milk and honey, I feel like the old German song, ‘Wo bist du, wo bist bu, mein geliebtest Land?’” (118). The bitter awareness that in development or possession lie destruction and loss is at the heart of nearly all Cather's fiction and helps to account for her retreat from the present: in moving her settings from Nebraska to the Southwest (in The Professor's House and Death Comes for the Archbishop) and from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to ever earlier times (in Shadows on the Rock and the unfinished, destroyed “Hard Punishments”), Cather searches ever further afield for the lost “geliebtest Land.”

  6. My sense of the shape of Cather's canon resembles Marcus Klein's, when he writes, “After My Mortal Enemy the next novel was to be Death Comes for the Archbishop, that most fluent and serene of Willa Cather's elegies. Before it, by a handful of years, there had been the radiance and the supreme ease of My Ántonia. In the years between there was a gathering darkness of which My Mortal Enemy … was the crisis. … it is to be seen that the same forces of darkness had been gathering from the beginning and that a series of holding visions culminating in My Ántonia had given way” (v).

  7. Rosowski discusses the two death scenes—John Driscoll's and Myra Henshawe's—that frame the novel, and writes, “As John Driscoll died, so shall his niece, for despite the yearning of their immortal souls, human beings are doomed to failure by their mortality. Mortality is Fate; the measure of an individual is how he or she meets that inevitable end” (Voyage Perilous 152). My argument parallels Rosowski's in our sense of the novel's concern with weighing all human experience, especially passionate sexual love, against death. My argument differs from hers, however, in that I sense a greater degree of investment on Cather's part in the romantic love plot, Love's bid against Fate. John Driscoll dies, and Myra dies—but Myra rejects precisely those forms of safety and closure which give Nellie the illusion that Driscoll can ascend into heaven without passing through “the dark night of the grave”; Myra rejects them even though her uncle's will offers her money and protection if she repents of her runaway marriage and returns to his house, now a convent. She literally could come “home to die in some religious house,” where the abbot or abbess would receive her “with a kiss” (73). But she chooses not to. Instead, a true Romantic, she dies into infinitude and openness.

  8. Klein writes: “It is the struggle to get beyond the necessity of human relationships that is the secret history of all Willa Cather's novels, only as time went on, as the struggle turned, one supposes, more desperate, its nature became more apparent. … In My Mortal Enemy … [the enemy] is friendship and love, human relationship, itself” (xvi).

  9. Hans Holbein the Younger published his series of woodcuts titled The Dance of Death in Lyons in 1538.

  10. This is the argument advanced by Randall (310 and passim). I had assumed that Randall's argument was dated until, during the fall semester of 1987, I discovered that four or five of the most thoughtful students in my University of Virginia graduate course on Willa Cather and Ernest Hemingway felt the same.

  11. Among them, Bloom and Bloom (236); West (62-63); Sergeant (226-28 and passim); Fryer (310-18).

  12. In his 1970 biography of Willa Cather, James Woodress comments, “There is no doubt that the writing of Death Comes for the Archbishop was for Willa Cather something of a spiritual journey towards redemption. Although she had been confirmed in the Episcopal Church in 1922, the act of joining the church represented more a hope for faith than the consequence of a religious experience. This novel gave her the peace she had been seeking and the serenity to face her last two decades” (Life and Art 225).

  13. “On Death Comes for the Archbishop” 9. Keeler discusses the influence of the frescoes (251-57).

  14. Curtin (122) reads these sentences very differently, giving them an entirely positive construction.

  15. In some of her earlier fiction, of course, Cather powerfully affirms the female body through landscape; Panther Canyon in The Song of the Lark is the best-known instance. The contrast with Cather's handling of the Stone Lips cave in Archbishop is therefore all the more striking. For discussions of Cather's gendered landscapes, see Moers (258-59); Rosowski, “Female Landscapes”; O'Brien (410-11 and passim); and Fryer.

  16. This passage directly contradicts Moers's assertion that the vagina and womb have “almost no place, so far as I have discovered, in the female literary imagination. … the female landscape is that ‘complicated topography’ to which Freud referred: external, accessible, a prominent, uneven terrain, not a hidden passageway or chamber” (257). What happens to the Bishop in the Stone Lips cave is similar to what happens to Mrs. Moore in the Marabar Caves in E. M. Forster's Passage to India; one difference is that what happens to her utterly transforms the vision of the novel, whereas what happens to the Bishop is repressed and its larger implications not developed.

Works Cited

Bloom, Edward, and Lillian Bloom. Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1962.

Brown, E. K. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. Completed by Leon Edel. New York: Avon, 1953.

Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. New York: Knopf, 1927.

———. A Lost Lady. New York: Knopf, 1923.

———. My Ántonia. Boston: Houghton, 1918.

———. My Mortal Enemy. 1926. New York: Vintage-Random, 1961.

———. Not Under Forty. 1936. New York: Knopf, 1953.

———. “On Death Comes for the Archbishop.On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. New York: Knopf, 1949. 3-13.

———. O Pioneers! Boston: Houghton, 1913.

———. The Professor's House. New York: Knopf, 1925.

Curtin, William M. “Willa Cather and The Varieties of Religious Experience.Renascence 27.3 (1975): 122.

Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. New York: Harcourt, 1924, 1952.

Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986.

Howlett, W. J. The Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf, D.D.: Pioneer Priest of Ohio, Pioneer Priest of New Mexico, Pioneer Priest of Colorado, Vicar Apostolic of Colorado and Utah, and First Bishop of Denver. Pueblo, Colo.: Franklin, 1908.

Keeler, Clinton. “Narrative without Accent: Willa Cather and Puvis de Chavannes.” Critical Essays on Willa Cather. Ed. John J. Murphy. Boston: Hall, 1984. 251-57.

Klein, Marcus. Introduction. My Mortal Enemy. By Willa Cather. New York: Vintage-Random, 1961. v-xxii.

Martz, Louis L. The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 1954.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. 1976 New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Randall, John. The Landscape and the Looking Glass. Boston: Houghton, 1960.

Rosowski, Susan J. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.

———. “Willa Cather's Female Landscapes.” Women's Studies 11.3 (1984): 233-46.

Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. 1953. Lincoln: Bison-U of Nebraska P, 1963.

Shapiro, Karl. “Cosmic Consciousness.” Start with the Sun: Studies in Cosmic Poetry. By James E. Miller, Jr., Karl Shapiro, and Bernice Slote. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1960. 29-42.

West, Rebecca. “The Classic Artist.” Willa Cather and Her Critics. Ed. James Schroeter. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1928. 62-71.

Woodress, James. Willa Cather: Her Life and Art. New York: Pegasus, 1970.

John J. Murphy (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5300

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

Other references to and borrowings from the Italian poet that Stewart does not mention establish Dante as a definite influence. For example, in the early story “A Death in the Desert” (1903), Katherine Gaylord describes her visit to Adriance Hilgarde in his Florentine palace where beneath a bust of Dante they clung together like Francesca and Paolo “on a spar in mid-ocean after the shipwreck of everything” until Adriance's wife returned home, “and in the book we read no more that night” (73). Later, for the story of Emil Bergson and Marie Shabata in her first Nebraska novel, O Pioneers! (1913), Cather drew on the same Dante pair to illustrate the tragic consequences of sexual passion as well as to evoke sympathy for the lovers. These examples suggest Cather's appreciation of the human drama, although not necessarily the moral dimension, in Dante. But by 1925, three years after her conversion to Episcopalianism and early in the period of her spiritual quest novels—The Professor's House (1925), My Mortal Enemy (1926), Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), and Shadows on the Rock (1931)—Cather's appreciation seems to have deepened. In a lecture that year at Bowdoin College she emphasized love rather than hate as the art-generating passion and distinguished “Dante's Inferno and the whole Commedia [as] inverted evil, hatred of evil because of the love of good. The great characters in literature are born out of love,” she said, “often out of some beautiful experience of the writer” (In Person 156).

Like the Commedia, Cather's novels of the postwar period reveal a personal need for a spiritually reflective and well-ordered universe. In The Professor's House, for example, Godfrey St. Peter yearns for the time when for “every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday [and] was a principal in the gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing” (68). In My Mortal Enemy, Myra Henshawe returns to the Catholic faith of her youth because it gives significance to her death. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Father Latour sees the Redemption reflected in a twisted tree, in the color of the mountains, and in the rock of Ácoma. Shadows on the Rock presents the world view of the Commedia through religious women and children. To the devout nuns “this all-important earth [was] created by God for a great purpose, the sun which He made to light it by day, the moon which He made to light it by night,—and the stars, made to beautify the vault of heaven, like frescoes, and to be a clock and compass for man” (97). When Cécile and Jacques light candles before the castlelike altar of Notre Dame de la Victoire and watch the flames reveal its highlights, they imagine “that the Kingdom of Heaven looked exactly like this from the outside and was surrounded by such walls. … and it was comforting … to know just what Heaven looked like,—strong and unassailable, wherever it was set among the stars” (64-65).

A world tailored to Christian mythology and values is aesthetically appropriate for the pilgrimage that Dante dramatizes through the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso and Cather in Death Comes for the Archbishop and the second half of My Mortal Enemy. Inspired by the via crucis, the journey in each work represents a departure from worldliness, imitating Christ's submission to the Father, an interior journey symbolized in an exterior one containing purgatorial elements that prepare the pilgrim for God (Turner and Turner 1-17, 248-51). Shadows on the Rock emphasizes these components through a place resembling Dante's purgatorial setting rather than a journey, but when combined with the earlier novels, it completes a Catherian New World Divine Comedy. In considering the three novels I begin with My Mortal Enemy because it anticipates the more comprehensive journey from Hell to Paradise in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Shadows on the Rock will serve as a coda to the journey that is symbolized in Father Latour's travels through the vast southwestern landscape.

The Commedia begins with Dante's midlife confusion in the Dark Wood of Error, which Beatrice later defines as his turning from divine to human sciences, turning “his steps aside from the True Way, pursuing the false images of good” (Purgatorio 30.130-31). Having given up her God for worldly love in a marriage never blessed by the church or with children, Myra Henshawe has descended into darkness, “come on evil days” (Mortal Enemy 60). Her husband Oswald, like a soul in Hell, has the “tired face of one who has utterly lost hope” (61), and Myra's complaint about the plight of humanity—“Ah-ha, I have one more piece of evidence, one more, against the hideous injustice God permits in this world!” (65)—reminds me of Dante's similarly resentful Vanni Fucci, who makes obscene gestures toward God. The infernal extreme of Myra's condition is evident when the mother of the southern family tramping in the apartment overhead transforms into a tormenting serpent: “She has the wrinkled, white throat of an adder … and the hard eyes of one” (74).

The turning point in Myra's story is her initial visit to the headland above the Pacific, where she begins to desire forgiveness, “to see this place at dawn … a forgiving time” (73). Hers is the purgatorial struggle of detachment from worldly things (McCabe 46), the headland rising above the sea recalling Dante's mountain in the southern seas which sinners must climb before translation through the spheres of Paradise. With narrator Nellie Birdseye, Myra repeatedly returns to the headland and its solitary cedar, an echo of Dante's Tree of Life atop Purgatory, anticipating Father Latour's cruciform tree at the beginning of Death Comes for the Archbishop. Dante's journey to the summit begins on the steps of Penance and ends with purification, once he confesses straying from spiritual to worldly pursuits and Matilda washes him and makes him sip the waters of Lethe to dissolve his guilt. The three steps through the gate where the Angel Guardian, representing the priest confessor, uses the keys of discernment and absolution to forgive sinners symbolize confession, contrition, and gratitude for God's mercy. This same sequence is present in Cather's novel. The first step in Myra's journey is recognition of sin, and in her consternation she laments to Oswald the very happening of their lives together: “Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?” (95). Her haunting question is essentially a lament of dependence on the occasion of her sinfulness rather than any condemnation of Oswald.2

In receiving the Eucharist, Myra—while perhaps not purged of her sins—is restored to grace. Consequently, she takes up her crucifix and makes her final journey to the headland, where she had equated dawn with the kind of purification Dante experiences on the summit of Purgatory. “When that first cold, bright streak comes over the water,” Myra tells Nellie, “it's as if all our sins were pardoned; as if the sky leaned over the earth and kissed it and gave it absolution. You know how the great sinners always came home to die in some religious house, and the abbot or the abbess went out and received them with a kiss?” (73). One must hope that Myra survives until dawn and concludes her journey in light, just as Dante ends his in light, light within the soul as well as striking the eyes. The result is peace (which flows from harmony with God) and understanding (which flows from peace):

                                                                                as I grew worthier to see,
the more I looked, the more unchanging semblance
appeared to change with every change in me.

Paradiso 33.112-14

At the beginning of Death Comes for the Archbishop, Father Latour is lost in a maze of trails and conical hills. His story too involves a painful progress from worldliness to surrender to God's will. The pattern upon which the priest's pilgrimage is modeled is clarified in his contemplation of Christ's suffering at the cruciform tree: “The Passion of Jesus became for him the only reality; the need of his own body was but part of that conception” (20). Just as Dante is rescued by the Virgin's sending Virgil to guide him, Latour is led by the Virgin to Hidden Water—a symbol, like Beatrice, of Christian faith.

The way to God cannot be easy for these pilgrims. As Virgil points out to Dante, there is no easy way up the hill crowned with light: “I … will lead you forth through an eternal place. There you shall see the ancient spirits tried in endless pain, and hear their lamentations as each bemoans the second death of souls. Next you shall see upon a burning mountain souls in fire and yet content in fire” (Inferno 1.106-12). Latour, shut out of Santa Fe, must pursue a circuitous route to and from Durango—his own penitential journey—to be admitted to the city. “Salvation must grow out of understanding,” notes John Ciardi. “Total understanding can follow only from total experience, and experience must be won by the laborious discipline of shaping one's absolute attention. The object is to achieve God, and Dante's God exists in no state of childlike innocence: He is total knowledge and only those who have truly experienced knowledge can begin to approach him” (“How to Read Dante” 343).

Dante's journey into darkness has its counterpart in Latour's visit to the “Stone Lips” cave, where earth's mysteries challenge the patriarchal order the priest represents. A similar challenge occurs at Ácoma, where he feels defeated and doubts the efficacy of Calvary among the remote Indians. Less mysterious but equally challenging are Latour's confrontations with the Seven Deadly Sins, which Dante presents on the cornices of Purgatory. While some of the sinners with whom Latour must deal possess a cluster of qualities that move them toward roundness of character, each is typified by a dominant fault: Lust is the boast of Padre Martínez, Gluttony is Fray Baltazar's, Avarice is Padre Lucero's, and Sloth is represented by his nephew Trinidad; Buck Scales is the type of Wrath; Manuel Chavez is Envy; and Doña Isabella represents a venial form of Pride. Although Hell and Purgatory are fused in Archbishop, Cather presents her lost sinners first: Scales, Martínez, Lucero (recall Lucero's deathbed vision of Martínez in torment—“Eat your tail, Martínez, eat your tail!”; 171). We journey toward less serious failings and even feel affection for Isabella in her vanity, though the vanity she personifies has serious overtones in Latour's own spiritual development.

Latour's chief failings are selfishness and pride, and pride is the very sin Dante acknowledges in Purgatorio as his own chief failing. Evident in his tendency to control and order, which is challenged in the cave and at Ácoma, Latour's vanity centers on cathedral building. In fact, spiritual progress can be traced in his changing attitudes toward this project. At first it is a “very keen worldly ambition … that such a building might be a continuation of himself and his purpose, a physical body of his aspirations after he had passed from the scene” (Archbishop 175). Much later, when Vaillant fails to be enthusiastic about “fine building, when everything about [them] is so poor—and [they themselves] are so poor,” Latour insists that “the Cathedral is not for us … We build for the future” (244). His concern is that such plans might involve worldliness. Finally, the cathedral functions as his sanctuary. When he enters Santa Fe for the last time and sees it leaping operatically out of the mountains and black pines, it has taken the place of Vaillant in his life: “He felt safe under its shadow; like a boat come back to harbour, lying under its own sea-wall” (273). This building comes to represent the church for which he had surrendered his will in giving Vaillant the opportunity to go to Colorado.

To apply Christ's submission-to-the-Father journey to Latour's, we must understand the personal need he has for his friend Joseph's companionship and enthusiasm. Vaillant's “impassioned request” to serve the poor Americans in Arizona spoils Latour's “cherished plan” to keep him in Santa Fe and is “a bitter personal disappointment.” The “sharp struggle” going on within Latour is climaxed as he breaks off a spray of flowering tamarisk “to punctuate and seal, as it were, his renunciation” (208-09). This begins his Gethsemane, anticipating the additional pain involved in offering Vaillant the opportunity to go to Colorado. During Vaillant's preparation for departure we realize that the dependence is mutual, that Vaillant too suffers in leaving his old friend behind.

Finally, Cather clothes her priests in beatitude by making their lives remarkably similar in spirit and imagery to two celebrated saints in Paradiso. In the Sphere of the Sun, Thomas Aquinas tells Dante of “two Princes” sent by Providence to serve the fallen away Bride of Christ, the church (11.28-108). One of these, Francis of Assisi, is praised as “like the seraphim” in his love; Aquinas extols his marriage to Lady Poverty, despite the wrath of his father, a prosperous wool merchant, who opposed his son's vocation. Aquinas enumerates Francis's missionary journeys to Greece and Egypt and his projected pilgrimage to Spain, and praises his ability to attract followers—Bernard, Egidius, and Sylvester, who bound themselves with the humble cord of the Franciscan order. Humble birth and voluntary poverty translated into regal dignity and spiritual riches in Francis's life, says Aquinas, who concludes with a reference to the saint's receiving the stigmata during his vision of Christ in 1224.

Although Cather based her portrait of Father Joseph Vaillant on William J. Howlett's biography of Colorado's Bishop Machebeuf, her emphasis on details paralleling Dante's Francis seems more than coincidental. Joseph's father is a prosperous baker, a stern and jealous man who opposes his son's missionary ambitions. Like Francis, Joseph voluntarily embraces poverty; in Colorado he sleeps on a straw mattress, eats on oilcloth-covered planks, and uses wornout shirts for towels. Although he begs and invests in property for the church, “for himself, Father Joseph was scarcely acquisitive to the point of decency. He owned nothing in the world but his mule Contento. … [He] was like the saints of the early Church, literally without personal possessions” (227). Like Francis, Joseph inspires many followers. When the dying Father Revardy travels to Denver to assist at Vaillant's funeral, Latour reflects on “the extraordinary personal devotion that Father Joseph had so often aroused and retained so long, in red men and yellow men and white” (289).

When Dante's Aquinas concludes, Saint Bonaventure relates the story of Saint Dominic, a “cherubim” in his wisdom. Where Francis eschewed learning and praised the simple mind, Dominic founded an order of scholars to preach the pure faith. Married to Faith, as Francis was to Poverty, Dominic became a husbandman, laboring in the garden sown by Christ:

                                                                                he soon became
a mighty doctor, and began to go
his rounds of that great vineyard where the vine,
if left untended, pales and cannot grow.
Dominic's particular charge was
to smite
the stumps and undergrowths of heresy.
                    And where the thickets were least passable,
                    there his assault bore down most heavily.
And from him many rivulets sprang to birth
                    by which the Catholic orchard is so watered
                    that its little trees spring greener from the earth.

Paradiso 12.34-111

The parallels to Latour and his mission are obvious. Latour directs the construction of a lake in the rectory garden to water the lotus bulbs he imported from Rome. He transports fruitbearing trees and associates the Mexican church with the apparently defunct tamarisks and desert cottonwoods capable of sudden and surprising flowering. Vaillant, in his endearing simplicity, must verbalize what is obvious to Latour: The lost Catholics in Arizona, he says, “are like seeds, full of germination but with no moisture. A mere contact is enough to make them a living part of the Church” (206). Vaillant looks for direction to Latour, the Cathedral builder, who guards the purity of the faith and contends with the clerical corruptions and heresy reflected in the ruined peach tree stumps in Fray Baltazar's garden at Ácoma. As befits a husbandman, Latour retires to a garden: “He grew such fruit as was hardly to be found even in the old orchards of California. … He urged the new priests to plant fruit trees wherever they went, and to encourage the Mexicans to add fruit to their starchy diet” (267).

Not only these individual lives but their complementary qualities and activities parallel Dante's portraits. Francis and Dominic, says Bonaventure, are each a wheel of the great chariot in which the church rides; they are the two champions sent by Christ to teach and give example. “To extol one or the other,” says Aquinas, “is to speak of both in that their works led to a single goal” (Paradiso 11.40-2).

Additional Dantean elements in Archbishop include Marian protection, Bernardine ministry, and emphasis on light. Both Latour and Vaillant are assisted by the Blessed Virgin throughout their struggles, as when Latour is directed to Hidden Water, discovers the slave Sada one December night, and after Vaillant departs (with a petition for Mary's guidance—“Auspice, Maria!”) feels a solitude “of perpetual flowering. … filled by Her who was all the graces; Virgin-daughter, Virgin-mother, girl of the people and Queen of Heaven: le rêve suprême de la chair” (256). During his final years Latour is accompanied by his student Bernard, just as Saint Bernard accompanies Dante during the final stage of his journey to the Godhead. Like Dante, Latour is directed toward light, toward “the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!” (276). And he moves beyond time, which “ceased to count for him” (290).

Shadows on the Rock generally restricts the physical pilgrimage to the purgatorial place. Emphatically static, set firmly on the rock of Quebec, it nevertheless incorporates a variety of events in time and place into the account of a year in the lives of apothecary Euclide Auclair and his daughter Cécile. Quebec itself is a replica of Mount Purgatory crowned with the Earthly Paradise. The initial description of the town compares it to an artificial mountain “broken up into cliffs and ledges and hollows to accommodate groups of figures on their way to the manger” to pay deference to the Christ Child (5). Like the French Nativity scene Auclair recalls, Purgatory is a series of ledges and cliffs, and at its top, beyond the wall of fire and night's shadows, Dante experiences the radiance of the Heavenly Pageant.

Quebec too is haloed with light, as a catalogue of Cather's descriptions illustrates: “the red-gold autumn sunlight poured over the rock like a heavy southern wine” (33); when the “autumn fog was rolling in from the river. … a glow of orange [appeared] overhead where the sun was struggling behind the thick weather. It was like walking in a dream … in a world of twilight and miracles” (61-62); on St. Nicholas's Day “the sunlight on the glittering terraces of rock was almost too intense to be borne; one closed one's eyes and seemed to swim in throbbing red” (98); “that second afterglow, which often happens in Quebec, had come on more glorious than the first. All the western sky … was now throbbing with fiery vapours, like rapids of clouds; and between, the sky shone with a blue to ravish the heart,—that limpid, celestial, holy blue that is only seen when the light is golden” (103-4); “when the sun came up over the Ile d'Orleans, the rock of Kebec stood gleaming above the river like an altar with many candles, or like a holy city in an old legend, shriven, sinless, washed in gold” (169). Cather's use of light suggests reality beyond this earth, a world above the world, and her personification of the sun suggests the Deity: “the sun emerged … an angry ball, and all the snow-covered rock blazed in orange fire. The sun became a half-circle, then a mere red eyebrow, then dropped behind the forest, leaving the air clear blue” (70-71). “Throughout The Divine Comedy the sun … is a symbol for … Divine Illumination,” observes Ciardi. “In Purgatorio, for example, souls may climb only in the light of the sun. … Only in the light of God may one ascend that road, and that is the light to which the soul must win” (“How to Read Dante” 340-41).

Shadows on the Rock emphasizes the theme of purgation of expiation, the concept that we must suffer for a time before we enjoy the Beatific Vision that escapes Dante's descriptive powers at the end of Paradiso, where “in a great flash of light” he discovers “just how our [human] image merges” in the triune rainbow representing God (33.137). Cather's novel reads like a compendium of pain (Stouck 149-61), indicating that human incompleteness is at once the circumstance of suffering and an indication of the need for the perfection that will come through it. Blinker's face is misshapen from an ulcerated jaw; Bishop Laval suffers varicose legs; Mother Juschereau is laid up with a sprained ankle; Madame Renaude has a harelip; hero Henri de Tonti has only one arm; Madame Pommier is severly lame; Antoine Frichette suffers a hernia after his brother-in-law fatally opens his leg from ankle to knee; during bad March weather “many people in the town were sick … and Cécile herself caught a cold and was feverish” (156); finally, Count Frontenac declines and dies. Such realities of this flawed world looking toward the next explain the novel's title: “The shades of the early martyrs and great missionaries drew close about [Cécile on All Souls' Day]. All the miracles … and the dreams … came out of the fog. … When one passed by the Jesuits', those solid walls seemed sentinelled by a glorious company of martyrs. … at the Ursulines', Marie de l'Incarnation overshadowed the living” (95).

The theme of suffering for sins is understood even by the children. When Jacques lets slip a nasty word, Cécile washes his mouth with soap: “Is it gone?” (53) he asks solemnly when she finishes. And after his loose-living mother spends a night with boatmen from Montreal, the little boy attempts reparation by making the Stations of the Cross. A major occasion is All Souls' Day, which the colonists spend praying to shorten the suffering time of their departed loved ones. Every year on the anniversary of his hanging, the Auclairs have a Mass said for unfortunate Bichet, who was executed for stealing two brass kettles from a Parisian coach house. Early in the novel Mother Juschereau tells of the appearance to Sister Catherine of the soul of the sinner Marie, who appealed for prayers and Masses to shorten her term in Purgatory. After the Masses were said, Marie returned, “a happy soul, more brilliant than the sun, which smiled and said: ‘I thank you, my dear Catherine, I go now to paradise to sing the mercies of God for ever, and I shall not forget to pray for you’”(39).

Cather's story of Laval's successor involves several relevant Dantean touches. Bishop Saint-Vallier is thoughtless, fickle, theatrically extravagant, and high-handed; his “face recalled the portraits of eccentric Florentine nobles” (121), the largest group in Hell. In the Epilogue, however, Saint-Vallier returns from France to Quebec humbled and broken by years of captivity: “Even his enemies were softened at seeing how the man was changed. In place of his former assurance he seemed to wear a leaden mantle of humility; he climbed heavily up the hill to the Cathedral as if he were treading down the mistakes of the past” (272). These details cleverly combine Dante's punishment for damned hypocrites (who struggle under great cloaks, golden and fair on the outside but leaden and heavy within) and the punishment of the proud in Purgatory (who labor around the mountain doubled over beneath enormous slabs of rock that press down according to the degree of their sin). Saint Vallier himself recognizes the other-worldly aspects of the rock of Quebec, which somehow remains outside of time; in this place he will attempt to make amends for the excesses of his life. “You have done well to remain here where nothing changes,” he tells Auclair (277).

Other factors suggest this novel as a New World Purgatorio. The seasonal coming of the ships to Quebec recalls the coming of Dante's Ship of Souls. To the Auclairs, the first ship appears as a gleam of white, dipping, rising, and growing “larger and larger, the canvas of sails set full, with the wind well behind them” (206). Dante sees the angel ship speeding toward him: “From each side of it came into view an unknown something—white; and from beneath it, bit by bit, another whiteness grew. We watched till the white objects at each side took shape as [the Angel Boatman's] wings” (2.22-26). As in Dante, Cather's figurative level extends to people as well as to place. The waif Jacques Gaux becomes the novel's Christ figure. Auclair watches him making the Stations of the Cross, and old Bishop Laval kisses his feet as a “reminder of his Infant Saviour” (Shadows 75). North American martyr Noël Chabanel becomes the type of self-denial for the missionary Father Hector; and recluse Jeanne Le Ber, vowing to be as a sanctuary lamp, represents the light of faith for the people in general. In fact, Cather's models of heroic virtue parallel Purgatory's system of Whips, which remind the suffering of the virtues they lacked through examples from the life of the Virgin, from Holy Scripture, and even from pagan lore. In Shadows the same virtues are celebrated: the nuns practice chastity; Bishop Laval confines himself to meager, unappetizing food; Mother Juschereau is ever diligent, her fingers constantly constructing artificial flowers for the churches as she oversees her nuns; Jeanne Le Ber gives away her fortune to the church; Noël Chabanel is a model of meekness, Sister Catherine of caritas, and little Jacques of humility.

These observations, I believe, are the tip of an iceberg. Dantean influences and similarities are a fruitful field because they tell us much about Cather's art and mind and help us understand some of her characters. In the area of artistry, Dante considered himself an innovator of the “sweet new style” of natural expression, the principles of which are comparable to Cather's ideas about unadorned style and lack of clutter in fiction (Ciardi, Notes to Canto 24). Also, Dante's principal structural technique, like Cather's, is the paralleling of episodes and characters, what critics call “back illumination” (Ciardi, “How to Read Dante” 349-50). Boatman Charon in Inferno, for example, stands in meaningful relationship to the Angel Boatman in Purgatorio much as the Hidden Water episode in Archbishop stands in meaningful relationship to Junipero Serra's miracle of the Holy Family. In characterization, Dante leaned heavily on historical and local figures and used them freely, as did Cather throughout her novels, most notably in My Ántonia, Archbishop, and Shadows. The keys to understanding Father Latour and Myra Henshawe are to be found, I think, in Dante and his Catholic world. Both characters reflect Cather's deep need for the kind of order that gives meaning to individual lives, and their spiritual quests are pilgrimages toward the integration of personal and communal visions. Cather's attraction to a Dantean system was not a matter of orthodoxy so much as a desire for an integrating spiritual context. When in Shadows on the Rock Count Frontenac is dying, we are told that in spiritual matters he had always accepted the authority of the church and that he believed that his spirit would go before God to be judged: “He believed this, because he had been taught it in childhood, and because he knew there was something in himself and in other men that this world did not explain” (247). It is this “something” that emerges in Cather's fiction and Dante's poem. It is what gives significance to their technical achievements and makes their accomplishments valuable.


  1. A significant echo of the meeting of Statius and Virgil occurs in Death Comes for the Archbishop when Vaillant, preparing to return to Denver after a visit to New Mexico, reminds Latour that they are growing old. Latour kneels and asks a blessing. “Blanchet,” he says, “you are a better man than I. You have been a great harvester of souls, without pride and without shame. … If hereafter we have stars in our crowns, yours will be a constellation. Give me your blessing” (261-62).

  2. Some have dismissed Myra's journey as religiosity, citing 1 John 4: 20-21: “Anyone who says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, is a liar, since a man who does not love the brother that he can see cannot love God, whom he has never seen.” However, Matthew 9:37-39 is more appropriate for an evaluation of Myra's situation: “Anyone who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me. Anyone who prefers son or daughter to me is not worthy of me. Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow in my footsteps is not worthy of me. Anyone who finds his life will lose it; anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.” See Bennett, whose position is seconded by Tanner.

Works Cited

Bennett, Mildred R. “Myra's Marriage.” WCPM Newsletter 30 (1986): 18-19.

Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. 1927. New York: Vintage-Random, 1971.

———. “A Death in the Desert.” The Troll Garden. 1905. Ed. James Woodress. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1983.

———. “Escapism.” On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. New York: Knopf, 1949. 18-29.

———. My Ántonia. 1918. Boston: Sentry-Houghton, 1961.

———. My Mortal Enemy. 1926. New York: Vintage-Random, 1961.

———. The Professor's House. 1925. New York: Vintage-Random, 1973.

———. Shadows on the Rock. 1931. New York: Vintage-Random, 1971.

———. Wila Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Ed. L. Brent Bohlke. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.

Ciardi, John. “How to Read Dante.” Purgatorio. Trans. John Ciardi.

New York: Mentor-NAL, 1961. 338-50.

———. Notes to Canto 24. Purgatorio. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: Mentor-NAL, 1961. 249-50.

Dante. Inferno. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: Mentor-NAL, 1954.

———. Paradiso. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: Mentor-NAL, 1970.

———. Purgatorio. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: Mentor-NAL, 1961.

Howlett, William J. The Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf, D.D.: Pioneer Priest of Ohio, Pioneer Priest of New Mexico, Pioneer Priest of Colorado, Vicar Apostolic of Colorado and Utah, and First Bishop of Denver. Pueblo, CO: Franklin, 1908.

McCabe, Herbert. The Teaching of the Catholic Church. London: Catholic Truth Society, 1985.

Stewart, D.H. “Cather's Mortal Comedy.” Queen's Quarterly 73 (1966): 244-59.

Stouck, David. Willa Cather's Imagination. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1975.

Tanner, Stephen L. “Seeking and Finding in Cather's My Mortal Enemy.Literature and Belief 8 (1988): 27-38.

Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 1978.

Ted J. Warner (essay date 1990)

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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 impressive work. Still it does some violence to historical accuracy and in fact does considerable damage to the reputation of one of New Mexico's greatest native sons.

Throughout her history New Mexico has touched responsive chords in inhabitants and visitors. For many years the New Mexico automobile license plate has proclaimed her “The Land of Enchantment.” Tourists, artists, writers, and dudes invariably succumb to her charms and become “enchanted” with the landscape, the capital city Santa Fe, and Old Town Albuquerque. Some are moved to write a book or paint a picture. Many adopt Western clothing complete with squash blossom necklace or turquoise belt buckle and bola tie. Still others write letters to editors or feature articles for hometown newspapers proclaiming the beauty and wonders of the exciting new place they have just “discovered.” Willa Cather must have been similarly impressed. She visited there in 1912, 1914, 1915, 1925, and 1926, and she wrote a book. Her vivid imagination, her sensitivity towards people and places, and her feeling for time and space admirably equipped her for the task. Her novel is compelling and riveting, and her talent makes it seem plausible, genuine, and true, based as it is on historic figures, places, and events.

At the time of Cather's first visit to New Mexico, lawyer-turned-historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell had just published a multivolume history of the new state. His Leading Facts of New Mexico History in six volumes was a sweeping account of the Native American, Spanish, and Mexican heritages through the American conquest and struggle for statehood. Although it reads like a lawyer's brief, Cather, a voracious reader, doubtlessly devoured it. She was fascinated by the long sweep of history and the many persons of diverse culture who contributed to the development of the new state, and all this may have implanted the germ for a novel.

During her 1925 visit to New Mexico, Cather stayed with friends Tony and Mable Dodge Luhan at their home in Taos, where no doubt she was regaled with stories of the local culture and perhaps had the opportunity to read Twitchell's latest book, Old Santa Fe: The Story of New Mexico's Ancient Capital. She became further acquainted with one of the best-loved and most highly respected men in all the Southwest, Bishop—later Archbishop—Jean Baptiste Lamy. In the cold, hard, factual narrative of his life as related by Twitchell, Cather saw the hero of a new story emerging. She thereupon decided to relate the epic struggles of Father Lamy during his episcopal labors in New Mexico at a critical time in church-state history. Thus, with her pen she helped create the “Lamy Legend.” Based on the facts of Bishop/Archbishop Lamy's life, as well as the lives of other historical persons, Death Comes for the Archbishop became one of Cather's finest works. Her story caught the attention and imagination of the public and quickly became a national best-seller. Her feel for geography and grasp of the four conflicting cultures combined with her sympathetic understanding of human nature to strike responsive chords in the readers of her day, and they continue to do so in readers of ours.

For some reason, Cather used pseudonyms for her two main characters while retaining correct surnames for others. Father/Bishop/Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy became Father/Bishop/Archbishop Jean Marie Latour. His Vicar General and later Bishop of Denver, Joseph P. Machebeuf, was called Father Joseph Vaillant. (Perhaps she called Lamy “Latour” because this French priest was the tower of strength, and Father Machebeuf was indeed vailant [valiant] in the faith.) Kit Carson, however, and Father Antonio José Martinez, the priest of Taos, retained their given names. Latour and Vaillant emerge from her pages as devoted, selfless churchmen larger than life. Kit Carson received generally heroic treatment as a frontier American in New Mexico. But Padre Martinez is treated with contempt, and thus, unfortunately, the “Martinez Myth” was launched. Despite the book's other strengths and well-deserved plaudits, herein it is flawed.

Father Martinez was, and remains to this day, a controversial figure in New Mexico history. But Cather accepted as fact the worst accounts of his character and reputation. Because Archbishop is still so widely read, Martinez, despite some excellent attributes, remains in the minds of most readers one of the villains of fiction. Yet he is not a fictional character; he is a historical personage whose reputation has been sullied by a popular novel. Willa Cather describes Padre Martinez of Taos as “an old scapegrace” (an incorrigible rascal) and asserts that he had children and grandchildren in almost every settlement in northern New Mexico. She writes that he was a powerful old priest who was ruler in temporal as well as in spiritual affairs. She calls him a “dictator” to all the parishes in the area and says that even “the native priests in Santa Fe were under his thumb” (139). She accuses Martinez of instigating the Taos Indian Revolt of 1847, which resulted in the murder of Governor Charles Bent and a dozen other Americans. She claims that no attempt was made to bring Martinez to account for these deeds and that the priest even managed to profit personally from the affair by acquiring the property of the seven Taos Indians who were later arrested, condemned, and hanged for their role in the uprising. This, she asserts, made him “quite the richest man in the parish” (140). All this may make an excellent literary foil for her book's heroes, but, unfortunately for Cather, as a reflector of history it is just not true!

Nor did Padre Martinez impress Cather by his physical appearance. She describes him as “an enormous man. His broad high shoulders were like a bull buffalo's, his big head was set defiantly on a thick neck, and the full-cheeked, richly coloured, egg-shaped Spanish face … was so unusual … a high, narrow forehead, brilliant yellow eyes set deep in strong arches, and full, florid cheeks,—not blank areas of smooth flesh, as in Anglo-Saxon faces, but full of muscular activity, as quick to change with feeling as any of his features. His mouth was the very assertion of violent, uncurbed passions and tyrannical self-will; the full lips thrust out and taut, like the flesh of animals distended by fear or desire” (140-41). Father Latour did not even care much for Martinez asleep, for he “snored like an enraged bull” (149). Cather did admit that he sang the mass impressively in a beautiful baritone voice, that he drank from some deep well of emotional power, and that he “was not a man one would easily forget” (140). Anyone who passed him on the street, she allowed, would feel his great physical force and imperious will.

Bishop Latour was scandalized that Padre Martinez did not consider celibacy an essential element of a priest's condition. Even though this had been thrashed out many centuries before, Martinez retorted to the bishop that “nothing is decided once for all” (146). Martinez believed that celibacy was all very well for the French clergy (like Latour and Vaillant), but not for the Spaniard or Mexican. Cather charged that Padre Martinez lusted for women the way Padre Lucero of Albuquerque lusted for money. He paid a filial respect to the Holy Father, yet he also claimed that Rome had no authority in New Mexico and that the church there resented the Pope's interference in its affairs. Ultimately the split between Latour and Martinez became so bitter and nefarious that the bishop had no alternative but to excommunicate the recalcitrant and unrepentant priest. Martinez continued to lead his parishioners in Taos at the head of his schismatic church until his death in 1867. Such is the way Martinez has come to us through the pen of Willa Cather. Such is he considered since 1927 by those who have read Archbishop. Such is the Martinez Myth. The truth is, however, that Cather fictionalized the facts.

It should be remembered that even though Cather cast him in the role of Bishop Latour's (Lamy's) great antagonist, historically Father Martinez's conflict with the bishop came toward the end of an otherwise praiseworthy career that straddled three periods of New Mexico history—the Spanish, Mexican, and American. Martinez was involved in virtually every important event during fifty years of significant transition, but Cather and other writers have limited his actions to irresponsible resistance to Roman dominance and a self-serving struggle for personal power and wealth. Three opposing camps in New Mexico have a vital interest in seeing the conflict this way. English-speaking Americans have a confirmation for their position that the Hispanic people submitted peacefully, even eagerly, to their conquest. Protestants doing missionary work in the once solidly Catholic region welcomed any sign of inner readiness on the part of the people to break away from the church of Rome. And Catholic historians have found vindication for the course taken by Bishop Lamy and his successors (Francis 265-66). But modern scholarship strongly disagrees with this twisted image of Padre Martinez, and many present-day historians, Chicano leaders, Rio Arribans, and New Mexicans have banded together to rescue him from his unfortunate reputation.

One of the first attempts was by the New Mexico writer, Erna Fergusson. Writing in 1941, she proclaimed that “Martinez probably still ranks as the outstanding New Mexican.” Recognizing but not dwelling on his spiritual qualities, she notes that they “were entirely overshadowed by his energy and his versatility in practical affairs” (307). He was a forward-looking priest who printed textbooks as well as a newspaper he called El Crepusculo de Libertad (The Dawn of Liberty). He established schools for boys and, unusual in that day, a school for girls. Whatever his priestly derelictions, he was “a strong character, a fascinating man, a true liberal” (Our Southwest 306-08). Fergusson calls him “the first New Mexico gringo” and claims that as a result of his part in the 1847 Taos Revolt he may have seemed a patriot to Mexico while a traitor to the United States. Ten years later Fergusson again defended Father Martinez, describing him as “New Mexico's most brilliant and controversial figure” (New Mexico 260). She calls him New Mexico's first modern and wonders if he may simply have been the last unreconciled Mexican. She also says that he never lost the confidence of his people.

Other writers have risen to the padre's defense. Stan Steiner claims that Martinez was “a man of obstinate and strong beliefs” and a leader of the independence battles in New Mexico (348). He believes the conflict between Lamy and Martinez was one that echoed and reechoed through the years between the poor priests of the villages and the opulent bishoprics. The native-born Spanish-speaking clergy and the Anglo and English-speaking hierarchy were united in the Mystical Body of Christ that was the church, but they were divided in every other way, including their way of life and cultural inheritance and their religious ritual and practice. In The Proud Peoples: The Heritage and Culture of Spanish-Speaking Peoples in the United States (1972), Harold J. Alford calls Martinez “a pioneer educator and socially conscious leader” (238-39). As early as 1830 Martinez was preaching and writing on topics such as religious freedom, tolerance of other sects, and the necessary separation of church and state, all of which were considered extremely radical ideas in New Mexico at the time. The good padre also advocated an equitable redistribution of land to check the exploitation of the small farmer by the large landowner. “He gave his own lands to his servants and to his relatives and devoted all of his earnings to the enlightenment of the people of New Mexico. He urged education for all of the people, and a reduction of the civil powers of the church and clergy.” He died “a poor man financially but one rich in the regard of his people, for his lifelong efforts to break down the barriers of ignorance and bigotry” (238-39). This does not sound like the Padre Martinez who emerges from the pages of Archbishop. Matt S. Meier and Feliciano Rivera explain that when Bishop Lamy was given the task of reforming and reorganizing the isolated and corrupted New Mexican church at mid-nineteenth century, church influence was at an all-time low. Lamy, they assert, was a man of great dedication and drive, but totally unfamiliar with the Hispano-Mexicano culture, and soon became involved in a quarrel over tithing with Father Martinez. But in spite of this conflict with the bishop, Martinez remained an important religious and political leader until his death (110).

Perhaps the most angry of the Chicano writers is Rudolfo Acuña, who writes that in the clash between the Anglo-Americans and the New Mexicans subsequent to the American takeover of the Southwest, the Catholic church—the most important institution in New Mexico—limited its function to tending strictly to the spiritual needs of the people, worked to “Americanize” the New Mexicans, and with few exceptions did not champion the rights of the poor. When, after 1850, control of the church passed from the Spanish/Mexican clergy to an Anglo-American hierarchy, “it became an alien clergy that related more to the power establishment and a few rich Anglo-American parishioners than to the masses. It became a pacifying agent, encouraging Mexicans to accept the occupation” (55). The undisputed leader of the Mexican clergy at that time, says Acuña, was Padre Antonio José Martinez. His devotion to the Catholic church was deep and abiding, but he saw it as an institution to benefit, not enslave, mankind. Acuña calls Martinez “one of the most important figures in New Mexican history, as well as one of the most beloved.” In Taos, “Martinez took a progressive religious stand, refusing to collect tithes from the poor and opposing large land grants, claiming the land should go to the people. He criticized the church for its policy of allowing the clergy to exact excessive and oppressive tithes and fees for marriages, funerals, and like services” (55). He was also a staunch advocate of the separation of church and state. This does not sound like Cather's Martinez either!

The historical records reveal that Padre Antonio José Martinez's family was typical of the many Spanish colonial families who pushed into northern New Mexico in the late eighteenth century. His father, Don José Manuel Martinez, secured a large land grant at Tierra Amarilla on the Upper Chama River. Four of the don's sons were placed there and four others were located in the Taos Valley. “Don Manuel's progeny were as prolific as they were able, and by the 1830s and 1840s the Martinez clan, by virtue of size and holdings, was called the ‘big family’ in Taos” (Lamar 38-39). Geographical isolation restricted marital opportunities, and the Martinez family soon spread throughout the Rio Arriba, “knitted together in a complex web of consanguinity” with other local clans (the Valdez, Vigil, Jaramillo, Lovato, and Trujillo families) “more characteristic of an old paternalistic society than of a frontier one. And in true patron tradition they and their relations controlled scores of devoted peons, domesticated Indians, and retainers. Though there were many feuds and personality conflicts between rival families, they felt a common bond of blood and environment which made them truly provincial” (Lamar 40). (John Nichols's The Milagro Beanfield War, made into a film in 1988 directed by Robert Redford, faithfully depicts the family life and ties of this region.)

The foremost member in this “big family” and the history of Taos was Antonio José Martinez. Born in Abiquiu in 1793, he entered the priesthood after his young wife died, and chose Taos as his parish. Trained in the seminary in Durango, Mexico, he was his community's well-traveled and learned man, and many thought him a legal expert. He selected the promising sons of prominent families as his students, and historian Howard R. Lamar credits him with “training at least a dozen future political leaders and priests of territorial New Mexico.” Padre Martinez was shrewd and observant and a born leader with sizable ambitions, and Lamar recalls that to Twitchell he was “one of the most brilliant men of his time.” Martinez recognized early that the Mexican rebellion against Spain in 1821 signified the beginning of a new era, but he was also a traditionalist who wielded great local power through his priestly offices, his family, and the Taos Indians who admired him. He became their spokesman in civil as well as religious matters (Lamar 40).

It has been suggested that by usual church standards Martinez was not a good defender of the faith and that he renounced few, if any, physical pleasures of the world. This, however, can be vigorously denied, it being pointed out that in his own lifetime he was “never openly attacked by even his bitterest enemies on grounds of immorality” (Francis 272). The archives of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, which hold voluminous documents bearing on Martinez's conflict with Lamy, contain no records attesting to charges of immorality or licentiousness. Had such documents existed they surely would have been filed there to bolster the bishop's case against the padre. Bishop Lamy indeed found many irregularities among the priests laboring in New Mexico in 1851, but the record reveals no charges against Martinez. Several writers have claimed that Martinez was ultimately excommunicated because of an immoral life and illegitimate children, but it is possible that such charges arose simply because of the many Martinezes who lived in Taos and Rio Arriba—Martinez is a very common surname. Father Martinez, indeed, had two married brothers, Antonio and José Maria, with large families living in Taos. It would be easy to confuse Father Antonio José Martinez with either of these two, especially if there were motives to discredit him for political or religious reasons. In any case, no such charges were ever filed in his lifetime. Fray Angelico Chavez, a distinguished native New Mexican historian, scholar, novelist, and poet, emphatically denies any such immoral conduct on the part of Father Martinez (Francis 273).

Martinez seems at first to have looked with favor on the Texas Revolution of 1836, thinking that New Mexico might also gain independence from Mexico. He was probably active in the Taos Rebellion of 1837 (when the unpopular government in Santa Fe was overthrown) and perhaps approved the deposition and even the murder of Governor Pérez—an unpopular nonresident appointee—who was succeeded briefly by Taos buffalo hunter José Gonzales. “By such actions Padre Martinez illustrated the active and powerful role that he and many other local church leaders … played in New Mexican life” (Lamar 40-41). All this, however, led Americans to decry that “priest-ridden country” and persuaded Governor Pino to beg for a bishop. A bishop they got—Jean Baptiste Lamy, who promptly locked horns with the padre of Taos in a great power struggle.

The clash between Lamy and Martinez was primarily a head-on collision between two strong-willed personalities. Martinez believed Lamy was disregarding established precedence in New Mexico by enforcing the collection of church tithes. Lamy announced on 14 January 1854 “that the priests were to exclude from the sacraments all household heads who refused to pay tithes, and to demand triple fees for baptisms from other members of such families” (Francis 277). Martinez naturally objected to this and refused to collect such tithes from his impoverished parishioners. He thus placed himself in direct opposition to the new bishop, and the result was a schism. It was strictly a local affair, however, with only Martinez and one other priest excommunicated, and with the death of Martinez, most of his followers returned to the traditional Catholic fold. Martinez always declared “with great dignity and conviction that he was forever unto death a priest of the Christian, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman faith despite certain differences of opinion between him and the present bishop” (Francis 283-84).

Throughout his life, Martinez was in many things a liberal at heart, although his liberalism was of the eighteenth- rather than the later nineteenth-century variety. He was among the first to agitate for New Mexico's admission to the Union, believing that democratic institutions extended to New Mexico would benefit his people (Francis 269). He repeatedly emphasized that under a republican government everyone had a right to speak his mind for the enlightenment of the people. He believed it was his duty as a citizen, a native, an active member of the community, a Christian, and a priest to speak for people who were ignorant and intimidated. He favored religious tolerance, and he entertained friendly relations with Protestants. His published writings contain references to “pure religion,” to which, he explained, various kinds of believers adhered. His “sins” were not heresy or immorality; they amounted to difficulties with the bishop and pertained only to the realm of church government and discipline (Francis 284). He believed that the foreign prelates (French) were prejudiced and hostile to the native Spanish-Mexican clergy. But he “never attacked the Roman Catholic church as such or any of her doctrines. He did not even question the legitimate authority of Bishop Lamy. He was fighting against what he [honestly considered to be] the error not the institution” (Francis 288).

It is true that the old pastor of Taos exercised ecclesiastical functions without the necessary authority, publicly criticized his bishop without due moderation, failed to submit to his proper superiors, and caused a short-lived schism. Jean Baptiste Lamy, however, emerges as not quite the kindly, gracious prelate Cather painted as Bishop Latour. He refused to argue the case with the old and respected native priest, but insisted on invoking the authority of his office. “He was a practical man who wanted to get things done, and done his way.” Perhaps his course was the proper one, “but it left a wound in the side of the Catholic church in New Mexico which was long to heal, and the scar can yet be felt” (Francis 289).

It is not my purpose to denigrate Willa Cather or criticize her too severely for damaging the reputation of one of New Mexico's greatest sons. We must remember that her book discusses only the last years of Martinez's life, when he was engaged in his power struggle with Bishop Lamy. Cather did not consider his earlier career as friend and protector of his people, and she used her novelist's right to literary license with the things she did consider. The difficulty lies in the fact that Cather's novel is so well written and still so widely read that her account of the sensual, corrupt priest of Taos is all most readers ever learn of a historical figure of some consequence. His true character and greatness remain unknown to all but the initiated and those willing to go beyond Archbishop. Cather's novel-become-history, therefore, has maligned Martinez, and the result has been a tragic distortion of history in the popular mind.

What is needed, of course, is another wonderful but more historically sound book about Martinez and Lamy in the same genre as Cather's—one that will be read by generations of students and accepted as history just as readily. As it is, the popular image of nineteenth-century New Mexico has been virtually set in concrete by Cather, and it will take more than an article or two in a professional journal to educate the public about the injustice done to the memory of the Padre of Taos.


Acuña, Rudolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. New York: Harper, 1981.

Alford, Harold J. The Proud Peoples: The Heritage and Culture of Spanish-Speaking Peoples in the United States. New York: Mentor, 1972.

Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. New York: Knopf, 1927.

Fergusson, Erna. Our Southwest. New York: Knopf, 1941.

———. New Mexico: A Pageant of Three Peoples. New York: Knopf, 1951.

Francis, E. K. “Padre Martinez: A New Mexican Myth.” New Mexico Historical Review 31 (October): 1956. 265-89.

Lamar, Howard R. The Far Southwest, 1846-1912: A Territorial History. New Haven: Yale UP, 1966.

Meier, Matt S., and Feliciano Rivera. The Chicanos: A History of Mexican Americans. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Nichols, John. The Milagro Beanfield War. New York: Holt, 1974.

Steiner, Stan. LaRaza: The Mexican Americans. New York: Harper, 1972.

Twitchell, Ralph Emerson. Leading Facts of New Mexico History. 6 vols. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Torch P, 1911-1915.

———. Old Santa Fe: The Story of New Mexico's Ancient Capital. Chicago: Rio Grande Press, 1963.

Further Reading

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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 inspired Cather to write Death Comes for the Archbishopin order to discover whether her work constitutes an avoidance of concrete reality.

A review of Death Comes for the Archbishop. In New Republic 52 (26 October 1927): 266-67.

Praises Cather's novel as “a book which will remain an American classic.”

Schneider, Sister Lucy, C.S.J. “Cather's ‘Land-Philosophy’ in Death Comes for the Archbishop.Renascence XXII, No. 2 (Winter 1970): 78-86.

Examines the symbolism of the land in Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Stouck, Mary-Ann. “Chaucer's Pilgrims and Cather's Priests.” Colby Library Quarterly IX, No. 10 (June 1971): 531-37.

Traces the major influences for Death Comes for the Archbishop to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

———, and David Stouck. “Hagiographical Style in Death Comes for the Archbishop.University of Toronto Quarterly (Summer 1972): 293-307.

Examines the purpose and meaning of Cather's use of the traditional style of saints's life stories in Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Woodress, James. “The Genesis of the Prologue of Death Comes for the Archbishop.American Literature I, No. 3 (November 1978): 473-78.

Argues that Cather's prologue to Death Comes for the Archbishop was inspired by a painting by Jehan George Vibert.

Additional coverage of Cather's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults,Vol. 24; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865-1917; Contemporary Authors,Vols. 104, 128; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 9, 54, 78; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 1; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors British;DISCovering Authors Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors, Novelists;Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Something About the Author, Vol. 30; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 2; World Literature Criticism.

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