Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) Willa Cather

The following entry presents criticism of Cather's novel Death Comes for the Archbishop. See also O Pioneers! Criticism and Willa Cather Short Story Criticism.

Considered by Cather to be her best work, Death Comes for the Archbishop evidences Cather's love of the American Southwest and her interest in the role of the Catholic Church in the culture of the region. The fictionalized story of forty-one years in the life and career of Archbishop Lamy (called Father Latour in the book), the first bishop appointed for the territory of New Mexico after its annexation to the United States, Death Comes for the Archbishop in many ways defies the novel genre; Cather referred to it as a “narrative” rather than a novel because of its loosely constructed episodic nature, and early reviewers were often puzzled by its structure. Nonetheless, Death Comes for the Archbishop remains one of Cather's most critically acclaimed and widely read works.

Plot and Characters

Cather's interest in the history and culture of the American Southwest began much earlier than the writing of Death Comes for the Archbishop. But on a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, she became acquainted with a biography of Father Macheboeuf, a missionary priest who served as Vicar to the Archbishop Lamy in the Vicarate of New Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century. The letters inspired her to write the novel, in which she changed the priests' names to Jean Latour and Joseph Vaillant. There is little formal plot in Death Comes for the Archbishop, but the book tells in a series of short episodes the story of the slow organization of the small parishes throughout the mountains and deserts of the Southwest into a central diocese, led by Archbishop Latour. Both born and raised in France and both deeply dedicated to their work, Latour and Vaillant travel thousands of miles throughout New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, as well as into Mexico and back to Rome, as missionaries, with the ultimate goal of building a great cathedral in Santa Fe. After many adventures and much work together, Latour and Vaillant part when Latour sends him to Colorado; Vaillant spends the rest of his life there, eventually becoming Bishop of Colorado. Latour at last builds the cathedral and retires to the countryside near Santa Fe, spending his old age remembering his time traveling with Vaillant rather than returning to his native France. When he realizes he is near death, he asks to be taken to the cathedral, where he dies in 1889.

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

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)

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...

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Joseph Wood Krutch (essay date 1927)

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...

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Henry Longan Stuart (essay date 1927)

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...

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Rebecca West (essay date 1927)

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...

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

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...

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George Greene (essay date 1957)

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...

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Paul Horgan (essay date 1961)

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...

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Sister Peter Damian Charles (essay date 1966)

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.


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Richard Giannone (essay date 1966)

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...

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Lawrence Clark Powell (essay date 1966)

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...

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D. H. Stewart (essay date 1966)

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...

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James M. Dinn (essay date 1972)

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...

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

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...

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Floyd C. Watkins (essay date 1977)

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...

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John J. Murphy (essay date 1978)

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...

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David Stouck (essay date 1982)

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...

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Margaret Doane (essay date 1985)

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...

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Jean Schwind (essay date 1985)

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...

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Merrill Maguire Skaggs (essay date 1985)

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,...

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Patrick W. Shaw (essay date 1989)

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...

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Frederick Turner (essay date 1989)

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....

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Ann W. Fisher-Wirth (essay date 1990)

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...

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John J. Murphy (essay date 1990)

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...

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Ted J. Warner (essay date 1990)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

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