One of the first books covered in this series was one of my favorites: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. And, as I said in relation to Wells’ Moreau in that earlier article, it is the case that even if today’s book, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, were not well-written enough to be worthwhile throughout (which, also like Wells’ novel, it fortunately is), it would still be worth reading so as to provide context for its extremely insightful and satisfying ending. But that said, I would like to set the ending aside and encourage you to check out this curious piece of semi-biographical historical fiction.
Death Comes for the Archbishop so stretches the boundaries of conventional plot development that its status as a novel is widely debated. Willa Cather herself preferred to refer to it as a narrative rather than a novel. Rather than a series of events which build to a climax, the text is comprised of nine small vignette-esque sections (and a prologue) which present periods of time and experiences that are thematically interrelated.
All nine sections cover portions of the life of Bishop Jean Marie Latour, the novel’s protagonist. Bishop Latour is a reserved, efficient, handsome Catholic official. In accordance with the will of the Cardinals, Latour is removed from his post in Sandusky, Ohio and sent to take charge of the parish of the New Mexico territories, (then) recently annexed by the United States, and build up a diocese there.
The Structure and Content of Death Comes for the Archbishop:
Humble and unassuming, Bishop Latour pursues order and restoration of Catholic tradition among the corrupted and disparate faiths of the incumbent priests through his diligent devotion and respect for all peoples. Latour is not, however, without his flaws; he constantly doubts himself and his accomplishments.
Beyond this, Latour rises to the position of Archbishop, subsequently retiring and, as the title of the book implies, facing his own demise. But unlike other books that preemptively telegraph a death at their conclusions (such as one previously covered in this series, The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy) the focus of Death Comes for the Archbishop is much more on the life experiences and general philosophy of its protagonist than on the protagonist’s psychology and confrontation with mortality.
At the outset, Bishop Latour is declared Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico. The landscape of New Mexico provides the backdrop for the majority of the work. Cather emphasizes its copper color and busy homogeneity of form and flora. Its wide skies and scrub-covered sandy dirt are cut through by narrow paths, sparse ravines, and long ranges of mountains.
As Latour comes to consider New Mexico his home, he increasingly associates its appearance with that of his native France in mountains and in valleys. It is the subtle lack of human defect in so vast a span of natural land that imbues in Latour an awe of the Native American insistence on leaving as little an impression as possible (a concept which Latour notes as a contrast to the European tradition of making human presence as blatant as possible).
Upon arriving in Santa Fe, however, he is told he must gain official recognition from the Archbishop of Durango, under whose control the area previously was. He does so, and returns after a journey of three thousand miles to Santa Fe where his best friend (and Vicar) Father Vaillant has already established Latour’s presence by endearing himself and Latour to the local people.
Father Joseph Vaillant is a passionate, fervent, homely man—given to frequent illness—who serves as Latour’s Vicar until Vaillant is sent to bring religion to a reportedly lawless gold rush town in Colorado. Vaillant’s name, suggesting both ‘valiant’ and ‘violent,’ reflects his aggressive nature in his missionary work and fundraising for the church. Father Vaillant travels far, and in his shameless fervor he converts many people to Catholicism in his lifetime.
As Death Comes for the Archbishop proceeds, it covers many such travels, tribulations, and characters. Many episodes focus on encounters with (and stories of) past and present religious authorities already present in the area, ranging from virtuous to corrupt. Lives begin and end. Projects are introduced and then intermittently visited as the novel jumps through time. Even historical persons of the era, including Kit Carson, become important characters.
The Style and Themes of Death Comes for the Archbishop:
The distribution of emphasis is quite distinct in this book, in that it is entirely indistinct. That is, Cather places the same depth of importance on huge events as on everyday occurrences so that they may be evaluated on their merits rather than experienced through the eyes of one who has evaluated them.
The strange, episodic structure which she insists upon makes the book very unique and further de-emphasizes individual events or persons so that instead concepts, such as religion, order, and tolerance, can be focused upon (as opposed to characters).
Cather also restricts her diction in dealing with her characters such that, just as events may be evaluated by the reader, everyone from the malicious and corrupt Padre Antonio José Martínez to the stalwart Bishop Latour exist primarily as thoughts and actions to be categorized and pondered by the reader (as opposed to prejudged entities—e.g. anything resembling ‘the contemptible man did the terrible act’ does not appear).
Aside from the discrepancy in novel form addressed earlier, it is interesting to note that this book is often regarded as nearly biographical of Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, the actual man in Latour’s historical position. And, indeed, many of the factual accuracies and included historical events, such as the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush, and historical persons, such as Kit Carson, would point to this being so.
There is so much establishment and nuance to the characters of Latour and of Vaillant, however, as that the level of research which would lead to accurate depiction in such matters would be nearly impossible. And so it is fiction; it is clear in myriad ways, to be sure, that Cather engineered her characters and most of the events in the book. But Lamy was surely inspiration for the Protestant author.
The main idea behind Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop seems to be that, through the pursuit of order, the observant search for purpose, and the practice of tolerance, a place or a person may be fulfilled. Cather’s apparent advocacy of seeking satisfaction through living in humble moral rectitude, according to one’s egalitarian virtues, is a position with which it is hard to disagree.
Related Gemsbok Posts:
Personal Ethics and the Old West: