Death Comes for the Archbishop
by Willa Cather
Time 100 Novels, Modern Library #61
I like to think of myself as an enlightened person, but occasionally I find myself humbled. I didn't know anything about Willa Cather and assumed basically every female author from the early part of the 20th Century was writing novels about romance or family. I was surprised to pick up Death Comes for the Archbishop and find myself reading a Western. I was also blown away; it's an amazing book, one of the most beautiful, inspiring, multi-layered, and poignant novels I've ever read.
There are lot of different lenses through which to view Death Comes for the Archbishop. The friendship between Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant runs like a backbone through the novel and the scene where the Latour sends Vaillant away for the last time rings with poignancy. The two men display different models of faith, with Vaillant's unwavering while Latour struggles with doubt at times. The story is also an examination of the Southwest, with Cather painting the physical beauty of the environment and also the cultural landscape, as the various Spanish, Mexican, Native American, and American influences shape society. And while the story isn't a Western in the sense of cowboys and gunfights, the priests are portrayed as heroic, overthrowing corrupt priests and helping the poor and needy with little regard for themselves.
The most interesting thread running through the novel was the role of tradition and legacy and how it differed between the Indians and the Europeans. Bishop Latour observes the European tradition early on the novel, when sampling Father Vaillant's onion soup:
"I am not deprecating your individual talent, Joseph," the Bishop continued, "but, when one thinks of it, a 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."The Bishop observes tradition in the Native American people, too. But while the Europeans share their gifts with the world, the Indians hide theirs:
It was said that this people had from time immemorial kept a ceremonial fire burning in some cave in the mountain, a fire that had never been allowed to go out, and had never been revealed to white men.Bishop Latour learns this difference between the cultures, judging that "it was the white man's way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it," while "it was the Indian's way to pass through a country without disturbing anything." On returning to France late in his career, Latour decides he will spend his final years in the Southwest where "the wind made one a boy again." But while he notices that this pure, unspoiled quality "vanished after they were tamed by man," Latour is still a man of the European tradition, and in his great act as Archbishop builds a Cathedral in Santa Fe even though few seem to appreciate it. Is this a noble act for the future good of the Church and the people of the Southwest? Or is a selfish act for Latour's personal legacy, emblematic of the way the white man is destroying the unsullied nature of the land? Or both? The ambiguity reflects the complexity of the novel and Cather's empathy for all viewpoints.