In 1851 Bishop Latour and his friend Father Valliant are despatched to New Mexico to reawaken its slumbering Catholicism. Moving along the endless prairies, Latour spreads his faith the only way he knows - gently, although he must contend with the unforgiving landscape, derelict and sometimes openly rebellious priests, and his own loneliness. Over nearly forty years, they leave converts and enemies, crosses and occasionally ecstasy in their wake. But it takes a death for them to make their mark on the landscape forever . . .
Cather tells the story of Father Jean Marie Latour, who in 1848 accepts an assignment as a missionary priest in wild and beautiful New Mexico. During the next forty years he comes to love the beautiful yet harsh land of the southwest as well as the Mexican and Indian people he comes to know. Accompanying Latour is his fellow priest and lifelong friend Father Joseph Vaillant. It’s the relationship between these two men that is the underlying theme and Cather chooses to tell the story through a series of vignettes that portray the land and people of the Southwest in a way that only Cather can.
Some of the vignettes paint a portrait of the people, warts and all. Lovely Magdalena, who warns the two priests with a finger across the throat, that her husband may well kill them. They rescue her from the man that has brutalized her and take her to the convent where she happily lives her life with the caring, compassionate nuns while her husband meets a very different fate. Or Dona Isabella, the wife of a wealthy American who passes away leaving her his fortune. However, his brothers contest the will and she does not want to reveal her actual age in court because she has maintained that she is ten years younger. The priests manage to convince her to tell the truth so that she doesn’t lose her fortune and yet still maintains her vanity. Padre Martinez is a local priest that is an unabashed womanizer and the father of several children. Latour has to figure out how to rein in the popular cleric. Finally, the close relationship between the two priests is strained when Father Vaillant asks to be allowed to leave Santa Fe to evangelize the poor people around Tucson. Although it is a deep disappointment to him, Latour allows the friend he loves to follow his calling.
Towards the end of the book, when Latour is feeling his age and the loneliness that is his constant companion, Cather’s prose is delicious:
”Beautiful surroundings, the society of learned men, the charm of noble women, the graces of art, could not make up for the loss of those light-hearted mornings of the desert, for that wind that made one a boy again. He had noticed that this peculiar quality in the air of new countries vanished after they were tamed by man and made to bear harvests. Parts of Texas and Kansas that he had first known as open range had since been made into rich farming districts, and the air had quite lost that lightness, that dry, aromatic odour. The moisture of plowed land, the heaviness of labour and growth and grain-bearing, utterly destroyed it; one could breathe that only on the bright edges of the world, on the great grass plains or the sage-brush desert.” (Page 273)
I’m not sure how Cather built up the emotion that culminates in the last chapter but make no mistake: it’s there. It’s palpable. And it’s beautiful. Very highly recommended.
This is not a novel of plot - which one finds out along the dusty way - it's more a chronicle of various events of two french catholic missionaries - which Willa Cather have based on two real life characters.
The story covers several decades beginning in 1851 when Father Latour reaches Santa Fe to become Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico. The task is daunting - trying to recover and rebuild their french version of the Catholic Church in the midst of superstitious Indians, pioneer Americans and worldly Spaniards. There's several setbacks and incredible long travels on mule in their "jurisdiction" - one has to admire their devotion and sacrifice (still while maintaining the french love for good food and wine, music and art)
I found it historically very interesting - the conflict of cultures and religions - I loved the sense of place, Cather's dreamlike poetic prose, the descriptions of the barren, desolate landscape - so, ok it's a western of sorts - and really at it's center a story about a long-lasting beautiful friendship (although they are quite different), about loneliness being far from home - but finding a new home and a new sense of belonging. Specially the last part of the book is a very simple, yet emotional conclusion of two lives - lived well and faithfully for the God they loved.
The old man smiled. "I shall not die of a cold, my son. I shall die of having lived".
Setting: 19th century New Mexico and Arizona
Bishop Jean Marie Latour is sent to be the newly created bishop of the Roman Catholic church in the diocese of New Mexico, which also covers part of Arizona and Colorado. He gets a rough start, but soon settles in to a new life and learns to love the people of his new land. His boyhood friend Father Joseph Valliant comes to assist in the work.
I just loved this book. It truly is the story of devotion to God and his service. None of the characters are perfect, but the story of the Southwest, its people and the land itself, is beautifully told. After reading this, I was convinced that Cather must have spent significant time in the desert to be able to write this story, but I wasn't able to find anything that supported that. In any case, it is a wonderful story and I highly recommend it.
the central belief that 'the Indian' belongs essentially to the past rather than to the present. He (or she) is an exotic relic of some earlier age that we have already passed through: either - depending on your point of view - a kind of primitive anarchy that we have overcome (in nature, in ourselves) or an innocent Golden Age that we have forfeited through greed and destructiveness.
...Its key argument is that, because native and non-native inhabit essentially different realities, they cannot be expected to co-exist: by definition, yesterday must always give way to tomorrow....While they testify to our [white folks'] ability to develop and progress, Native American societies are incapable of change themselves...they cannot adapt when confronted by a more advanced and virile civilization, but are doomed to melt away...If they fail to vanish, if they change and adapt instead, then, by definition, they are not really Native Americans.
I thought about this idea frequently while perusing Willa Cather's 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop. For most of the book, I considered it an excellent example of Wilson's point. Here Cather presents us with a white French bishop, sent as a missionary to the newly-Americanized Santa Fé diocese, who, when confronted with the Native mesa-dwelling Ácoma people, perceives them as some kind of petrified relic of the past:
Through all the centuries that his own part of the world had been changing like the sky at daybreak, this people had been fixed, increasing neither in numbers nor desires, rock-turtles on their rock. Something reptilian he felt here, something that had endured by immobility, a kind of life out or reach, like the crustaceans in their armour.
For Father Latour, the Ácoma seem so "antediluvian" and unchanging that he finds it difficult even to see them as human. He interprets their lack of receptivity to his mass as evidence of their own sequestration and prehistoric level of development, rather than as a result of his own decision to insert himself uninvited into their lives:
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.
Of course, the perceptions of a character shouldn't be confused with those of his author, but Cather seems, in this scene, to be in sympathy with Latour. Certainly, all her stories and descriptions of the Ácoma way of life imply an ancient, unchanging aspect similar to the priest's assessment (if slightly less dehumanizing). Not only that, but other Native settlements are also described as declining; the Bishop's Indian guide Jacinto lives in a house
at one end of the living pueblo; behind it were long rock ridges of dead pueblo,--empty houses ruined by weather and now scarcely more than piles of earth and stone. The population of the living streets was less than one hundred adults. This was all that was left of the rich and populous Cicuyè of Coronado's expedition.
To a certain extent, this is simply accurate reporting on the devastation brought to Native communities by European diseases. But it's more than that: the melancholy mood, combined with Jacinto's refusal to let Father Latour assist his ailing infant, paint the same picture of the unchanging, unchangeable Indian, destined to melt away under the onslaught of White Progress. Jacinto is portrayed as in touch with "ancient" powers invisible to Latour (or at least, Latour imagines him to be), but he is also a member of an America in the midst of an inevitable vanishing.
This echoed, for me, the portion of Cather's earlier novel The Professor's House set in the southwest, in which two white men come across the ruins of an ancient Native cliff-dwelling civilization, now extinct for many years. The discovery is a revelation to the men, fledgling archaeology students, and one in particular, Tom, forges a deep spiritual connection with the place. Tom makes the long journey to Washington, attempting to interest the Smithsonian in the site's artifacts, while in the meantime his friend betrays him by selling everything to a souvenir-hawker. The reader is sympathetic with Tom's desire to preserve the marvel he has found, but at the same time the actual Native presence in the place - the significance the site held to its original inhabitants and makers - is eclipsed by a set of meanings created by the white discoverers. Even the most positive possible outcome - that the site would be purchased and curated by an institution like the Smithsonian - is constructed entirely from white value systems and white institutions. The Native voice has long been silenced, a relic of ancient history. And although the Indians of Death Comes for the Archbishop are technically still alive, much in their portrayals implies that they are rapidly heading the same way.
And then, with only a few pages remaning, Cather surprised me. Latour, now lying on his death-bed, recalls his friend Eusabio, a Navajo leader who had asked him, many years before, to intercede with the United States government during the events later known as the Long Walk of the 1860's, when the Navajo were being forcibly relocated away from their sacred lands. Although he refuses the request (he doesn't believe his intercession would hold any weight with the Protestant legislators), he is sympathetic to the Navajo battle, and rejoices when the government reverses its decision and allows the people to return to their ancestral home. The Navajo, in this part of the book, are portrayed as much more active makers of their own destinies than either the Ácoma or the Cicuyè; forced into hiding in the canyons and crevices of their native lands, the few remaining freedom fighters must drastically alter their mode of life in order to elude the US troops. Not only that, but they are making their decisions in full possession of the facts, and of their faculties; the resistance leader Manuelito tells the Bishop:
"You are the friend of Christóbal, who hunts my people and drives them over the mountains to the Bosque Redondo. Tell your friend that he can come and kill me when he pleases...my mother and my gods are in the West, and I will never cross the Rio Grande."
This kind of free decision-making and articulate defiance, while still tinged with the notion of the Noble Savage holding out hopelessly against Progress, is leagues away from Cather's depictions of the doomed Ácoma or the extinct cliffside civilization in The Professor's House. Manuelito and Eusabio are admirable humans who make their own decisions, and are capable of change. Significantly, Manuelito's story ends, not with his death at the hands of the US cavalry, but with the return of his people to the land he has defended. And, equally significantly, the very last words out of the dying Latour's mouth are these: "I do not believe, as I once did, that the Indian will perish. I believe that God will preserve him."
Death Comes for the Archbishop definitely reflects the casual racism of its time; I haven't even touched on the depictions of Mexicans in the novel. But I also think it reflects an interesting moment in American history, when white culture was beginning, perhaps, to fumble towards a recognition of the shared complexity and humanity of Native Americans - toward an acknowledgment that these are living, dynamic people, not merely signposts on the road to the past.
I had not read Cather before, and I must say that this was a lovely introduction to her. The writing is descriptive and beautiful, the characters fully fleshed, and the pacing slow and languid, but not boring. It reads almost like a collection of linked stories - brief dips in and out of the life of two priests in the newly acquired territory of New Mexico. Cather's writing brings the setting to life, making it a main character in the book.
Bishop Jean Latour and his vicar, Joseph Vaillant have been friends for years, beginning in France where they took their vows and continuing into the New World where they serve first in Ohio before being sent to New Mexico. This is an historic time for New Mexico, and Latour has been chosen to take charge of the diocese in this harsh terrain. He must battle more than the landscape in his travels - just getting there is not easy, taking him almost a year, but when he finally arrives, the priests already there refuse to recognize his authority. Once he is established, he still has his hands full as he must deal with priests who place greed above goodwill, serving themselves above others and refusing to follow the tenets of the faith. And he must bridge the gap between cultures as this new territory holds Mexicans, white settlers, and different Native American tribes. Luckily, he has brought along Vaillant as his vicar, and Vaillant is like a mirror image of Latour - they both have good hearts and a love for serving God, but they bring different gifts to the table. Vaillant is outgoing and easy to know where Latour is is quieter and more reserved. Together they make a formidable team.
Cather's writing spoke to me. She made the landscape a living, breathing entity, and made quiet observations that held truth. I liked how she gave us something to think about when reflecting on the fact that the Native Americans became a part of their landscape, working tirelessly not to mark it or change it in any permanent way, while the settlers from other cultures worked to make the landscape a part of them, purposefully setting out to change or adapt it and to leave a permanent mark of themselves upon it. As I was reading I kept thinking what a good job Cather was doing, how true to life her story felt - there is a reason for that. Cather based her story on the real life of French missionary Jean-Baptiste Lamy. And the cathedral that Latour built? Yep. It's real - it's the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.
He has seen his Bishopric grow, but in its growth it has remained the same. "The Mexicans were always Mexicans, the Indians were always Indians." His tenure spanned an era: "he had come with the buffalo, and he had lived to see railway trains running into Santa Fe." But he misses the connection of the railway with the shrinking of the West that timely brings Eusabio the Navajo to his deathbed. He can say, "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." But he has advanced neither cause even, for the latter, after a personal plea from the Navajo leader. When his death bell tolls, it tolls for those within hearing.
What a contrast with Father Vaillant. His death in Colorado was announced as far east as Chicago and his Vicar, there on travel and from his own deathbed, rushed to the funeral, joining a "National Convention" of mourners. Universally loved, pushing the boundaries of good taste (and possibly a few legalisms), all in a righteous cause.
The Death chapter contains the bookends of the Archbishop's life--the ones preceding, little pocket books of the same life. And the final judgment? "Of the two young priests who set forth from Riom that morning in early spring, Jean Latour had seemed the one so much more likely to succeed in a missionary's life...the authorities had been very doubtful of Joseph's fitness for the hardships...Yet in the long test of years it was that frail body that had endured more and accomplished more."
What was the worth of the prelate? More so than the legacy of the Cathedral of Sante Fe, it was the tiniest of tipping factors--his support of Joseph "in a certain field outside Riom on the fateful day," his giving free rein to Joseph to minister to the faithful of Tucson, his recall of Joseph to Santa Fe in time to accept the challenge of Colorado. And in these he, perhaps, was more agent than prime mover.
This is not a fast-paced book. However, Cather's pacing seems to match well the story that she tells. And her beautiful language deserves to be savored.
The point of view is entirely that of the Archbishop, a French missionary priest who becomes the first Archbishop of Santa Fe. His Catholicism is presupposed and entirely in the background. The issues he faces are administrative and organizational: how to secure obedience from the existing Indian and Mexican congregations and their priests, how to combine these elements with newly arriving American Catholics, how to run the household and feed visitors, how to fund the new Cathedral. More interesting than any plot details are the immense journeys the priests have to make.
The book is a series of widely separated episodes, each of which could almost be a short story in its own right. I thought the Prologue, set in Rome, contained the promise of a long-term plot device, when the cardinals discuss a painting by El Greco that has gone missing somewhere in the territory to which they are sending the promising young French missionary. But no: the missing painting is never mentioned again.
I have always loved Willa Cather's ability to make the settings of her books come alive so that they become a character in the book. It is true of the Midwestern prairie in O Pioneers and My Antonia and it is true of the New Mexico Desert in Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Death Comes for the Archbishop is the tale of one devoted man and his small but meaningful impact on the world. The pivotal moment in the book comes near the end when the dieing Father Latour remembers a scene from his youth wherein we convinces his best friend and fellow priest, Father Vaillant, to leave his native France to serve as a missionary. Father Vaillant, it turns out, is the much more gregarious and well-liked missionary even though Father Latour holds positions of higher status. It seems that Father Latour performed his greatest work when we convinced the man who would reach thousands to leave his home and dedicate himself to the church.
Father Latour does not have an easy time establishing his authority in Santa Fé. He finds himself vehemently opposed by the Mexican Catholics who are used to a less pious and more raucous brand of Christianity. Resistant, too, are the Indian tribes who are the original settlers of the land. Still, their aloof respect for Latour and his fellow priest, Father Joseph, is a welcome improvement over the massacres inflicted upon missionaries in the early days of American settlement. He even manages to fulfill his dream of building a grand cathedral in the city where he would live out the final forty-some years of his life.
Cather tells her story more as a series of loosely linked vignettes rather than a solid narrative. Reading it was like watching dancers under a strobe light; each flash catches the bodies in a different position but each seemingly isolated movement is compiled into a smoothly flowing whole. I enjoyed the effect, but readers more attuned to linear storytelling might chafe at the treatment.
I’ve never experienced the New Mexico landscape in person (yet!), but Cather manages to convey the cascade of colors and shapes that fill the horizon. I found myself repeatedly making notes of page numbers where particularly beautiful descriptions were found. I’ll confine myself to just one, from late in the novel:
The ride back to Santa Fé was something under four hundred miles. The weather alternated between blinding sand-storms and brilliant sunlight. The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still — and 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!
"Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky." That sentence alone would have earned Cather the 4½ stars, if not for the fact that there are others nearly as wonderful on every other page.
Taking place in New Mexico in the mid-19th century, we follow the lives of French Catholic priests who come and take over where the Spanish priests left off when New Mexico became a state. We see how three cultures blend and weave in this most extraordinary scenery - French, Mexicans, and Native Americans.
What I love about Cather's books is how she chooses words to compliment a description. Not only do I see what she is describing, I feel the peace and serenity of the place.
This book is presented as a series of vignettes as the priests meet various characters (Kit Carson was one), travel the area, and build churches, cultivate trees, and make their marks in history.
There are nine different "books" and each is like a short story, sometimes focusing on Latour and other times on his boyhood friend, Father Joseph Vaillant (who has followed him from France to the American West), or on various inhabitants of the diocese. This jumping around made it a little hard for me to get into the novel at first but I was gradually drawn into the rhythm of life in the desert Southwest in the 1800s.
Latour has been sent by the authorities in Rome to impose order on, and "civilize," an enormous territory that is home to a mix of cultures--native American, Mexican and Spanish. In his travels to various outposts in his diocese, he comes to appreciate these different cultures and work with them rather than trying to change them. "Father Latour judged that, just as it was the white man's way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark of memorial of his sojurn), it was the Indian's way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or birds through the air." (p 232-3) There is a beautiful scene in the book when Latour and his native American guide get caught in a blizzard and have to spend the night in a cave used by the Indians for ancient ceremonies. Latour is asked to keep the location of the cave a secret and he does.
The thing I loved the most about this book was the way Cather makes the landscape a character in the story. I read somewhere that her writing about the Southwest is the equivalent of Georgia O'Keefe's paintings. The following is one of my favorite passages about the New Mexican landscape:
"The ride back to Sante Fe was something under four hundred miles. The weather alternated between blinding sand-storms and brilliant sunshine. The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still,--and 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!" (p 232)
I would highly recommend this book and am giving it 4 1/2 stars.
Fathers Latour and Vaillant are two Auvergnac priest charged with managing the newly-American diocese of New Mexico. Criss-crossing this massive new territory exposes the priests to all manner of heroes and villains; whether it be the generous Indians or venal priests. The years pass, and the only constant is their faith.
Cather has said she was going for almost a legendary tone with Death Comes To The Archbishop, and it's true there is a fable-like quality to the small stories that are spun into a novel. The two priests are practically saintly - though not in the sense it strains credulity - and the other characters are so well-rendered there is no obfuscation to any aspect of their natures.
In this sense; this quiet, romantic West is the precursor to a type of Great American Novel that we see from people like Larry McMurty, and even in a way I think the gentle affections of Garrison Keillor and the like (though tonally this book is quite different to Keillor).
The flip side to this, is that Death Comes For The Archbishop is definitely a product of its time - and the narrative itself is a product of an even earlier time. This is not a political novel; critics may find its noble savages and simple - if not simplistic - take on race and other relations at best somewhat corny and at worst ahistorical whitewashing.
But, I can't be too hard on it, myself. Death Comes For The Archbishop isn't trying to be that kind of novel, and what it trying to be, it achieves with a spare, almost elegant perfection. The human, warm characters are easy to like, and their decades-long journey is told with clean, economical, finely-polished prose. This book isn't for everyone, but those with an open mind, an affection for the wide vistas and twisted arroyos of the West, and an appreciation of fine, thoughtful prose will find much in this slim volume to reward them.
It's probably obvious by now that I loved this book. I was drawn in and held by it. It's only 300 pages and I wanted it to go on forever. I haven't read Cather since I was 14 years old. I'm afraid to read other works because I don't want this one pushed from my mind.
Now, I know this book was written in 1927, and I know that the setting is in the New Mexico territory from about mid 1850s to 1888, but I just cannot stomach the superior European attitude of this book and its main characters.
The educated are all French Jesuits, Spaniards or the occasional Anglo (Kit Carson). The Native Indian are described as noble, loyal, superstitious but deeply spiritual.
But, the Mexicans? Oh my God. It just gives me a stomach ache. The Mexican priests are slovenly, avaricious, gluttonous, vain, greedy, prideful, barely short of evil. Fathers Lucero and Martinez have robbed their parishioners for years – Lucero amasses several hundred THOUSAND dollars. All this money goes to the church “to say masses for the repose” of the priests’ souls. While the parishioners are left to their poverty and hard scrabbled lives, the church is enriched. Wouldn’t it have been better for the Bishop to still say the masses but give the riches back to those from whom it had been wrested?
The Mexican people, we are told, are like children who need guidance. At one point (p 226) LaTour is described as being less quick to learn Spanish than Valliant. But that’s okay for LaTour “To communicate with peons, he was quite willing to speak like a peon.” Only the Mexican women seem to have any virtues at all … but mostly as faithful housekeepers, and willing to sacrifice what little they have to glorify the Church. (They even do so to help Valliant build his Denver church when his own parishioners won’t give anything.) But I guess this is how the Catholic Church has always operated – the poorest give the most.
So, this book just makes me sick. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
I give the book 2.5*.