Death Comes for the Archbishop

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Death Comes for the Archbishop

Willa Cather

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Published in 1927 in New York, Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop is based on the actual lives of Archbishop Lamy, the first bishop of New Mexico, and his vicar, Father Joseph Machebeuf. Both men were from France. When Cather came across Father Joseph Howlett's biography of Machebeuf (published in 1908), she was inspired by the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of pioneer priests and missionaries in New Mexico. Howlett's biography included letters Machebeuf wrote home to his sister, a nun. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Lamy becomes Bishop Jean Marie Latour, and Machebeuf becomes Father Joseph Vaillant. Although the novel is based on historical figures and information, the bulk of the book is fictionalized. Without the factual information and the insights of Machebeuf's biography, however, Cather may not have been inspired to write the book, nor would she likely have been able to construct such believable, complex characters.

Set in the second half of the nineteenth century, Death Comes for the Archbishop spans almost forty years in the life of Bishop Latour. It is an episodic narrative that shows how the French priest gradually wins the trust and respect of the natives, and brings order to the Catholic Church in the Southwest. The novel is peopled with numerous minor characters who function to represent and relate the culture, folklore, history, and belief systems of the Mexican and Indian people in New Mexico. The novel is also known for its rich descriptions of landscape and its role in the lives of the people who live among it.

Author Biography

Wilella ("Willa") Cather was born December 7, 1873, in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, the eldest of seven children. She spent much of her early childhood on her grandfather's sheep farm, where her energy and imagination found outlets in her rural surroundings. Her grandmother took an active role in her education, teaching her to read and appreciate language. Cather's fascination with stories drew her to gatherings of local men and women, who kept alive a rich oral tradition.

In 1883, the sheep farm burned down, and Cather's family moved to Nebraska. Surrounded by the vast landscape, Cather first reacted with fear and discomfort. According to many biographers, this move proved to be a defining experience in Cather's life. After a year of homesteading, Cather's father moved the family to the small town of Red Cloud and opened a loan and mortgage business.

As a teenager Cather rejected traditional femininity. She cut her hair short, wore boys' clothes, and indulged her interest in medicine by performing experiments and dissections. These unusual behaviors were neither understood nor accepted by the community of Red Cloud, and when Cather graduated in 1890, she immediately left for Lincoln to attend the University of Nebraska.

In college Cather discovered her love of journalism. She contributed columns and theater reviews to local papers to support herself so she could stay in school despite an economic downturn. She graduated in 1895. Her experience as a journalist took her to Pittsburgh, where she edited and wrote for Home Monthly. When new owners bought the magazine, she resigned but continued writing drama reviews for a local newspaper. In 1903 Cather met Edith Lewis, who became Cather's lifetime companion. Cather accepted a position with McClure's in New York so she could be with Lewis. While on assignment in Boston for McClure's, Cather met the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett, who became her literary mentor. After the shock of Jewett's death in 1909, Cather continued to work for McClure's as she honed her fiction. In 1911 Cather left the magazine and committed herself to a new career as a novelist and short-story writer, at the age of thirty-seven.

In 1912 Cather accompanied her brother to the American Southwest. She was taken by the canyons, sweeping sky, folklore, and Native American ruins. The following year, O Pioneers! was published, the second of her novel-length works. Its critical success was followed by other novels such as My Ántonia (1918), A Lost Lady (1923), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), all of which are still widely read today. In 1923 Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for One of Ours (1922). Although scholars find it difficult to categorize Cather's work, her unique voice, sense of setting, and complex characterization explain her continued popularity among readers and academics alike.

While sleeping on the afternoon of April 24, 1947, Cather suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that took her life. She is buried in Jeffrey, New Hampshire, where her tombstone features a quote from My Ántonia: "That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."

Plot Summary


Death Comes for the Archbishop opens in 1848 in Rome, where three cardinals and a missionary bishop from America are discussing the situation of the Catholic Church in America. The missionary describes the neglect in New Mexico and the need for a young, strong, devoted priest to take charge and bring order to the region. They decide to send Father Jean Marie Latour, a thirty-five-year-old priest currently serving in Ontario, Canada.

Book 1: The Vicar Apostolic

It is now 1851 and Latour is making his way across the New Mexican terrain. He is exhausted, thirsty, and lost, but stops to pray before a tree in the shape of a cross. Soon he finds water, and a Mexican girl leads him to a nearby town. Latour performs long-overdue marriages and baptisms and continues on his way. He is returning to Santa Fe from Durango, Mexico, where he obtained proof of his church authority. As the apostolic vicar of New Mexico, Latour's seat is to be in Santa Fe, but when he and his lifelong friend Father Joseph Vaillant arrive, they are dismissed. Now, with proof from the bishop in Durango, Latour is prepared to assume authority. Arriving in Santa Fe, Latour discovers that in his absence the ugly yet lovable Vaillant has not only won the trust of the people, but has arranged for the previous priest to return to Mexico.

Book 2: Missionary Journeys

Father Vaillant is returning from a journey to Albuquerque and stops at a large ranch owned by Manuel Lujon. Lujon welcomes Vaillant, who performs the sacraments of marriage and baptism for his workers. Before leaving, Vaillant manages to talk Lujon out of his two beautiful cream-colored mules, one for himself and one for Latour.

On a trip to Mora, Latour and Vaillant stop at a rundown home to spend the night. They sense something evil about Buck Scales, the man who lives there, and when his meek Mexican wife warns them that Scales will kill them, they leave in haste and make it to Mora. They fear for the life of the woman who saved them. The next morning, they find that she escaped and got to Mora safely. Her name is Magdalena Valdez. She says that Scales has killed four other travelers and all three of their children. He is captured, jailed, and later hanged. Latour has befriended Kit Carson, a well-known scout. Carson takes Magdalena to his home, where his wife can care for her. She later goes to help a small group of nuns start a school for girls.

Book 3: The Mass at Ácoma

Determined to know his diocese better, Latour enlists a young Indian guide, Jacinto, to take him to the surrounding Indian missions. When they arrive in Albuquerque, Latour finds that the scandalous rumors about the priest, Father Gallegos, are true. He decides that Gallegos must be replaced.

Latour and Jacinto continue their journey, visiting small missions where Latour performs sacraments and holds Mass. Along the way, Latour visits various missions and pueblos, learning more about the people and their past.

Book 4: Snake Root

Vaillant replaces Father Gallegos in Albuquerque. When Vaillant does not return from a long journey, a messenger informs Latour that Vaillant has black measles. Latour and Jacinto set out at once. They encounter a terrible snowstorm, and Jacinto leads them to a secret Indian cave. Jacinto entreats Latour never to mention this place to anyone. Latour wonders if this is the cave significant to Jacinto's people's snake worship. The men sleep safely through the night and continue their trip. Delighted, Latour finds that Vaillant has recovered.

Book 5: Padre Martinez

Latour and Jacinto go to Taos to meet the notorious Father Martinez, who has a reputation as being selfish, materialistic, tyrannical, and cruel. Upon entering his home, Latour meets Trinidad, a young monk who is studying to be a priest. Trinidad is lazy, dull, and gluttonous. Latour and Martinez debate the authority of the church in New Mexico, Martinez claiming that in the new world, Rome has little relevance or power, while Latour heartily disagrees. Martinez threatens that if dismissed, he will take his numerous loyal followers and start his own church.

Latour has been called to Rome, and when he returns, he brings back new missionary priests. One, Father Taladrid, replaces Martinez, although Martinez retains minor duties. After a power struggle, Martinez and his longtime crony Father Lucero start their own church. Martinez and Lucero have a rocky past, but they are equally irreverent toward the church.

Latour sends Vaillant to deliver letters of excommunication to Martinez and Lucero, and Martinez dies shortly thereafter. Lucero's heath declines, and when he kills a burglar in his home, he never recovers from the trauma. Vaillant goes to Lucero's deathbed and delivers last rites to the repentant Lucero, but not before the dying priest tells him of a buried hoard. After Lucero's death, the hoard is recovered, and totals more than twenty thousand dollars.

Book 6: Dona Isabella

Latour decides to build a cathedral, and finds patrons in the wealthy Don Antonio Olivares and his young wife Isabella. When Olivares dies later in the year, his brothers set out to take the inheritance. They make the argument that Isabella is not old enough to be the mother of Olivares's daughter. Isabella would rather forfeit the entire inheritance than admit her true age. Latour and Vaillant plead with her to tell the truth and enjoy a comfortable future. She finally agrees and is granted the inheritance.

Book 7: The Great Diocese

After a journey and a long illness, Vaillant recovers in Santa Fe. Although Latour invites Vaillant to extend his stay, Vaillant is anxious to get back to his people.

Latour goes to visit Eusabio, an important man in the Navajo community who has lost his son. When Jacinto is sent to ask Vaillant to visit Santa Fe, Eusabio accompanies Latour back home. The two men enjoy traveling together and find that they have much in common.

Book 8: Gold Under Pike's Peak

With Vaillant in Santa Fe, Latour shows him a nearby golden mountainside where they will get the stone for the cathedral. Latour also wants a French builder so the style will be magnificent. Vaillant believes the cathedral is worthwhile, but does not share his friend's insistence on grand style.

Latour receives a letter about a gold rush in Colorado. Because so many people have come to the area, there is a need for priests. This area will fall under his jurisdiction, so Latour decides to send Vaillant. Vaillant prepares for his mission, and the parting is bittersweet. Latour fears he may not see his dear friend again, but he encourages him in his calling.

Over the years, Vaillant returns to New Mexico to visit and to see Latour made archbishop. Vaillant's travels and work in Colorado are arduous and demanding, but he is dedicated and perseveres.

Book 9: Death Comes for the Archbishop

In his old age, Latour retires to a home outside Santa Fe. He often meets with new priests to educate them on language and customs. In 1885 a young man named Bernard Ducrot comes to care for Latour.

After a busy December in 1888, Latour is caught in a January rainstorm and falls ill. He sends word to the new archbishop in Santa Fe that he would like to return there to die. Although Ducrot dismisses the idea that the man could die of a cold, Latour has made up his mind.

In his final days Latour recalls memories of his years in New Mexico. He remembers legends, people, and Vaillant, who has already passed away. As he grows weaker, he sleeps more and eats less, and his final thoughts are of Vaillant. The next morning, his body is laid before the altar in his cathedral.


Bernard Ducrot

Bernard Ducrot is a young priest who comes to Latour's aid in his old age. Ducrot is an admirer of Latour's work in the Southwest, and Latour becomes a fatherly figure to him. Ducrot accompanies Latour when he makes his final trip to Santa Fe to die.

Father Gallegos

Father Gallegos is the priest in Albuquerque when Latour arrives in New Mexico. Latour hears of his scandalous behavior, all of which is confirmed. Gallegos is robust and lively, favoring parties over serious religious observance. He enjoys dancing all night, playing cards, and accepting the patronage of a local widow. He makes no effort to minister to his people's spiritual lives, nor does he go out to neighboring villages to attend to ceremonial duties for those people. When Latour visits, he pretends to have an injury to his foot, even though he spent all night dancing. He does this so that Latour will not expect his company as he travels to the neighboring villages. Gallegos is the first priest Latour replaces as he sets about "cleaning house" in his diocese. Father Vaillant takes his place.


Jacinto is a young Pecos Indian guide who accompanies Latour on his journeys to the missions and pueblos of New Mexico. He has a wife and a sick baby at home, but he is highly attentive to his duties as Latour's guide. Jacinto knows the area very well, and his skills and companionship are important to Latour's outings. The two men do not share all the same religious views, but they respect each other for their devotion to their beliefs. Jacinto's affection for Latour is evident when he takes him to a secret Indian cave unknown to anyone outside the tribe. Because Latour understands the importance of the secret, he honors Jacinto's request never to mention it to anyone.

Jean Marie Latour

While working in Canada, Father Jean Marie Latour is appointed the new vicar apostolic of New Mexico, although he eventually ascends to the title of archbishop. His mantle is heavy, as it is his responsibility to bring order to the Catholic Church's presence in the American Southwest. When he arrives, some of the most influential priests are corrupt and irreverent. Gradually, Latour succeeds in replacing them with more suitable but equally strong priests.

Latour misses his home of France, and is often reminded of home by the landscape of New Mexico. He is refined and educated, but humble. He enjoys the arts, but does not resent missing such pleasures of home. Instead, he embraces the beauty and culture of his new home. He seeks to win over the people of New Mexico not by force, but by patience, sincerity, and faith. Latour is a servant at heart, first to the church and then to his people. He is kind, dedicated, serious, strong, and deeply devoted.

Throughout the novel, Cather depicts Latour as a very compassionate man. He is sensitive to Magdalena's terror that her husband will kill her, pained to have forced Isabella to reveal her age, and hurt by Eusabio's loss of his son. And when Vaillant is torn between duty and friendship before leaving for Colorado, Latour gives him the encouragement he needs to follow his calling in good faith.

Latour finds that among the differences between his faith and that of the native people, there are important similarities. The Indians, he finds, have a deep respect for tradition and ceremony. They also believe wholeheartedly in their religious views and are stubborn in compromising them. He finds them honorable and reverent, qualities he respects. As for the Mexicans in his diocese, he finds them mainly in need of good leadership. They are faithful, but many have been without respectable priests to guide them in their spiritual walks.

Just as Latour appreciates art and culture, he is very interested in history. He seeks reliable information about the history of the region that is his new home, and he becomes part of changing it for the better (as when he helps the Navajos regain their land). As much as he despises Father Martinez's ways, he admires his knowledge of the history of Taos. In his final days, Latour recites much of the history he has learned to Ducrot, so future generations will benefit from it. A man of balance, Latour also has an eye toward the future. From the time of his arrival in New Mexico, he takes steps to make the future of the land and the church better, and he makes his dream of building a cathedral a reality.

Antonio Jose Martinez

Father Martinez is the priest in Taos. He is very powerful and influential, and despite his tyrannical ways, has a faithful following. He is indulgent, materialistic, and very disrespectful of the church's authority. He has children in town and claims that celibacy is not a necessity for the priesthood. Martinez allows a young monk named Trinidad to live with him as he ostensibly studies to become a priest. Trinidad is lazy and gluttonous, but Martinez makes no effort to shape the young man's character. Martinez also has a reputation for being cruel to the Indians, even swindling seven of them out of their land before he lets them hang for his own crime.

Martinez tells Latour that if he tries to replace him, he will simply start his own church and take all the people of Taos with him. When this in fact happens, Latour is forced to excommunicate Martinez and his cohort. Martinez dies not long after, but he never repents of his wicked ways. His death, however, enables the new priest to assume full control.

Joseph Vaillant

Father Joseph Vaillant is Latour's longtime friend and supporter. Together they go to New Mexico to begin the hard work of bringing order to the region. Their friendship is the most important personal relationship in their lives, and Vaillant proves to be selfless, loyal, encouraging, and wise. He can also be impulsive, as when he gets in financial trouble for the church and must go to Rome to explain himself.

Vaillant is an ugly man who readily makes friends with his congenial personality. People are drawn to him and trust him, which makes him effective as a priest. When Latour assigns Vaillant to become the new priest in Albuquerque and later to the miners in Colorado, Vaillant is enthusiastic about the challenges. In both cases, his dedication, magnetism, and faith contribute to his success.

Latour admires Vaillant for his humility and willingness to do whatever is necessary to benefit the church. He begs when necessary and cajoles when necessary, but always seems to get what he needs. His lack of pride, however, prevents him from feeling compassion for Isabella when she resists revealing her real age to the court. He judges her as vain, while Latour has compassion for the woman's sense of privacy. Still, Vaillant is warm-hearted and accepting, even when he does not agree or understand someone's motives.



Because the novel relates the stories of Latour's missionary journeys throughout New Mexico, the theme of faith is significant. Without the motivation of his personal faith, Latour would lack the drive to endure the physical difficulties and rejection he must overcome to fulfill his mission. Latour is deeply devoted to his faith, making certain to pray, read, and reflect every day. When his thoughts have wandered from religious matters for too long, he feels urgency to pray or meditate. Never does the reader find that Latour wavers from his "calling" to the priesthood. He does not wonder what it would be like to have any other life, and he does not discuss his life prior to joining the priesthood. He gladly sacrifices comfort, family, wealth, and social opportunities for his vocation.

As a counterpoint to Latour's faith is that of the Native Americans in the area. Their beliefs vary from pueblo to pueblo, but they are marked by superstition and the worship of animals and deities. Their faith in their belief systems is at times as strong as Latour's is to his Catholicism. Zeb Orchard, a trader well acquainted with the natives and their beliefs, tells Latour that he "might make good Catholics among the Indians, but he would never separate them from their own beliefs." Still, what Latour and the Indians have in common is a strong tradition and solid faith.

Topics For Further Study

  1. Research the structure and hierarchy of the Catholic Church. For example, what are dioceses? And what are bishops, vicars, and cardinals? How do religious orders fit into the structure? Create an easy-to-follow chart that explains the distribution of authority and functions within the church. Include a brief write-up of how this chart sheds light on at least one issue in the novel.
  2. Choose one southwestern Native American tribe, and research its belief system. Prepare a presentation in which you explain the tribe's religious views, and compare and contrast them with Catholicism. In which areas would you expect Latour and Vaillant to have the least trouble making converts? In which areas would you expect the most resistance?
  3. Artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Rhonda Angel, Ritch Gaiti, Gary Myers, and Albert Dreher have found inspiration in the land and culture of the Southwest. Choose six works (by the same or different artists) that somehow illustrate Death Comes for the Archbishop. Create a museum guide as if these works were on display specifically to complement the novel. Write explanations (ideally with some quoted material from the novel) to help museum-goers appreciate the exhibit.
  4. Kit Carson is a good friend to Latour in the novel. Read about this real-life legend and write five journal entries as if he were writing about Latour and Vaillant. Include a brief biographical profile as an introduction to your work.


In order for Latour to be a meaningful Catholic presence in New Mexico, he must not only earn the trust of the Mexicans, Americans, and Indians living there, but he must also earn the trust of the existing church leaders. He soon finds that earning this trust, especially that of the native people, will not be easy. They have endured a brutal and unjust past with Europeans, and their distrust is as firm as it is well grounded. Latour regards this challenge as a matter of showing himself to be a man of integrity and sincerity. He ministers to the people and remains humble in public and private. He does not develop elaborate social or political strategies to win them over, but instead relies on his faith and his own character. Although there are many people whose trust he never fully earns, he succeeds in winning the respect of many people, including Eusabio, Kit Carson, the slave girl, and Jacinto.

Similarly, if Latour is to assimilate to life and culture in New Mexico, he has to learn to trust its people and land. If he fails to embrace the ways of the American Southwest—its food, landscape, housing, customs, etc.—he will be too foreign to be effective. He is in an interesting predicament; he is there to assimilate the New Mexicans to his ways, but he must also assimilate to their ways. To pursue this is an act of faith because his future takes an unknown shape. He has to have faith that such a blend of the European Catholic ways and the New Mexico culture will be viable and meaningful.

The issue of trust is also important to Latour on a personal level, as his friendship with Vaillant demonstrates. As is evident throughout the book and in Latour's final thoughts, his bond with Vaillant is among the greatest treasures of his life. Their friendship is based on a long history together that is sustained by openness, encouragement, mutual respect, and deep trust. Latour knows that Vaillant is reliable and can be counted on to provide the support he needs. He is not at all surprised that, upon returning to Santa Fe from Durango, Vaillant has won the confidence of the people there and selflessly prepared for Latour's arrival. Latour's first major challenge as bishop of New Mexico is replacing Gallegos in Albuquerque, so he gives the position to Vaillant. He trusts that Vaillant, with the strength of his personality and integrity, will be able to restore the city's faith community to its proper reverence. Later Latour must decide how to address the need for Catholic leadership in the masses of people in Colorado for the gold rush. A truly challenging mission, he knows that Vaillant is suited to meet the needs of the area and that he will do so willingly. The trust Latour and Vaillant share comes from their hearts and their shared faith.



Throughout Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather presents lavish descriptions of the southwestern landscape. With color and texture, she paints pictures of the mountains, deserts, mesas, plants, and vast skies of the region. She early on establishes the importance of the landscape, devoting the majority of the first, lengthy paragraph to describing the features of the land in which Latour finds himself. The color red is everywhere, a telling insight into the perception of the devout Catholic Latour. Red is the color of passion and suffering, and even in this foreign land, Latour finds the heart of the faith that has brought him there. When, in the next paragraph, he discovers a juniper tree in the shape of a cross, the reader begins to understand how the landscape will play a role in Latour's experience and how he will project himself onto it. Latour is a serene and resilient man, and that tone come across in his landscape descriptions.

As unlikely as it seems, Latour is frequently reminded of the French landscape as he explores New Mexico. Sometimes it is a sweeping view that takes his memory back, and sometimes it is a small detail. This tendency tells the reader two things. It reveals that Latour is drawn to landscape and natural wonders, wherever he is. He notices it and interprets it, usually at an emotional level. It also reveals that Latour is gradually accepting New Mexico as home. Because he sees in New Mexico much of what he loves about his own native land, he is opening himself up to recognizing it as his new home.

The landscape does not just reflect Latour's character and feelings. The Native American culture is very connected to its natural surroundings, and they learn it and build it into their lives. The Mexican people share a similar history of building a lifestyle around the offerings and hardships of the environment. Latour understands the link between the native people and their surroundings, which he observes when he visits Taos. Upon arrival, he and the local priest go to the church, where many people have gathered to kneel and greet them. Women toss down their shawls for Latour to walk on, and other men and women reach for his hand to kiss his ring. Cather writes, "In his own country all this would have been highly distasteful to Jean Marie Latour. Here, these demonstrations seemed a part of the high colour that was in the landscape and gardens, in the flaming cactus and the gaudily decorated altars." Latour accepts their behavior not out of pride or vanity, but out of understanding that the people are consistent with the landscape that surrounds them.

Narrative Structure

The plot structure of Death Comes for the Archbishop is episodic, stringing together a series of experiences, encounters, and mini-adventures that build on each other in that they develop Latour's character and give the reader a broad view of the region's people and culture. The novel begins with the decision to send Latour to New Mexico to bring order to the church presence and convert native people, then a lengthy middle follows relating Latour's and Vaillant's efforts, and the story ends with Latour dying after making significant progress over a forty-one-year time span. Cather relies on human interest and characterization to keep the reader invested in the story, rather than exciting plot twists or great conflicts.

Historical Novel

Death Comes for the Archbishop is considered a historical novel because it is a fictional story that includes historical people and events. While much of the story is fictionalized, it includes such historical figures as Kit Carson and Father Martinez, and the two main characters are based on actual missionary priests in New Mexico. In addition, references to such historical events as the Bent massacre and the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 contribute to the historic elements of the novel. Cather brings authenticity to her novel by incorporating the region's actual past.

The novel can also be considered a work of historical fiction, which is distinct from the historical novel. Historical fiction refers to a novel set in a different time period than the one in which it was written. Because Death Comes for the Archbishop takes place in the nineteenth century but was written in the twentieth century, it falls into the category.

Historical Context

America in the 1920s

Known as the "Jazz Age," the 1920s in America is remembered as a time of prosperity and high times. It was, in many ways, a period of excess. Flappers personified the carefree attitude of the youthful generations, enjoying all-night parties with drinking and dancing. Women in general enjoyed new social freedoms as they were allowed to vote, pursue education, and dress more to individual tastes. American big business was generally successful, but with consequences. Sinclair Lewis published his cautionary tale Babbitt, in which fictional American tycoon George F. Babbitt acquires wealth at the expense of his own humanity.

The 1920s also represented an introspective period for Americans. Having endured World War I, Americans were more inclined to attend to domestic needs rather than worry about Europe's postwar struggles. While the postwar years were an economic boon to many Americans, to others they were years of hardship. Miners and farmers, for example, struggled to make ends meet, and many were forced into other occupations altogether. The postwar years were also characterized by cynicism, as prohibition (making alcohol illegal) was found to be unenforceable and most Americans regarded the Bolsheviks involved in the Russian Revolution as either threatening or naïve.

In literature America saw the Harlem Renaissance and the Southern Renaissance play out in the 1920s. These movements signaled that America was opening itself up to new perspectives and experiences. The Harlem Renaissance represented the black experience in America and included such writers as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer. The Southern Renaissance represented a retrospective view of prewar America. Originating in Virginia, the movement supported southern writers such as William Faulkner, DuBose Heyward, and Pulitzer Prize–winning Julia Peterkin. In both movements, women's voices were an important component of the collective voice.

History of New Mexico

According to artifacts found in a cave near Albuquerque, the state of New Mexico has been inhabited for about 20,000 years. The earliest people were nomadic, and later farmers settled in the area. A group of seminomadic people known as the Basket Makers became the Anasazi cliff dwellers. They were the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians of recent past and today. The Pueblo Indians mainly lived along the Rio Grande River, and the Navajo Indians became farmers and sheepherders in the northwestern region of the state. The two tribes did not always coexist peacefully. The nomadic Apache Indians arrived in the thirteenth century (about the time the Navajo arrived) and seriously threatened Europeans and Mexicans who came to New Mexico in later years.

The first European exploration of New Mexico was in 1540 by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Subsequent expeditions were made by other Spanish explorers, who gradually built settlements until the 1800s. When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, New Mexico became a Mexican land. The next three decades were tumultuous, with revolts and resistance to the Mexican government. Eventually New Mexico became an American holding in 1850 (the year before Father Latour arrives in Death Comes for the Archbishop). Little changed for those living in New Mexico; there were ongoing territorial disputes and struggles with authority. As Americans began to arrive in New Mexico to establish new homes, cultures clashed.

In 1879 the railroad came to New Mexico, bringing economic opportunities for its inhabitants. As the century neared to a close, the American Indians and the Anglo-Americans were finally learning to coexist. In 1912 New Mexico officially became a state.

The twentieth century saw great change in New Mexico. Natural resources were discovered and mined or drilled, and tourism brought Americans to visit the new state. The manufacturing and defense industries also found homes in New Mexico. In the twentieth century the state is thoroughly modern.

Compare & Contrast

  1. 1850s: The population of New Mexico is almost exclusively Native American and Mexican. It becomes a U.S. state in 1851, but Anglos are not accepted until close to the end of the century.

    1920s: The Native American population in New Mexico is 19,500. This number is more than double what it was in 1890.

    Today: The Native American population in New Mexico is estimated at 169,000, an increase of more than 30,000 since 1990.

  2. 1850s: Immigration numbers begin to swell in the U.S., particularly from Ireland, Germany, and Sweden.

    1920s: This decade marks the beginning of an upswell of "nativist" sentiment. A Federal program is initiated to "repatriate" an estimated half million Mexicans and Mexican Americans living in the U.S. in order to free up jobs for "American" workers (i.e., people of non-Mexican descent). This campaign of forced immigration uproots people (many of whom are American citizens) in various states throughout the U.S.

    Today: Movements are being initiated to set up Federal investigation committees on the issue of forced repatriation, lawsuits for redress are beginning to emerge in state and national courts, and information and personal stories about this buried chapter of history are beginning to emerge.

  3. 1850s: There are very few female authors in American literature. The major writers of the day are Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe. A few women such as Kate Chopin and Harriet Beecher Stowe enjoy success, but the overall feminine presence is lacking.

    1920s: Although the literature of the era is largely associated with authors such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, women are becoming more respected as a literary presence.

    Today: Female authors are as common as male authors. Many of the bestselling and most respected authors are women, including Barbara Kingsolver, J. K. Rowling, Patricia Cornwell, and Anne Rice.

Critical Overview

When Death Comes for the Archbishop was published in 1927, readers and critics alike embraced the novel. Cather's love of the Southwest and its inhabitants was clear, and readers came to share her affection for the region. In American Writers, Volume 1, Dorothy Van Ghent observes, "Most of the episodes evoke the virtue of place, textures of earth and weather that are the basis of all sense of reality, and the relationships of human generations silently handing down their wisdom of place." Brad Hooper in Booklist remarks that Death Comes for the Archbishop is a story told "in a beautifully lyrical style." Cather's captivating language was intentional and hard-earned, according to Van Ghent, who notes that every day after writing, Cather went alone into the woods to read it aloud for sound and rhythm.

Cather's characters and their struggles are another topic of critical commentary. In American Heritage, Alexander O. Boulton writes, "Willa Cather's picture of the Southwest and its early inhabitants isn't easy to shake off, even today. She saw a racial contest where modern ideas struggled against ancient fears and superstitions." Van Ghent comments, "the people in the book, the 'strong people of the old deep days of life,' not only have each their legends but have become their own legends."


Jennifer Bussey

Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature, and is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay Bussey explores the specific challenges faced by Bishop Jean Marie Latour when he arrives in New Mexico, and how he gradually overcomes these issues.

When Father Jean Marie Latour arrives in New Mexico as its new bishop, he quickly realizes that there are significant barriers awaiting him. His purpose is to bring order to the Catholic Church in the American Southwest and to win converts among the non-Catholics. The people of New Mexico, however, are not all anxious to embrace the changes he sees as necessary. In order to fulfill his mission and become a respected church authority, he must overcome enormous obstacles. Latour must not only win the trust and respect of the American Indians who have been grossly mistreated by former Europeans and missionaries, he must also overcome the corrupt leadership of some of the current priests. He discovers that he faces the daunting task of overcoming the distant and recent past for the sake of New Mexico's future.

Latour is anxious to know the diverse people of his diocese, so he enlists the help of Jacinto, a young Indian guide who can take him to the area missions and pueblos. Although some groups of people welcome him and respect his authority, others have learned from the past that Europeans cannot be trusted. The cultural, economic, and emotional damage done to these people is almost incomprehensible to Latour, who is a very compassionate man. He understands the Indians' mistrust, but he does not give up trying to prove to them that true men of God are not selfish, cruel, and materialistic. Because Latour has a particular appreciation for history, he is able to take the stories of the past and interpret them as they relate to the present. The more he learns about the violent and unjust past of the Indians in his region, the more he comprehends their deep sadness.

In addition to the mistreatment doled out by European explorers and settlers, past missionaries and priests have been guilty of cruelty to the Indians. This is especially difficult for Latour because not only must he differentiate himself from those who wore the same vestments as he, but he must also come to terms with the fact that his own church's past is responsible for the Indians' plight. Perhaps this is why he is so resolute in working with the U.S. government to restore the Navajos to their rightful land. Although he assumes no personal guilt for past crimes, he may feel a bit of collective guilt that motivates him to right a wrong. Interestingly, some of the Indians generalize the actions of past missionaries and hold tight to their distrust, while others judge each priest individually. Latour hears the story of Father Baltazar, who was a priest among the cliff dwellers in the 1700s. He was overbearing, materialistic, impulsive, and gluttonous. He used Indians to tend to his house, animals, and garden. Over the years, he wielded his power more harshly, but the Indians were afraid to revolt because they did not understand the priest's powers. One night, however, when Baltazar accidentally killed an Indian servant boy in a fit of rage, the tribe gathered for revenge. They tied him up and threw him off the cliff. Despite the years of suffering under his unjust rule, the Indians did not reject the next priest sent to them. That some of the Indians are willing to give each man a chance is a source of hope to a man as kind and honorable as Latour.

The final obstacle Latour faces is that of corruption among his contemporaries. As he learns about the native priests, he learns that two of the most powerful and influential priests, Father Gallegos of Albuquerque and Father Martinez of Taos, are embarrassments to the Catholic Church. The behavior and attitudes of Gallegos and Martinez grossly misrepresent the church, and their irreverence toward its authority and their vows is deeply troubling to Latour. To establish the dignity of his role as bishop of New Mexico, Latour knows he will have to replace these stubborn and powerful men. Again, this challenge is painful to Latour because it is essentially coming from within his own ranks. His love of the church is very deep, and to see it disrespected is difficult for him. In addition, he understands that he must undo the damage inflicted by these wayward priests.

Father Gallegos is a materialistic man who enjoys gambling and dancing. He also has a questionable relationship with a local widow. He has no interest in serving the people of Albuquerque or the surrounding pueblos, as he is too busy hosting and attending festivals completely lacking in religious reverence. Luckily, Latour's decision to replace him with Latour's own friend Father Joseph Vaillant goes unchallenged. Vaillant is able to bring a stop to the parties and initiate serious religious observances.

Father Martinez proves to be a more difficult case. The priest in Taos, Martinez is a tyrannical, materialistic, cruel man with a strange magnetism that compels his followers to obey him. According to local legend, Martinez sent Indians on a massacre. When the Indians were captured, Martinez promised to help them if they would give him their land. Once he had their land, he let them hang. Upon meeting Martinez in person, Latour finds that Martinez is a renegade priest who makes his own rules. He dismisses the notions of celibacy and trying to live as sin-free as possible. Even more astonishing to Latour is Martinez's idea that the church in Rome has no relevance to the way things are in America. When Latour eventually replaces Martinez, Martinez and another renegade priest start their own church and face excommunication. The power struggle is hard-fought by both sides, but Latour eventually wins. In doing so, he overcomes the damage done by Martinez and proves to himself that he is capable of overcoming the scandalous past of his own church. He learns a critical lesson, that he can bring order out of chaos for the sake of his church's future.

In the face of such overwhelming obstacles, how does Latour begin to knock them down? He does it in two seemingly simple ways: he treats the Indians as they should be treated instead of how they have been treated, and he proves to everyone that he is not like past corrupt priests. In these two ways, he eventually wins the trust and respect of many Indians and Mexicans who initially rejected him and his authority. Of course, there remain people in his diocese who are unable to give him the trust he deserves, but the progress he makes is remarkable.

"Latour must not only win the trust and respect of the American Indians who have been grossly mistreated by former Europeans and missionaries, he must also overcome the corrupt leadership of some of the current priests."

First, he treats the Indians with respect and dignity. He comes to them to serve them, not to lord over them. He never tries to use his position to coerce them to his way, but instead attends to their needs. He strives to understand them, not to control them. In book 4, chapter 2, Cather reveals that Latour "was already convinced that neither the white men nor the Mexicans in Santa Fé understood anything about Indian beliefs or the workings of the Indian mind." This attitude motivates him to try to get to know the Indians on their own terms. Jacinto recognizes this and respects Latour for it. In book 3, chapter 2, Cather writes,

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.

When he hears that the influential Navajo Eusabio has lost his only son, Latour's heart breaks for this man. He goes to minister to him in his time of great need, and the two men come to like and respect each other. When Jacinto takes Latour to surrounding missions and pueblos, the priest comes to perform mass and offer sacraments. He never demands changes or gifts; his purpose is to attend to their spiritual needs.

Second, Latour differentiates himself from the corrupt priests of the past (and present). He is humble and kind, asking for little when he is a guest in a home or a pueblo. He knows that in the past some missionaries have expected the best food, clothing, and shelter from their hosts, but Latour is not that kind of man. He also proves he is different by bringing his love for his homeland of France to New Mexico instead of trying to change New Mexico into France. Father Baltazar demonstrated his disdain for New Mexico when he all but enslaved the Indians to create a European setting for himself, complete with gardens that required precious water. The Indians knew Baltazar considered the people and land of New Mexico to be inferior, and they resented it. As soon as they had cause, they stoically bound him and threw him off the cliff to his death. In contrast, Latour embraces the similarities he finds between France and New Mexico, and he develops a deep and genuine love of the Southwest in its own right. He, like the Indians, makes New Mexico his true home.

What Do I Read Next?

  1. Dee Brown's 1970 book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West is read by students, scholars, and history enthusiasts as one of the foremost treatments of the nineteenth-century American Indian experience. Although this book only covers 1860 to 1890, it will give students a better understanding of the early Anglo approach to Native American civilizations in America.
  2. Cather's My Ántonia (1918) is set in Nebraska and told from a male point of view. It is the story of Ántonia, a pioneer woman struggling against the challenges of her surroundings in a time when women enjoyed less freedom that they do today. Considered a classic, this novel is one of Cather's most widely read works.
  3. Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (1992) contains samples of Cather's short fiction, poetry, and literary commentary. Her subject matter is wide-ranging, and students find that Cather is much more than the voice of the American frontier.
  4. Translated by Ruth Butler, Journal of Paul Du Ru, February 1 to May 8, 1700 (1997) relates the experiences of a Jesuit missionary in Louisiana in very early America. In addition to his missionary duties, Du Ru helped explore the area for possible French settlement.

The challenges in New Mexico are daunting to the young Latour, but he is equal to the tasks. By the time of his death, he has brought peaceful and respectable order to a region overrun with chaos and scandal. Amazingly, he manages to overcome some of the awful past of the early Europeans and missionaries in the area, and he does it by strength of character and resolve. Just as impressive as his accomplishments is how he handles them. He never brags or seeks any glory for himself, but instead gives it all to his church and God. The cathedral he builds is a testament not to his own great works, but to the drive and courage supplied through his faith, and the future he is committed to creating for the church is fulfilled.


Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on Death Comes to the Archbishop, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2004.

Pam Fox Kuhlken

In the following essay, Kuhlken explores the symbolic meaning of landscape—specifically the Sangre de Cristo mountains—in Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Two fleeting glimpses of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop have eluded the critical attention of scholars. The first of these two epiphanies appears three-quarters of the way into the narrative, so we too will proceed to this revelation as though traipsing on mules with Cather during one of her pivotal visits to the Southwest. To begin, we will consider why the land is central to the novel's meaning and see how the text's mood is determined by the desert landscape. To appreciate Cather's art is to understand the sanctified nature of the land, which illuminates our own nature at the same time. The novel presents sangre de Cristo as a fact, as the ubiquitous undercurrent of existence. The land, like our nature, may have fallen, yet it has not been conquered but redeemed.

The critical range of relevant scholarship encompasses both secular and religious readings, even secularized religious readings. Many critics argue that Cather's vision is purely secular, with origins and finality in the material realm. Sally Peltier Harvey identifies Cather's use of distinctive garden imagery in Death Comes for the Archbishop as symbolic of a healthy community, yet Harvey mentions this symbol only to supplement her sociopolitical reading of the novel as a text that shows how to establish a happy balance between personal and public needs. It "redefines self-fulfillment in terms of service to and identification with community." In her definition of self-fulfillment—the American Dream—Harvey uses the land as a symbol but omits reference to visions of a landscape imbued with sanctity, and consequently she fails to integrate the landscape into her model of a viable community. For Harvey the land is not spiritually transcendent but a humanist's symbol—the color of vibrant cultural identity—or epic stage for a questing hero.

Other critics ask religious questions and find secular answers. In After Eden: The Secularization of American Space in the Fiction of Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser, Conrad Eugene Ostwalt, Jr. analyzes how the influx of ideas from Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and G. W. F. Hegel, among others, shaped American culture as it entered the twentieth century. Once promising face-to-face encounters with the divine, America, like Eden, had fallen from grace, shifting from sacred to secular, and thus faced the need to redefine its spatial orientation to all that was lost: relationship with the land, relationship with the divine.

Ostwalt argues that in Cather's fiction the frontier embodied otherness. Once this other was apprehended, it lost its ability to disclose the transcendent and sacred. When America became industrialized, the New World became profane: "Secularization of American natural space occurs when characters attempt to reduce the otherness of nature and to control the natural world." In place of a religious other, Ostwalt continues, the land in Cather's fiction embodies divine attributes of mystery, awesome power, beneficence, and ample providence that make human relationships possible. Depleted of transcendence, the land provides a forum for community. What became of religion? "In Cather's secular world, human relationships replace what one loses from the destruction of the sacred environment, namely a relationship with deity." Other people substitute for divine otherness.

Critics like Harvey and Ostwalt find Cather's religion—a relinking with a divine other—in human community. The land is merely the forum. In contrast to Ostwalt's view of a desacralized earth, this essay will argue that the land in Cather's novel, by virtue of creation, is sacred and could no more be profaned than it could lose its properties as earth or the Southwest its distinctively red tint. Previous analyses have shortchanged the novel by over-looking one essential, indestructible component—sangre de Cristo. Death Comes for the Archbishop presents the land as having an irrevocable, redemptive quality: instated at creation, tainted by Eden's die/dye, restained by sangre de Cristo, and sealed by the cross.…

Death Comes for the Archbishop is arguably less a novel than a performance. The role of the guide was first performed by the statue, then by Cather. Like Father Vaillant's letters to his sister, Mother Philomene, in Puy-de-Dome, France, the narrative may also be seen as a long letter to Cather's family back in Red Cloud, Nebraska, telling of "the country, the Indians, the pious Mexican women, the Spanish martyrs of old [,…] of those red deserts." Sharing Cather's adventures, relatives had a stake in her excitement and dread. Or perhaps the text is intended as fireside reading, to be recited by its audience as the French nuns read Vaillant's letters out loud. Either way, it compels more than a visit. It commands immersion, entry into its landscape; reading becomes travel, the experience of stepping through scenes as though on the stones of a path.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is pieced together with adobe bricks, or scenes, made from the clay of Lamy's life and Cather's own experiences. Stemming from her wagon trips, the result is indigenous to the Southwest—native to the adobe earth. Her awakening came when she could view the land as primordial, as though she were one of its first pioneers. One of the most "intelligent and inspiriting" people Cather met in the Southwest was a Belgian priest who told her about the country, the Indians, and their traditions. The breakthrough came as a kind of epiphany: "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" ("On Death" 8). Cather visited the mission in Santa Fe, saw the statue of the missionary, found the history of Lamy in a 1908 biography, met the Belgian priest, and the rest is legend.

Overall, saintliness intrigued Cather more than any particular saint did. As she explained, "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" ("On Death" 9). In contrast to the popular writing of the 1920s, in which, according to Cather, "situation" was all-important, and the general tendency was "to force things up" she undertook writing as a kind of discipline. Hardiness of spirit could not be captured by light prose. Cather cloaked her prose in another mood entirely—the frontier spirit "in which [pioneer priests] accepted the accidents and hardships of a desert country, the joyful energy that kept them going." The language was necessarily "a little stiff, a little formal," with some time-worn phrases. Trite phraseology of the frontier was used as "the note from the piano by which the violinist tunes his instrument"; the narrative's musical quality flows in tune to this analogy. The missionary's mood—heartiness of spirit and joyful energy—became Cather's lodestar: "mood is the thing—all the little figures and stories are mere improvisations that come out of it" ("On Death" 10). Perhaps the most appropriate way to appreciate this amalgam of the Southwest in Death Comes for the Archbishop is through its mood, but Cather's elaborate result surpasses her stated intention.

With incongruous flashbacks to Latour's home in France, we exit linear time in the novel. Time liquefies, helping us to view the efficacious blood of Christ as ubiquitously present since Eden, implied in the moment of creation. In Eden, animals are killed to cover the shamed Adam and Eve; outside of Eden, Abel will be killed by his brother. A bloody battle ends history at Armageddon. Blood soaks the page from Genesis to Revelation. Red also infuses the world of Death Comes for the Archbishop with its scriptural bookends of a Roman garden (Eden) and a New World cathedral (the New Jerusalem).

Red in Cather's novel, however, is gentle and life-giving in its sanctity: there are no unhappy or unjust denouements to the work's nine books. As a sign, blood waters the New World and is the reason missionaries become exiles. It justifies the Christian faith and the Church's presence in the New Mexico territory. Without Christ's death Howlett's biography would be absurd. The blood of creation is sangre de Cristo—part of a holistic plan unfolding with a death as its crux. It is the signpost marking the entrance for Cather into the world of Southwestern missions within Lamy's diocese.

"The Sangre de Cristo mountains remind us of the once-and-for-all sacrificial death and the commission for disciples to spread the gospel, but Death Comes for the Archbishop does not indoctrinate."

Blood's potency in Death Comes for the Archbishop transcends this New World, eluding cultural ruination as well as the Catholic Church's attempt to bridle the power of sangre through ritual, symbol, and text. Because of the vested blood, the land is exempt from conquest. It may change political hands, but it is not vanquished. While the land might be stained carnelian (the color of dried blood) rather than vermilion (the tint of living blood), this dry landscape is no less vital to understanding the mystery of the sacramental nature of sangre de Cristo. For this reason the untouchable, enduring "mood" of the blood is the most effective vehicle for a writer trying to "present the experiences and emotions of a group of people by the light of [her] own" ("On Death" 13). The characters and setting unite in a pervading bond of blood that culminates in two epiphanies of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.…

The pervasive color of the blazing sun on the clay desert tints the entire story red. We get the sense that the land has been red since creation, long before someone concocted the family recipe of Father Vaillant's cherished soup: from the Fall, to the murder of Abel, to the Flood, to the Crucifixion, the gospel story has been enacted in creation before the missionaries arrived. In Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51, Jesus catalogues seven woes to the scribes and Pharisees. The seventh and climactic woe curses the "brood of vipers" for killing prophets and shedding righteous blood from Abel to Zechariah. The shedding of Abel's blood is a pivotal moment, a sign of human depravity that will later be reversed by Jesus' culminating sacrifice.

The land is more than a metaphor for Christ; his name is not merely transferred to an object as a representative or symbol. Rather, the land metonymically denotes an attribute of Christ, his shed blood, and becomes the thing itself. While metaphors relate two disparate objects, metonyms are integrally linked, in this case identifying the Creator with creation and his death on earth with the Southwest's blood-dyed landscape. There is no explanation; the mountains are simply named Sangre de Cristo. This label seems permanent and indigenous, as though coined by Adam himself.

If the landscape in Death Comes for the Archbishop is to convey adequately the mood of the text, it needs a distinct language for its message. Its under-stated role communicates in part through the color red as the sun paints the land and sky, as fires and candles light dark scenes, and as sangre de Cristo incants the Passion. Two apparently marginalized treatments of the Sangre de Cristo mountains stain the text with the power of this color, event, and name. In these epiphanies all events culminate in the transfigured landscape, and the climaxes suffice for powerful dramatic and thematic effect. The first mention of the mountains is three-quarters of the way through the narrative, almost as though it were a postscript clue justifying the reference to the Passion in the first chapter and the predominance of red throughout the novel.…

In the closing chapter of Book 9 titled "Death Comes for the Archbishop," Father Latour is near death. His consciousness slips through time, and he recalls the Italian architect building the cathedral on the one golden mountain surrounded by carnelian hills. As the saint's death is approaching, the redness of Christ's Passion is recalled in the persecutors' anger and in his bleeding wounds. The Archbishop's obsession with his cathedral is both an acceptance of and preparation for his burial. The cathedral is called his tomb, the site of his death.

[Rev. W. J.] Howlett's biography [of a real-life pioneer priest] chronicles the lives of deceased missionaries and murderous terrain, but for Cather the mountains are a range of life, the backdrop for her saints' lives. The Archbishop lives until the final paragraph, hallucinating and believing. In the final sentence he lies dead, but he is ultimately a builder: "The old Archbishop lay before the high altar in the church he had built." Like the Creator buried in his creation, the architect is laid to rest in his. Or is he? Where has the discourse placed his body? In the penultimate paragraph the narrative states:

But in reality the Bishop was not there at all; he was standing […] 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.

The reality for the Archbishop is that he is not at all present in either world. He is in a state of flux, of being "in between." As God and man, Christ is best known through the sacrament of communion; his body and soul are permanently torn between this world and heaven. The Archbishop's body and will are torn between the old and new worlds in his final vision or, rather, his reality.

In perfect dramatic sequence, as a storm rises over the hills, Latour envisions an "intense lavender," a color appearing for the first time in the novel. As the sky grows black, "the carnelian rocks became an intense lavender, all their pine trees strokes of dark purple." In Cather's Episcopal heritage red signifies the Holy Spirit during the Feast of Pentecost and is also used for any of the martyrs' days; during Lent red also replaces purple as the color worn by the bishop, who is the symbol of Christ. Then a voice out of the present calls Latour from his visionary memories. His attendant, Bernard, says: "A fine sunset, Father. See how red the mountains are growing; Sangre de Cristo." Father Latour does not respond, but the narrative voice concurs with Bernard in a mythical explanation, reflective of the overall legendary tone of the novel's fantastic spiritual adventures coupling miracles and the mundane:

Yes, Sangre de Cristo; but no matter how scarlet the sunset, those red hills never became vermilion, but a more and more intense rose-carnelian; not the colour of living blood, the Bishop had often reflected, but the colour of the dried blood of saints and martyrs preserved in old churches in Rome, which liquefies upon occasion.

One is certain that the blood of the saints in Death Comes for the Archbishop includes that of un-Christianized Indians who have places "more sacred" than churches. The Archbishop is buried in the New World cathedral, under indigenous yellow rock, emphasizing that he is buried under Indian ground that is not profane but sacred. The red sky blesses all of creation, severely humbling any attempt to judge other religious beliefs, since Christ is the head of his Church; all who participate in his body, whether through the Church or the land, are dependent on this source rather than on their own creeds.

Amid this profusion of vermilion, the next chapter opens with the cathedral, his tomb, as an illumination of the heavenly city Father Latour will soon inhabit. With this abrupt juxtaposition, in the spirit of Cather's literary aesthetic, the golden cathedral becomes colored with the red mood of the narrative. In spite of the lush green gardens, lavender sunsets, and golden cathedral, sangre de Cristo persists. Its touch predominates.

Before the Archbishop imagines rather than speaks his last words (in a vision of a boy deliberating whether to stay at home or leave), the narrative includes a story set in the Navajos' sacred canyon between red sandstone walls. The indigenous people believed that it would never be conquered until Kit Carson defeated them. Navajo blood is shed on the red sandstone, a potent image of dust to dust, and also of sacrificial martyrdom for a holy cause—their sacred canyon. The narrative defends the Indians' plight; they simply want their land and their religion. Their gods dwell in the canyon, "just as the Padre's God was in his church"; however, the Indians' sacred place is more sacred "than churches, more sacred than any place is to the white man." The Navajo chief from the Canyon de Chelly told Father Latour of his hardship as an "outlawed chief" who, though impoverished, refused to be exiled with his people: "My mother and my gods are in the West, and I will never cross the Rio Grande." He did not care for his life; he loved the sacred land and would die with it. Reflecting on the remnant of the Navajos who returned to their chief and their sacred places after five years of exile, the Archbishop murmurs: "I do not believe, as I once did, that the Indian will perish. I believe that God will preserve him." Latour's belief is life-affirming: though the Indians lacked the sacraments, God tabernacled nomadically with them.

In these passages we see how Cather takes the single citation of the Sangre de Cristo mountains from her source and expands it into two cameos. The mountain range appears in two epiphanies, or spiritual revelations of creation's undercurrent, yet through Cather's aesthetics of accentuating "mood" the rare metonym spills over the entire novel from just these two instances. As seen from the perspective of a bronze statue and a woman of faith, sangre de Cristo has saturated the physical world for the Church and the "heathen." With only two brief appearances, the Sangre de Cristo mountains (and the nature of epiphany) epitomize Cather's "touch and pass on" method. The words barely imprint the page before erasure, and in that fleeting impression the reader knows the mountains' prominent signature.

The cathedral and the hill are golden, but we cannot forget that upon occasion the dried blood of saints and martyrs in Rome and the New World liquefies and the color vermilion spills. The blood of New World martyrs may not come from the pages of the Bible, but it becomes a narrated life and land, fueling legend, art, fiction, and heroic acts unimaginable to Europeans: "Surely these [early Spanish missionaries] 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." A New Eden necessitates a recast Christ; following his model are the martyrs who died in the New World, both indigenous people and saints listed in the novel's obituaries and war chronicles. Rather than usurpation there is inheritance and coexistence. The narrative embraces compatibility between different faiths, yet revelation of eternal truth comes through a saving, supralinguistic knowledge of sangre de Cristo. Missionaries do not prune other visions of the divine but live among people in peace. The presence of saints and blood, not dogma, signifies sanctity.

Cather's vision of the land as sacred allows people to unify as a community and to honor the gift of this resource, paradoxically surpassing materialism through the material of earth given to a sacred purpose. A similar paradox is that the physical novel embodies creation's metaphysical cry of both praise and agony for its Creator. The Sangre de Cristo mountains remind us of the once-and-forall sacrificial death and the commission for disciples to spread the gospel, but Death Comes for the Archbishop does not indoctrinate. Father Latour merely serves the people by performing such rites as baptizing babies and sanctioning marriages.…

All-pervasive in Death Comes for the Archbishop is the blood of saints' lives and the blood of the land where European, Mexican, and Indian saints have died. Do Cather's "saints" include all innocently killed Indians and Mexicans who revere creation as sacred, and not exclusively Catholics who received their "last rites"? Her art is not overtly didactic, yet Cather shows a redeemed humanity—indigenous Mexicans and Indians, as well as self-exiled Europeans—on a redeemed, red earth. Death Comes for the Archbishop is nonpartisan because it treats ethics rather than dogma and because it never brands any religious sect "superstitious." The natives' beliefs are validated as much as those of the Catholic Church. Veneration for old customs, as viewed in the novel, is an admirable quality shared by Indians and Catholics alike. Humble, poor characters are sympathetically portrayed regardless of creed. When missionaries are near death in the desert and Mexican shepherds appear, the priests do not offer this family the sacraments but instead wonder whether their deliverers could be Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus.

Just as the rainbow symbolizes God's pledge that the earth will not be destroyed by water again, so the red land may be seen as a promise signifying that there has been enough killing—that there is no need for more slaughter after sangre de Cristo. If we live metonymically with the sanctified land, we will not reign in conquest but in awe at having become the embodiment of redemption. It may sound naive, but the intended audience of a promise receives it with a trusting child's heart.


Pam Fox Kuhlken, "Hallowed Ground: Landscape as Hagiography in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop," in Christianity and Literature, Vol. 52, No. 3, Spring 2003, pp. 367–86.

Deborah Lindsay Williams

In the following essay, Williams explores how Cather uses aural and visual tropes to connect the Old World with the New in Death Comes for the Archbishop.

In her 1927 letter to Commonweal, written to explain how she wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather indirectly offered a possible interpretation for the novel itself: "I used to wish there were some written account of the old times when those churches were built; but I soon felt that no record of them could be as real as they are themselves. They are their own story, and it is foolish convention that we must have everything interpreted for us in written language" (emphasis mine). In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather attempts to bring readers beyond "written language," trying to create on the written page that which is usually intelligible only with sound or sight. To teach us how to read beyond written language Cather offers two models, one aural and one visual: the Angelus bell and the figure of the southwestern mesa. The novel thus offers a pedagogy of interpretation: when we understand the mesa and the bell as tropes with which to organize our understanding of the novel, we arrive at new ways of reading Cather. She deliberately does not provide us with means to "translate" her landscape into meaning; we can only "divine" meaning—Cather's word for how we are to understand the "inexplicable presence of the thing not named" (On Writing 41). When we try to name the thing, we limit the full range of associations and reverberations; we do not hear the entire Angelus, and we do not see the full scale of the mesa. The aural and visual landscapes of the novel teach us to read; what we come to understand is that, in Death Comes for the Archbishop, tropes and topos are one and the same.

"It is this perspective—in which there is no perspective, in which everything, Old World and New, Catholic and pagan, youth and age, is layered together—that the novel pushes us to maintain while we read."

The novel makes meaning in much the same way as does the tolling of the Angelus bell in the beginning of the novel: a series of echoing associations that come together to form a whole. The bell's notes are "Full, clear … each note floated through the air like a globe of silver," but until the last note joins the first in the air, the Angelus itself is not complete. When Latour first hears the Angelus bell, almost in his sleep, he has the "pleasing delusion that he was in Rome." As the bell continues to ring the nine strokes of the Angelus, its sound sends Latour on an inner journey: "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.… he cherished for a moment this sudden, pervasive sense of the East. Once before he had been carried out of the body thus to a place far away. It had happened on a street in New Orleans.… he [had been] overcome by a feeling of place, was dropped … into a garden in the south of France.… And now this silvery bell had carried him farther and faster than sound could travel." The bell's sound sets up a series of reactions in Latour's mind, bringing him to places that he has not physically seen but that the sound allows him to imagine. He travels to the Old World, to places of origin: Jerusalem, the holy city; Rome (and thus by implication the Vatican); New Orleans, one of the first cities in the United States; and the south of France, Latour's boyhood home. Although Latour's thoughts are linear—from distant to recent past—they are triggered by the sound of the bell all at once and experienced synchronously. This synchronous experience of time becomes central to the novel; the novel works to represent time and space, history and tradition, in nonlinear ways.

The story of the bell's provenance continues the movement from past to present, from Europe to America: "the inscription [on the bell] is in Spanish … it must have been brought up from Mexico City in an ox-cart … and the silver of the Spaniards was really Moorish, was it not.… The Spaniards knew nothing about working silver except as they learned it from the Moors.… The Spaniards handed on their skill to the Mexicans, and the Mexicans taught the Navajos to work silver; but it all came from the Moors." Thus the skill of "infidel" Europe becomes the artisanship of Catholic Spaniards, the trade of colonized Mexicans, and finally the art and craft of Native Americans, who are in effect being displaced by the carriers of the traditions they have embraced. The two French priests, Father Latour and his companion Father Vaillant, listen to their Spanish bell ringing the Catholic Angelus in an American territory occupied first by the Native Americans, then the Spanish, then by the French, and finally by Americans. The bell's provenance illustrates historical movement; the tradition of silversmithing becomes a way of tracing patterns of Old World imperialism and yet also suggests that, in Cather's mind, aesthetic traditions continue regardless of who is in power.

Cather's descriptions of landscape—the New Mexican mesa itself—provide the visual counterpart to the Angelus bell. The mesa offers another trope that we can use to help us read beyond language. Father Latour and Jacinto, riding through this landscape en route to Acoma, stop so that Jacinto can show Latour where they are going, "The Bishop following with his eye the straight, pointing Indian hand, saw, far away, two great mesas … at this distance [they] seemed close together, though they were really some miles apart." Mesas are perceptible only at a distance although distance can blur the perception of depth. The distance alters our perspective on the subject to the point that the distance—perspective—becomes the subject. And because each layer of a mesa is a compression or distillation of the landscape at a particular point in time, seeing the entire mesa allows us to see all the different eras of history at once: chronological time can be seen synchronously.

The layers of the novel, which resemble the striations in a mesa, create a novel structured to collapse seeming oppositions, such as pagan and Christian, Europe and America, past and present, into one another. In order to see the full range of these complexities, we need to learn to read the landscape. The mesa is the site of that lesson. Each term of the opposition becomes a striation of the novel, and by collapsing these seeming dialectics, Cather calls into question the idea that any one history, any one set of experiences, can define America. The mesalike structure of the novel incorporates Old World and New and finds the Old World in the New.

Latour's reactions to the mesa and to the sound of the bell are examples of how the novel attempts to layer Old World and New, but Latour himself also offers an example of the connection between old and new. Latour's name indicates the presence of this layering: the aesthetic ideals of Walter Pater, whose final novel was titled Gaston Latour (1888), about a Frenchman in the Middle Ages. This in turn is eerily echoed by Cather's last, unfinished novel: a story of two French boys from Avignon, set during the Middle Ages. Although Cather seems to have quoted Pater directly only once, in her 1925 preface to Sarah Orne Jewett's short stories, Bernice Slote suggests that Pater was one of those "great essayists … whose beliefs and whose rich, incantatory, or elegant styles certainly touched [Cather's] own." Cather's early statement that "a novel requires not one flash of understanding, but a clear, steady flame and oil in one's flask beside" (qtd in Skaggs 11) resonates directly with what Pater wrote in the conclusion to The Renaissance: "to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life" (Bloom 60). Pater's "hard gemlike flame" and Cather's "clear, steady flame" are clearly similar fires. Pater's ideas pervade this novel to the extent that Latour becomes a sort of Pater on horseback. So, for instance, when Latour says to Joseph Vaillant that "I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you" it rephrases Pater's dictum that one should "know one's own impression as it really is" (Bloom 17).

Latour's burning desire to build a cathedral worthy of the beautiful setting echoes a Paterian comment that Cather made to Mariel Gere in an 1896 letter, to the effect that there is no god but one god, and art is god's revealer. She said that was her creed and indicated her commitment to it (August 4, 1896, Cather papers, University Archives/Special Collections Department, UNL Libraries). Latour is the artist figure within the artistic creation of the novel. He is not a representation of Cather herself although they do share a similarly Paterian vision. Latour's position at the end of the novel embodies Pater's idea that life is a "drift of momentary acts of sight and passion and thought … to such a tremulous wisp constantly reforming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense in it, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our life fines itself down" (Bloom 59–60). In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather records specific incidents in the life of Latour and his friend, Father Vaillant, but fleetingly, with large gaps of time and space between episodes. Ultimately, however, the novel "fines itself down" to the moment of Latour's consciousness before he dies: a refined moment, a precise moment, but composed of a flood of memories. This refined moment in the flow is like one note heard in the midst of many or like one striation of earth in the totality of a mesa.

Latour, like Pater, is interested in the beautiful more than the sensual; when his parishioners want to please him they give him "something good for the eye." Latour is made uncomfortable by the physical, a distaste nowhere more clearly marked than in the cave scene about a third of the way through the novel. Latour and his guide, Jacinto, are caught in a snowstorm and take refuge in a cave Jacinto knows of. The cave is a "mouth-like opening.… two great stone lips, slightly parted and thrust outward." From the beginning, the cave signifies a kind of appetite and physicality that will be distasteful to the priest.

The cave is a place sacred to the Pecos tribe's rituals, which is another reason for Latour's discomfort—he is outside his parish, so to speak. Jacinto tells him the cave is "used by [his] people," which suggests that somewhere in the underground cavern (perhaps in the hole that Jacinto so carefully blocks off from the priest) is the snake holy to his tribe. In the cave it is Jacinto, not the priest, who tends the altar and sacred flame. Jacinto's religion is the New World's own "Old World"; the European traditions represented by Latour seem youthful in comparison. The cave is a labyrinth of holes, throatlike passages, mouths, and caverns, suggesting that the French priest seems to be at the opposite end of his Catholic church and its idea of heaven. It is not coincidence that the chapter is titled "Snake Root"; Latour is at the root of things, the base. The cave is the site where many of the novel's apparent oppositions are conflated. It also becomes a site wherein the New World of America reveals its significantly ancient roots.

There is something primitive about the cave: the strong, devouring femaleness of the cavities and orifices directly contrasts with the icons of "dolorous Virgins" above ground. This cave is the first of two feminized enclosures within which Latour will encounter something he cannot name or control, something akin to the sublime. This powerful force resides in the cave below the Sangre de Cristo mountains, which adds to the sense that its sacredness antedates the blood of Christ under which it hides. The "pagan" lies under the Christian surface implying the presence of an earth goddess whom Latour senses but cannot name. There are also other resonances and other beliefs in this cave and as a result Latour feels quite ill.

After Jacinto lights the fire, however, Latour—and the reader—encounter still other juxtapositions, other layers of meaning. The fire relaxes the priest, warms him to the point that he becomes aware of "an extraordinary vibration … it hummed like a hive of bees, like a heavy roll of distant drums." Jacinto, also hearing the thrumming noise, leads the priest through a tunnel. The two men go "along a tunnel … where the roof grew much lower.… Jacinto knelt down over a fissure in the stone floor, like a crack in china.… he put his ear on the opening.… Father Latour lay with his ear to this crack for a long time." We are not allowed to ignore the continuous penetration, deepening, revelation—the two men go from a low-roofed tunnel to a fissure, a crack, an opening, another crack. The priest and the Indian are moving toward the innermost sancta sanctorum. Finally, we are at the source of the vibration and Father Latour realizes: "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 blackness under ribs of antediluvian rock. It was not a rushing noise, but the sound of a great flood moving with great majesty and power." The priest has encountered the creative imagination via British Romanticism and Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" (1816). In Coleridge's poem, of course, the visionary poet sees and hears:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing.

Coleridge's underground river is also a "mighty fountain," and its tumult causes Kubla Khan to hear "ancestral voices." What Cather gives us here is a site of disjunction, an implicit confrontation between Old Worlds: the allusion to Coleridge suggests the Old World of Europe, but the cave encloses one of the "oldest voices of the earth." The force of the flood is such that both Latour's Paterian Catholicism and Jacinto's Native American mysticism are humbled before its ancient sound. The voice of the ancient river echoes the voice of the bell: both sounds transport the priest, although the river terrifies him because he cannot name what it is that he hears. Latour and Jacinto do not talk about what they have heard—the priest's only response is "[i]t is terrible"—they simply return to sit by the fire.

Evelyn Hively suggests that this cave scene provides "one of the strongest points of contrast in religions in the book," but I would suggest that we are not being asked to contrast religions. Instead, we are forced to question which set of beliefs is informing the other. Can either be privileged? We are presented not with a contrast but with a relationship that implies connection, a connection that makes Latour uncomfortable because it asks him to acknowledge beliefs other than his own. Thus when he and Jacinto return to the cave, the fire that Jacinto had kindled is "giving off a rich glow of light in that lofty Gothic chamber." Prior to the encounter with the underground river, the cavern was only like "a Gothic chapel" "of vague outline," but now, as if the encounter with the Romantic imagination has transfigured the cave, it is "that lofty Gothic chamber" (emphasis mine), a specific site, recognizable to the priest in a way the voices of the river are not. Only after the cave actually becomes a Gothic chamber can the priest fully relax, eat, and sleep. Nevertheless, this Gothic space is also sacred to Jacinto's tribe and contains a river that reverberates with the sounds of histories that make Latour's religion seem brand-new by comparison. The cave becomes a nexus of shifting, apparently contradictory meanings: the cave's stone lips will provide refuge, but the refuge's smell makes the priest ill; the fire burns away the odor, but the voice of the river makes him dizzy. The cave is a place for Indian rituals and the site of High Romantic imagination. It seems hollow, but it supports mountains and from it emerge landscapes.

This already complicated scene is further tangled by Jacinto's presence, which becomes another site of simultaneous meaning. The priest, thinking Jacinto asleep, moves closer to the hole Jacinto had walled up, wanting to examine it more closely. What he sees instead is Jacinto, transfixed by the "oldest voice," in a posture Christlike and mystical: "there against the wall was [Jacinto], standing on some invisible foothold, his arms outstretched against the rock, his body flattened against it, his ear … listening; listening with supersensual ear, it seemed, and he looked to be supported against the rock by the intensity of his solicitude." Jacinto is simultaneously the Romantic poet, the figure of Christ, and a Native American mystic. Jacinto can hear the voice of the sublime, even be supported by it—the "invisible foothold"—while his body is in the position of one who has been crucified. The cave is a place of Indian ritual, Romantic tropology, and now Christian typology. The phrase "he looked to be supported against the rock," which seems simple enough on the surface, in fact adds ambiguities. The phrase could imply that Jacinto is "looking for support" from the so-called rock of the church. However, it is also possible that he is asking the river for the strength to resist—"against"—the church.

Father Latour's vertigo, or what he thinks is vertigo, is caused by hearing the underground river. But Cather creates a dizzying scene for the reader as well, pushing us ever deeper into the cave, layering histories, typologies, and mythologies, until we too, feel that it is unlike anything we have experienced. Jacinto is the type of Christ, arms outstretched, supported by an intense "solicitude," a curious word to use here because according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means both "care" and "disquietude, uneasiness." But Jacinto is also the Spanish word for hyacinth flower, which calls to mind the myth of Hyacinth and Apollo. Apollo loved Hyacinth, but when a discus Apollo threw was blown off course by the jealous Zephyr, the West Wind, the discus struck Hyacinth on the head and killed him. From his lover's body Apollo created the hyacinth flower, giving his lover immortality of a sort. The figure of Jacinto blends two stories of immortality and transubstantiation, one Christian, the other pre-Christian and homoerotic.

The multiplicity created through the layers of meaning in Jacinto's name continues the layering we have seen in descriptions of the cave: it is a Gothic chamber and a devouring (feminine) mouth. The vibrations in the cave are pastoral, "like a hive of bees," and threatening, "like a heavy roll of distant drums." And although Father Latour is the priest, it is Jacinto who lights the purifying flame and leads the way to the source; Latour's rituals have no meaning below the earth. The cave and Jacinto suggest the difficulty of deciphering what exactly is "Old World": the Old World of the Americas before the European settlers or the Old World of Europe. These layers implicitly allow Cather to question whether terms such as "New World" and "Old World," "ancient" and "modern" can provide adequate definitions with which to interpret history. We have to move beyond such seemingly dichotomous relations into a mode of interpretation that does not privilege any one set of tropes over any other.

As we move out of the cave, histories appear before us like the striations in the mesas: the river flows "under ribs of antediluvian rock," and from this antediluvian space we move up and out, into the "tender morning" outside the cave's mouth. The morning landscape that greets the two men when they emerge from the cave is a "gleaming white world," covered with "virgin snow," a new world, a blank. The virgin snow appears to cancel out the ancient systems of belief: the European's Virgin obliterates the stone lips of Jacinto's cave. The branches outside the cave are "laden with soft, rose-coloured clouds of virgin snow," an almost paradisiacal image: the pearly gates to the New World. The landscape and the description of the morning move us to a consideration of history and the movement from an Old World to a New, a shift that seems at first to be a straightforward linear progression. But the entire mesa, including the cave that supports it, is created from layers of Old World and New; the layers support and enable one another. Cather attempts to move us beyond written language in our apprehension of these layers of meaning: what happens in the cave happens through our raft of associations with the brief words she gives us. The language is the tip; it is not the whole. We comprehend the whole only when we cease to focus on singular, particular images.

Within the cave we begin to understand how the novel's layers complicate easy understandings of religion and history; the landscape outside the cave presents a visual correlation for that lesson. Latour's encounter with Sada, the Mexican slave, rewrites the cave scene in order to stress this visual lesson even as it presents another example of the complicated structures underlying the apparently simple surface of the novel. Their meeting, chronicled in the chapter called "December Night," begins with Father Latour's dark night of the soul and seems to be an overt paean to Catholicism and its salutatory powers. Once we see all the layers of this scene, however, we also see Latour's position as a Paterian observer and notice that what is at work in Latour's church is something much older than Catholicism. What happens between Latour and Sada reinforces the importance of seeing the whole rather than focusing on the particular.

The encounter with Sada stresses sight, highlighting the importance of the visual over the verbal. The courtyard between Latour's house and the church is covered with snow, an etching in black and silver: "the court was white with snow, and the shadows of walls and buildings stood out sharply in the faint light." This snow is different from the blizzard that obliterated the trail and forced Latour into the stone-lipped cave. Here in his own churchyard Latour is in control, able to observe. Unlike in the cave scene, no voices terrify him. There is almost no sound at all except for Sada's confession and prayers. The whole scene emphasizes the way light plays over surfaces: from the silhouette of the church tower against moonlit clouds and shadows on the snow to Latour's candle shining on Sada's "dark brown peon face" and the "red spark of the sanctuary lamp" in the pitch dark of the church.

Even Sada's prayers express themselves visually. Latour is moved by the belief he sees on her face when she tells him it has been 19 years since she has "seen the holy things of the altar" (emphasis-mine). Latour had never "seen such pure goodness shine out of a human's countenance" (emphasis mine). When Latour lets Sada into the church, to the Lady Chapel, he sees "the working of [Sada's] face.… the beautiful tremors [that] passed over it [and] tears of ecstasy." All this light and shadow suggests Cather's essay "Light on Adobe Walls," her unfinished fragment about the possibilities of artistic representation. The artist can paint not sunlight but "only the tricks that shadows play with it.… some emotion … that happens to give him personal delight … that makes one nerve in him thrill and tremble" (On Writing 124). Both Sada and Latour experience this "thrill," Sada by seeing the Lady Chapel, Latour by seeing Sada's belief.

The visible power of Sada's ecstasy allows Latour to share her emotion: "He was able to feel, kneeling beside her, the preciousness of the things of the altar … he received the miracle in her heart into his own, saw through her eyes." Earlier Latour had said miracles "rest 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." Ironically, the miracle Latour experiences with Sada involves him seeing "through her eyes" rather than his own. These moments of fine perception, moments that imply a fleeting unity, are described in the conclusion to The Renaissance, in which Pater talks about those instants when we are able to distinguish from among a "flood of external objects" and receive a "single sharp impression" (Bloom 59). Latour's "miracle" and Pater's "single sharp impression" are similar, if not identical, moments of perception that produce almost identical results.

Sada becomes the site of a Paterian miracle: what Latour sees in Sada helps him, as Pater says, to "gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded" (Bloom 61). This gathering up of sensation brings Latour to a moment of fullness, of being at one with what is outside himself: "the peace without [the church] seemed all at one with the peace in his soul." This is a marked contrast to Latour's feeling at the beginning of the chapter, when "doubt … made him feel an alien.… his soul had become a barren field." Even at the moment of fullness, however, there is what Pater calls a "vanishing away" (Bloom 60) in the description of "the line of black footprints [Latour's] departing visitor had left in the wet scurf of the snow." The silvery beauty of the newly fallen snow is now "wet scurf"; the moment of seeming "all at one" vanishes into a line of departing footprints. The Paterian moment is fluid, not static: "those impressions of the individual mind … are in perpetual flight" (Bloom 60). Thus this entire scene becomes a kind of passion play about a moment of beauty moving us out of ourselves. We recognize and "fine down" an impression, but at the moment of fining down there is loss. Latour is joined with Sada and feels his inner peace merge with the peace of the external world. But the footsteps vanish, and the next chapter begins with the announcement of the death of Eusabio's son.

Latour comforts Sada by giving her not warm words but a "little silver medal, with a figure of the Virgin"—something to look at. He thinks this a good gift for Sada "for one who cannot read—or think—the Image, the physical form of Love!" He offers her not language but an image, something which her soul can "adore." Sada's ability to gain comfort from an image reveals to Latour the limitations of his intellectual—verbal—faith, "his prayers were empty words and brought him no refreshment." Vision seems more important than language, an idea that may explain the elision over the name Mary: the name is not as important to Sada as is the feeling she gets when she sees the altar in the Lady Chapel.

Latour sees the Lady Chapel only in terms of Catholicism, but Cather creates layers of meaning in this feminized enclosure as well, linking it to the stone-lipped cave in which Latour found such uncomfortable refuge. Cather's description of the spiritual presence in the Lady Chapel links the Virgin Mary with other, earlier goddesses who offer comfort to the wretched: Latour is able to "feel all it meant to [Sada] to know that there was a Kind Woman in Heaven.… [o]ld people, who have felt blows and toil and know the world's hard hand, need, even more than children do, a woman's tenderness. Only a Woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer." Latour's God is dismissed in lieu of this other divine force that can understand female pain. This is not only a rare expression of female solidarity on Cather's part but also a link between the Mariolatry of the Lady Chapel and the ancient snake-goddess in the cave.

The female divinity within the Lady Chapel finds further expression in the images of the transformative moonlight that bracket the scenes inside the chapel itself. When Latour wakes up in the night and decides to go to the church, he sees the "full moon … [that] threw a pale phosphorescent luminousness over the heavens." Afterward, as Sada slips off into the dark, "the full moon shone high in the blue vault, majestic, lonely, benign." The moon, of course, has long been considered a female symbol and suggests again that Latour's religion should be seen in the context of older religions that have not been supplanted as much as they have been subsumed. Marina Warner, in her study of the Virgin Mary, places the Virgin in a context similar to what Cather does here. Warner suggests the possibility of a "chain of descent from Hippolyte [queen of the Amazons] to Diana to the Virgin.… that the Amazon queen venerated in Cappodocia was subsumed into the fertility goddess Diana of Ephesus, and that the memories of her emblem … survived in the city where the Virgin Mary was proclaimed." Warner also points out that "Diana was associated with the moon … and the Virgin Mary is identified with the moon and the stars' influence as well as with the forces of fertility and generation." It seems no accident that the title of the chapter that follows the scene between Latour and Sada is titled "Spring in the Navajo Country." We go from "Woman, divine" to spring: the power of the goddess is still at work.

The moon shining down on Latour as he looks down at Sada's vanishing footprints suggests an older religion, one that Latour would not or could not recognize. The image of the moon and the image on the medal Latour gives Sada are two incarnations of this "Woman, divine": the two virgins—Diana and Mary—watch over the priest and the suffering woman. These female divinities connect the ancient goddess with the Catholic icon with the stone-lipped cave's snake: the chapel becomes an extension of the cave. Just as Mary and her chapel support the church and the cave supports the mountains—recesses that strengthen—so too the "space" or gap in the text where the word Mary might appear supports the presence of Diana or any "Woman, divine."

The final paragraph of this section shifts from Latour alone, locking "his church," to the moon alone in the arched "blue vault" of the heavens and then back to Latour, looking at Sada's footsteps in the snow. Latour has his church, the moon has hers (the blue vault of the heavens), although what Latour may briefly sense but does not understand is that the Lady Chapel, the moon, and the cave are all connected. The rapid shifts in focus—from church to moon to Latour—are another manifestation of the novel's layers, again creating a deeper structure than at first seems apparent. As with the notes of the Angelus bell, this scene is not complete until the final note, sounded by the presence of the moon, has been heard or seen.

Cather's layering process moves us out of a dichotomized "either/or" reading of the novel into a way of reading based on "both/and." Thus Jacinto embodies both Christian and pre-Christian identities as well as that of the Romantic poet, Sada worships at the altar of an ancient goddess who is also the Virgin Mary, and Latour's cathedral is an edifice built from, and out of, a variety of traditions. The cathedral is "worthy of a setting naturally beautiful" and it will be built in the style of the Midi Romanesque, which Latour says is "the right style for this country." After it is finished, the cathedral seems to be one with the southwestern landscape; it is both southwestern and French, organic and constructed: "the tawny church seemed to start directly out of those rose-coloured hills.… the towers rose clear into the blue air while the body of the church still lay against the mountain." The description of the church on the mountain is similar to Jacinto's position clinging to the wall of the cave—both church and man unify seeming opposites. Pater seems to have presciently described Latour's church in "Winckelmann," when he explains that "Christian art was still dependent of pagan examples, building the shafts of pagan temples into its churches" (Bloom 213). Although Latour may not have actually used the shafts of pagan temples, his church is supported by the cave wherein Jacinto's goddess-snake is enclosed.

Latour's cathedral becomes not a colonizer's monument but an example of what can happen when, as Pater described in his essay on Coleridge, "a mind concentrates itself, frees itself from the limitations of the particular, the individual, [and] attains a strange power of modifying and centralising what it receives from without, according to the pattern of an inward ideal" (Bloom 150). Latour's idea about what "his" cathedral should look like moves free from the particularities of convention and allows him to build a church that reminds him of something "nearer Clermont" in the Santa Fe hills that he describes as the color of "the dried blood of saints and martyrs preserved in old churches in Rome." His inward ideals about the sacred and the beautiful guide him in designing his monument. Pater's idea seems an apt description, not just of what the cathedral represents within the text of the novel itself but of what the novel itself represents in terms of Cather's aesthetic project and as we will see, of what happens in Latour's mind before his death. The "particular" would seem to force a choice in interpretive modes but the "inward ideal" can be adapted to suggest a way of reading that allows multiples, takes us beyond the words on the page.

Before Latour dies, his caretakers think that "his mind was failing," but Latour does not care about their opinion. They do not realize that his mind "was only extraordinarily active in some other part of the great picture of his life." Latour ranges through time and space, drawing on all episodes of his life without highlighting any one in particular:

He observed also that there was no longer any perspective to his memories. He remembered his winters with his cousins on the Mediterranean when he was a little boy, his student days in the Holy City, as clearly as he remembered the arrival of M. Molny and the building of his cathedral. 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.

None of Latour's history is lost to him: it is all there, all comprehensible. He has "modified" and "centralized" his past; it becomes what one reader called "the tower of consciousness." Of course, Latour's very name indicates his position: he is in la tour, the tower. Latour's far-ranging memories and associations echo the pattern of associations set in motion by the silver bell ringing the Angelus much earlier in the novel. In both instances he moves free from the particular—there is "no perspective"—yet each memory is a specific moment and the moments form a flow. It is this perspective—in which there is no perspective, in which everything, Old World and New, Catholic and pagan, youth and age, is layered together—that the novel pushes us to maintain while we read. We are asked to read with a perspective that, like Latour's, loses nothing, comprehends everything.


Deborah Lindsay Williams, "Losing Nothing, Comprehending Everything: Learning to Read Both the Old World and the New in Death Comes for the Archbishop," in Cather Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1999, pp. 80–96.

Nicholas Birns

In the following essay, Birns explores how Cather's choice of setting and character in Death Comes for the Archbishop countered a "restrictively nationalistic American identity" popular in the early twentieth century.

From the day of its publication, Death Comes for the Archbishop has been one of Willa Cather's most popular novels. Critics, though, have chafed against the book's historical setting and its interpretation of American culture. Many readers, especially among Cather's original audience, were completely unfamiliar with the donnée of the novel, which concerns the career of the Roman Catholic Archbishop Lamy of Santa Fe in the mid-nineteenth century.

This was not a matter of mere ignorance, but a result of the fact that the conventional fable of American origins and identity was of a sort to exclude Archbishop Lamy and anything associated with him. In the 1920's, the essence of "American identity" was white and Protestant, as much or even more so than it had ever been (see Berman). The promotion of this essentialist identity was not just a product of the Ku Klux Klan (which flourished in this era) or of other nativist and extremist sentiments. It exercised a firm hold over more educated precincts, even among those sectors that would have seen themselves as "progressive." For these, the Protestantism of America was essential to its democracy, and its democracy essential to a secular modernity that would not be enslaved by myth and superstition. In a context in which the only viable tradition was a secular and evolutionist one, Cather's novel serves to disrupt these assumptions. Archbishop Lamy's presence on American soil was a rebuke to ideologies of progressive modernity. But Cather is several steps ahead of any would-be interpreters on this issue. For Cather, Archbishop Lamy, a French cleric ministering to a largely Hispanic flock (and the representative of a Roman Catholicism deemed inherently retrograde by an American identity premised upon Protestantism and progress), is not an aberration upon American soil. He is as pivotal an element of Cather's construction of America as had been the more thematically assimilable scenes of agrarian life on the Great Plains (see Peck). By focusing attention on this French prelate and his Hispanic parishioners, Cather goes behind the rhetorics of progress and modernization to dislodge the ethnocentric platitudes of American self-assertion.

Strangely, it is Cather's interest in strains of American identity other than the dominant Anglo-Saxon one that has caused the greatest disturbance among critics who claim an ideological opposition to what they term her "conservatism." The numerous ideologically inspired attacks on Cather from such Marxist-affiliated or influenced critics as Granville Hicks, Edmund Wilson, and Lionel Trilling severely diminished her critical reputation in the 1930's, just as her popularity among the general public was reaching its peak. These attacks were all based on what these critics termed her neglect of contemporary social realities, her retreat into a nostalgic past that forswore the complexity of modern life. It is no surprise that these readings flourished in the 1930's, when any literature not overtly concerned with explicitly proletarian issues or at least with a socially referential milieu that could be adduced as "relevant" was vulnerable to attack. Even after some of these critics had shed their self-styled radicalism, the ideological habits remained ("relevance" being resurrected as an Arnoldian ideal of cultural order). Thus so too did their hostility to Cather, whose works are too complicated to serve the ideological purposes of the Left, in either its radical or opportunistic modes (see Skaggs).

Yet the misreadings of Wilson, Trilling, and Hicks, all less than major critics (though the first two remain tremendously overrated), cannot be simply attributed to this kind of bias. Sharon O'Brien has written an important article which devastatingly details the mean-spiritedness and bigotry behind Cather's critical demotion in the 1930's. O'Brien suggests that the denunciations of Cather proceeded not only from the lack of radicalism and the love of the past of which the critics accused her, but in addition, from the critics' fundamental misogyny. As O'Brien puts it, "a subtext in the attacks on Cather suggests that gender may have been the dominant, if unacknowledged, variable in shaping the case against Willa Cather" (O'Brien "Becoming Noncanonical." 116). O'Brien, in her survey of Cather's de-canonization, brings to bear overwhelming evidence, most crucially regarding the association of Cather's womanhood with her interest in the past, the latter of which was constantly styled "soft" and "minor" by such shapers of mid-century middlebrow taste as Maxwell Geismar and Alfred Kazin (O'Brien, "Becoming Noncanonical" 117). O'Brien's diagnosis of misogyny on the part of all the above-mentioned critics is an accusation one is certainly ready to accept, because these critics' ideas of radicalism seldom extended beyond the white male identity. Just as Cather's identity as a woman, and probably also her lesbianism, enabled her to appreciate the position of ethnic minorities, so too was the mainstream critical denunciation of the works closely tied with the cultural preconceptions of her critics. (The popular reaction, more enthusiastic, was presumably less ideologically blinkered). Even as radical social change was demanded, Protestantism and progress remained at the core of these critics's views of American history.

But their misogyny may be a symptom as well as a cause, a symptom of the desire of these critics and the normative institutions they represented to spurn the socio-cultural diversity and historiographical complexity of Cather's texts. To reduce the conflict to its most crude common denominator, all of the above critics were Arnoldians tacitly, or, in Trilling's case, explicitly. They were concerned with a literature at once timeless and relevant to the here-and-now, and unconsciously based on a white, male Protestant consensus. Cather was interested less in the historical object in itself than in the modes of perception it accommodated, and thus inevitably constructed the relationship between the past and present in a mode at once more plural and more personal.

For Cather to write about a transparent American present with a monolithic identity would be at once to diminish both personal idiosyncrasy and cultural tolerance, both traits highly valued by Cather. Cather adamantly refused the canonical idea of America prevalent in her time, a view as enthusiastically accepted by leftist, or formerly leftist, polemicists like Wilson and Trilling as by right-wing nativists. This idea asserted a fundamental national difference between America and Europe, a difference undergirded by a notion of America that was almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon. The American left tended to develop an echt American straw man that, because it could be decisively differentiated from an equally univocal idea of the European, could then be tacitly deployed in invidious contrast with it. This literary nationalism was based on a cultural relativism—that each nation had its own distinctive identity—which in many ways is more dangerous than racial absolutism, because it is not subject of any sort of verification. As Walter Benn Michaels points out with respect to American ideas of culture in this era, "the extraordinary power of culture as a concept … is manufactured out of an insistence upon the discrepancy between social and biological criteria of identity but it is … hostile to any attempt to require a choice between the two sets of criteria" (see Michaels 220–41). This belief in an American culture independent of but not contradicting an inclination towards Anglo-Saxon racialism was often linked, in the 1920's and 1930's, to what Eric Goldman terms "Reform Darwinism." Goldman describes this school of thought, which informed most American reform movements during the first half of the century, as seeking to "dissolve away conservatism's steel chain of ideas while leaving Darwinism itself intact …" What can be heard behind the ostensibly radical rhetoric of Cather's 1930's critics is a coalescence of cultural nationalism and Reform Darwinism, a belief in the unity of American identity. This national unity was posited as inexorably, though not mechanically, advancing towards a transparent revolutionary present that would provide the intuitive capstone to an equally transparent American national essence. Cather's awareness of how no historical moment is ever authoritatively disentangled from the past, a past which in itself can never be assigned a stable identity, threatened the viability of the critics' desired revolutionary present.

"Yet Death Comes for the Archbishop is not only conscious of what it opposes (the American secular-nationalist paradigm) but of what it might at first seem to advocate (a Catholic neo traditionalism)."

Thus Cather's setting in Death Comes for the Archbishop is not a product of accident or nostalgic whim. The setting is so structured as to dispute this assertion of a politically "progressive" but nonetheless restrictively nationalist American identity. Cather does not at all quarrel with the American annexation of the Southwest after the Mexican War, as is shown by the statement that it was annexed "to," rather than "by," the United States, the former preposition signifying a more natural accession, not an opportune land-grab. Cather thinks that New Mexico should have been part of the United States, and the New Mexicans become "good Americans"; indeed, she values New Mexico's Hispanic Catholic history for precisely this reason. In wanting to reinvigorate "the faith of their fathers" Bishop Ferrand sees New Mexican Catholicism as a check to the monolithic tendencies of "a progressive government," and the revival of this Catholicism as a check on a self-confident, secular modernity.

By setting the novel in nineteenth-century New Mexico, Cather does not so much attempt to contravene the modern world as to oppose the evolutionist historicism proffered by the ideologues of modernity. This evolutionist tendency was premised upon an affirmative belief in the benefits of American expansionism, justified by its achievement of social progress and secular enlightenment, its advance beyond such European traditions as Christianity. A novel that would adhere to this evolutionist ideal would have focused not on Latour but on Kit Carson, the more classic pioneer figure who is pictured affirmatively in Cather's novel, but deliberately marginalized with regard to the central characters and, in terms of his persecution of the Navajo, termed "misguided." This novel favors the priests' aesthetic and religious values over the expansionist ones epitomized in Carson and applauded by Cather's Darwinist critics, who are interested, unlike Cather, in a historical narrative with clear winners and losers. By showing an interest in religion, Cather is bound to antagonize a Darwinist historical relativism anxious to banish past absolutisms in order to establish its own present absolutisms. Cather is neither nostalgic nor conservative, because she does not attempt to flee back into the settings she describes. Instead, Cather's novel displays the multiplicity and fortitude of Christian imagination, and, in addition, show how religious artefacts such as Latour's cathedral exist as aesthetic objects without at all surrendering their spirituality.

Yet Death Comes for the Archbishop is not only conscious of what it opposes (the American secular-nationalist paradigm) but of what it might at first seem to advocate (a Catholic neo-traditionalism). A respectful, if not totally reverential, fictional biography of a Roman Catholic archbishop is bound to arouse, among some readers, suspicions of a conservative or sectarian tract. But Cather informs the knowledgeable reader otherwise from the first preliminary scene of the novel, in which Jean-Marie Latour, Cather's fictional equivalent of the historical Archbishop Lamy, is first chosen by the Catholic hierarchy to take over the new diocese ("Agathonica") necessitated by the United States's conquest of the present-day American Southwest in the Mexican War. Cardinal de Allande, part of the conclave which chooses the new Bishop (and which, importantly, is an informal and casual one, not a rite of studied ceremony) is explicitly dissociated from conservative tendencies within Roman Catholicism. De Allande is spoken of as "the most influential man at the Vatican" in the reign of the previous Pope, Gregory XVI. The successor of Gregory XVI as Pope was Pius IX, who started out as a liberal reformist but ended up as the founder and prime exemplar of the notion of the Catholic Church as a bulwark against progressive modernity. His most notorious gesture in the latter regard was his proclamation of papal infallibility in 1870, which according to one historian marked "the apparent extinction of the liberal Catholics" (Johnson 394). Cardinal de Allande, a favorite with the previous Pope but marginalized in the new pontificate, is marked off from both the liberal reform with which Pius began his reign and the ideological ultra-orthodoxy with which he concluded it.

The Cardinal is neither a Reform Darwinist, yearning to adapt old institutions to the imperatives of modern European progress, nor a traditionalist, retreating desperately to religious orthodoxy in order to roll back this progress. De Allande also possesses traits which make him in miniature an index of Cather's posture towards Christianity that will be observed in larger measure in her portraits of Archbishop Latour and his colleague, Father Vaillant. The Cardinal is passionately fond of tennis, and is half-English. His religion thus does not exclude enjoyable leisure, nor is it an expression of a strictly defined ethnicity, as anti-Catholic stereotyping has led us to expect (e.g., in the form of proverbial "Spanish cardinals" who stand as perennial enemies of the Reform Darwinist staples of Protestantism and progress) (Bridgers 93). The fact that it is instead Father De Allande who is most influential in the choice of Latour illustrates the direction in which Cather will take her vision of Christianity in the novel.

The way in which de Allande is between nationalities is also indicative of the novel's representation of ethnic groups. Recently, Death Comes for the Archbishop has been attacked because it places allegedly insufficient emphasis on the Hispanic inhabitants of New Mexico, preferring to see them through the prism of the French Latour instead of the native-born New Mexican Father Martínez (see Mares). Cather, in this view, both ignores the fact that Roman Catholicism had been practiced in New Mexico since the first Spanish settlement there in 1610 (ten years before the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth—a handy note to rebuke Anglo complacency), and tends to reprimand this historical form of Catholicism for lapsing into popular superstition (as symbolized by the avarice of Father Lucero and the lust of Father Martínez). This Hispanic superstition is, in the critics' redaction of Cather's intention, then clarified and made acceptably rigorous only by the firm French hands of Fathers Latour and Vaillant. These criticisms are true enough in that Cather knew less about Hispanic New Mexicans than she did, generally, about French people, and that in general she had more sympathy, as well as understanding, for the latter. One certainly would not want to take Death Comes for the Archbishop as a plausible historical account of Father Lamy's New Mexico. But this is not only for the reason that all historical accounts are in a way fictive fashionings. In this regard, Paul Horgan's biography of the real-life Lamy (inspired, in fact, by Cather's book), as well as Father W. J. Howlett's biography of Father Machebeuf, the real-life equivalent of Father Vaillant (Cather's main source for this novel), and Lynn Bridgers's 1997 biography of Machebeuf are as fictional as the openly fictional text which intervenes between them. The salient feature of the novel is not that it is providing a fictive historiographical account: every novel does this, and in the wake of the legion of academic applications of Hayden White's Metahistory this has become a rather jejune point. What is important about Cather's work is not that it is a priori fictive, and thus can deal with historical givens with a global carte blanche, but that it is fictive in a manner that shows that, although it does not palliate this inadequacy, Cather's shaping of her narrative demonstrates that she is aware of the inadequacy of her own position towards the Hispanic New Mexicans.

Cather's stance was very different from that of the nineteenth-century historian William Hickling Prescott, whose history of the Spanish conquest of Mexico was popular and required reading for American intellectuals into Cather's own lifetime. As Jenny Franchot points out, Prescott's viewpoint was laden with anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish prejudice, which was always at the base even of the many complex and multi-layered aspects of his work:

The degenerative character of the Aztec is due finally, then, to the indigenous Catholicism that constitutes the interior of that character. Positing a superstitious interior to be investigated by an enlightened Protestant outsider, the Catholic-Protestant opposition shaped not only Prescott's vision of both America's western and southern population but also more general views of perception and interpretation. Nourished by "nature," the enlightened mind is spontaneously able to perceive intended meanings. The superstitious mind, by contrast, is imprisoned within a Poesque interior, baffled by its own distorted perceptions and unable to exert sufficient interpretive control. (Franchot 44)

Cather's position on the matter is far more self-aware. Again, the brief appearance of Cardinal de Allande at the beginning of the novel can serve as a representative anecdote. In talking to a cleric who has actually been to the United States, de Allande is corrected for asserting that the "Indians" of the Southwest live in wigwams. The Cardinal responds, "No matter, Father. I see your redskins through Fenimore Cooper, and I like them so." Da Allende's "Indians" are seen through the distorting prism of Fenimore Cooper's highly debatable representation of them, rather than "in themselves." And Cather, like de Allande, is perfectly willing to concede her bias, but she is unwilling to renounce it. This is partially because it is all the information she has. Cather is not asking the reader to block out the historical inadequacies of her account and revel in their fictive nature; she is allowing an openness in her narrative that suggests that what is excluded can be, in a flexible way, included in the reader's construction of her text, even if that inclusion lays bare the bias inherent in her narrative posture.

Thus, there are ironies in the criticism of Cather for focusing on the French rather than the Spanish role in the conversion of New Mexico, for privileging the European lacing over indigenous primacy. These ironies reveal that Cather's approach may have been sounder than any attempt on her part for a cathartic breakthrough into the "Hispanic reality" of New Mexico. Cather was a visitor to New Mexico, not a native or even a long-term resident. She had nothing near the in-depth knowledge of its history and terrain that is seen either in her depictions of Nebraska in her many novels set in her home state or in her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, with respect to the Virginia of her birth. To expect Cather to write of the New Mexican land and people with the depth and learning of a Mary Austin is unrealistic. Without such a familiarity with New Mexico, any attempt by Cather to write a novel purportedly from a Hispanic point of view would have been doomed to failure. This is all the more true considering the climate in the 1920's, which was near the height of Modernism's romantic appropriation of the so-called primitive and authentic, often represented by non-Northern European peoples, as recently anatomized by Marianna Torgovnick and other critics. Any novel written by a white person about Hispanic New Mexicans would have been bound to be touched by this primitivism, with its condescending portrayal of nonwhites as creatures of liberated instinct and unsullied innocence. This is not to say that any novel written by Cather would have been afflicted with the pretense, prolixity, and racism of D. H. Lawrence's disastrous book The Plumed Serpent. But a more Hispanic-centered attempt would at best have portrayed Hispanics as admirable though doomed to succumb to the Anglo tide, and at worst been infected with Lawrentian strains of racism that would now be seen as far more offensive than Cather's own somewhat limited and critical depiction of Hispanics in the novel (see Torgovnick).

Cather's "gestures of cultural reciprocity" (Lee, Willa Cather 284) do not explore the history of Hispanics in the United States with anything like the personal knowledge or the creative agility of later writers such as Sandra Cisneros or Rolando Hinojosa. But the novels of Hinojosa, in particular, can assist in rebutting the supposition that the proper way to treat Hispanic subject matter is through an appeal to a monolithic ethnic identity. Hinojosa, by going out of his way to supply names for his imaginary terrain such as "Klail" and "Belken," names that sound, in a Spanish-speaking context, jaggedly and exotically Anglo-Saxon, deploys the same aesthetic of cultural disruption that Cather does in her work, and shows his interest, very like Cather's, in cultural border-crossing. Unlike Lawrence, with his posturings towards vatic truth and cultural breakthrough, Cather, by admitting her own inadequacies, provides, along with Mary Austin, a precedent for writers like Hinojosa. The culturally disruptive "French" approach highlights Cather's own distance from the scene, and represents her own position as outsider and stranger. Cather's relation to New Mexico is no more intimate than Father Latour's is at the beginning of the novel. Like the Archbishop, Cather's attitude never becomes fully integrated into the landscape. A larger instance of this perspective is the French identity of Latour and Vaillant. (This was, strictly speaking, not Cather's choice in that the real-life Archbishop was also French, but presumably it was her choice to choose him as a model for a character.) Robert J. Nelson finds Cather's life-long interest in France to be one of the major sources and preoccupations of her fiction. Nelson posits a "Catherian troping towards France as a prime instance" of her search for origins (Nelson 17). As Nelson recognizes, though, the turning towards France can block access to this origin as much as it yearns towards a reunion with it. This is part of the function of the Frenchness of Latour and Vaillant in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Cather avoids an ethnocentric Americanism just as she avoids a fetishization of the Hispanic authentic. Instead of being either American or Hispanic, Cather's posture in this novel is "French." This posture, in a novel not about France, is inherently fictive. The French element in the text keeps the novel's subject matter off-balance, prevents it from subsiding into either a mainstream pioneer saga or a dithyramb to the indigenous primitive. The French elements in the New Mexican landscape prevent the setting from being totally indigenous; it is permeable to external influences. In a way, the Archbishop's relationship with the landscape is so intimate that he almost needs the distance between his own native landscape, the mountains of Auvergne, and the far different mesas and adobes of New Mexico. Cather's smaller but similar distance as a Nebraskan born in Virginia (landscapes as different from New Mexico in topographical terms as is any place in France) provide a parallel between her and Latour, who can with little distortion be called her authorial surrogate. Because Cather is not herself French, nor is writing in obvious relation to a French agenda, the French elements in Cather's landscape function as an emblem of the sacred, a weave in the fabric of the world that prevents it from ever collapsing into settled definition.

In addition, France, in geographical, linguistic, and historical terms, is the means of access to Greece and Rome on the part of the English. France is that which, both in space and in time, stands between England and the European past from which it aspires to draw its cultural origins. This mediation is characteristic of Cather's own treatment of French themes. It also typifies her treatment of Christianity, so much of which is seen through its particularly French manifestations. The idea of the "French" serves Cather as a metaphor for her celebration of Christianity, the way in which the manifestation of Christianity in space and in time means that it is always in the middle of everything, never merely a source of "original" authority. Cather's Christianity is not anti-modern and does not conform to the stereotype of Christianity as antimodern held by Left and Right alike. It is part of modernity, and indeed it underscores the way that the Christian message, with its departure from the given and the normative, has always been laden with modernity.

Cather's ecclesiastical position was probably not far from that described by Hugh Trevor-Roper (created Lord Dacre of Glanton in 1979) as "neither Papist nor Protestant, but Gallican" (Trevor Roper 100). Trevor-Roper's phrase is apt in implying how Cather was interested in mediation between different ethnic and confessional modes of Christianity, but not in consensus. Cather, as Hermione Lee says, imagines an America where "bridges between pluralisms are only half-crossed; distinguishing factors between cultures are celebrated …" (Lee, "Cather's Bridge" 39). She achieves reconciliation between different groups and temperaments without congealing them all into an artificial consensus.

Cather's French or "Gallican" Christianity would have been even more graphically displayed in the novel Cather was completing at the time of her death and which was almost entirely destroyed on Cather's instructions. This novel, entitled Hard Punishments, was to have been set in the city of Avignon during the time when the Popes were resident there. This period of the early fourteenth century was the result of the French monarchy's attempt to gain an undisputed hegemony over the Papacy; it was an attempt to make Catholicism less the heir of an ecumenical Roman empire, a post-imperial ecclesia, and more a specifically national French institution. Even though Cather, after 1922, was a professed member of the Episcopal Church, the geographical heart of Cather's Christianity was in Avignon, not in Rome or England. But in Cather's time there had not been a Pope in Avignon for over five centuries. The entire episode was a historical footnote, not the dawn of the kind of ongoing, socially powerful institution of the sort so admired by twentieth-century intellectuals. Even more to the point, Cather was not French, did not live in France, and had no significant French ancestry. Her promotion of a uniquely French Christianity was a far more gratuitous matter than was the case for a Charles Péguy or a Charles Maurras. Being a "Gallican" Christian was, for Cather, a way of possessing an anima naturaliter christiana, her to celebrate the joy of Christian affirmation while at the same time undermining the deployment of Christianity as an agent of cultural domination that would use its identity as a worldly authority in the interests of a conservative establishment. In the strict historical sense, Gallicanism originated with the desire of the French kings to exercise "power of government equally over clergy and laity" (Morris 240) and to use their power to eclipse the spiritual/temporal power of the Pope. But in Cather's vision "Gallicanism" was more mediatory in function, more of an analogue to "Anglicanism," in the sense that Anglicanism is both Catholic and Protestant, liturgical and evangelical (see Collinson 242, also Evans and Wright). Trevor-Roper speaks of Anglicanism as "humane and civilized … free from the intolerance of Geneva or of Rome" (Trevor Roper 53). Cather's Gallican twist of Anglicanism adds an appealing note of foreignness while wrestling free from any upper-class, Anglophile associations and thus of any idea of cultural domination or authority. Cather's hearkening to the French image of Christianity suggests that any unambiguous affirmations of faith must not subside into a consolidated human authority, political or ecclesiastical. By resorting to a non-obvious French incarnation of Christian worship with no remote claims to authority in the America of either the time of the novel's setting or that of its composition, Cather is removing her Christian vision from polemical disputes, and concentrating on spiritual beauties far too delicate to be fully "realized" in the world.

This focus on imaginative truth liberates Cather's novel from the routine constraints of plot and narrative. Death Comes for the Archbishop seems more like a saint's life or a series of scenes from a stained-glass window than a full-fledged, mimetic narrative (Woodress 402–07). In Death Comes for the Archbishop dramatic tensions contingent on simple moral oppositions are replaced by structural tensions. These tensions display how a difference in rhetorical posture may be as fictively interesting as tensions between affective values, which the novel, with its basically undiluted admiration for the Archbishop, tends to lack. The foremost of these structural tensions lies in the opposition-within-similarity between Archbishop Latour and his chief assistant, Father Vaillant. Latour and Vaillant are priestly colleagues and close friends. But Latour and Vaillant exemplify an opposition that E. R. Curtius has diagnosed as the topos of sapientia and fortitudo, in which two people embodying the collateral but utterly disparate virtues of wisdom and strength are seen in close apposition (Curtius 178).

The classic example is in the Chanson de Roland, in which the brave Roland is accompanied by his friend, the wise Oliver. Cather takes the (not unusual) step of making her sapientia figure (Latour) the more important one of the pair, even as she preserves impeccably the basic features of this opposition. Latour is the figure of power as such, and Vaillant the adjutant who is responsible for the actual exercise of that power. He is the Prime Minister to Latour's sovereign, the Chief of Staff to his President. Latour is stolid, serene, almost immobile, signifying the majesty of de jure and diocesan centrality. This is signified by the name of "Latour," with not only its obvious source in Walter Pater's uncompleted novel Gaston de Latour (much admired by Cather) but its overall symbolist connotations of an aesthetic posture of supremacy and grandeur so proud as to almost prompt immobility. "Vaillant" on the other hand, indicates, if not "valiant," at last an active process of "willing." Cather deploys the sapientia-fortitudo topos by having Latour, the representative of formal authority, be more of an aesthete, and having the practical Vaillant not just be more of a man of affairs but possess a more thoroughly grounded sense of vocation in the world. "During their Seminary years," Latour reflects at one point, "he had easily surpassed his friend in scholarship, but he always realized that Joseph excelled him in the fervor of his faith." Despite their substrate of priestly kinship, it is Vaillant's differences from his friend that fascinate Latour. This is seen at the end of Book I of the novel, in a renowned passage that shows the workings of the Latour-Vaillant relationship as well as of Latour's imaginative vision:

Father Vaillant began restlessly pacing up and down as he spoke, and the Bishop watched him, musing. It was just this in his friend that was dear to him. "Where there is great love there is always miracles," he said at length. "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 or eyes can see and our ears can hear what is about us always.

Latour and Vaillant are Catholic structural complements, not the kind of ethical opposites that readers usually expect in a culturally Protestant novel, especially one set in the American West. The tension between protagonist and antagonist that animates most narratives is here replaced by a more unusual and subtle tension between two characters who are friends. The lack of dramatic tension between them, though, does not mean that all is smoothly harmonious. One interesting source of tension between them is that Vaillant's knightly activity not only renders him modally variant from Latour, it also makes him emotionally opaque to his colleague. Latour and Vaillant are removed from the interior of each other's emotions, but the differences between the two men's spiritual vocations and psychological make-up is also what binds them together. Further, all these differences actually heighten Latour's affection for his major lieutenant. As opposites, they at once exclude, attract, and, finally, complete each other. One particularly salient difference between them is that Latour's connection with the New Mexico landscape is less grounded than that of Vaillant, a reflection of the ambivalent relationship this spiritual man has with the material world. His dominating presence continually tries to impose its stamp on the material world around him, but he can only fully achieve this by building his cathedral, which is also his tomb. The symbol of his aesthetic triumph is also the symbol of his resignation from his earthly life.

Latour, the artist-figure, is a celebrant of creativity, a creativity not confined to the aesthetic mastery of Christian rite. An apostolic and liturgical Christian, Latour plays the two roles of archbishop and aesthete in a way that makes them one. It is a true aesthesis, a sheer aesthesis, a response of delight rather than of connoisseurship.

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 poisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!

Latour is here drawing us into the emotional core of Cather's Christianity. Cather's vision of the Archbishop's "Frenchness" once again comes into play, as the Archbishop's imaginative spirit dances between and beyond any constraining absolutes, ranging beyond the conventional ideas of what a man like him "must" be in the eyes of uncomprehending observers. His French identity acts as a spiritual free space that countervails the unquestioning trust, so prevalent in America at the time, in Protestantism and progress as leading to a self-sufficient secularism. Latour's sense of the miracle comes from an aesthetic heightening so implicated in its own beauty that it can never be distilled into a doctrinal truth, even as it participates in a vision of the world that Cather would see as inherently religious (see Winters 76).

As mentioned before, Cather became an Episcopalian (Anglican) in 1922. She had been exposed to Christianity as a child, largely, as My Ántonia and Sapphira and The Slave Girl make clear, of a low-church Protestant variety. Despite this, much of her later fiction was taken up with specifically Catholic settings, indeed so much so that as Hermione Lee states, this orientation "understandably led many readers to suppose she was a practitioner" (Lee 285). Cather, though, was not a practitioner of Catholicism, although she certainly found Catholic settings and characters far more appealing in literary terms than she did Episcopal ones! It is interesting to surmise that her interest in Catholicism was largely associated with places she had travelled. She wrote little about the Catholics of New York, for example. Patrick Allitt describes a parallel instance of a Jewish convert to Catholicism in the 1950's who went to live among "Hispanic Americans, whom he saw as exotic, instead of among the irksomely familiar Catholics of New York" (Allitt 320). So there is an element of exoticism here, as there is in Cather's evocation of New Mexico itself. As Franchot points out, Catholicism in the nineteenth century was fetishized as an "other" by antebellum Protestant discourse, a projection which continued through the later nineteenth century into the twentieth. As with New Mexico, Cather never fully understood Catholicism from the inside. When compared to twentieth-century Catholic convert writers such as Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene, Cather remained an outsider to Catholicism; she was an admirer, but not an admirer from within. Conversion is not a theme in Cather's novel, as her two protagonists, as Auvergnats born in the early nineteenth century, were cradle Catholics, and their apostolic mission is not so much to convert as to reanimate their flock. Cather's spiritual journey, unlike, for instance, John Henry Newman's as chronicled in Apologia Pro Vita Sua, did not have a dramatic moment of conversion at its core.

This differentiates Death Comes for the Archbishop from much twentieth-century literature concerned with Catholic religiosity. Patrick Allitt, in his recent book on British and American Catholic convert writers of the past two centuries, contends that, for the most part, twentieth-century Catholic converts tended to be anguished, as with Greene, or countercultural in a right-wing sense, in the case of G. K. Chesterton and others. "The convert who is more punctilious in his new faith than the lifelong communicant is a familiar figure in Catholic lore" (Allitt 9). Nineteenth-century converts such as Newman, Orestes Brownson, and Isaac Hecker, were, according to Allitt, more optimistic and transcendental in their faith. If Cather had to belong to either category, it would be the latter, although her insistence on seeing landscape as and for itself would preclude any full-fledged typological transcendentalism in the manner of Emerson. But Cather did not, to quote Allitt's subtitle, "turn to Rome"; indeed, she did not really turn to anywhere so specific. Neither New Mexico (or Québec, her setting for her later novel Shadows on the Rock) were places she lived for any extended period of time, and her adult in New York City was far from either where she was born or where she grew up. Even her beloved France, as Nelson is at pains to point out, is essentially a France of the mind. Even her accession to Anglicanism was much more of the anima naturaliter christiana variety. It certainly lacked the thunder of T. S. Eliot's slightly later conversion to Anglicanism, or at least his poetic account of it in "Ash Wednesday."

Cather, a High Anglican in her concern with liturgy and ceremony, is perhaps not quite so high as Eliot; Cather's faith has a less "churchy," more open-air atmosphere about it, as befits an author so concerned with the American West. Finally, it must be admitted, that for all her many strengths, Cather was not a theologian or a historian. She started out as a journalist for McClure's Magazine, and spent the latter half of her life as a practicing novelist. As limned by her biographers James Woodress and Hermione Lee, most of Cather's friends were musicians, artists, or writers, the latter as likely to be journalists as novelists. Cather could never have written a straight, non-fictional account of a historical religious figure, as Evelyn Waugh did in his book on Edmund Campion. Cather was interested in theology and history, and deployed them meaningfully and intelligently in her work, but finally as part of an aesthetic pattern. This is suggested by the manner in which Latour, at the end of his life, finds his mind has amalgamated various historical stages, if not necessarily entirely risen above them. "He sat in the middle of his own consciousness; none of his former states of mind were lost or outgrown. They were all within the reach of his hand, and all comprehensible."

This statement immediately precedes Latour's final meeting with his old Indian comrade, Eusabio the Navajo. This encounter may signify a reconciliation not only with the native population and with the New Mexican landscape (Eusabio had earlier been described as "the landscape made human") but, on a more abstract level, with death itself. But Latour's delight in beauty is not confined to his personal relations. It molds the entire shape of his public career as well. In the moving conclusion of the novel, the final book which gives its title to the work as a whole, Latour's construction of a cathedral for his flock is both an act of vanity and one of sacrifice. "But the Cathedral is not for us, Father Joseph," the Archbishop points out. "We build for the future—better not lay a stone unless we can do that." This building for the future is a concession, a recognition of the inevitability of his own death. There is something incongruous in titling a novel after the death of its protagonist when the text assumes an affirmative, almost heroworshipping view of this protagonist, and is far more concerned with his life rather than his death. Yet the novel's titular emphasis on death is not at odds with its substantive emphasis on great deeds and fine perceptions. It is as if only with death can one truly judge a life. Although Latour is buried in his beautiful cathedral, Cather's aesthetic does not identify beauty with its endurance in the world—the archbishop, after all, is dead. Her vision of art accepts the inevitable obsolescence of all beauty in its earthly incarnation with a grace that possesses overtones of the plenary. Art, for Cather, has transcendental bearings. It is not located exclusively in the material world.

Latour, after his death, lies "before the high altar in the church he had built." We might assume that this is a kind of ceremonial entombment, a confirmation in death of the solidity of his achievement in life. But the cathedral is more than an external correlative for the Archbishop's creativity. Latour builds himself outward, into the outer world. His construction of the cathedral is not a hylomorphic imposition of his soul upon the land, a grandiose form that is invariably supreme over matter, an art that can easily subdue nature. It is a slow accumulation of his spirit into the cathedral itself, made of New Mexican stone—but with the presence of Latour, Cather has us understand that he is also introducing European spiritual symbols into an ostensibly alien American landscape. "Every time I come here, I like this stone better," Latour muses to Vaillant. "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." Through his impulse to construct the cathedral, Latour renounces any personal egotism (inevitable in his diocesan role, whatever his personal sanctity) and resigns his identity into the created artefact. His death is synonymous with his achievement.

Throughout the book, his greatest recognition of beauty has come when Latour has acknowledged its heavenly distance, not its earthly presence. Latour's Christian aestheticism is not subject to temporal circumstances, even if its enunciation is inevitably elegiac. The Archbishop has in no way conquered the land, but he is now forever a part of it, or, more accurately, a part of the perceptions of those who observe it. Latour's culminating achievement is not to be found in a religious paradise on earth. It is to remind us of a tradition of the sacred, one centered in Death Comes for the Archbishop around ideas of "France" and "the aesthetic," but a tradition that ultimately has no earthly home. This tradition of the sacred may include but is not necessarily limited to any doctrinal version of Christianity, and is as likely to be found in the work of the artist as in the conventional precincts of the politician or the cleric. This tradition is always going to be in danger of becoming obscure or of momentarily slipping away. But, as the perseverance of Latour's cathedral signifies, it is never to be eliminated from the landscape.


Nicholas Birns, "Building the Cathedral: Imagination, Christianity, and Progress in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop," in Religion and the Arts, Vol. 3, No. 1, March 1999, pp. 1–19.


Boulton, Alexander O., "The Padre's House," in American Heritage, Vol. 45, No. 1, February/March 1994, pp. 92–99.

Hooper, Brad, Review of Death Comes for the Archbishop, in Booklist, Vol. 96, No. 15, April 1, 2000, p. 1442.

Van Ghent, Dorothy, "Willa Cather," in American Writers, Vol. 1, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974, pp. 312–34.

Further Reading

Bohlke, L. Brent, ed., Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches and Letters, University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

Bohlke presents insightful interviews and letters, dating from 1897 to 1940. Collectively, these writings show Cather's growth as an author and a person, while shedding light on her literary views.

Cather, Willa, Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art, University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

Cather discusses elements of her own writing, and she comments on other works with which her contemporaries were familiar.

Jenkins, Myra Ellen, and Albert H. Schroeder, A Brief History of New Mexico, University of New Mexico Press, 1974.

Jenkins and Schroeder provide a readable overview of the historical events and people of New Mexico. The book includes pictures and maps to complement the text.

Plog, Stephen, Ancient Peoples of the Southwest, Thames and Hudson, 1998.

In an easy-to-understand style, Plog presents the long and challenging history of the Southwest American Indians. He gives special attention to the ways they have adapted over the years to keep their tribes and customs alive.

Walker, Paul Robert, The Southwest: Gold, God, and Grandeur, National Geographic, 2001.

In this book, Walker brings together the many histories (Anglo, Spanish, Mexican, and Native American) of the Southwest. The book is illustrated with photography of the southwestern landscape.