In the 1850s, America gained control of New Mexico Territory following the Mexican-American War. Subsequently, the Catholic Church decided to make a new diocese out of this new slice of rugged frontier America, populated for generations by Mexican settlers and many, many more generations by the local American Indian tribes. Closely based on historical figures, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather tells a fictionalized account of two French priests sent to bring the far-flung and neglected territory back under the umbrella of Catholic orthodoxy.
In a letter (helpfully included in the version of the book I read, along with useful footnotes translating the smattering of French and Latin) Cather describes the book as a narrative, rather than a novel. One part character study, one part travelogue, one part history, and one part anthropology, Death Comes For the Archbishop unspools through a series of vignettes over the course of forty years in the lives of its protagonists, Bishop Jean Marie Latour and his life-long friend Father Joseph Vaillant. Both are decent, honorable men, and they tend to their duties with compassion and the hope of building a better future for their flock. The story has no true antagonists, and the occasional villains that arise in the narrative are soon dealt with one way or another. Almost every person in the story is treated with sympathy and respect, regardless of their race or background.
Death Comes for the Archbishop is a story for the senses, relying on poetic imagery and acute attention to detail. It is clear that Cather spent a great deal of time in the environment she describes. It reading the book, it is easy to see the sunlight of a winter morning reflected red off the snow on the distant mountains, smell the piñon logs cooking beans over adobe firepits, and feel the burning sun and wind of the dusty, lonely paths taken by the padres to reach their far-flung congregations. The end result is both soothing and engaging.
Of course, any time you are dealing with a historic work that addresses racial issues, a modern reader can run into problems. The story has shades of “the white man’s burden,” where it takes a pair of benevolent and genteel Frenchmen to bring order to a wild land. In this book, and others in her canon, Cather displays an early 20th Century tendency to categorize people’s personalities by their ethnicity.
By the standards of when it was published in 1927, I think the Death Comes for the Archbishop does a good job at portraying the characters of Mexican and American Indian heritage as distinct and complete individuals. Cather may make broad generalizations based on race and ethnicity, but she goes out of her way to make those generalizations generally positive. She also is very clear that the societies of different American Indian tribes and the Mexican rancheros are valid and viable for the wild countryside in which they have adapted. The purity of the countryside and the rural lifestyle are an overarching theme in many of Cather’s works. The trouble with Death comes from equating this purity to the child-like naivety on the part of certain non-white characters. It can come across as patronizing and somewhat fetishistic.
Adding another layer are the religious overtones and elements of allegory that permeate the narrative. Without getting into a discourse on theology, the veneration of the innocence and simplicity in the text has strong parallels to Christian dogma, and this point is explicitly noted in the book on several occasions. I fall somewhere along the atheist-to-agnostic spectrum of the religiously disinclined, but I was not put off by the religious nature of the story. The book’s saving grace is that pretty much every character is a genuinely good person a heart, striving to make a better life for themselves and the people around them. If I got the same warm fuzzy feelings from organized religions as I do from reading this book, it might make me rethink my non-religious stance.
Despite the flaws, Cather remains one of the best American authors of the 20th Century, and Death Comes for the Archbishop is my favorite of her books. It is a sweet and sometimes melancholic reflection of a bygone age, preserved by Cather’s evocative descriptions and gentle narrative. I highly recommend it to anyone who needs a solid comfort read or a break from real life drama.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.”