Other Writing

A life Well-Lived Book Review – Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop
October 16th, 2009

Globe & Mail

One cold midwinter night, with heavy steps, I visited my local bookshop. A ridiculously bright orange book, How Fiction Works, caught my eye. In it, critic James Wood dissects bad writing and good writing both, as he sees them. After demolishing many celebrated authors, he pronounces the final pages of Willa Cather’s 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop “some of the most exquisite ever written in American fiction.” I wondered: How good was the book? So I bought it.

As one ages, great friends are harder to find. So are books that thrill, that shine in memory, a permanent possession of the spirit. For me, Death Comes for the Archbishop is such a book. The episodic story is deceptively simple: Priest Jean Marie Latour comes from France to be the first bishop in the then newly American territory of New Mexico. Over many years, using his intellect, wisdom and humility, and helped by his great childhood friend, Father Vaillant, he struggles against loneliness, doubt, a hard land and human nature, to reform the local Catholic Church. The story ends with his death – not from illness, but “from having lived.”

And it begins with Father Latour lost in the dry country of central New Mexico one autumn day in 1851. “Conical red hills surround him … as in some geometrical nightmare.” He sees a juniper tree, 10 feet high, parted at the top “into two lateral, flat-lying branches. … Living vegetation could not more faithfully present the form of the Cross.” He knelt before the “cruciform” tree: “A young priest, at his devotions; and a priest in a thousand, one knew at a glance.”

Each event in this book is concrete, yet symbolic, and opens into living myth. The reader is invited to contemplate the question: What is a life well lived? This question is asked in a story so fine it brings the old words “wisdom” and “beauty” to life again. A missionary priest visiting Rome, bored by sophisticated cardinals, realizes that “he has quite lost the taste for talk of clever men.”

In another scene, Father Vaillant is described as wanting miracles “against, not with, nature.” For Father Latour, 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.” Later, a new cathedral is described as coming out of “rose-colored hills … with a purpose so strong it was like action.”

The descriptions of Father Latour’s relationship with the earth, and the light, are exquisite

One day, after tasting another fine French soup made by Father Vaillant, Father Latour notes that no one else for thousands of miles could serve such a soup, adding, “I am not depreciating your talent, but when one thinks of it a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.” The individual and the power of living tradition – in a discussion over soup!

The descriptions of Father Latour’s relationship with the earth, and the light, are exquisite. One’s sleeping thoughts and dulled perception are shattered awake by the power of Cather’s understanding, the clarity of her vision and the poetry of her writing. Father Latour expected to retire to French civilization, but loved New Mexico too much. In his old age, he “awoke a young man” each day, to the “light dry wind, with the fragrance of hot sun and sagebrush and sweet clover.” The light was “soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!”

Willa Cather’s inspiration for Father Latour was the real French Bishop of New Mexico, Father Lamy. Critics suggest that Father Lamy had a different character than Father Latour’s, and, his legacy is much more “divided.” One suggests that it was Father Lamy’s chief opponent, Padre Martinez, who was “a champion of the poor, defender of native Americans, and proponent of human rights.”

But Father Latour is a fictional character, and need resemble no one. In an essay, Cather described the novelist as “selecting the eternal material of art” out of “the teeming gleaming stream of the present.”

Late in the novel, Father Vaillant says that something would remain of Father Latour’s excellence, “through the years to come; some ideal, or memory, legend.” Yet, shouldn’t we look down from the ideal, to see the harshness of injustice? Serving the eternal is fine, but shouldn’t a book be grounded in the historical complexity of the story? Or is Cather presenting a mythical story of timeless truth that need not be troubled by history? I have gone back and forth on these questions.

Willa Cather moved from Virginia to Nebraska as a child. Her passionate love for the land and the sky was born before the big skies of Nebraska. She wrote poetry, essays and many novels, achieving both critical and popular success, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. She died in 1947 in New York City and was buried in New Hampshire. Engraved on her tombstone is a quote from her book My Antonia: “… that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”

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