Book review: “Death Comes for the Archbishop” by Willa Cather Previous item Book review: “The Mystery... Next item My Top Fourteen Books of 2016

Book review: “Death Comes for the Archbishop” by Willa Cather

It’s been 90 years since Willa Cather published Death Comes for the Archbishop, and what’s particularly striking about the novel is how it seems to exist outside the fashions and prejudices of a particular era and, yet, tells a universal story about human beings and the earth on which they live.

At the center of the novel are two French Jesuits — Bishop Jean Marie Latour and his friend Father Joseph Vaillant — two celibate men who, in the mid-19th century, devote their lives to bring religious faith and comfort to Mexican-Americans in the newly acquired U.S. territory of New Mexico.

Missionaries are generally depicted in books and movies today as aggressive, vindictive, dictatorial and stone-hearted. I’m sure there have been such priests in the history of the mission fields, but I’m also certain that a lot more of those who went out to share their faith with people who knew little or nothing of Jesus were like Latour and Vaillant.

Cather presents them as strong, committed men, willing to put up with great hardships in doing what they saw as God’s work. Flawed, like all of us are, but good at heart.

We can still believe today in the good of heart, can’t we?


“Way of meeting people”


Cather did. Here’s how she described the Bishop from the point of view of one of his Mexican-American guides:

The truth was, Jacinto liked the Bishop’s way of meeting people: thought he had the right tone with Padre Gallegos, the right tone with Padre Jesus, and that he had good manners with the Indians. In his experience, white people, when they addressed Indians, always put on a false face. There were many kinds of false faces…The Bishop had none at all. He stood straight and turned to the Governor of Laguna, and his face underwent no change. Jacinto thought this remarkable.

Cather exhibits a keen sense of human nature here. In addition, she is willing to see this educated product of the white world of Europe and the East Coast from the point of view of someone from a group of people often dismissed by that world as not worthy of attention. She is willing to have this peasant judge a cultured white man, and give weight to that judgement.

Although Jacinto admires the Bishop, his thoughts are also a critique of the way other whites deal with Mexicans and Indians.



Not disloyal, proud


In addition, Cather gives equal weight to the gossip that circulates about a rich society matron in Santa Fe — not just among the people who attend her parties but also among the people who serve at those parties.

There was gossip about the lady in Santa Fé, of course, since she had retained her beautiful complexion and her husband’s devoted regard for so many years. The Americans and the Olivares brothers said she dressed much too youthfully, which was perhaps true, and that she had lovers in New Orleans and El Paso del Norte. Her nephews-in-law went so far as to declare that she was enamored of the Mexican boy the Olivares had brought up from San Antonio to play the banjo for them, — they both loved music, and this boy, Pablo, was a magician with his instrument.

 All sorts of stories went out from the kitchen; that Doña Isabella had a whole chamber full of dresses so grand that she never wore them here at all; that she took gold from her husband’s pockets and hid it under the floor of her room; that she gave him love potions and herb-teas to increase his ardor. This gossip did not mean that her servants were disloyal, but rather that they were proud of their mistress.


“No veneration of property”


There are elements of Death Comes for the Archbishop that are likely to jar modern sensibilities, such as the way that the two priests call their Mexican-American guides “boy.”

At one point, the Bishop is thinking of the Mexican-Americans as “reptilian” — which may seem demeaning, but look at the word in context:

Through all the centuries that his own part of the world had been changing like the sky at daybreak, this people had been fixed, increasing neither in numbers nor desires, rock-turtles on their rock. Something reptilian he felt here, something that had endured by immobility, a kind of life out of reach, like the crustaceans in their armor.

And, also, look at that description in the context of something Father Vaillant says a bit later:

“The more I work with the Mexicans, the more I believe it was people like them our Savior bore in mind when He said, Unless ye become as little children. He was thinking of people who are not clever in the things of this world, whose minds are not upon gain and worldly advancement. These poor Christians are not thrifty like our country people at home; they have no veneration for property, no sense of material values.”

Someone who wants to take offense at these two quotations could do so. For me, though, they seem to be a great compliment to the Mexican-Americans and Indians with whom the priests are working.

The thoughts of the priests are so radically different from the general white attitudes toward poor, untutored Mexican-Americans and Indians that they’re startling.

These priests view the way of life of these people as different from but not less than the way of life in Europe and the East Coast — even though, for instance, they have “no veneration for property.” Or, maybe, because they don’t.

In addition, they view these poor people as living the life that Jesus told all of his followers to live.

That doesn’t sound demeaning to me.



“Accommodating themselves”


On one of his many missionary journeys, the Bishop watches his guide closely and comes to an understanding of the attitude of the Mexican-Americans and Indians toward life and toward nature.

When they left the rock or tree or sand dune that had sheltered them for the night, the Navajo was careful to obliterate every trace of their temporary occupation. He buried the embers of the fire and the remnants of food, unpiled any stones he had piled together, filled up the holes he had scooped in the sand. Since this was exactly Jacinto’s procedure, Father Latour judged that, just as it was the white man’s way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark of memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian’s way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or birds through the air. It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it….

[The Mexicans} seemed to have none of the European’s desire to “master” nature, to arrange and re-create. They spent their ingenuity in the other direction; in accommodating themselves to the scene in which they found themselves…. It was as if the great country were asleep, and they wished to carry on their lives without awakening it; or as if the spirits of earth and air and water were things not to antagonize and arouse.

The Bishop doesn’t judge the white attitudes are better than or worse than the attitudes of the people of the Southwest. He sees each as a way of approaching life and the landscape.

Few of his culture — a few of Cather’s culture — would accept that there was any other way of thinking about the earth than as something for man to “master.”

Today, because of the environmental movement, more Americans might be willing to give those ideas a listen, but “mastering” the landscape is still the usual mode of operation.


“Resembling vast cathedrals”

Cather looks with fresh eyes at these priests and their people they serve, unblinded by expectations or bile.

Similarly, she describes the seemingly barren vistas of the Southwest, not a wasteland, but a landscape of great beauty and majesty. Consider the Bishop’s reaction to a ride through that landscape”

In all his travels the Bishop had seen no country like this. From the flat red sea of sand rose great rock mesas, generally Gothic in outline, resembling vast cathedrals. They were not crowded together in disorder, but placed in wide spaces, long vistas between. This plain might once have been an enormous city, all the smaller quarters destroyed by time, only the public buildings left, — piles of architecture that were like mountains. The sandy soil of the plain had a light sprinkling of junipers, and was splotched with masses of blooming rabbit brush, — that olive-colored plant that grows in high waves like a tossing sea, at this season covered with a thatch of bloom, yellow as gorse, or orange like marigolds.

This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape.

Here, again, is Cather looking with fresh eyes. In this case, she’s not seeing the differences of the European-East Coast culture and that of the Southwest. She’s seeing the similarities.


“The sky, the sky!”

The Bishop is open to this world. It is nothing like his home France, but he responds to it, such as on a 400-mile ride back to Santa Fe:

The weather alternated between blinding sand-storms and brilliant sunlight. The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still,- — and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!

And it was not just the immensity of it all that touches him. He responds as well to a simple row of ancient trees:

On the south, against the earth wall, was the one row of trees they had found growing there when they first came,— old, old tamarisks, with twisted trunks. They had been so neglected, left to fight for life in such hard, sun-baked, burro-trodden ground, that their trunks had the hardness of cypress. They looked, indeed, like very old posts, well seasoned and polished by time, miraculously endowed with the power to burst into delicate foliage and flowers, to cover themselves with long brooms of lavender-pink blossom.


“Always awoke a young man”

Although a Frenchman through and through, the Bishop — now the Archbishop — finds near the end of his life that he has fallen in love with the Southwest.

On a visit back to France, after his retirement, he is expected by many of his friends and colleagues to remain for his final years. But, no, he realizes that he must go back:

In New Mexico he always awoke a young man; not until he rose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one’s body feel light and one’s heart cry “To-day, to-day,” like a child’s….

He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it. 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 prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!


Patrick T. Reardon



  • Diane Drugge Posted November 14, 2017 8:31 am

    Remarkable capturing of father’s brilliance and purpose! Thank you.

  • Noe Berengena Posted September 16, 2018 9:24 pm

    From my first reading of this book to the most recent (third) I always find great comfort in Cather’s book. Perhaps the thing that I felt most deeply is her depiction of a timeless and boundless landscape and the people who made it their home. For the sake of tourism New Mexico calls itself the “Land of Enchantment,” but it is more than that. It is the physical history of the ancient earth itself, told in such a way that we encounter its grandeur and mystery as things that are and will always be, in spite of the foolish domestication wrought by Americans who have no idea what life is about.

    • Patrick T. Reardon Posted September 24, 2018 8:55 am

      Yes, Noe, her descriptions of the landscape and people are what makes this such a rich book. Pat

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