Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I have to admit, I’m a little Nebraskan in my knowledge of Willa Cather. Now, this doesn’t apply to ALL Nebraskans, but there are a significant majority who think that Cather is summed up entirely by My Ántonia. It’s just what Nebraskans keep harping on, and I admit that I’ve suffered from that fault. This left me a bit unprepared for Death Comes for the Archbishop.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was for Percival Everett and for Paula Fox.)

After all, My Ántonia is such a small portion of Cather’s work and range. Death Comes for the Archbishop, detailing the exploits of two very different priests who take charge of the eventual diocese in the new American territory of New Mexico, is a very different book. Tougher. Harder. More spare.

Just take a look at this bit:

After supper Father Latour took up a candle and began to examine the holy images on the shelf over the fireplace. The wooden figures of the saints, found in even the poorest Mexican houses, always interested him. He had never yet seen two alike. These over Benito’s fireplace had come in the ox-carts from Chihuahua nearly sixty years ago. They had been carved by some devout soul, and brightly painted, though the colours had softened with time, and they were dressed in cloth, like dolls. They were much more to his taste than the factory-made plaster images in his mission churches in Ohio–more like the homely stone carvings on the front of old parish churches in Auvergne. The wooden Virgin was a sorrowing mother indeed,–long and stiff and severe, very long from the neck to the waist, even longer from waist to feet, like some of the rigid mosaics of the Eastern Church. She was dressed in black, with a white apron, and a black reboso over her head, like a Mexican woman of the poor. At her right was St. Joseph, and at her left a fierce little equestrian figure, a saint wearing the costume of a Mexican ranchero, velvet trousers richly embroidered and wide at the ankle, velvet jacket and silk shirt, and a high-crowned, broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero. He was attached to his fat horse by a wooden pivot driven through the saddle.

It’s been over twenty years since I read My Ántonia, but this is a very different Cather than my memories of that book led me to expect.

The sparseness of the prose seems like it would dazzle Hemingway, and Cather still manages to convey highly evocative images and descriptions within it. I remember some of that from My Ántonia (though I might be remembering that wrong), but the tone and approach seems much less sentimental, harder even. Of course, they are very different books and the prose seems like it should be different in those ways.

I also think about some of the Spanish priests that Latour and his friend have to contend with in the wildness of New Mexico:

“I have the telling passages all written down somewhere. I will find them before you go. You have probably read them with a sealed mind. Celibate priests lose their perceptions. No priest can experience repentance and forgiveness of sin unless he himself falls into sin. Since concupiscence is the most common form of temptation, it is better for him to know something about it. The soul cannot be humbled by fasts and prayer; it must be broken by mortal sin to experience forgiveness of sin and rise to a state of grace. Otherwise, religion is nothing but dead logic.”

“This is a subject upon which we must confer later, and at some length,” said the Bishop quietly. “I shall reform these practices throughout my diocese as rapidly as possible. I hope it will be but a short time until there is not a priest left who does not keep all the vows he took when he bound himself to the service of the altar.”

The swarthy Padre laughed, and threw off the big cat which had mounted to his shoulder. “It will keep you busy, Bishop. Nature has got the start of you here. But for all that, our native priests are more devout than your French Jesuits. We have a living Church here, not a dead arm of the European Church. Our religion grew out of the soil, and has its own roots. We pay a filial respect to the person of the Holy Father, but Rome has no authority here. We do not require aid from the Propaganda, and we resent its interference. The Church the Franciscan Fathers planted here was cut off; this is the second growth, and is indigenous. Our people are the most devout left in the world. If you blast their faith by European formalities, they will become infidels and profligates.”

That isn’t something you’d find in My Ántonia.

I keep contrasting with My Ántonia primarily because that was my experience with Cather up until now. I really like that there is more to Cather. You should keep in mind that I liked My Ántonia, though I also liked Death Comes for the Archbishop.

I enjoyed the toughness of the prose and how spare Death Comes for the Archbishop is while still conjuring an interesting amount of description. I didn’t think much really changed for the main two priests throughout other than how the world around them changed, but I don’t think Death Comes for the Archbishop is that kind of a novel. Death Comes for the Archbishop was interesting in any case.

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