Willa Cather reportedly said “Then why bother?” about
reviewers’ attempts to classify Death
Comes for the Archbishop. The book is initially hard to orient
oneself to if you’re expecting a traditional novel. Containing nine
vignettes inspired by the experiences of a real missionary bishop, it
is historical fiction that doesn’t follow the usual novel form of
build-up/climax/resolution. Cather herself called it a “narrative.”
However it’s classified, Death Comes for the Archbishop is beautifully written. The two main characters are native French priests whose superiors send them to the New Mexico territories the United States acquired in the Mexican War. Their vividly drawn personalities contrast, but they have a strong bond.
Bishop Jean Marie Latour is in charge of the new diocese. His big challenge is to replace corrupt Spanish priests and restore true religion. While Bishop Latour is reserved and unassuming, his vicar, Father Joseph Vaillant, is passionate and talkative. Though sickly, Vaillant travels far to make converts to Catholicism.
The title is a curious choice, since the death of the bishop, by then archbishop, is not a major event in the book, nor is it sad or tragic. It’s the end of a long life lived well, with dreams fulfilled, including the dream of building a cathedral in Santa Fe.
As significant as the human story is Cather’s vivid descriptions of the mysterious beauty of the Southwest’s sandy plains, wide skies, and strange vegetation and rock formations.
Death Comes for the Archbishop has been placed on several top 100 lists, including Life magazine’s 100 best of 1924 to 1944, Time’s 100 best English-language novels of 1923 to 2005, and the Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
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