Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop profoundly moved me.
Perhaps it was Cather’s perfect capture of New Mexico: while I have never been to New Mexico, I feel I now can perfectly imagine the place, the pain, and the joy that the setting evokes. Also, while there are religious elements in the book (after all, it tells the story of the first Roman Catholic Bishop of New Mexico), Cather’s emphasis seems to be the human connections, the legends, and the memories of those living in a challenging yet beautiful era in American history.
Archbishop was a different classic to read: in some respects, it is a collection of stories, not a novel. When early reviews complained that book was hard to classify, Cather herself said “why bother?” She at times calls it a “legend” or a “narrative” (from the introduction, Everyman Library’s Edition).
Because of its loose structure and subtle plot, it tells of the Bishop Latour’s life and that of his friend, Father Valliant at a leisurely pace. In fact, my first read (three weeks ago) surprised me: I found myself struggling to be motivated to read it. (It was also during the Christmas holiday, so I was busy and probably not in the mood for a thinking book.) Because I’m preparing some discussion questions for my infant book group, I decided to reread it this week. (I was feeling horribly nervous about keeping a discussion going. Unfortunately, this is how I feel every month when I go to prepare for book club!)
So I reread Archbishop, knowing that it is slow, thoughtful, and not so much a novel but more a series of vignettes. And I loved it. The last 75 pages last night had me in tears as I pondered the life of the priests. While I loved My Antonia, this is my new, absolutely favorite Cather (of those two, at least). It has far more depth to the characters, the language, and the setting , and I was emotional moved as I read it. I may add it to the “Books Read in 2010 That I Love and Want to Reread Someday” list I’m starting in my head.
Note: Because I don’t believe Death Comes for the Archbishop can be “spoiled,” I discuss the book in below without hesitating to reveal some details.
I finished rereading Archbishop last night, after having finished Mrs. Dalloway on Tuesday, and maybe it was the slow-reading mood I’d had with Woolf that made Archbishop so rewarding this time around.
I am not a Catholic, but I do consider myself religious. Similarly, Cather was religious, but she was not a Catholic when she decided in 1927 to tell the story of the 1850s Catholic missionaries to New Mexico. Yet, her book is a religious one because she describes nature in terms of religion.
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. (page 94-95)
The book as a whole is not overly religious. Rather than celebrating any organized religion, Cather is celebrating humanity and the beauty of nature. She almost gives more space to the Indian traditions, legends, and religious beliefs than she does to the Catholic priests’ beliefs. The priests are just her vehicle to the legends. Catholic, Mexican, and Indian legends are all fascinating to me, despite the fact that I don’t know much about any of them!
A good portion of Archbishop is about service and friendship. I suspect this post cannot possibly capture the beauty of the text and the emotions I felt as I read about those subjects in Cather’s words, but I will try to do my best.
Because Father Valliant went to seminary in France with Bishop Latour, they are close. They were very different: Bishop Latour always planned ahead and Father Valliant was always full of energy to go do what was needed right now. But these differences were what made the book so rich. Both served the Catholic and non-Catholic populations and touched people in different ways, and because they saw life so differently, the moments of togetherness were perfectly captured and realistic. Although other relationships among the people touched me, it was the friendship between the two missionaries that touched me most: they’d given up a life of ease for a life of struggle, all because they wanted to serve. Yet they still had each other to understand how hard it was. How they must have depended on each other! (I say as if they were real… Although Cather based them on real missionaries, the story was a fiction.)
Finally, Death Comes for the Archbishop actually is about death, but it’s also about life and memory. In her introduction, A.S. Byatt indicates that there is confusion with the title:
“It arouses expectations in the reader which are not fulfilled – that death and the Archbishop are of equal importance in the narrative, whereas in fact the Archbishop’s death is only one further incident in the series of frozen gestures, moments of insight, small comedies and agonies which make up the fresco.”
I agree that the Archbishop himself is of utmost importance. But so are the Indian friends, and the New Mexico landscape, and dear Father Valliant, none of whom are mentioned in the title. I think Cather chose to include death in the title because that is what life is: we live to die. I am dying right now. How we live (i.e., what we choose to do with our time) determines how we will eventually die.
As he entered his last convalescence, Bishop Latour gave this bit of wisdom:
“I shall not die of a cold, my son. I shall die of having lived.” (page 267)
Death Comes for the Archbishop tells the story of Bishop Latour’s death, which is how he lived. He lived in service to others, looking ahead and planning for the future. Only before his death could he stop considering the future and recall, with fondness, his past. Cather’s narrative is absolutely beautiful in capturing his story!
Now that I’ve finished this reread, I am incredibly excited for my book club meeting next Wednesday night! I feel I have so much I want to discuss, and this book has much more in it for discussion than My Antonia (which I think many people read in high school or college). I have barely touched on all the themes that stand out to me after these two reads. I just really hope the others didn’t get hung up on the “slow” aspects as I did at first.
If you hated My Antonia, have you tried this one? I’m curious to know if those who dislike Cather know about this masterpiece. This is, of course, much slower than Antonia in pacing (believe it or not), but the end result is far more rewarding, I believe.
Have you read any books lately that moved you emotionally (not necessarily in a tear-jerker kind of way)?