(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed) Introduction by A. S. Byatt Willa Cather's story of the missionary priest Father Jean Marie Latour and his work of faith in the wilderness of the Southwest is told with a spare but sensuous directness and profound artistry. When Latour arrives in 1851 in the territory of New Mexico, newly acquired by the United ...
(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed) Introduction by A. S. Byatt Willa Cather's story of the missionary priest Father Jean Marie Latour and his work of faith in the wilderness of the Southwest is told with a spare but sensuous directness and profound artistry. When Latour arrives in 1851 in the territory of New Mexico, newly acquired by the United States, what he finds is a vast desert region of red hills and tortured arroyos that is American by law but Mexican and Indian in custom and belief. Over the next four decades, Latour works gently and tirelessly to spread his faith and to build a soaring cathedral out of the local golden rock--while contending with unforgiving terrain, derelict and sometimes rebellious priests, and his own loneliness. DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP shares a limitless, craggy beauty with the New Mexico landscape of desert, mountain, and canyon in which its central action takes place, and its evocations of that landscape and those who are drawn to it suggest why Cather is acknowledged without question as the most poetically exact chronicler of the American frontier.
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This is a lovely and unusual book. There is not much of a narrative. It's a quiet series of episodes in the lives of two Catholic missionaries and the people they meet in New Mexico and environs in the nineteenth century. It's evocative of the Southwest and of people who have made their lives there. I read it in and around Santa Fe and I'm so glad I did.
Robert E S
Jul 7, 2011
A perennial favorite, Death Comes for the Archbishop is a warm account of life in the old Southwest. Most enjoyable reading, regardless of your religious affiliation.
Sep 4, 2008
A wonderful read
I read this book on the way home from a trip to New Mexico. I wish I had read it before I went--or any time. The language is wonderful, the pace slow but not dull, and the book evocative of a long bygone era in the history of this nation: southwestern settlements by Spanish missionaries. Highly recommended.
Aug 15, 2007
Indwelling Spirit of the American Desert
In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather becomes a poet of the Southwestern land, light, and air: "These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky. Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapour; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an oriental city lay directly behind the rock. The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave."
Cather tells the story of two French missionaries, bishop Jean Marie Latour and his vicar Joseph Vaillant who intend to build a cathedral in the New World (the novel is based on the lives of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Father Joseph Machebeut). The author herself envisioned the book as a narrative, hardly a novel at all, but rather a non-linear, achronological succession of "timeless moments" as though the narrator was God himself, and the story was animated by gesture, appearance, light, and color. In fact, scholars note Cather's debt to Puvis de Chavannes' frescoes of holy stories painted on the nave of the Pantheon in Paris as a source: their static, monumental quality, the soft light in which the figures are suspended outside of time.
According to her biographer Sharon O'Brien, the region became for Cather "America's place for revelation. . .[she] approached the Southwest's arid climate and desert landscape with contrasting associations drawn from nineteenth-century French fiction, the Bible and church history. . .(I)n the Southwest Cather found spiritual, sensual, and creative experience unified and indistinguishable."
Perhaps most strikingly, for a novel of the 1920s, Cather's novel honors the Southwest's Indian and Mexican cultures, and renders the region's cultural hybridity empathetically. In the book's final section, on his deathbed, the bishop expresses his concern for the Navajos who, during "that terrible winter," are brutally expelled from Canyon de Chelly and driven to the Bosque Redondo. The government deems the bosque unsuitable for the nomadic native people, and the remaining Navajos are allowed to return to the canyon. The bishop lives to see "two great wrongs righted": the end of slavery and the restoration of Navajo land. In choosing to tell this story in a coda, Cather gives the Indian story near-equal weight with the bishop's passing.
The novel is respectful as well of Mexican generosity, religiosity and pride, and of the native reverence for the land: They "seemed to have none of the European's desire to 'master' nature. . .The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it."
While the novelists of the Lost Generation wrote books of expatriate disaffection and longing, Cather wrote a masterpiece of the indwelling spirit in the American desert: "The traveller dismounted, drew from his pocket a much worn book, and baring his head, knelt at the foot of the cruciform tree."
Apr 3, 2007
Portrait of the Southwest
If you think this is a story of religious convictions or religious fervor, you've been mislead. This is a beautiful portrait of Sante Fe, Taos, and Albuquerque during the time of such great men as Kit Carson and Bishop Lamy and conveys the feeling of those early times.
Yes, it is a story of strife, of beauty, of the early French missionaries, but told in a way that is historically appearling to those who love good writing and the Southwest.
This is undoubtedly Willa Cather's best book. I whole-heartedly recommend the editions illustrated by Harold von Schmidt. His charming b/w illustrations grace each chapter and portray a synopsis of what is to come. Buy this book for a wonderful read and feeling of the Southwest by the people who lived in those historic times.
Consider reading Cather's THE PROFESSOR'S HOUSE in tandem with this for parallels in protagonists from different times and settings but with a shared love for life.
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