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Death Comes For The Archbishop (Virago Modern Classics) Paperback – 7 Sep 2006
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"A powerful piece of writing, rich with the essence of a poor but beautiful country and a simple yet dignified people." "Sunday Times""
"Quite simply a masterpiece . . . I am completely bowled over by it; by the power of its writing, by the vividness of its scene painting and by the stories it tells...This is a book which I go on rereading." A.N. Wilson, "Daily Telegraph""
"A tremendous, ranging story, economical and distilled as poetry." Jane Gardam"
Willa Cather's best known novel; a narrative that recounts a life lived simply in the silence of the southwestern desert.See all Product description
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Cather's book tells the story of Father Jean Pierre LaTour, a French priest who has come to the Ohio Valley to do missionary work. With the United States' acquisition of New Mexico, the Church sends him on an arduous journey to Santa Fe to become the Bishop and to revitalize the Catholic Church. He is soon joined in Santa Fe by his long-time friend from his seminary days in France, Father Joseph Valliant. LaTour is scholarly and aloof, while Valliant is emotional and impulsive, a man of the people. A great deal of Cather's book centers on the friendship between the two priests. Cather changed the names of her characters, but the depiction of the two priests is historically based. Cather adopted and idealized their portrayals for her purposes in the novel. Other historical figures in the novel include the scout Kit Carson, who receives a sympathetic portrayal, and the native priest Padre Martinez, who attempts to break away from the orthodox Catholicism of Father LaTour and to found his own order. Martinez receives a less than sympathetic portrait from Cather.
Over the years of the story, LaTour and Valliant wander the deserts and small settlements of New Mexico and Arizona in an attempt to bring Catholicism to the people. During the timeframe of the book, the territory was inhabited largely by Indians and by Mexicans with only a few settlers from the States. As the book progresses, the pace of settlement quickens, as LaTour lives to regret the changed, urban character of Santa Fe where he builds a glorious cathedral. Cather is at her best in her descriptions of the landscape of the American Southwest, its distances, bleakness, deserts, heat, frost, wind, and cold. Cather offers a portrait of the Indian people, and the high mesas on which some of them lived. She shows a sensitivity to native Indian religions, which persisted through the Indians' nominal conversion to Catholicism.
With her attraction to the Southwest and its people, Cather also was greatly devoted to French culture and to the life of the mind. There are many descriptions in the book of LaTour and Valliant's love for French art, literature, wine, and cuisine and music. I had the feeling that Cather wanted to bring the best of European civilization to the New World. Yet, both LaTour and Valliant fall in love with their new homeland and LaTour declines the opportunity to spend his final years in a university position in France.
Cather wrote this book to emphasize the importance of religion in American life and in the settlement of the Southwest in particular. She had become dismayed by the increased emphasis on materialism, individuality, and sensuality that she saw in her contemporary America of the 1920s. She thus wrote a book that modified the usual picture of American expansionism to focus on religion. Today, as in Cather's day, many people overlook the role religion has played in shaping the American experience.
As a young woman, Cather had converted from the Baptist to the Episcopalian form of Protestantism. She never became a Catholic, but she studied and learned a great deal from Catholicism that is reflected in this book. She emphasizes a life of simple piety, devotion, and order, finding God in the everyday. There are many beautiful passages in the book on the Virgin Mary and her role in Catholicism, and discussions of piety, celibacy, miracles, and living a quiet contented life.
"Death Comes for the Archbishop" has always been a difficult book to classify. The work has a surprisingly modernist structure for a novel, with its lack of a plot line. The book has a historical setting, but it should not be read as history. It is concerned with a religion in which Cather did not herself believe and it shows her hero, LaTour, as enduring many moments of doubt. The picture that emerges is ultimately one of serenity and faith, but it is a harder and more complex vision than may appear on the surface.
I was pleased to have the opportunity to reread and rethink "Death Comes for the Archbishop" when I read it with a book group. Many critics prefer some of Cather's lesser-known works, such as "A Lost Lady" or "The Professor's House" to this famous novel. But "Death Comes for the Archbishop" is unquestionably a moving work richly deserving of its place as an American classic.
"Death Comes for the Archbishop" takes place in the mid-19th Century, but hundreds of years'-worth of prior events are brought to life in the famed scribe's limped prose.
The short novel recounts the life of Father Jean Marie LaTour, a fictional (?) French Jesuit, woven into the fabric of New Mexican lore as he rubs soldiers with scout and Indian killer Kit Carson, jousts with the Catholic poo-bah in Taos, Father Antonio Jose Martínez, and others peopling the time and region.
The title is a misnomer. The story is one of LaTour's entire missionary life, with memories of a youth in France thrown in for some Old World/New World contrast. His death comes only at the end, and without much surprise.
This yarn is episodic, and moves from the mid-1800s to the later ones in fits and starts, zig-zags, backs-and-forths, but for all that, has a sense of being at least mildly woven.
It is not a classic narrative that develops and reaches a climax. It is, simply, the life of a man moving among the notable and not so notable of old New Mexico, expending energy in his particular calling, gathering experience and enduring hardship until his own ending, unhappy as it is for us all.
highwayscribery took "Death Comes to the Archbishop" on a recent trip to New Mexico and it served, eighty-something years later, as a marvelous tour guide because the state's history is hammered into (and out of) its landscape and everywhere places or features detailed in Cather's book jump out at you.
Her descriptions of the land are dead-on. Early in the story, LaTour approaches his destination. The reader is with him:
"As the wagons went forward and the sun sank lower, a sweep of red carnelian-coloured hills lying at the foot of the mountains came into view; they curved like two arms about a depression in the plain; and in that depression was Santa Fé, at last! A thin wavering adobe town...green plaza...at one end of a church with two earthen towers that rose high above the flatness. The long main street began at the church, the town seemed to flow fro it like a stream from a spring."
A spring that flowed into the author's heart like manna and unto the bookish and adventurous alike, for decades after.
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I have spent some time in Mexico in recent years as my daughter was living there.Read more