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My initial encounter with Willa Cather’s 1927 masterpiece, Death Comes for the Archbishop, was in my junior-year high-school English class. It was a popular choice for book reports, but I paid scant attention to them. At the time and for many years after, fiction and history were for me separate entities, never to be close enough for one to touch the other—no blending or bleeding allowed.
Additionally, because Death Comes for the Archbishop appeared to be popular among high-school students, I dismissed it further as simply a YA novel, a genre I had not much countenance with at that point.
Two factors eventually worked in tandem to bring the merits of Cather’s novel to my attention. When I was a new staff reviewer for Booklist, I felt both a professional obligation to, and a personal interest in, pursuing a course of self-education in contemporary and classic literature. (My undergraduate degree was in European history.) Appearing on my long list of self-imposed “required” reading, compiled from various reference sources, were the novels of Willa Cather, whom I learned, rather to my surprise, ranked as a major twentieth-century American novelist.
Simultaneous to my Booklist reviewing and my ancillary reading was a growing appreciation of historical fiction. Never the twain shall meet, so I’d believed; I realized eventually that the twain can indeed meet and often with imaginative results.
Willa Cather was born in 1873 in Virginia. When she was a child, her family moved to Nebraska, the area most often associated in the popular and critical mind with Cather’s work. Such ever-popular novels as My Antonia, O Pioneers!, and A Lost Lady are derived from immigrant experiences on the nineteenth-century Nebraska prairie.
Following her graduation from the University of Nebraska, Cather embarked on a successful journalism career. But in 1912 she quit her job to vacation extensively in the American Southwest, a location that became a passion for her and would be the fully realized setting of what many scholars and readers acknowledge as her masterpiece, Death Comes for the Archbishop.
It is interesting but not essential for a full appreciation of the novel to know that the protagonist, the eponymous archbishop, is based on a real person, Father Jean Lamy, who became the first archbishop of New Mexico. Cather’s fundamental interest in the region, as keenly manifest in Death Comes for the Archbishop, centered on the story of French missionaries who arrived there in the nineteenth century. The novel’s episodic story line follows Father Latour’s career in the New World, bringing Catholicism to vast stretches of sparsely populated frontier and establishing order among the widespread and often insubordinate or lapsed Catholic installations throughout the region.
I have now read Death Comes for the Archbishop probably a half-dozen times. I continue to read it chiefly for the writing style. Cather’s prose, especially as showcased in this novel, is sheer, controlled, and lovely. For instance, take this passage, which is about famous scout Kit Carson: “As he stood there in his Buckskin clothes one felt in his standards, loyalties, a code which is not easily put into words but which is instantly felt when two men who live by it come together by chance.”
And this passage about Father Latour: “His bowed head was not that of an ordinary man—it was built for the seat of a fine intelligence.”
Finally, this from the novel’s opening scene, set in Rome: “The light was full of action and had a peculiar quality of climax—of splendid finish. It was both intense and soft, with a ruddiness as of much-multiplied candlelight, an aura of red in its flames.”
Beyond the poetic, resonant language stands Father Latour himself: noble not in title but in character, of heroic stature but painted with subtlety and nuance and shaped into a wholly believable character. His adventures in bringing order to his vast diocese are exciting and atmospheric; the starkly beautiful American Southwest, so richly conjured, becomes nearly a character unto itself.
As my experience in evaluating fiction grew, I realized that Cather’s novel might be criticized for its episodic format. But subsequent readings suggested that the structure was intentional; Cather’s concept of the novel was as a kind of verbal photo album, collecting both portraits of Father Latour and the people he encounters and verbal snapshots of the awesome landscape of the Southwest. Cather not only knew what she was doing when she structured Death, but that structure contributes to the impact of the novel.
Does a novel written in 1927 speak to contemporary readers? Indeed, this one does. Readers, over the generations, never tire of a lucid, word-perfect prose style. Readers who believe that fiction written before, say, World War II is too stilted and enameled to pass through today’s minimalist-filtered consciousness will find the error of their belief in the pages of Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Even a character of such character as Father Latour can lose appeal over the years, as tastes change, and certainly landscapes change drastically over a century. But Cather’s remarkable ability to evoke both character and place remains strong, and the act of drawing parallels between past and present is central to the appeal of historical fiction.
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