Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Willa Cather is a surprise for me…the type of author I wouldn’t expect myself to like. But I do, and I do so consistently. Death Comes for the Archbishop (hereafter DCftA) is the third Cather novel that I have read. I picked up O Pioneers for some reason while in high school. I don’t remember much about it except that it was the story of Scandinavian immigrants in Nebraska. A few years ago, I read My Antonia, another tale of turn-of-the-century Nebraskan immigrants, this time of Bohemian origin. I don’t know what draws me to Cather, but I find myself seeking out her writing again and again.

DCftA is very different, however, from those two immigrant-on-the-prairie novels. Instead, it’s the tale of two French priests sent to establish a diocese in the newly annexed New Mexico territory. The novel is picaresque-like in its episodic depiction of the conflicts and allegiances between the Americans, the Mexicans, the Natives, and the priests. It is the story of the priests’ friendship and of their faith at work in the barren desert. “The cheerful acceptance of the physical hardships and the joyful conduct of the missionary labors” is as good a description of the “plot” (see below) as any.

The main characters of the book, Latour and Valliant, are based on real life Father Jean Baptist Lamy, the first Archbishop of Santa Fe, and Rev. Joseph Priest Machebeuf, the first Bishop of Denver. I think an appropriate epithet (like in the movies) would be “inspired by true events,” as Cather took liberty with their stories and experience, meshing it with her own visit (on a wagon) to the Southwest in 1912, where she met another Catholic priest who shared with her many of the traditions and legends of the area’s long-time inhabitants.

DCftA is one of Cather’s later novels, coming almost a decade after My Antonia. It is also her most critically acclaimed work. Cather called DCftA a “narrative” as opposed to a novel, which I agree with. It isn’t written in the traditional novel form, relying on (often unrelated) vignettes rather than plot. It is called an anomaly in Cather’s fiction, though Robby over at Blogging the Canon mentions that My Antonia didn’t have much of a plot either. It had more of a plot than DCftA, I assure you. So, if you’re looking for conflict, psychological development and change in the characters, etc. – don’t bother with this book. You won’t find that here. DCftA is something entirely different, to be appreciated in an entirely different way.

Cather’s use of symbolism is rampant throughout the novel, and Biblical tales and sacred myth, medieval philosophy and miracles are all included, but not necessarily noticed on first reading. "A close reading of the text reveals intricate patterns beneath a disarmingly simple surface. As with other Cather novels, the unsophisticated can read it with pleasure for its stories and characters, its wonderful use of setting, and its elevating themes. Below its smooth face, however, the novel resonates with allegory, symbol and allusion.” I ran across this article, which gave the following example of the subtle mysteries depicted:

“…Bishop Latour and Jacinto take refuge in the cave to escape an oncoming blizzard. They enter through a rock formation that suggests stone lips and find themselves in a lofty cavern shaped something like a Gothic chapel. The Bishop feels an instinctive distaste for the place, for the presence of evil. He is in the secret chamber used by the Pecos Indians for their ancient pagan rituals. After his Indian guide seals up a mysterious hole in the wall of the cave and builds a fire, the Bishop sense a vibration in the rock. Jacinto takes him to a fissure in the floor where he can put his ear to the roar of an underground river, ‘a flood moving in utter blackness under ribs of antediluvian rock.’ ‘It is terrible,’ he said at last as he rose. This frightening scene, superbly managed, and for those fond of seeking Christian motifs in the novel, the Bishop, who suffered as Christ on the Cross in Chapter One, now has descended into hell after the crucifixion.”

Was I really supposed to catch that on a first reading? The same article goes on to mention that the Biblical motif is taken even further by the parallel that the Bishop is initially rejected by those he came to save. Even the seven deadly sins are represented, and the characters that embody them are shown in the “Medieval manner in which appearance reflects moral nature.” Garden imagery appears time and time again, as the Bishop’s cultivation of the garden is an allegory for his cultivation and nurturing of souls, with his orchards and gardens filled with European vegetables and fruits taking hold in the desert symbolizing the European religion taking hold in the New World. This rich symbology, which is prevalent in many pieces of literature, such as Moby Dick, is why I am a fan and proponent of re-reading. Some of this stuff you just can’t get on a first read.

Sometimes, you read stories and you can tell that the author has some sort of animosity towards the characters that he or she is writing about…you can tell that there just isn’t much love there (Sinclair Lewis comes to mind). But Cather: you know that she admires, loves, and is invested in her characters and her story. They are treated with care. I won’t discuss Cather’s beautifully evocative descriptions of the Southwest landscapes, or the high quality of prose…for that you’ll have to read DCftA yourself.

What I find interesting is that Cather was writing at the same time as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, among others of course. DCftA was published in 1927…two years after The Great Gatsby and a year after The Sun Also Rises. She was telling such different stories than they were, and is much more on par with what Sinclair Lewis was writing about at the time. The contract between the two cultures (the Jazz Age and the Prairie stories, as I’ll call them) is so stark…they are two different worlds entirely.

DCftA was always the Cather book I wanted to read, as my high school English teacher had told me it was her favorite of Cather’s works. Personally, I prefer My Antonia, but then again, DCftA is a very different novel.

On a slightly related note, let me tell you a very funny (though perhaps exaggerated) story. Truman Capote, age 18, has noticed a woman that came frequently to the New York Society Library. One day, when unable to get a cab, she asked young Capote (exiting the library) if he wanted to go around to the corner and have a hot chocolate. (She had a hot chocolate, he a martini.) He mentions that he is a writer, and she asks what American writers he likes. He says, "I really like Willa Cather. Have your read My Moral Enemy?" She responds: "Actually, I wrote it." Can you imagine?


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Anonymous said...

Could you give me some good quotes from the book that shows the theme or shows symbolism in the book?

Kristin said...

I would first suggest reading the book for yourself. If you have read the book, you should be able to take the examples that I have given and peruse the links I have posted and then go back to the book and find supporting quotes.