Death Comes for the Archbishop: Book #9 Intro

Read all 12 of Willa Cather’s novels in chronological order of publication, one each month, throughout 2012. For details about the challenge click here.

Our ninth novel of the challenge is Death Comes for the Archbishop. Read it sometime over the next three weeks and we’ll start our conversation about it on Monday, September 17th.

About Death Comes for the Archbishop:

  • Cather started writing it in 1925.
  • It was inspired by Cather’s love and appreciation for the landscape and people of the Southwest, particularly her earlier travels before there were “automobile roads” and hotels.
  • The big idea for the novel, or framework on which to hang her story, came after reading The Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf by William J. Howlett, 1908. Click here for the full text of this book.
  • It was serialized in The Forum from January to June 1927.
  • Cather considered this her best novel.

From the Vintage Classics Paperback:

“From the riches of her imagination and sympathy Miss Cather has distilled a very rare piece of literature. It stands out, from the very resistance it opposes to classification.” –The New York Times

There is something epic-and almost mythic-about this sparsely beautiful novel by Willa Cather, although the story it tells is that of a single human life, lived simply in the silence of the desert. In 1851 Father Jean Marie Latour comes as the Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico. What he finds is a vast territory of red hills and tortuous arroyos, American by law but Mexican and Indian in custom and belief. In the almost forty years that follow, Latour spreads his faith in the only way he knows-gently, although he must contend with an unforgiving landscape, derelict and sometimes openly rebellious priests, and his own loneliness. Out of these events Cather gives us an indelible vision of life unfolding in a place where time itself seems suspended. 


  • Often available at new bookstores and most used stores tend to have a copy or two. Almost always available at your local library.
  • Support the Willa Cather Foundation and order it online here. Plan ahead and buy a copy of Shadows on the Rock, October’s book, while you’re at it.


In a letter Cather wrote to the Commonweal answering their request for an account of how she came to write Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather wrote that she had for a long time wanted to write something in the “style of legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment.” In drama certain incidents of a story become the focal point and are written up for all they’re worth. In the style Cather was after, all incidents in the story are given equal consideration.

Do you think the style of this novel is radically different from other Cather novels you’ve read so far, or do you see more stylistic similarities to her prior novels? What about themes?

Is the title of the novel in keeping with Cather’s stated intention or is it incongruous?

If you’d like to read Cather’s Commonweal letter, it’s published in Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art and it’s also reproduced in the notes section of Cather: Later Novels (Library of America).

I’ll share my thoughts on reading Death Comes for the Archbishop in a new post on Monday, September 17th. At that time let’s start our conversation–simply post your thoughts about the novel in the comments section of that post so we can have everyone’s thoughts in once place.

Happy Reading!


  1. I love this challenge even though I am not participating. I think I have read all of her novels except Sarphira the Slave Girl. Has that one already come up. If not, I should try and read it with you all.

    And I had no idea that any of her novels were serialized.

  2. A couple of years ago, I had an article published in New Mexico Magazine that featured brief narrative about how Willa Cather came to write Death Comes for the Archbishop. I also provided excerpts from her novel that described scenes in New Mexico that were paired with photographs taken by a professional photographer.

    I thought readers might find it helpful to know a bit more about the background of the novel. This information is based on the research I did for the article:

    Willa Cather made her first trip to the Southwest in 1912 when she visited her brother. She returned several times to New Mexico, exploring the remote villages, pueblos and ancient ruins. Often, she was a guest of writer Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, whose Pueblo husband, Tony, served as one of Cather’s tour guide.

    Seeing that nearly every little town had a Catholic Church, she grew very interested in the denomination’s impact on the land and peoples, and the missionaries who served in the remote parishes. “The longer I stayed in the Southwest, the more I felt the story of the Catholic Church in that country was the most interesting of all its stories,” she explained in a letter to The Commonweal.

    Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy became a “sort of invisible personal friend.” His bronze statute at the St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe sparked her curiosity about the daily life of a “well-bred and distinguished” pioneer priest from France “in a crude frontier society,” she said.

    In the summer of 1925, 51-year-old Cather made another one of her periodic trips. This time, she stayed at the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe.

    While wandering the corridors of the hotel one evening, she found a copy of Rev. William Joseph Howlett’s biography of Joseph P. Machebeuf, a lifelong friend and associate of Lamy. The book opened her eyes to what she had wanted to know “about how the country and the people of New Mexico seemed to those first missionary priests from France.”

    By the next morning, she had formed the idea for Death Comes for the Archbishop. The work “completely took possession of her, filled all her working thoughts,” recalled her friend, Edith Lewis.

    Lamy and Machebeuf served as her prototypes. From their true-life adventures, Cather crafted a fictional narrative around two French priests and childhood friends, Bishop Jean Marie Latour and Father Joseph Vaillant. She follows them as they organize a new Catholic Diocese in the recently established territory of New Mexico, build a cathedral, and confront defiant priests, rough-hewn frontiersmen and native cultures, and struggle for survival amid the natural elements.

    In the fall on 1925, she went to New Hampshire and wrote the book’s magnificent introduction, and then returned home to New York to continue writing. She returned to New Mexico and Arizona in 1926 to gather more details before completing the novel.

    Published in the fall of 1927, Death Comes for the Archbishop was an instant hit and came to mark the pinnacle of Cather’s success as an author.

    Death is listed among the Modern Library’s 100 Best English-language novels of the 20th century. It continues to be enjoyed by readers as much for its powerful story as for the sparse, lean language that beautifully captures the land and people of New Mexico.

    Due to her intimate knowledge of the Catholic Church, many readers assume that Cather herself was Catholic. She wasn’t. She was an Episcopalian.

  3. Hi, Thomas! Thanks for stopping by again. Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) was her last novel, which we'll be reading in December. I do hope you'll join in for it. Regarding the serialization: I've had thoughts of tracking each periodical down just to see how the story was presented. So far I've only seen Alexander's Bridge, which was serialized in McClure's. I unintentionally ran into it at a local college library. Perhaps that'll be a challenge for next year. Anyway, hope to “see” you in December!

  4. Hi, Mike! Thank you for sharing this information. I always enjoy such articles that also include pictures of places mentioned in a novel. Is there still an active link to the article that you can share for readers to visit?

  5. New Mexico Magazine is very strange in that it doesn't include all of its articles on its website. Unfortunately, they didn't include mine. I wish they had, since I've had numerous people wanting to see it….and all I have is my one copy!

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