I must admit that I was a bit worried about re-reading Death Comes for the Archbishop. The first time I read it I had recently graduated from a Jesuit university where I had immersed myself in spiritual classics like St. Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain. Although I’m not Catholic, I was certainly in a Catholic frame of mind back then.
But, really, when I stopped to think about it there was nothing to worry about. What I remembered from that first reading had not much to do with Catholicism or the actual work of missionaries, but a deep feeling of the desert. What must it have been like to come from a place with modern conveniences and ancient streets and try to make a life there in that time period? What was it like to travel for days and weeks on horseback across a landscape that wasn’t criss-crossed with roads and train tracks?
Since that first reading I’ve spent a fair amount of time driving around the southwest and have visited some of the old mission churches in New Mexico. It is vast and remains a landscape with dire consequences for those who loose their way and are not properly provisioned. Cather performed an amazing balancing act of presenting the landscape as harsh and unforgiving on one hand, yet full of life, beauty, and harmony on the other. It makes me restless for a road trip.
I know much can be said about the destruction of Native American cultures by European cultures, and Cather was obviously not blind to that nor does she ignore it, but I think she was trying to write a historical novel that was true to the various sensibilities within the cultures at the time that they converged in New Mexico in the mid to late 1800s. It really was an international cast of characters who met there: Native Americans and Mexicans, of course, as well as Yankee traders, military men, French, Canadian, Irish, Scottish, and even traditions from north Africa (Moorish silver), and the East. There’s war, religious intolerance, and interpersonal abuse, but also hospitality, love, and tolerance. At times I had a sense that life on earth is all about the world sharing their traditions and customs, that we’re all beautifully melded together, but then at other times the cost of greed, religious intolerance, racism, and sexism are undeniable. And that’s life, how it really is, right? It’s not always “either/or” but more often “both/and.”
Death Comes for the Archbishop is historical fiction at its finest: an attempt to present, without condemnation or celebration, the feelings of a certain people from a certain time period, with all their prejudices as well as their hopes and dreams. Cather balances it all with events that either subtly or not so subtly show the consequences of human interaction, whether between two people or two cultures or people acting upon the landscape. What’s amazing is how much she packs in. The novel is under 300 pages, but I’m left with the sense of it being more than double that.
Things I’ve Been Pondering
In the introductory post for Death Comes for the Archbishop, I wrote about how Cather stated that she’d wanted to write something in the style of legend, where each incident in a story is given the same weight. This is in contrast to a dramatic treatment where certain incidents are written up for all they’re worth. Think dramatic moments, dramatic climax.
I’ve been wondering if Cather accomplishes her goal. It seems like she does if you give yourself to the story as you read. That is, not have any expectations or judgements as you read and give yourself up to the mood of the book. I think the mood and the tone are flawless even when she writes of horrific incidents.
However, the stories of Magdalena and Sada made me question whether Cather was successful in her stated goal. These seemed like dramatic moments to me. Or is it just my own moral outrage as a woman over how these two women were treated and then how the priests take credit for rescuing Magdalena when she escaped on her own or how they don’t do anything to rescue Sada from her enslavement? I imagine different incidents may have impacted other readers more based on their background and experience.
And then I think of the title: Death Comes for the Archbishop. Talk about a dramatic title! I think it is one of the most dramatic of all her titles. The expectation of death lurks on every page.
So, what do you think? Does Cather achieve her goal as a writer? What would she think of reader-response criticism?
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Categories: Willa Cather