Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

James Wood calls the final chapters of Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop some of the most beautiful in the English language. To be sure, the final chapters are where the most striking moments lie:

In New Mexico he always awoke a young man; not until he rose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of the hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one's body feel like and one's heart cry "To-day, to-day," like a child's.

Cather paints death in the bright, pastel colors of the Southwest; for Jean Marie Latour, the Archbishop of New Mexico, death seems to hold little anxiety. Latour tells us that he will "soon be done with calendared time," a phrase that reduces death--and life--to little more than a material object. Death Comes for the Archbishop is mostly free of individual conflict; Bishop Latour's battles are on the larger scale that determines whether the church will thrive or wither in the distant Southwest. It is no wonder, then, that when the final conflict comes, Latour has his mind on greater things.

But Wood's claim reminds me of the Misfit from Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," who says of his latest victim, "She would of been a good woman... if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." Death Comes for the Archbishop is best when it faces last things, but Cather has the Bishop's entire story to tell. More typical are passages like this:

The streams were full of fish, the mountain was full of game. The pueblo, indeed, seemed to lie upon the knees of these verdant mountains, like a favoured child. Out yonder, on the juniper-spotted plateau in front of the village, the Spaniards had camped, exacting a heavy tribute of corn and furs and cotton garments from their hapless hosts. It was from here, the story went, that they set forth in the spring on their ill-fated search for the seven golden cities of Quivera, taking with them slaves and concubines ravished from the Pecos people.

There's nothing wrong with this, per se. It has a breezy plainness that seems appropriate to the arid setting. Take out the "u" in "favoured" and it could have been written in 1997 as much as in 1927. But it seems to me to work against the story itself: Latour is a French-born priest who served until his thirties in an Ohio diocese; the land he has been chosen to preside over stretches across thousands of miles, many of them desolate and sparsely populated. Yet we know the name of every cactus and shrub in New Mexico. Cather takes frequent breaks from Latour's story to tell us ones about Spanish explorers and native Americans like the one above. This surfeit of knowledge, combined with the dry style, veers to the tedium of mediocre travelogues. Does this reflect the mystery, the strangeness, the wonder of what someone like Bishop Latour must experience in this unknown wilderness?

But death is a wilderness about which neither Latour or Cather can overwhelm us with details. It is the quintessential "undiscovered country." In spite of his dismissal of it, death makes Latour more interesting and elevates the novel. If you believe your life is boring, you may want to think of that inevitability with some comfort.


Brent Waggoner said...

This doesn't sound as good as I'd hoped. Do you think I'd like it?

Christopher said...