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Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa…

Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)

by Willa Cather

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3,462781,544 (4.03)2 / 581
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    The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich (noveltea)
  2. 01
    Lamy of Santa Fe by Paul Horgan (inge87)
    inge87: Biography of the real-life Jean Marie Latour — Archbishop Lamy

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Having read Willa Cather's My Antonia before this one my expectations were probably too high. In My Antonia Cather was able to draw upon her experiences to paint a portrait of Nebraska that communicated that life vividly. That novel stuck with me, from small segments like the struggle and eventual suicide of Antonia's father to Jim Burden's final return trip to that hard land.

Death Comes for the Archbishop does not reach the heights of My Antonia, despite being a competent novel. Cather has no similar depth of experience with New Mexico to draw from like she had for Nebraska, nor does she have the experiences of a priest like she had as a pioneer. Thus, the spiritual life of Latour and Vaillant is barely explored, likewise true for the priestly duties of the two characters. The friendship between these two is the strongest part of the novel, and I enjoyed Cather's exploration of what it means to fulfill your life's ambitions and have to go on living, but it seemed like there could have been a deeper exploration of what it means to have faith in such circumstances, and what the life of a missionary entails psychologically.

Fine writing, with good imagery and realistic depictions of friendship and growing older, but this book didn't convey a depth of understanding like My Antonia did. For a more interesting exploration of the thoughts of a religious man and an aging man, check out Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. ( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
Original post at Book Rhapsody.


If books were buildings, this would be a cathedral

I first encountered Willa Cather back in college with her most anthologized short story, Paul’s Case. It’s about a young man’s frustration for people’s failure to understand him. Aside from that, I don’t remember much of the story, but I do recall how beautiful and dainty the writing is.

So when I read this novel, I was not tremendously shocked with its delicate beauty. I already have good expectations so there’s no big revelation that took place. What I find shocking is that I go out of my way to read something that is mostly about theology, one of my least favorite subjects, and yet I end up loving the book.

What does that say? That no matter what a writer writes about as long as the writing is good, the subject does not matter. And so I opened this book without fear of disappointment and with an instinct that this would be an unforgettable one.

That air would disappear from the whole earth in time, perhaps; but long after his day. He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had to die in exile for the sake of it. Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!

This novel is about two priests, Father Latour and Father Vaillant, who travel to the then isolated sands and rocks and shrubs and boulders of New Mexico to spread the Catholic faith. Aside from that, there is not much going on in the novel. We read about the characters crossing the states for months on mules, dealing with the Mexicans and the Indians, dreaming of building churches, hoping for peace and unity to prosper in that barren land.

They also meet various people in the town and in the surrounding areas who would touch their lives one way or another. They are good priests, and in this novel as it is in real life, not all priests are good. They encounter corrupt priests who know nothing better than to set themselves as icons of greed and avarice and lust in their respective towns. But Father Latour and Father Vaillant are different. They do their best to do their duties as faithful missionaries.

The two characters, despite being best friends, have striking differences. Father Latour is the calm and intellectual type, while Father Vaillant is the temperamental and courageous one. These two are well-defined characters that you can only hope for them not to get caught in the middle of the Indian wars and for their health to be robust enough to withstand the various elements that can weaken the human spirit.

The setting is also vividly depicted. Just thinking of the novel and looking at the cover of my edition makes my throat feel parched. True, I only envision the color of adobe when I try to recall the events that transpired in the novel, but that’s better than black and white, no?

But what is it saying? What are its themes? The spreading of the Catholic faith versus the preservation of culture is one. The bringing of order in an untamed land is one more. Restoring the good reputation of the Catholic priest from the corrupt and vile image propagated by the unpriestly priests is another.

All three of them are the tasks imposed upon the shoulders of our protagonists. They are Herculean ones, even for a trusted priest like Father Latour and Father Vaillant. Surely, they need something more than merely being priests to perform these, right? Miracles are likely in this context, but one cannot solely rely on them. So what do they need to fulfill their mission?

Discipline. Ultimately, Father Latour and Father Vaillant are striving for a civilized world guided by discipline and following an order dictated by faith. I’m sure there’s more to pick from this novel and that there are allusions here and there to the many stories found in the Bible.

Just imagine the number of theological stuff here, and although theology is my weakest point, I still found it possible to love this novel. In the pen of another writer, this novel might have sounded too preachy, but Cather’s prose is not limiting. It encompasses everyone, planting seeds of faith and hope in any reader who closes the last page of the book. ( )
  angusmiranda | Jun 10, 2014 |
"this is the type of book I'd reread. A chronicle of a life that is filled of the everyday and the slow pace of the lived reality so that everything happens without you being aware of it couched in the most gorgeous prose I've read in awhile."
read more: http://likeiamfeasting.blogspot.gr/2014/06/death-comes-to-archbishop-willa-cathe... ( )
  mongoosenamedt | Jun 5, 2014 |
Willa Cather's novels bring the 19th century American Prairie and Southwest to life, with rich descriptions of both setting and character. Death Comes for the Archbishop opens in 1851, with New Mexico a recent addition to US territory. Father Jean Latour is a French missionary who is sent, along with his lifelong friend Father Joseph Vaillant, to bring New Mexico into the fold. Not surprisingly, this was not always well received. But through a series of vignettes set over many years, Cather shows how the two men built influence and respect with the native community.

While Cather's descriptions of the landscape and the people are evocative; her development of the main characters was somewhat less effective, and the two missionaries always seemed somewhat distant to me. Despite this relatively minor flaw, I was moved as the novel -- and the careers of two men -- approached its end. ( )
  lauralkeet | Jun 4, 2014 |
A series of vignettes about the life of the Bishop Latour as he comes to the recently annexed territory of New Mexico and works to re-establish the Catholic church in the region.

I have always been hesitant to pick up Willa Cather because I lived with the impression that she wrote boring prairie novels. However, Death Comes for the Archbishop does not fall into that category. While the core narrative itself is quiet and episodic, the beauty of the prose is what makes the read worthwhile. Cather paints a brilliant landscape of the wilds of New Mexico and brings to life a narrative voice that, while occasionally imperialist and condescending, reflects the strangeness of coming to an entirely different country. A decent read that proves that Willa Cather didn't write only boring prairie novels. ( )
  MickyFine | Apr 27, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 77 (next | show all)
Each event in this book is concrete, yet symbolic, and opens into living myth. The reader is invited to contemplate the question: What is a life well lived? This question is asked in a story so fine it brings the old words “wisdom” and “beauty” to life again.

» Add other authors (20 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Willa Catherprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Byatt, A. S.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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One summer evening in the year 1848, three Cardinals and a missionary Bishop from America were dining together in the gardens of a villa in the Sabine hills, overlooking Rome.
But in reality the Bishop was not there at all [on his sickbed, in his wandering imagination]; he was standing in a tip-tilted green field among his native mountains, and he was trying to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eyes by the desire to go and the necessity to stay. He was trying to forge a new Will in that devout and exhausted priest; and the time was short, for the diligence for Paris was already rumbling down the mountain gorge.
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Book description
One summer evening in the year of 1848 three Cardinals and a missionary, dining in a villa near Rome, decide the fate of a simple parish priest, the Frenchman Jean Marie Latour. He is to go to New Mexico to win for Catholicism the South-West of America, a country where the Faith has slumbered for centuries. There, together with his old friend Father Vaillant, Latour makes his home. To the carnelian hills and ochre-yellow deserts of this almost pagan land he brings the refined traditions of French culture and Christian belief. Slowly, gently he reforms and revivifies, after forty years of love and service achieving a final reconciliation between his faith and the sensual peasant people of New Mexico: a harmony embodied in the realisation of his most cherished dream - a Romanesque cathedral, carved from the Mexican rock, gold as sunlight.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679728899, Paperback)

Willa Cather's best known novel; a narrative that recounts a life lived simply in the silence of the southwestern desert.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:01:34 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

The story of a French priest who goes to New Mexico and with another priest win the southwest for the Catholic Church. After forty years, he dies--the archbishop of Santa Fe.

» see all 5 descriptions

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