Saturday, June 18, 2011

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

After reading The Professor's House, I was really looking forward to Death Comes For the Archbishop which was the selection of my real-life classics book group.  In fact, I've been looking forward to this one since we selected it and put it on the schedule last fall.

If you are not familiar, here's the setup:  Beginning about 1850, Father LaTour is a young French missionary prince, working in Ohio.  Some church elders decide he is the perfect person to administer the enormous vicarate of New Mexico, as the new archbishop.  The story is basically a series of vignettes in the life of Father LaTour and his boyhood friend, Father Valliente, another missionary who accompanies him on his journey to save the souls in the Southwest.

I feel almost guilty writing this, but I just did not get why this book is so beloved.  It's considered one Cather's best works, if not THE best, but I found it disappointing, and really slow.  Of course, the writing was wonderful, but I just hard a hard time connecting with the story, which isn't really a narrative -- it's just little slices of the lives of Father LaTour and Father Valliente.  It's almost like a series of short stories.  It's possible I didn't appreciate it as much because I took a break in the middle of reading it, a couple of weeks, and I had a hard time getting motivated to pick it up again.  However, I honestly didn't care much about the characters.  Father LaTour didn't really seem to be very developed to me.

I'm not a religious person, and I was actually raised Catholic though I don't agree with it.  I'm not going to use this post to get into a big religious discussion (and if I get any hateful comments I WILL delete them); in general, it just didn't really interest me.  I actually got rather offended at times when Cather wrote about some of the abuses of power shown by the priests.  There's a scene in which a Mexican woman, who's been enslaved by a horrible white family, comes to Father LaTour -- does he help her and give her refuge?  No, he hears her confession and sends her back to her captors!  Now, as far as I know, this book is set before the Civil War, but to my recollection slavery was never legal in New Mexico, and definitely not the slavery of Mexicans by whites!!  I was appalled.

I also disliked how condescending the white characters were to both Mexicans and Indians.  I wasn't shocked when it was characters who were obviously unsympathetic jerks, but even Father LaTour was kind of racist.  Cather repeatedly refers to his parishoners as "yellow" and "red." I should have expected it, because it is a historical novel, but I did find it kind of offensive.  I never got the impression that Cather was racist, since she portrays the Mexicans as loving and generous, and the Indians with great dignity and respect.  It was just the white characters that really bugged me.

Of course, Cather's writing was great, and I do think the best thing I liked about it was the sense of place.  At our book group discussion, Amanda pointed out that New Mexico itself is almost a character in the book, because it plays such a big part.  Cather writes repeatedly about the canyons, the rocks, the pinon and mesquite trees, the enormous sky and the clouds, in such a way that made me feel as if I was right there with Father LaTour:

The weather alternated between blinding sand-storms and brilliant sunlight.  The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still -- and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world.  The plain was there, under one's feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud.  Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it.  Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky.  The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!

Now, if that doesn't make you want to buy a ticket to New Mexico, I don't know what will.  And I'm still going to keep reading Cather -- I still have The Song of the Lark and Shadows on the Rock on the TBR shelf, and both look wonderful.  


  1. I have this on my TBR list so I look forward to the writing. I have just been reading some novels written in the 50s and even those have the usual un-pc comments which are of their time. It makes me cringe

  2. Glad to know I'm not alone - this one was a slog-fest for me as well. I may try Cather again, though I'm not in a big hurry. :)

  3. Wow, we are VASTLY different in our opinions of this book. I thought the pace was quite quick, the characters were better developed than any book I've read from her before, the religion was presented kindly, and the characters were far less racist than I expected! I'm sorry you didn't like it. That makes me suspect I really ought not to read O Pioneers, though, since you loved it so much and we seem to have exact opposite tastes in her books.

  4. Jessica -- the writing is really beautiful, maybe it was just the religious aspect that bothered me.

    Susan -- I was really disappointed since I loved My Antonia and I really liked O Pioneers! Structurally it's similar to My Antonia but I found that one much more interesting. Don't give up on Cather.

    Amanda -- I was really surprised that I didn't like it since I've heard so many great things about it, and I've mostly liked her other works. I know you aren't into the pioneer aspect so you may not like O Pioneers! It does have more of a narrative arc.

    I wonder if I would have liked Archbishop better if I hadn't taken a break in the middle, I think I lost momentum. I didn't not like it, I was just underwhelmed. I didn't LOVE O Pioneers, but I liked it better than this one and The Professor's House. I still like My Antonia the best. I'll keep reading Cather though, she's worth it.

  5. I've been trying to decide which Cather book to read next but after reading your review I'm not sure I would enjoy this one. I found The Professor's House very slow and it sounds like I might have the same problem with this book.

  6. I've never read any Cather before, but I want to. I think I will probably start with My Antonia, as that is the book I own ;-) This one sounds like maybe it wouldn't work for me, either, but it's interesting that you and Amanda had such different views on it.

  7. I really enjoyed this one, but when I read it my expectations were low, and I hadn't read any other Cather books. Sorry you didn't like it!

  8. What a relief! I always feel like I'm the only one who was unimpressed with this one. I love her writing, and My Antonia is one of my favorite books. I think with this one my expectations were too high? I don't remember have strong feelings about the religious aspect either way, but my memory is generally bad.

  9. It's interesting, because I was so meh about My Antonia and had much of the same thought as you had on this one: "WHY is this book considered a great classic?" The further I get from it, the less I like it too...intersting.

  10. Helen -- I really liked My Antonia, which is also more episodic like this, and also O Pioneers!, which I found has more of a narrative thread.

    Aarti -- My Antonia was my first Cather also, and I really enjoyed it. I think I just found the situations more interesting. Also I was living in Nebraska at the time, so I had that connection.

    Pam -- I was just underwhelmed. I liked parts of it, I just didn't love it as I was expecting based on her other works.

    Shelley -- I think that's it exactly, my expectations were really built up by all the reviews and accolades.

    Amanda -- I really liked My Antonia the first time I read it when I was in Nebraska, and when I reread it for our book group I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. I was sorry to have missed the discussion, I really wanted to hear the reactions of the rest of the group. I'm so sorry now that I didn't finish this one in time.

  11. "Cather repeatedly refers to his parishoners as "yellow" and "red."....It was just the white characters that really bugged me."

    Ok, I just found that kind of funny. I demand equal standards! ;)

    I'd been looking forward to reading this, but I hadn't realized it was basically a series of vignettes. Bah. C'mon, Cather.

  12. I was disappointed with this one too. I didn't like the subject matter but Cather's descriptions of the landscape saved it from being a dead loss.

  13. This is one I'm going to have to re-read because I read it in high school for an author project on Willa Cather (that I never ended up writing). The fact that I got through it in high school when I had the attention span of, well, a teenager and was just mostly reading and re-reading Gone With the Wind a million times means I must have liked something about it!

  14. I'm the complete opposite to your reaction. I loved this book and found it beautiful and the best Cather I've read. I think it has a beautiful message: that life is a series of everyday, and we do our best. Father LaTour wasn't perfect, he was just trying to do his best. I found almost every vignette touching. I am a religious person, but I didn't feel it was an overly religious book: just that he happened to be a priest trying to do good in a community.

    I don't remember the bit about the slavery...I do need to reread it. I'm sorry to hear it didn't work for you.