For as long as I can remember I have kept Willa Cather locked away in the mind-cabinet, filed under Boring. Recently I examined this prejudice and it occurred to me that I cannot remember actually having read anything by Cather, and that, if and when I had, it would have been at a time when Laura Ingalls Wilder satisfied all of my needs with regard to American frontier literature. I know that my mom and at least one of my illustrious colleagues at The Millions are Cather enthusiasts, so it was high time for another look.
Now that I have completed Death Comes for the Archbishop, I know that Boring was a designation that my sixth-grade self might have decided on because she had no appreciation for Quiet. The novel is pretty quiet. It is a short history of the life of this Latour and his friend Father Vaillant, two French Catholics in the new American southwest in the middle of the 1800s. Basically, the life of a devoted church man at that place and time consisted of getting on a donkey, riding a thousand miles, getting off, saving souls or making chit-chat with some other church men, getting back on the donkey, and going a thousand miles back. The narrative sometimes skips over a period of years because one of the characters was out running a quick errand. You never forget the men’s placement on the American continent; how terribly far away they were from their familiar places. After a lifetime of good deeds in a wild land, they die. That’s the story.
The novel is quiet, but it is powerful. I might not read it again, but I liked it and it affected me in a couple of unexpected ways. My education taught me to take a very dim view of missionaries, and also that the story of the New World is the story of the white man coming and ruining everyone’s good time. I am admittedly pretty suggestible, but a book that makes me think that getting religion (not even my home brand) and taking orders is a good idea, even for one moment, is no joke. That I had a good two minute’s worth of daydreaming about myself in rugged garments, riding my donkey to a peach orchard to eat mutton and perform baptisms with my gentle brothers the peasants, is very uncharacteristic.
The novel also made me hungry. I am not being facetious. In so many ways Death Comes for the Archbishop is about the various hardships of the landscape, and for a religious man who cannot (or isn’t supposed to) take comfort in the arms of a lover, his table (after the Virgin Mary and whatnot) is one of his chief pleasures. Of course, a reliance on any sensual pleasure can go too far, and the novel includes a gruesome cautionary tale about a priest who is a tyrant and a glutton and who gets his just desserts, as it were. Still, Latour and Vaillant don’t deny themselves treats when they can find them; they drink wine and French onion soup and dream of chestnuts and salad oil. I think this is why they are lovable characters. I have always felt that pointless abstemiousness is creepy; I have more affinity for Christlike people if they enjoy a stiff drink and a good meal like regular people.
The uncomplicated upstandingness of Latour and Vaillant might be too wholesome for some readers; The Power and the Glory this isn’t. Furthermore, the novel does not talk about the terrible the things that religion wrought, so if you are wholly and understandably embittered about the Church and its influence, it might not move you. Cather’s criticisms of religious practice are confined to the Fathers Martinez and Lucero, the venal, renegade foils to Latour and Vaillant, and she never addresses the fact that even kindly, well-behaved priests were agents of destruction in the Americas and elsewhere. At the very end of the novel, Latour tells his protégé that “I have lived to see two great wrongs righted; I have seen the end of black slavery, and I have seen the Navajos restored to their own country.” Latour and Vaillant are sensible to the power of indigenous religious practices that pre-date Christianity, but he doesn’t acknowledge that governments don’t have a monopoly on cruelty and heavy-handedness, and that one conclusion of the Christian Mission was the creation of the awful religious boarding schools for American Indians.
I don’t know what Cather’s views on the Church or westward expansion or the treatment of American Indians were, but this is certainly not a political novel. It’s a bit like an obscure parable, but more than anything it’s a novel of place. It reminded me of Frank Norris and John Steinbeck in that it was very firmly tied to a particular region in the American landscape; the work’s beauty is the land’s beauty. The most memorable of Cather’s characters here is the beautiful and destroying desert, the “light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one’s body feel light and one’s heart cry ‘To-day, to-day,’ like a child’s.”