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Willa Cather, Death Comes For the Archbishop


The Geographical Sublime and/or, Ecology avant la lettre

  • Death Comes for the Archbishop rhapsodizes the sublime beauty of the American Southwest, and at the end, as Father Latour is considering his retirement, he decides to stay in New Mexico, rather than returning to his home country, for reasons that have much to do with the landscape.  Often the archbishop's narrative offers commentaries on the majestic power and beauty of Arizona and New Mexico, how native (and immigrant) populations have reacted to it, and how Native Americans, in particular, have evolved an, in effect, synergistic or eco-critical awareness of their natural surroundings (before these words were ever coined).  Locate some of the prominent passages that center on the beauty of the landscape, what effect(s) it has had and continues to have on the humans settling it, and what Cather might say about the importance of the natural world in relation to human being. (This is really two big questions folded into one, so try to be focused.)

Narrative Art, Visual Arts & Culture

  • As you may remember from the introduction to Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather once noted that "Many reviewers vehemently assert that it is a novel. Myself, I prefer to call it a narrative."  Similarly, Cather resorted to the art of painting to explain her aesthetic aims—such as the frescoes of Puvis de Chavannes (of the life of St. Genevieve)—to find appropriate analogies for the structure of her, well, "narrative." I invite you to think about these links in two different but complementary ways: (a) theme: discuss passages in Archbishop that variously throw light on the importance of art (and architecture)—whether for the peoples of the Southwest, the bishop, and/or for the impulse of colonization, among others; (b) form: speculate on the connections between the Archbishop's structure & form in relation to the discourse of art that runs deeply through the book.  How does art as a theme correlate to the formal artistry of the narrative itself?  Why, for example, does the book not pay close attention to, say, the chronological and causal unfolding of events one would see in most traditional novels. (You should know that Cather was strongly interested in the arts generally.)

Cather & Colonialism

  • Throughout Death Comes for the Archbishop, we see Father Latour's sensitivity to the spiritual traditions of the Southwest, much in contrast to his counterpart, Father Vaillant, who sees such practices (in classically colonialist fashion) as pagan or primitive in need of Catholic/religious elevation.  Your job: locate and discuss instances in the text in which this pattern of acceptance and rejection become visible. Then—given Father Latour's spiritual resilience and resourcefulness—ask yourself whether or not Cather has endowed her hero also with the ability to reflect on the always already implied superiority of the colonizer over the colonized.  What is the evidence that he is, or is not, so equipped, and what would, in theory, be the logical consequences of a belief that ascribes equal status to (non- or pre-Christian/Columbian) spiritual practices?

Anthropology & Narrative

  • As a fictionalized narrative of the missionary work of two real-life priests, Death Comes for the Archbishop often includes seemingly random, but precise, observations about native Mexicans and the various Native American tribes inhabiting the American Southwest. Discuss some of these, let me call them, "anthropological" moments you find most memorable and research them briefly (on the internet). To what degree was (and was not) Cather accurate in these representations?  Why would Cather include them in the first place?

The Prologue and Preview to Coming Attractions

  • Rarely does a Prologue, "At Rome," set the stage in as concentrated a fashion in a book as in Death Comes for the Archbishop.  (Re)read the prologue carefully and see how it intimates the themes and ideas, and the connections and associations, which are developed at greater length in the later chapters of the book.


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Michael Wutz, Brady Presidential Distinguished Professor
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