Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
Death Comes for the Archbishop
The Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century includes 69 male writers and only 9 female writers. Fortunately, Willa Cather makes the list with her meditative novel Death Comes for the Archbishop (#61).
This is the story, based on historical events, of a French priest called Latour who is sent to the Americas to rescue Catholicism from the local priests who’ve gone rogue. Death does come for Latour in the end, but only after a long and full life. When Death arrives, the Archbishop is ready.
There is something distinctly Midwestern about Cather’s storytelling. It is unhurried, deliberate, thorough and intentional. Psychologically and physically, every possible detail is portrayed, with an effect like the layers of paint on an Old Master. Her vocabulary is elevated—no advice from Strunk & White or Orwell is followed in this story. Five-dollar words abound, as do snatches of conversation in French and Spanish, untranslated. The style is linguistically rich.
Cather has this novel divided into sections she calls books, which give the story an episodic feel. It proceeds like a rolling river, steady in pace, interspersed with eddying and tumbling, and with white water action—violence, fright, lust, sickness, exultance.
The faith peculiar to Catholicism is the theme of this novel, and its protagonists live lives completely foreign to this reader and, I imagine, to many others. The story is set in the mid-1800s to start (it spans some 40 years), in a part of the country, “New Mexico,” that was only just barely annexed and hadn’t yet settled itself into a name. Culture clashes are the rule of life there, between the native people, referred to both by their own names and by the generic “Indian,” the Mexicans, the Americans (including Kit Carson), and the European missionaries, and between the established lifestyles of the people already living in the area and the colonialist desires of many of the aforementioned groups. Languages mix, attitudes mix, miscommunication is countered occasionally by transcendent connections. The country itself—the physical land, its weathers, its animals and vegetation, the rocks and the deserts, the distances between human settlements—threaten and command the people with an overpowering strength. The historical explorations exist side-by-side with explorations of the landscape.
On top of the established Catholicism of Europe, the novel explores the ways in which the religion merged with and was shaped by the mystic beliefs of the native people the Church sought to convert. Saint worship, for instance, fit nicely into the practice of ascribing natural processes to mythical entities. So the native people take into their practice tributes to Catholic saints, in order to get good crops or healthy children, and the Church in turn gains adherents and of course a gross influence on the country’s development. It is a fascinating slice of American history.
Cather’s writing, particularly in this novel, presages that of Annie Proulx or Cormac McCarthy, though it contains more hopefulness than theirs does. The hopefulness comes through Father Latour, who is as enraptured by the people of this new land as he is by his own deeply held faith. He lives by God’s word in a place where the god of his understanding is an alien. He is patient and tolerant. He is persistent. He sees God’s hand in everything he encounters and expects his fate to meet him at any moment, while also taking every moment to forward the agenda the Church has charged him with. In repeated amusing events, for instance, he marries couples in villages he visits, insisting on marrying them all in the evening, and then waiting until the next morning to baptize their children, following the proper order of things. Like Proulx or McCarthy, Cather’s portrayals are observational and unsentimental. The lives and stories are harsh. But they are beautiful.
One quite enjoyable aspect to this novel for me is the attention to food. The priests like to cook and eat. Their meals are described with enough detail that you could probably recreate the recipes. Of particular interest is the comparison of French agriculture with the natural produce of the area of New Mexico. There is quite a lot of discussion of lettuce (French; unknown, apparently, in the new world) and of the comparative merits of peaches and apricots on either side of the world.
Death Comes for the Archbishop is a rewarding read. It is dense, rich, nuanced, and lyrical, and it provides, as all great literature must, a portal to an unfamiliar world.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also an editorial assistant for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.