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Meeting Willa Cather Via “Death Comes for the Archbishop”

March 4, 2021


I must reveal a gap in my education and invite people along while I expand my mind. Willa Cather is an important name in American literature (that much I have learned tangentially over the years) but I must have been playing hooky when she came up in class (I blame myself, not the schools). Cather was not an author I sought out. She sounded stern. Boring. O Pioneers! sounded like a cowboy story. (It’s not.) Nope. Not for me.

Recalcitrant children—of any age—need to be redirected, pointed in a proper direction, which is what happened to me when Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop came my way and I was happily nudged to read one of “Time’s 100 Best English-language Novels” and to learn about its author.

Wilella (which she shortened to Willa) Sibert Cather was born in 1873 and graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1894. Her career began as a magazine writer and editor and she later wrote books, including the acclaimed and popular Prairie Trilogy (O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia)—which, no, are not cowboy stories.

There is not as much personal information available about Cather—the term “secretive” is a negative way of phrasing it—so I would just say that she kept her private life private. She destroyed correspondence and forbade anyone from publishing her letters. This is unfortunate when one considers the wealth of information we get from the letters of other esteemed authors. The Habit of Being, the collected correspondence of Flannery O’Connor, for instance, is a treasury that informs the minds of both readers and writers. Willa Cather left no such inheritance for us.

Raised as a Baptist, Cather began attending the Episcopalian Church in the early 1900s. Her work shows a fascination with the Catholic Church—a reverence for the rich beauty and ritual of Catholicism. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, which Cather based on the real story of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the first Archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the author becomes a conduit for the beauty and suffering to be found in the American southwest in the early years of our country.

The quickening pace of the early twentieth century was not something that Miss Cather applauded. In a rare New York Times interview in 1924, she shared her dismay at the increasing speed of American life: “Restlessness such as ours, success such as ours, do not make for beauty. . . . Nobody stays at home any more, nobody makes anything beautiful any more. Quick transportation is the death of art. We can’t keep still because it is so easy to move about.”

This sense of slowness (including the slow travels of our protagonist, which baffle the modern mind) and appreciation of moments saturated with beauty are part of the appeal of this book. Portrayal of the good, the true, and the beautiful is a gift not restricted to the Catholic writer, and Willa Cather has a respectful perspective to create a fictional treatment of a pivotal time in the history and spiritual life of our country. She gives us more than the story of priests sent to spread the Gospel, but also priests of different countries in conflict with each other. The characters are so real, so fully ‘formed.’ They are presented with the level of detail given to the description of the beautiful and unforgiving terrain.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is an opportunity for people like me, who have been dragging their heels, to encounter Willa Cather’s work. Those who have already read Cather in school may enjoy becoming reacquainted with her in adulthood.