Considered by critics to be Cather’s best work, Death Comes for the Archbishop is a full-color portrait of the southwestern United States, especially New Mexico, and its people in the second half of the 19th century. As she has done in other books, Cather catches a culture on the cusp of huge change—the “new” world pushes against the “old,” indigenous religions fight to maintain their beliefs while integrating with Catholicism, the strength and beauty of nature begins to face those who want to control it. The Americans are pitted against the French, the Spanish, the Indians, the Mexicans, although it is not clear who, in this context, actually is an American.
At the center of the story are two French missionaries, Jean Marie Latour and his good friend and assistant Joseph Vaillant. Their lives mirror the men on whom they are based: Latour on the first bishop of New Mexico, Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Vaillant on the first bishop of Colorado, Joseph Projectus Machebeuf.
Latour is sophisticated, thoughtful, and cool. Vaillant, who is a few steps beyond homely, is warm and engaging, enthusiastic about raising funds for missions and, ultimately, for the bishop’s dream: the cathedral. The two men are yin and yang, each showing strengths that combat the other’s weaknesses. Vaillant helps Latour establish himself in a land in which priests have been settled for hundreds of years, although those priests have been on their own, with no oversight from Rome, and they’ve created their own rules, or lack of them. They flagrantly take advantage of the local people and grow ostentatiously wealthy while living a life of pleasure, marrying, having children, and building a bit of a family business. Latour carefully and slowly forces the errant priests out of their parishes, and Vaillant is there to care for the parishioners, wherever or however he finds them.
The book is episodic, less like a novel and more like a series of short stories tied together by the missionaries and some continuing characters. Kit Carson plays a prominent role and, through him, Cather shows this country’s relationship with its earliest settlers, the Indians. Carson is married to an Indian and, in most cases, he acts like their friend. Yet, when the U.S. government wants to find a hideout where the Navajos stay safe, Carson leads the troops right there, causing the death of more than 100, and leading to the death of their way of life. Cather offers a poignant overview of that way of life:
They seemed to have none of the European\’s desire to “master” nature, to arrange and re-create. They spent their ingenuity in the other direction; in accommodating themselves to the scene in which they found themselves. This was not so much from indolence, the Bishop thought, as from an inherited caution and respect. It was as if the great country were asleep, and they wished to carry on their lives without awakening it; or as if the spirits of earth and air and water were things not to antagonize and arouse.
Perhaps the biggest contrast Cather creates is between the first chapter and the rest of the book. In that initial chapter, she introduces us to “three Cardinals and a missionary Bishop from America,” in an opulent villa overlooking Rome. The four men are fed exceptionally well and drink fine champagne, which feeds the Cardinals’ already overblown egos. They are committed to sending more missionaries to America but are not interested in the least in learning just what America is or who its people are and assume Indians all live in wigwams. Their evening ends over brandy and a sunset. These cardinals wouldn’t last a half hour in the territory to which they are sending missionaries, nor would their arrogant attitudes achieve many converts.
Characters throughout the book are compelling, real, and beautifully flawed, but the exquisite scenery is the real star, and Cather captures that with breathtaking clarity; the book is full of a love of the land and with descriptions that take the fine hand of a master. Perhaps her most-quoted description:
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 anthills 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 away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky.
Death finally comes for the archbishop, after he has lived a long and full life. When one of his friends shows his obvious grief and wants to heal him from what looks and sounds like pneumonia, Latour simply says, ‘I shall not die of a cold, my son. I shall die of having lived.”