Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.

Writing for Faith & Culture

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Mortality and Self-Confrontation in Willa Cather’s Death Comes For The Archbishop

Mortality and Self-Confrontation in Willa Cather’s Death Comes For The Archbishop

Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) is a magnificent novel and a classic of American literature – of these facts there is wide consensus. Yet the text invites a particular critical question regarding the dramatic narrative of Bishop Jean Latour. Narrative is driven by conflict, and the typical novelistic paradigm for generating conflict is the pairing of protagonist and antagonist. In literary terms, the protagonist is the “hero” of the text – he is the central figure who faces a conflict and attempts to resolve it. The conflict is usually associated with the antagonist, who opposes the hero, fuels the conflict, and tries to thwart the hero’s progress. The indefatigable Father Jean Latour is clearly the protagonist of Death Comes For The Archbishop.  The antagonist in this story is rather difficult to discern. I suggest Death Comes for the Archbishop collapses the normal opposition between protagonist with antagonist by making these figures the same person. Fr. Latour occupies both positions; in the novel, his struggle is primarily with himself. The conflation of protagonist and antagonist – hero and opponent – in Cather’s novel is best understood through the Christian notion of death as self-confrontation.

Death Comes for the Archbishop as a text is comprised of a “Prologue” and nine distinct “Books” (essentially chapters which are themselves divided into sub-chapters). The “Prologue” does exactly what a prologue should do: it provides information relevant to the novel’s story, but is distinct from the story itself. In the “Prologue”, set in Europe, we don’t meet Fr. Latour. It simply relates how the hierarchy of the Church has arranged for Latour to become the Apostolic Vicar of New Mexico, a territory recently annexed to the United States, and one that would soon be elevated to an important “Episcopal See” (a diocese with its own duly ordained Bishop). The Church figures responsible for this appointment – several cardinals and a missionary bishop - comprise a most believable mixture of apostolic zeal, church politics, ecclesiastical privilege, and caprice. The position is a difficult one; the missionary bishop plainly asserts “[t]hat country will drink up his youth and strength as it does the rain” (9). Yet in the midst of this all too human negotiation between career churchmen, one can detect the workings of grace and Providence.  Latour – a man conspicuous for his wisdom, judiciousness, sanctity, and diplomacy – is chosen for the position.

The “Prologue” informs the reader how the protagonist, Fr. Latour, along with his intrepid companion and friend Fr. Joseph Vaillant come to the American southwest. The character Jean Latour is based upon the French priest Jean Baptiste Lamay (1814 – 1888), the first Bishop of Santa Fe; and Joseph Vaillant is based upon Lamay’s lifelong friend, the French priest Fr. Joseph Machebeuf, who went on to serve as the first Bishop of Denver (1812 – 1889). The novel itself recounts the long life and journey of Fr. Latour. It chronicles his long and remarkable apostolic labors in building a unified Church in his geographically enormous diocese. Even by 21st century standards, Fr. Latour had a challenging job. His diocese included white Americans, large numbers of Mexicans, and significant pockets of beleaguered native Americans. The hostilities between these diverse populations were intense and often violent. Further, Latour had to address the corruption and waywardness of many of his local clergy, who persisted in their ways due to years of neglect under the Bishop of Durango (Mexico).

As one reads the novel - the remarkable adventures of Fr. Latour and Fr. Vaillant - one naturally expects forces of opposition to emerge. Who, or what, will serve as the antagonist, the force of opposition to the noble and saintly Fr. Latour? A suitable candidate never quite emerges. Rather, one simply finds a narrative gallery of people and places, organized in loosely chronological fashion. This gallery is a reflection of the life and labors of Bishop Latour.

The narrative gallery contains friends, foes, sublime but unforgiving landscapes, personal crises, and joyous victories. Book 1 begins with the Bishop lost in the desert on one of his many diocesan journeys, and he miraculously finds a settlement called Agua Secrata (“Hidden Water”). He is joyously welcomed, refreshed, and entertained by a devout family who had long been without a visit from a priest. The novel is an unbroken chain of such episodes, organized in loosely chronological fashion. For example, it recounts the providential acquisition of a silver bell for the church (no small matter for missionaries in the Southwest), the donation of prize mules for the Bishop and his Vicar from a wealthy Mexican ranchero, and ultimately the construction of a magnificent diocesan cathedral under Latour’s supervision.

More even than the sublime accounts of the desert landscapes, it is the diverse personalities with whom Fr. Latour establishes friendships and contends that make Death Comes for the Archbishop so memorable. He encounters the humble and devout Padre Escolastico Herrera, who joyfully shares with his Bishop the account of his pilgrimage to Guadalupe; and Magdalena Valdez, a poor Mexican woman saved from an abusive American husband by the French priests. Latour befriends the historical figure of Kit Carson, a member of the U.S. Military who campaigned against the Navajos; yet he also cultivates deep friendships with Jacinto, his Native American guide, and Eusabio, a wealthy and influential Navajo leader.   

With patience, firmness, and wisdom, Bishop Latour disciplines wayward clergymen who resist the authority of their new shepherd, such as Padre Gallegos at Albequerque, the insufferable sensualist Padre Martinez at Taos, and the miserly Padre Lucero of Arroyo Hondo. One of the most humorous and touching episodes of Latour’s life deals with the wealthy ranchero Don Antonio Olivares and his American wife Isabella. Upon Don Antonio’s death, his brothers contest the rich Antonio’s will in order to seize upon his great wealth, robbing both his wife Isabella and daughter Inez of the Don’s estate, and denying the Bishop a generous bequest supporting the construction of the cathedral. Book Six, entitled “Dona Isabella”, mirthfully recounts the pleadings and coaxings of the French priests, who prevail upon the well preserved Dona to admit her age in court to secure her and her daughter’s financial stability. The lovely Isabella can scarcely manage to forgive her Bishop and his Vicar for inflicting upon her such a disgraceful social indignity.

Devoting an entire chapter of the text to the charming and amusing Dona Isabella, a figure for whom Latour has considerable affection, is telling regarding Cather’s novelistic strategy. Death Comes for the Archbishop presents no figures, no particular forces, no continuously present villains to stand as clear antagonists opposite the Bishop. To be sure, Latour faces the harshness of the land itself, clergy who reject him, and challenges to his apostolic ministry, but each challenge comes and goes in a fluid stream of episodes. Through his endurance, prayerfulness, and reliance upon grace, Latour prevails over a long and successful reign as Santa Fe’s first Bishop, and no particular person or challenge distinguishes itself as the novel’s antagonist.

The key to understanding the tension and opposition of Death Comes for the Archbishop resides in the deeply Catholic notion of death as self-confrontation. The antagonist of this novel is the creeping pace of time, Latour’s awareness of his own mortality, in a word – death. Latour is both protagonist and antagonist, because in the last it is with himself he must contend. The medieval play Everyman serves as a useful exemplum of this concept. Everyman, the allegorical protagonist, meets Death at the beginning of the play, and it is important to note that Death is God’s messenger and servant. God sends Death to Everyman to send him on the last journey of his life – a journey of repentance, which is another way of saying a journey of confronting the truth about himself.

In Book 1, the novel reveals Latour, alone and exhausted in the desert wilderness, kneeling before a cruciform tree. Latour bows before the great Christian symbol of death and redemptive suffering. Like Everyman (and every man), Latour’s journey is inevitably toward the moment of his divine reckoning. The symbolic act of kneeling before the Cross at the threshold of the novel gives us an interpretive key: Latour will not primarily struggle with the harshness of the land or with men who oppose his ministry – he will struggle with his mortality, his loneliness, and his earthly attachments. Charming as the gallery of episodes and personalities is comprising the body of Death Comes for the Archbishop, it is the final two Books which illuminate the real nature of Latour’s struggles. Book Eight is perhaps the most painful sequence of the novel. Bishop Latour profoundly struggles with the request to send a capable priest far away to Colorado to serve the faithful there. Latour knows Fr. Joseph is the clear choice, but struggles greatly to send his pillar of comfort away, perhaps for good. Latour had given up nearly everything for the Church – his homeland (France), his family, his language, his culture – and at last he releases his last earthly attachment, his dearest friend, his other self. Book Eight ends with the deeply moving lines of their departure: “They embraced each other for the past – for the future” (260).

Book Nine, appropriately entitled “Death Comes for the Archbishop”, relates the retirement and final days of Bishop Latour. He outlives all of his old friends – Carson, Dona Isabella, even his beloved Joseph Vaillant – and realizes the completion of his cathedral. In the text, the Bishop’s final confrontation with death is a confrontation with memory, with himself. Not only does he think of his struggles in the New World, but he remembers especially the days of his early priesthood with Fr. Joseph. He recalls the crisis, particularly acute for Joseph, of struggling with the desire to accept the missionary vocation. It was hard for them both, especially for Joseph (who feared he would break his father’s heart by leaving France). As Latour’s poignant and vivid recollections reveal, they hardly could have persevered in their vocation and endured the difficult years of ministry without each other.

The quotes below highlight the centrality of memory and self-confrontation for Bishop Latour as he approaches death.

During the last weeks of the Bishop’s life he thought very little about death; it was the past he was leaving. The future would take care of itself.  (287)

[Latour] observed... there was no longer any perspective in his memories... He was soon to have done with calendared time, and it had already ceased to count for him. He sat in the middle of his own consciousness; none of his former states of mind were lost or outgrown.  They were all within reach of his hand, and all comprehensible. (288)

When the occasion warranted he could return to the present. But there was not much present left; Father Joseph dead, the Olivares both dead, Kit Carson dead, only the minor characters of his life remained in time. (289)

For Latour, death was neither a bogeyman nor an existential dread. The immanence of death meant for Latour what it meant for Everyman (and every human being): self-confrontation. Memory is the cavernous echo chamber of individual experience, and in this great hall Latour encountered himself – past landscapes, loves, joys, losses, each as it urged itself upon him unbidden and without chronological sequence. The coming of Death is where the protagonist Latour confronts the only forces that can ever truly oppose a human person: one’s own mortality, limitation, creaturehood, fallibility, and the inevitable losses accompanying the common human condition.

Yet for the Christian, coming to terms with the self as limited and mortal is no exercise in futility, rage, or Stoic resignation. It is the opportunity for grace, for the full revelation that all is gift, that every moment of existence is a token of love from the Lord, the same Lord Latour faithfully served his entire life. If the reader presumes a Christian world view, the profound sense of tranquility the Bishop experiences in his final days is highly believable psychologically, and thus good literary realism. Further, Latour’s abiding sense of peace in his final hour is the fruit of a lifetime of cultivating virtues – natural and supernatural – which lead to genuine sanctification. As a novelist, Cather succeeds in creating a sympathetically human figure in Jean Latour, but one the reader also can believe is truly a saint.

Latour’s moment of death is a moment of accepting that his journey has been one of grace. The great contest, the great opposition of his life, was to love the friends and the flocks that God had given him over the years, and live long enough to lose them all to the passage of time. Latour prevails when Death comes to meet him. He contends with his losses, his melancholy, his loneliness, and receives the gift of seeing the journey of his life as pure grace, the gift of a loving God.

This notion of the self as its own antagonist, which the consciousness of death heightens as nothing else can, is wonderfully articulated by Raissa Maritain in her remarkable autobiography, We Have Been Friends Together. Speaking of writing her autobiography, she reflects upon the struggle and confrontation of giving way to memory:

It is a strange experience to trust one’s memory; its hold on us is stronger than our hold on it; it carries us into its own world which is the very reality of the movement of our past, and we must obey it whether we will or no, must retrace those paths of time which are henceforth not only irrevocably fixed, but in which all things are so bound together that any particular moment conjures up all the past that has gone before it... Our friends are part of our life, and our life explains our friendships. (p.2)

Bishop Latour’s hour of death is just such a giving way – he obeys his memory and re-encounters the sufferings, sacrifices, and joys of his life and vocation. He encounters those he loved and all he was forced to renounce for his vocation, and at last found himself naked before his Creator. Such nakedness is a grace, and Death Comes for the Archbishop reveals that the agony of self-confrontation through memory can open wide the doors of grace. For Jean Latour, it bestowed upon him what every Christian hopes for – a holy death.

Aaron Urbanczyk, Ph.D. is a writer, scholar, and critic who lives and teaches in Nashville, TN. His essays and reviews focus on the intersection of literature, philosophy, Christianity, and culture.

Works Cited

Cather, Willa.  Death Comes For the Archbishop.  New York:  Vintage Books, 1990.

Maritain, Raissa.  We Have Been Friends Together & Adventures in Grace.  Ed.  Michael S. Sherwin, O.P.  Trans. By Julie Kernan. South Bend, IN:  St. Augustine’s P, 2016.

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