Death Comes For The Archbishop Summary

Willa Cather

Death Comes For The Archbishop

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Death Comes For The Archbishop Summary

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Death Comes for the Archbishop is a 1927 novel by Willa Cather. The novel was reprinted in the Modern Library series of 1931. It appeared on the list of 100 outstanding books of 1924-44 in Life Magazine. It was included on the Time’s 100 Best English Language Novels from 1923 to 2005 and Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th century. It was also chosen as the 7th best Western Novel of the 20th Century by the Western Writers of America.

The third person omniscient story is based around the two historical figures of Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Joseph Projectus Machbeuf. It doesn’t precisely focus on any single plot or storyline, but it is a stylized retelling of their lives serving as Roman Catholic clergymen in New Mexico. This includes many transgressions from the main story, and fictionalized accounts of real historical figures like Kit Carson, Manuel Antonio Chaves, and Pope Gregory XVI.

The prologue begins with Bishop Montferrand, a French bishop who is trying to convince three cardinals to support his choice for the leader of a new diocese in New Mexico. He succeeds, and his candidate, Auvergnat Jean-Marie Latour, is recommended instead of the Bishop of Durango. A Spanish cardinal named Allende asks the new bishop to help search for a painting by famous artist El Greco that was taken from his family by a missionary, but this is never mentioned again.

Bishop Jean Marie Latour is travelling with his friend and vicar, Joseph Vaillant, from Ohio to New Mexico. He must travel to the west first by railway, which ends in Cincinnati; then, he takes a riverboat to the Gulf of Mexico, and finally travels by land to New Mexico. It takes an entire year, and he loses many supplies in a shipwreck. Many characters have type names: Vaillant is valiant and fearless. Latour, the tower, is more reserved than his companion. Vaillant is able to convince or force people into helping them throughout their travels, including obtaining two prize mules, Angelica and Contento. The two scorn a widow, a woman named Dona Isabella Olivares, because she would not assert her rights in her husband’s will, therefore losing the church its testamentary share. They go on begging trips to get their money. Near the end of the novel, Vaillant is about to be investigated by Rome for all of his questionable financial decisions. Latour is presented favorably by comparison, but he has his flaws as well. He canvasses for donations to build a Romanesque cathedral in Santa Fe, which is one of his personal desires as opposed to a real community need. He waits far too long in removing dissenting priests and helping a poor slave woman, Sada, only making decisive moves until his political strength is sure. In fact, helping Sada is shown to be so unimportant that it isn’t even described in the novel.

Early on in the story, Latour and Vaillant are staying at Buck Sales’ house for the night when their host tries to murder them. Sales’ often-abused wife, Magdalena, saves them. Scales is then hanged for murder of four previous house guests. Magdalena goes on to serve nuns from Europe who run a local school. Some of the clergy are portrayed favorably in the book. This includes the “Padre of Isleta Pueblo”, another name for the blind priest Father Jesus de Baca, who collected parrots. Others, however, are shown as type persons of greed, avarice and gluttony. A priest in Albuquerque, named Father Gallegos, is removed for not being devout enough. He is shown dancing and enjoying fine food and hunting, which would be frowned upon for a religious leader. Vaillant replaces Gallegos in his position. Another example is Father Martinez in Taos, who is removed for denying that priests should remain celibate and for himself having children. He also starts a revolt and then profits from executions by stealing the condemned men’s property. His friend, Father Lecero of Arroyo Hondo, is also removed when he joins Martinez’s new church. Martinez dies an apostate—that is, an unbeliever. Lucero repents on his death bed and is absolved by Vaillant.

The indigenous people of the Pueblos—the Hopi and the Navajo—are portrayed sympathetically. The forced removal of some tribes (known as the Long Walk of the Navajo) is mentioned in reminiscence by Latour as he lays dying. He thinks that the removal of the Navajos is wrong and akin to the chattel slavery of Black Americans. The narrator also comments on this, stating Kit Carson’s violent actions towards Natives were a “soldier’s [misguided] brutal work”. There is a sense of the futility of trying to push their religion on the millennia-old Native cultures. As an example, Latour and a Native tour guide named Jacinto are caught in a snow storm, and forced to spend the night in a sacred Native cave. Latour is uneasy and disagreeable.

The end of the novel arrives with the death of the now-retired Archbishop Latour in Santa Fe. Vaillant has already passed, having died while the first Bishop of Colorado, just after the Colorado gold rush. This isn’t historically accurate, however: Machebeuf was actually the first Roman Catholic Bishop of the Denver diocese.