Death Comes for the Archbishop

This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape. (Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, in Cather: Later Novels, Library of America, p. 334)

At the close of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, the archbishop Jean Marie Latour has built the cathedral that he has long wanted to build, and, as he recollects how it was built, he praises its architect:

How exactly the young Molny, his French architect, had done what he wanted! Nothing sensational, simply honest building and good stone-cutting,—good Midi Romanesque at its finest. (p. 442)

This captures the book well. The land the life it chronicles are harsh, sensationally so, but Cather tells it without sensation. She presents us with the facts: this is how it is, and it would be uncouth to make too much of it. There is too much work to be done to spend one’s days lamenting these harsh conditions. One can only accept them and meet them. Such is the manner of Latour, of Father Joseph Vaillant, and of all they meet, and such is the manner of Cather’s writing.

It is a harsh world, and a shifting and changing world, not quite formed, still fluid—like a mesa plain. Cather travels through it and finds and chronicles the life that is there to find, that has sprung up and made its living there. Plant life, human life—no matter: she loves it all, equally. When there is conflict, she does not take sides, but recounts it fairly, as the land might recount it. Thus everything proceeds with an air of necessity, to which one can only adapt, which one cannot change.

By the end, American architecture, with its American style of imposition on the landscape, has begun to impinge on Latour’s world just as he is leaving it: another change, another fluidity, another unpersuadable necessity. This new architecture clashes with the cathedral Latour has built. Soon its Midi Romanesque style will be out of place, a relic. Such is the way of things. Such is how it must be.

Even the title of the book announces a necessity, that final necessity toward which the book must inexorably push, until at least death has come for the archbishop, and the book ends.

It is a beautiful book.



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