Though she never became a Catholic, Willa Cather’s novels—especially her masterpiece Death Comes for the Archbishop—are profound and intense Catholic artistry.
"I am amused that so many of the reviews of this book begin with the statement: ‘This book is hard to classify.’ Then why bother?”—Willa Cather, 1927
Willa Cather’s novel—or “narrative” in the style of legend as she preferred—Death Comes for the Archbishop is not only the greatest book ever written about American Catholicism, it also might very well be the “Great American Novel.” Huge claims, I know, but solid possibilities nonetheless.
At the beginning of Death Comes, we meet the titular character, Father Jean-Marie Latour.
“Mais, c’est fantastique!” he muttered, closing his eyes to rest them from the intrusive omnipresence of the triangle. When he opened his eyes again, his glance immediately fell upon one juniper which differed in shape from the others. It was not a thick-growing cone, but a naked, twisted trunk, perhaps ten feet high, and at the top it parted into two lateral, flat-lying branches, with a little crest of green in the center, just above the cleavage. Living vegetation could not present more faithfully the form of the Cross. The traveler dismounted, drew from his pocket a much worn book, and baring his head, knelt at the foot of the cruciform tree. Under his buckskin riding-coat he wore a black vest and the cravat and collar of a churchman. A young priest, at his devotions; and a priest in a thousand, one knew at a glance. His bowed head was not that of an ordinary man—it was built for the seat of a fine intelligence. His brow was open, generous, reflective, his features handsome and somewhat severe. There was a singular elegance about the hands below the fringed cuffs of the buckskin jacket. Everything showed him to be a man of gentle birth—brave, sensitive, courteous. His manners, even when he was alone in the desert, were distinguished. He had a kind of courtesy toward himself, toward his beasts, toward the juniper tree before which he knelt, and the God whom he was addressing.
It would be hard, not to mention foolish, to miss Cather’s appreciation of her subject, a fictional protagonist based on the real-life figure Archbishop Jean-Baptist Lamy. It would also be hard to claim that Latour did not represent the best of the Catholic Church in Cather’s mind. Yet, in the previous chapter to this second one in which she introduces the main character, she described several of the highest members of the Church, meeting in the Vatican in the tumultuous year of 1848, with no pretense of delicacy. Her descriptions of these clergy are nothing short of profoundly despicable. The Vatican officials are soft, effete, disordered, arrogant, and ignorant. In short, they could not achieve a higher state of decadence if they tried. The Church, Cather seems to be arguing in strict Augustinian fashion, survives through the small and generally unrecognized acts of holiness, and not through its corrupt and powerful offices and bureaucracies. Cather focuses on the heart and soul of the Church, not its physical body per se.
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