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Author Topic: [113] Death Comes for the Archbishop--Willa Cather  (Read 3904 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: June 02, 2011, 01:10:08 PM »

Welcome to my humble adobe
June 2, 2011

I have tendered my resignation as philosophy department chair.

That means that I now can probably do some catching up with my reading.  I feel that I've helped the department through a difficult time, and I will be willing to serve again, when the time comes.

As for the Decade Project--it is in something of a shambles.  I have read the following books, but have yet to write anything about them (1) Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather; (2) The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers; (3) The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas; (4) Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo; (5) The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera; (6) Foe, by J.M. Coutzee; and (7) Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe.  I am currently reading Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.  So, I haven't been idle.  Just laconic.

Since I really like to write immediately after reading, I'll try to catch up by offering short reflections on these works that are in some cases six months behind me. With diligence, I should be in sync with myself by the end of summer.

Some people's lives deserve biographies.  Others deserve novels.  Still others deserve legend.  The life of Father Jean-Baptiste Lamy has rightly earned all three.  An early biography of Father Lamy's childhood friend and companion, The Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machbeouf, by William Joseph Howlett, inspired Willa Cather to tell Lamy's life story as a novel, which she unfolded not as a plotted construct but as a legend.

Death Comes for the Archbishop takes place in New Mexico and Arizona spanning a large portion of the 19th century.  It starts with the decision in Rome to assign a Frenchman to the newly created archdiocese of Santa Fe.  New Mexico had been part of the Spanish archdiocese of Durango until the Texas Cession of 1845 and the Mexican Cession of 1848.  The Church created a new diocese and assigned our protagonist, Jean Latour to take charge of it.  So the novel starts with that decision and it ends with the death of Father Latour.  In between, we have the entire career of this man who saw the transition from Mexican land to US statehood and the displacement and resettlement of native American tribes.  In consolidating the territory, he needed to visit numerous parishes and often replace corrupt priests who had operated without oversight for decades. This long process gave rise to many stories.

Normally, I don't like fiction based on reality.  I never know what to do with it.  To the extent that it stays true to the facts I find it either unbelievable or boring.  But if the author changes the facts, to make it believable or interesting, it no longer tells the truth.  So, I can't just innocently read Cather's story of the fictional Father Latour and be confident in any fact whatsoever that I might want to say about the real Father Lamy.  Did he really escape from a mass murderer because the man's wife signaled him to flee?  Did a priest in his diocese really kill a servant by accident and get tossed off a mesa by the locals?  Did he really become friends with Kit Carson?  Without comparing Cather's story with biographies, I have no way of distinguishing fact from legend from fiction. 

But I can say that Cather successfully conveys some eternal truths about the singular Southwestern (US) landscape and the clash of cultures, both of which themes dominates this novel.  Latour brings with him his French heritage: culinary, artistic, and architectural.  At the end of his life, he only spoke in French.  But in pursuit of his calling, he gave up all personal connections with his past and devoted himself to the work of the Church.  Well, almost all.  He did build a large, Romanesque Cathedral of Saint Francis of Assisi, in Santa Fe: his dream, and perhaps a monument to his submerged vanity.

I enjoyed this novel because of its simplicity and its evocation of the Southwest.  Cather, like no other author I know, captures in words the sense of being a fragile yet resolute human speck, creeping all exposed across vast open spaces.  Propelled by a sometimes faltering faith, the characters trudge through desolate plains broken only by the occasional mesa or gorge.  The stories Cather tells have little to them.  They never extend beyond one chapter.  But they individually compel and they collectively convince.  Here we witness a simple, heroic, devout, and honest life: a man thrust into an utterly alien world, amidst momentous events, who accepted his immense task, and, by placing one brick atop another, rebuilt the Southwest. 
« Last Edit: June 05, 2011, 10:31:45 PM by Robert Skipper » Logged
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