Places: Death Comes for the Archbishop

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1927

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: Mid-to late nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Vatican City

*Vatican Death Comes for the ArchbishopCity. Enclave in Rome that is the center of the Roman Catholic Church and headquarters of the pope. There the novel opens in a prologue that describes an elegant garden in which three Italian cardinals select the new bishop of Santa Fe as they drink fine French wines. This scene contrasts sharply with the harsh world that the relocated priests will find in the American Southwest.


*Canada. Mission field from which Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant are removed and sent to New Mexico. The Italian cardinals who make the decision to relocate the missionaries express concern about the tendency of priests in the Southwest to lead dissolute lives and agree that the diocese’s new bishop must come from a different culture so that he can impose order and orthodoxy in this new diocese. The cardinals are oblivious to the difficulty of the transition they are asking the French missionaries to make by moving from the cold climate of Canada to the hot arid deserts of the American southwest. The novel then describes the missionaries’ harrowing trip across inhospitable mountains, rivers, oceans, and deserts in their journey from Canada to Santa Fe.

*New Mexico

*New Mexico. Territory in the American Southwest that the United States occupied in the late 1840’s, after winning the Mexican-American War. Most of the novel is centered in this arid region, particularly around the north-central town of Santa Fe, where Father Jean Marie Latour arrives in 1851 after a long and difficult journey from his previous missionary station on the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario. The novel concludes with Latour’s death in Santa Fe after he has a cathedral built there.

The ability of the new missionaries to adapt to harsh climates prepares them to undertake even more daunting challenges in the Southwest. When they learn that lazy priests will not travel to distant corners of the diocese, Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant make the journeys themselves, by mule. Cather eloquently describes the physical suffering the priests endure as they travel to small desert villages.

For the first time local Indians and Mexican Americans encounter missionaries who do not exploit them. Remaining faithful to their vow of poverty, Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant teach by example and live in humble houses that contrast markedly with the elegant houses of the corrupt priests, gaining the respect and admiration of Catholics and non-Catholics alike in their large diocese. In a powerful scene, Bishop Latour leads a group of peasants and Native Americans up a mesa to expel a corrupt priest from his fortresslike home and turn over to the church the property he has stolen.

This beautifully written novel deals not only with Bishop Latour’s life in Santa Fe from 1848 until his death in 1889 but also with the spiritual growth of his diocese. Even after his retirement, he never leaves his adopted home to return to his native France. He lives on a small farm, says mass in local churches, and helps train newly arrived missionaries.

Sources for Further StudyBloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom. Willa Cather’s Gift of Sympathy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962. Includes a discussion of the sources of Death Comes for the Archbishop.Daiches, David. Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction. New York: Collier Books, 1951. A sophisticated survey, with a book-by-book treatment of Death Comes for the Archbishop.Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. An important inquiry into the meaning of actual and imagined spaces in the works of the two writers. Explores Cather’s unfurnished rooms and landscapes and gives particular attention to her use of color and light in Death Comes for the Archbishop.Gerber, Philip. Willa Cather. Boston: Twayne, 1975. A brief but solid introduction to Cather’s life and literary career. Death Comes for the Archbishop is seen as a retreat into the past and as an implicit comparison to an inferior present, which accounts for its elegiac tone. Contains a select annotated bibliography of criticism.Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. Sexchanges. Vol. 2 in No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: A Life Saved Up. London: Virago, 1989. A feminist analysis of Cather as a writer of split identities, sexual conflicts, and stoical fatalism.Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. Personal reminiscences by Cather’s friend and companion for more than forty years.Lindemann, Marilee, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Compilation of thirteen articles, including John N. Swift’s “Catholic Expansionism and the Politics of Depression in Death Comes for the Archbishop.”March, John. A Reader’s Companion to the Fiction of Willa Cather. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. An excellent source for any reader of Cather. Contains, alphabetically listed, often lengthy explanations of place names, proper names, and other objects of importance in Cather’s fiction.Murphy, John J., ed. Willa Cather and the Culture of Belief: A Collection of Essays. Vol. 22 in Literature and Belief. Provo, Utah: Bringham Young University Press, 2002. Compilation of nearly two dozen articles includes three focusing on religious aspects of Death Comes for the Archbishop.Murphy, John J. “Willa Cather’s Archbishop: A Western and Classical Perspective.” Western American Literature 13 (Summer, 1978): 141-150. Argues that the novel reflects Cather’s cyclical view of history and her belief that American experience repeats the European. In this reading, Latour becomes a variation of the Western hero.Nelson, Robert J. Willa Cather and France: In Search of the Lost Language. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Places aspects of Death Comes for the Archbishop in the tradition of French Catholicism.O’Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. A feminist reinterpretation of Cather’s life, relationships with family and female friends, and works.O’Connor, Margaret Anne, ed. Willa Cather: The Contemporary Reviews. American Critical Archives. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A compilation in excess of five hundred pages of all the contemporary reviews of Willa Cather’s novels. More than forty pages concentrate on Death Comes for the Archbishop.Rosowski, Susan J., ed. Willa Cather’s Ecological Imagination. Vol. 5 in Cather Studies. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. Collection of articles focusing on aspects of land occupation, frontier borders, agriculture, horticulture, ecology, and the environment in Cather’s work.Skaggs, Merrill Maguire. After the World Broke in Two: The Later Novels of Willa Cather. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990. Provides an intellectual history that focuses on the works of Cather’s artistic maturity. Sees Death Comes for the Archbishop as Cather’s greatest achievement because of its ability to ask and provide answers to questions of faith, art, and the continuity of life.Slote, Bernice. “Willa Cather.” In Sixteen Modern American Authors: A Survey of Research of Criticism, edited by Jackson R. Bryer. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1974. Succinctly summarizes major and minor criticism of Cather through 1973.Wagenkneckt, Edward. Willa Cather. New York: Continuum, 1994. A deep and wide-ranging survey of Cather’s entire production, including an excellent critical analysis of Death Comes for the Archbishop.Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987. A superb general treatment of Cather’s life and literary production.
Categories: Places