Saturday, August 15, 2009

Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop"

Willa Cather must have been an avid listener of stories. She is certainly an enthusiastic teller, and re-teller, of stories. The outermost frame of this novel is the story of Father Jean Marie Latour, who goes to New Mexico in 1851 as the Bishop of the newly American territory. The book begins with him rejected by the Mexicans, lost in the monotonous red sand-hills. It ends with his funeral, attended by Mexicans, Americans and Indians, in the cathedral he built into the land. His story is one of sweet sacrifice to a vocation at once divine and earthly. If Father Latour is devoutly religious, he is also deeply human. The cathedral, built in Midi Romanesque style to remind him of his native France, replaces in his life his dear friend and fellow missionary Father Vaillant. And yet the cathedral is not an alien imposition on the land. It is a glory that arises from his work in that land, for his story honors work--laborious, dangerous, creative--as a means of settling a strange land.

Folded into his story are many others. Like the one about a rebellious and charismatic Mexican priest, Padre Martinez, whose time has passed. And the one about a desperate and murderous American trader-turned settler. And the one about the beautiful Dona Isabella who refuses to admit her age though she will thus lose her inheritance. Some stories took place before Father Latour's time, and so have passed into legend. Like the one about Friar Baltazar, the venal Spanish missionary who came to a terrible end. And the one about the snake cave of the Pecos Indians. All the stories give a lively character and a vivid situation. Even on his deathbed, Father Latour, now the former archbishop of New Mexico, recalls these stories, and others: like the terrible one about the last stand of the Navajo Indians. If this book presents an indelible picture of a time, it does so not through a continuous narrative but through a gold seam of stories.

Most of these stories speak of travel--voluntary or compulsory--or are spoken of during travel. They are thus examples of an ancient trope: life as a journey. Cather refreshes that trope by describing brilliantly the New Mexican landscape through which the characters move. Her descriptions are more than poetic: they are mythic. They lend to human doings not just a specific place, but also a universal stage.

The ride back to Santa Fe was something under four hundred miles. The weather alternated between blinding sand-storms and brilliant sunlight. The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still,--and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one's feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!

In contrast with, and complementing, this intense sense of movement, is the unmovable solidity of landscape, most powerfully embodied in the mesas. If the plain is merely the floor of the transcendent sky, the mesas are always accompanied by their spiritual clouds, as Father Latour discovers on his introduction to mesa country.

One thing which struck him at once was that every mesa was duplicated by a cloud mesa, like a reflection, which lay motionless above it or moved slowly up from behind it. These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky. Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapor; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an oriental city lay directly behind the rock. The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave.

The mesas, sheer rock, have been transformed by the imagination into censers and waves, an act of imagination both religious and natural. It is this human imagination that makes even the mesas hospitable, as the Acoma Indians have done, and the waves of peoples who come after them.

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