Death Comes for the Archbishop

by Willa Cather. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1927. 12mo. viii+301 pp. $2.50.
ONE who has followed with admiration the writing of Miss Cather through the past decade is impressed first of all by the evidence on every page of her new book of her own interest and pleasure. If Pater’s dictum be true, that to know when one’s self is interested is the first condition of interesting others, then the readers of Death Comes for the Archbishop should be absorbed from the meeting of the Churchmen on the terrace of the Sabine Hills to the quiet last paragraph which leaves the Archbishop lying before the high altar of his own cathedral in Santa Fe. For obviously the author is interested. And, fortunately for herself, she is in this book held by none of those criteria which in the writing of novels so nag and harass an author given by disposition to wandering from the straight and narrow way.
From the outset Miss Cather makes it clear that her book is not a novel. It is a chronicle, a piece of historical narrative, a biography, a sketch, a tale; and it quite justly affords her all those rights and privileges which the construction of the novel is bound to deny. Since she is concerned with the life histories of Father Latour and of his intrepid vicar, Father Vaillant, rather than with their destinies as determined by circumstance and situation, she may with perfect propriety and with entire charm indulge herself in character sketches for their own sake, in the recital of miracles and of saints’ legends, and in the exposition of historical incidents. Thus the displeasure which many felt upon reading in The Professor’s House the chapters dealing with Tom’s discovery of the pueblo, chapters fascinating in themselves but certainly intrusive in a novel of situation, must be wholly absent from this new book. Indeed, one shares the author’s delight in the quaint and the marvelous, the instructive and the curious, and gladly wanders with her into any of the bypaths she chooses to explore.
The style of the book is beautiful in its simplicity and orderliness. One feels that the author often restrains her desire to be lyrical or rhythmic in order not to obscure the impressiveness or the power of her narrative. This is especially well illustrated in the closing paragraph, which the reviewer, for one, immediately contrasted with a similar situation in an early chapter of My Mortal Enemy, the latter memorable for its gorgeous imagery, this more memorable for the very lack of it. The value of the book as a chronicle of the history of our Southwestern states, then ‘bright edges of the world,’ can hardly be overestimated. The characters of Jean Marie Latour, priest, bishop, and archbishop, and of Father Vaillant, vicar and bishop, hold tenacious sway over memory and imagination. Indeed, Father Vaillant with his zeal for souls and his practical faith in God, who gave him feather beds and an oxcart for his missionarying in Colorado, recalls Parson Adams with his much-tried faith in human kindness, and should, with Fielding’s parson and Goldsmith’s vicar, complete a never-to-be-forgotten ecclesiastical trio.
But perhaps in this abundance of riches there will linger most clearly the beauty of the descriptive passages. Surely Miss Cather, even in My Antonia, has never surpassed them. The violet mantle of the purple verbena, which held within itself ‘all the shades that the dyers and weavers of Italy and France strove for through centuries’; the long lavender brooms of the old and twisted tamarisks against sun-baked adobe walls; the towers of the cathedral in Santa Fe which seemed to leap out of the rose-covered hills — these with many others make for us Keats’s ‘endless fountain of immortal drink.’