Willa Cather was through the whole of her life restless traveler. Her routes often provided the important sites for her novels and stories: London, France, New England, the American Southwest etc. Tourists themselves became central figures in Cather’s fiction. Her heroes also travel simply for pleasure. Her characters are intelligent, inquisitive, and polite to their surroundings. They are interested in finding a significant identity, in discovering some creative relation to a strange landscape. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather’s good tourist (among others) is Latour in New Mexico among the pueblos and missions. Latour has come to claim this land for the Church. He examines it with curiosity and purpose. His own travels in this land gather together the several customs and legends of place. Latour desires to comprehend the mysteries of the land that surrounds him.
Cather paints us a vivid picture with her descriptions of the southwestern landscape through the use of color and texture throughout Death Comes for the Archbishop. The landscape reflects Latour’s character and feelings and connects with the Native American culture of the southwest.
Cather establishes the importance of the landscape early in the book. The first paragraph alone goes int o great detail to describe the land in which Latour is traveling. Latour finds a juniper tree in the shape of a cross and it is then you realize landscape will play a big role in Latour’s experience. The landscape reflects Latour’s character and feelings. Sometimes Latour is reminded of the French landscape as he is traveling through New Mexico by a small detail or by something more significant. It shows us that Latour is in tune with the landscape and its natural wonders no matter where he is located. Latour pays attention to the landscape around him and interprets it emotionally. The Native American culture is very connected to its natural surroundings and Latour is aware of this. They learn from it and build their lives around the natural surroundings.
Landscape plays an important role in the novel Death Comes for the Archbishop.
It allows us a view of the southwest and an experience of the emotions felt by Latour, the Mexicans and the Native Americans by their surroundings. It is through the eyes of Latour that you see the beautiful landscape of the desert come to life as he travels the land.
In his journey, the landscape first seems to Father Latour a kind of geometrical nightmare. Every conical hill spotted with smaller cones of juniper, a uniform yellowish green, as the hills were a uniform red, the hills thrust out of the ground so thickly that they seemed to be pushing each other aside, tipping each other over – and he closes his eyes against this pressing omnipresence. But when Father Latour opens his eyes once again, a kind of miracle happens: he sees one juniper, different in shape from the others, not thick growing, but a naked, twisted trunk, perhaps ten feet high, which at the top “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” (15-16). Father Latour achieves a kind of oneness with the tree. The tree becomes a miracle, greener than anything Latour had ever seen in his own greenest corner of the Old World – in the midst of that ocean of wavy sand.
In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather presents thoughts about God and Christianity across the southwestern landscape. Riding past the Enchanted Mesa on his way, Latour describes the rock as “the utmost expression of human need” and as “the highest comparison of loyalty…. Christ Himself had used that comparison for the disciple [the original St. Peter] to whom he gave the keys of His Church” (97). The “incompleteness” Latour observes in the physical landscape on his journey to Acoma becomes symbolic of southwestern land; it is “as if, with all the materials . . . assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything…. waiting to be made into a landscape” (94—95).
The religion that appears in Death Comes for the Archbishop is syncretic, alien to orthodoxy. This religion is like the holy place adorned with the gods of the wind, the sun, the moon, and the rain, or the bell itself. The result is a landscape of fluid boundaries where the unusual becomes the normal and therefore ceases to be unusual. And this is, clearly, one of the main features of the magic mode. In this landscape, animals and plants often have consequential intelligence. The relationship between humans and surroundings is observed throughout the novel. This is a relation of interdependence where men sometimes prove to be the less intelligent (as in, for example, Latour’s guilt in the opening pages when “he, supposed to be the intelligence of the party, had got the poor animals into this interminable desert of ovens” ). The novel’s animals include— cats, parrots, lizards, serpents, horses, donkeys, mules, and pigeons—that creates text’s penetrating magical atmosphere. On his first visit to Acoma, Father Latour is surprised by the turtle like appearance of the natives: antediluvian-looking humans of the sea that found shelter on the sun-baked top of the mesa. Sky City and its neighbor, the Enchanted Mesa, are the home of beings halfway between humans and animals. These creatures are still in transition who, like the land itself, were left unfinished by God at the beginning of creation: a “country . . . still waiting to be made into landscape” (95).
Cather’s description of plants and animals emphasizes the importance of organic nature to the discovered New World landscape where everything is connected and interrelated. Death Comes for the Archbishop includes a series of gardens that make the story with a unifying structure, from the aristocratic garden in Rome at the beginning of the story, through the continually re-created southwestern landscape, to the orchard where Jean Latour seeks shelter after retirement. Plants and trees that live in the extreme conditions in that land have become symbols of the life that thrives there. The cruciform juniper tree under which Father Latour experienced a miracle, the tamarisk which power protects every Mexican farm, the cacti that helped Manuel Chavez after his remarkable escape from the Indians, and the generous vegetation in Agua Secreta are only a few examples of the abundance of vegetable life in the story.
Soon after Latour and Vaillant came in Santa Fe, they plant a garden. Latour hopes that the garden will grow old with him, its trees will provide saplings for orchards all over the region. The Archbishop lives his last years at the farm he bought from an old Mexican. There he uses his creative energy into landscaping. He succeeds in domesticating native wildflowers with which he covers the land with a purple mantle, “the true Episcopal color and countless variations of it” (265). Father Vaillant also wants to plant wherever he goes, from the shores of Lake Ontario to the gardens he plants in New Mexico and Colorado (a land where “nobody would stick a shovel in the earth for less than gold” ). Such a combination of missionary work with gardening puts together landscape and soul, self and nature.
In a sense, landscape also begins our understanding of Latour in Death Comes for the Archbishop. The landscape presents us with introduction to Latour, who, traveling by horse, also experiences his own crucifixion of doubt and thirst in “The Cruciform Tree.” As he persists his journey, Latour struggles for images to describe his confusion. The hills, he corrects himself, were “more the shape of Mexican ovens than haycocks— yes, exactly the shape of Mexican ovens, red as brick-dust” (17). Haycocks would be familiar to Latour from his home in France. However, Latour has lost his cultural support in a landscape so evidently foreign to him that he tries to find a way to explain his inner discomfort.
Cather also presented us with environmental ethics in Death Comes for the Archbishop. For example, When Bishop Latour travels with Jacinto he learns in camping:
When they left the rock or tree or sand dune that had sheltered them for the night, the Navajo was careful to obliterate every trace of their temporary occupation…. [J]ust as it was the white man’s way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least some mark or memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian’s way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through water, or birds through the air.
Latour learns the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it…. They seemed to have none of the European’s desire to “master” nature, to control and re-create it…. They ravaged neither the rivers nor the forest, and if they irrigated, they took as little water as would serve their needs. The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it. (246—47)
The word desecrate makes evident the sacred relation of Navajo to nature. This creates special mood throughout the narrative. Cather describes two manners of relating to the land: mastering nature and vanishing into it and leaving no sign. Nowhere is this distinction more clear than in the Archbishop’s decision to spend his end of life in New Mexico because of a good air. The aging Father Latour “always awoke a young man” in New Mexico, where “his first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows” (287), “on the bright edges of the world” (288).
Death Comes for the Archbishop presents us with a series of sensations – of color, of light, of the large become small, as in the boring red sand-hills that come to seem as so many hay-cocks to the lonely horseman riding through them, and the small become large, as the cruciform tree that takes up all the space between land and sky. The two bishops, having ridden through wind and sandstorms, now in the Truchas mountains on their way to Mora ride through rain and sleet, conditions that make it nearly impossible for them to see at all:
On every side lay ridges covered with blue-green fir trees; above them rose the horny backbones of mountains. The sky was very low; purplish lead-colored clouds let down curtains of mist into the valleys between the pine ridges. There was not a glimmer of white light in the dark vapours working overhead – rather, they took on the cold green of the evergreens. Even the white mules, their coats wet and matted into tufts, had turned a slaty hue, and the faces of the two priests were purple and spotted in that singular light. [64-65]
The landscape became the true protagonist in Death Comes for the Archbishop , a region of wonders and mysteries, like the cave where Latour and his native companion seek shelter, a refuge of ancestral Indian rites where the French priest is forced to spend the night. This cave, known only to the Indians, resembles a mouth (it is called Stone Lips) and is connected to the heart of the earth and its immeasurable secrets. Here Latour understands quickly that beliefs of the Native Americans and their religious practices may be more than just a set of heathen superstitions. This comprehension forever changes his perception of the Indians.
The American Southwest had a special fascination for Cather as a writer. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather described the Southwest as unique in both the United States and the Americas at large. The Southwest has a landscape without referents in any other region. Confined in its ranges of mountains with jagged peaks and steep edges, common in the southwestern US, gorges and deserts, rivers and vales, it is a world of features to be found nowhere else on the continent. This landscape seems to spread beyond the reach of the rational mind.
Cather claimed that she considered Death Comes for the Archbishop her best novel. The novel became her aesthetic response to the Southwest, a region with beautiful landscapes. Like many of her fictional travelers, Cather was faced with the impressive power of the land itself. In New Mexico, Cather found landscape in its fundamental essence, a self-contained land older than creation, and the writer learned to translate it into Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop, New York: Vintage, 1990.