Hallowed ground: landscape as hagiography in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop.
The critical range of relevant scholarship encompasses both secular and religious readings, even secularized religious readings. Many critics argue that Cather's vision is purely secular, with origins and finality in the material realm. Sally Peltier Harvey identifies Cather's use of distinctive garden imagery in Death Comes for the Archbishop as symbolic of a healthy community, yet Harvey mentions this symbol only to supplement her sociopolitical reading of the novel as a text that shows how to establish a happy balance between personal and public needs. It "redefines self-fulfillment in terms of service to and identification with community" (101). In her definition of self-fulfillment--the American Dream--Harvey uses the land as a symbol but omits reference to visions of a landscape imbued with sanctity, and consequently she fails to integrate the landscape into her model of a viable community. For Harvey the land is not spiritually transcendent but a humanist's symbol--the color of vibrant cultural identity--or epic stage for a questing hero.
Other critics ask religious questions and find secular answers. In After Eden: The Secularization of American Space in the Fiction of Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser, Conrad Eugene Ostwalt, Jr. analyzes how the influx of ideas from Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and G. W. F. Hegel, among others, shaped American culture as it entered the twentieth century. Once promising face-to-face encounters with the divine, America, like Eden, had fallen from grace, shifting from sacred to secular, and thus faced the need to redefine its spatial orientation to all that was lost: relationship with the land, relationship with the divine.
Ostwalt argues that in Cather's fiction the frontier embodied otherness. Once this other was apprehended, it lost its ability to disclose the transcendent and sacred (49). When America became industrialized, the New World became profane: "Secularization of American natural space occurs when characters attempt to reduce the otherness of nature and to control the natural world" (55). In place of a religious other, Ostwalt continues, the land in Cather's fiction embodies divine attributes of mystery, awesome power, beneficence, and ample providence that make human relationships possible. Depleted of transcendence, the land provides a forum for community. What became of religion? "In Cather's secular world, human relationships replace what one loses from the destruction of the sacred environment, namely a relationship with deity" (74). Other people substitute for divine otherness.
Critics like Harvey and Ostwalt find Cather's religion--a relinking with a divine other--in human community. The land is merely the forum. In contrast to Ostwalt's view of a desacralized earth, this essay will argue that the land in Cather's novel, by virtue of creation, is sacred and could no more be profaned than it could lose its properties as earth or the Southwest its distinctively red tint. Previous analyses have shortchanged the novel by over-looking one essential, indestructible component--sangre de Cristo. Death Comes for the Archbishop presents the land as having an irrevocable, redemptive quality: instated at creation, tainted by Eden's die/dye, restained by sangre de Cristo, and sealed by the cross.
Other critics emphasize creation's inherent divinity. Herbie Butterfield, for example, stresses the pioneers' "sacred, simple knowledge that 'we come and go, but the land is always here'" (135), but his survey is too brief to explore the ramifications of this "sacred [...] knowledge"--namely, the Indians' and Mexicans' religious attachment to the land, which Butterfield calls an idyllic, inseparable fusion of earth and spirit. And since divinity seems to be immanent in this reading, where the priests die is all-important. Home is not France alone but earth. Butterfield concludes that "it must be the novel's burden that eventually [Latour's and Vaillant's] hearts will be given to the land of their mission"--to that which they can neither live nor die without (143). Does the land's "permanence" warrant its sanctity? Is the fusion of earth and spirit a sufficient explanation of religion? A reevaluation of the novel will suggest that Cather, from her twentieth-century vantage point, presents an enduring portrait of a sanctified New World (and new world).
Perhaps even more integral to Cather's philosophy than Darwin or Hegel is the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf, identified by his biographer as "Pioneer Priest of Ohio, Pioneer Priest of New Mexico, Pioneer Priest of Colorado, Vicar Apostolic of Colorado and Utah" (Howlett). Cather is a master of reorientation: using an immigrant's nineteenth-century letters to reconnect with twentieth-century America, she recasts a sustainable world. As a revision of secular sources, the austere missionary letters of Machebeuf as well as a materialistic America, Death Comes for the Archbishop is a Romantic homage to the New World and its people. Both are consecrated in Cather's fiction. As readers we should realize we are standing on hallowed ground.
Capitalism, however, does not always recognize this hallowedness. If we have difficulty today in grasping a Romantic appreciation of America, we should understand that industrialization and World War I led to the artistic exploration of beauty through nostalgia. Landscape captivated artists of the era, including the Czech lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) as well as the American novelist Cather (1873-1947). Relevant to this study of the Southwest's spiritual lineage in Death Comes for the Archbishop, Rilke's brief but complex essay titled "Concerning Landscape" traces the connection between civilization and landscape through the history of painting. In antiquity, Rilke writes, "man [...] was too new to himself, too delighted with himself, to look beyond or away from himself [...]. All was but a stage and empty so long as man did not appear to fill the scene with the cheerful or tragic action of his body" (1). Landscape was ignored, as though non-existent, waiting to be discovered by later artists. Early Christianity lost this pre-occupation with the body and began to look outward, treating "landscape as a slight, transitory thing, as a strip of green overgrown graves beneath which hung hell and above which the great heavens opened as the actual, deep reality, desired of all Being" (2). Three regions were imagined: heaven, hell, and earth. Once slighted in antiquity, the idea of landscape for its own sake emerged in medieval Christian art. By the time of Leonardo da Vinci, a great development had occurred that transcended mere appreciation: landscape itself had become art. Rilke writes: "Landscape became a medium of expression for almost inexpressible experience, depth, and sadness [...]. It is Nature which came into existence, a world which grew and was as foreign to man as the untrodden forest of an undiscovered island" (3). The painter was no longer concerned with land for its own sake, because landscape had become the pretext for human emotion--a symbol of human joy, simplicity, and piety, yet as unknowable as our own hidden nature. Concludes Rilke:
For [landscape] had to be distant and very different from us, if it was to be capable of becoming a redemptive symbol for our destiny. It had to be almost hostile in its sublime indifference, if it was to give a new meaning to our existence with its things [...]. And this was necessary, if man was to be an artist in dealing with it [...]. Nature was more permanent and greater, all movement in it was broader, and all repose simpler and more solitary [...]. The artist immersed himself in the great quietness of things. (3-5)
When she wrote a letter to The Commonweal's editor about the composition of Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather seems to have been immersed in "the great quietness of things." She wrote: "One traveled slowly, and had plenty of time for reflection" (4); "so many hours of pleasant reflection in far-away places" (12). Left alone with the Southwest's loneliness, she sensed a logic at work within this alien terrain, both sublime and indifferent but wholly divine, whether shrouded in snow or drenched by the scarlet sunset. The laws she unearthed through her art were redemptive, full of new meaning for a materialistic, spiritually bereft Gilded Age. "And this was necessary," Rilke maintained, "if man was to be an artist in dealing with [landscape]; the artist must not think of it any longer in its practical significance for man, but look at it objectively as a great, present reality" (4). Rilke's hidden forest on an uncharted island was rendered in Cather's Southwest as the untrodden desertscape.
For twelve years preceding the composition of Death Comes for the Archbishop in 1927, Cather visited the Southwest on vacations replete with mule rides and sightseeing at the missions. The land's defining virtue came to her through the eyes of one particular missionary frozen in time: a life-size bronze Cather encountered of a particularly "well-bred and distinguished" Frenchman who appeared to be out of place in the harsh, desolate environs. This was the first Bishop of New Mexico, Archbishop Lamy, who became the model for Father Latour and "a sort of invisible personal friend" or guiding muse to Cather ("On Death" 7). The historical Father Lamy is translated into Cather's creation as Father Latour, but Lamy is also kindred to the author herself. Death Comes for the Archbishop often depicts Latour alone in his study contemplating solitude. We can imagine Cather writing those passages during many lonely hours in her study. Latour is a celibate akin to Cather's own unwed heart. His library is the sum of his estate, as Cather's novels are her legacy to us.
After being enchanted by Lamy's statue, Cather found the biography of Machebeuf with letters to his French sister, Philomene, regarding Lamy. (1) As Luke precedes Acts in the New Testament, moving from the life of Jesus to the life of the Church, so Machebeuf's biography functioned as a gospel for the acts of Lamy (fictionalized as Latour) within his diocese between 1851 and 1888. Cather confessed that"without these letters in Howlett's book [Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf,, D.D.] to guide me, I would certainly never have dared to write my book" ("On Death" 8).
Although she joined the Episcopal Church in December 1922, Cather shows her concern with righteous living rather than sectarianism by choosing to recreate the life of a Catholic saint. Clearly she also was drawn to the mysteries of the Catholic Church embedded in long-standing traditions concretized in ritual and symbol. The longer she stayed in the Southwest, she admitted,"I felt that the story of the Catholic Church in that country was the most interesting of all its stories" ("On Death" 5). Part of her novel's mystery stems from this disparity in religious backgrounds and the accompanying sense of unknowability. Recognizing a good story when she found one, Cather wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop as an"outsider" and openly confessed, "Any story of the Church in the Southwest was certainly the business of some Catholic writer, and not mine at all" ("On Death" 7). The crux of her novel, however, is its pervasive mood rather than any particular doctrine.
In addition to her experiences in the Southwest, Howlett's biography of Machebeuf, and the statue of Lamy, of perhaps greatest significance is the landscape as a fourth source. Ironically, in a letter Cather refers to "many other ways of telling what one feels" than by writing, through means such as building or decorating a church. Handcrafted objects in churches particularly attracted her: architecture that was inspired by the land's vistas in addition to artifacts that emerged from the land's materials--clay, wood, dyes, and textiles. Cather surmises in the same letter that "the old churches are their own story, and it is foolish convention that we must have everything interpreted for us in written language" ("On Death" 5-6). Likewise, this is the effect of landscape in Death Comes for the Archbishop. With its indigenous objects and properties, the land has sufficient presence to carry the tension of the story; it figures as a complex persona that hosts a drama for flat characters.
According to Cather, the novel's title was taken from a woodcut in Hans Holbein the Younger's collection Dance of Death ("On Death" 11). The scene depicted in the woodcut parallels one in Book 9 of her work: an archbishop with the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in the background and his New World cathedral erected at the peak, golden in the setting sun. The decisive moment for composition came when Cather claimed that she understood the Southwest and had the material for what she called a "narrative." In this unadorned retelling of a missionary's life, she could attempt another way of writing, a way that lay outside the parameters of a novel dependent on action and a linear plot.
Death Comes for the Archbishop is arguably less a novel than a performance. The role of the guide was first performed by the statue, then by Cather. Like Father Vaillant's letters to his sister, Mother Philomene, in Puy-de-Dome, France, the narrative may also be seen as a long letter to Cather's family back in Red Cloud, Nebraska, telling of "the country, the Indians, the pious Mexican women, the Spanish martyrs of old [,...] of those red deserts" (181). Sharing Cather's adventures, relatives had a stake in her excitement and dread. Or perhaps the text is intended as fireside reading, to be recited by its audience as the French nuns read Vaillant's letters out loud. Either way, it compels more than a visit. It commands immersion, entry into its landscape; reading becomes travel, the experience of stepping through scenes as though on the stones of a path.
Death Comes for the Archbishop is pieced together with adobe bricks, or scenes, made from the clay of Lamy's life and Cather's own experiences. Stemming from her wagon trips, the result is indigenous to the Southwest--native to the adobe earth. Her awakening came when she could view the land as primordial, as though she were one of its first pioneers. One of the most "intelligent and inspiriting" people Cather met in the Southwest was a Belgian priest who told her about the country, the Indians, and their traditions. The breakthrough came as a kind of epiphany: "At last I found out what I wanted to know about how the country and the people of New Mexico seemed to those first missionary priests from France" ("On Death" 8). Cather visited the mission in Santa Fe, saw the statue of the missionary, found the history of Lamy in a 1908 biography, met the Belgian priest, and the rest is legend.
Overall, saintliness intrigued Cather more than any particular saint did. As she explained, "It is as though all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual experience, were of about the same importance. The essence of such writing is not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in it--but to touch and pass on" ("On Death" 9). (2) In contrast to the popular writing of the 1920s, in which, according to Cather, "situation" was all-important, and the general tendency was "to force things up" she undertook writing as a kind of discipline. Hardiness of spirit could not be captured by light prose. Cather cloaked her prose in another mood entirely--the frontier spirit "in which [pioneer priests] accepted the accidents and hardships of a desert country, the joyful energy that kept them going." The language was necessarily "a little stiff, a little formal," with some time-worn phrases. Trite phraseology of the frontier was used as "the note from the piano by which the violinist tunes his instrument"; the narrative's musical quality flows in tune to this analogy. The missionary's mood--heartiness of spirit and joyful energy--became Cather's lodestar: "mood is the thing--all the little figures and stories are mere improvisations that come out of it" ("On Death" 10). Perhaps the most appropriate way to appreciate this amalgam of the Southwest in Death Comes for the Archbishop is through its mood, but Cather's elaborate result surpasses her stated intention.
With incongruous flashbacks to Latour's home in France, we exit linear time in the novel. Time liquefies, helping us to view the efficacious blood of Christ as ubiquitously present since Eden, implied in the moment of creation. In Eden, animals are killed to cover the shamed Adam and Eve; outside of Eden, Abel will be killed by his brother. A bloody battle ends history at Armageddon. Blood soaks the page from Genesis to Revelation. Red also infuses the world of Death Comes for the Archbishop with its scriptural bookends of a Roman garden (Eden) and a New World cathedral (the New Jerusalem).
Red in Cather's novel, however, is gentle and life-giving in its sanctity: there are no unhappy or unjust denouements to the work's nine books. As a sign, blood waters the New World and is the reason missionaries become exiles. It justifies the Christian faith and the Church's presence in the New Mexico territory. Without Christ's death Howlett's biography would be absurd. The blood of creation is sangre de Cristo--part of a holistic plan unfolding with a death as its crux. It is the signpost marking the entrance for Cather into the world of Southwestern missions within Lamy's diocese.
Blood's potency in Death Comes for the Archbishop transcends this New World, eluding cultural ruination as well as the Catholic Church's attempt to bridle the power of sangre through ritual, symbol, and text. Because of the vested blood, the land is exempt from conquest. It may change political hands, but it is not vanquished. While the land might be stained carnelian (the color of dried blood) rather than vermilion (the tint of living blood), this dry landscape is no less vital to understanding the mystery of the sacramental nature of sangre de Cristo. For this reason the untouchable, enduring "mood" of the blood is the most effective vehicle for a writer trying to "present the experiences and emotions of a group of people by the light of [her] own" ("On Death" 13). The characters and setting unite in a pervading bond of blood that culminates in two epiphanies of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
In the process of transforming the mundane account of Machebeuf into a sacred vision, Cather has epiphanies that her predecessor, to judge from his letters, failed to receive. Since his letters included even the minutiae of his daily occupations, surely he would have recorded more sublime experiences had they occurred. Howlett's biography portrays Machebeuf as a stern pragmatist whose letters detailed weather and topography only insofar as they facilitated or obstructed his missionary journeys on the back of a mule. The Bishop repeatedly pleaded for funds, as well as for more French priests to labor in the harvest. The barbaric and hostile land, with its jagged ravines, tiresome distances, and frequent droughts, only faintly resembled the handiwork of a benevolent Creator. In this seemingly fallen Eden the staid Machebeuf merely noted the setting but never found cause to sing a paean of praise to the earth's dormant spirits.
A typical passage describes the eighty miles from El Paso to Santa Fe, a trail called La Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead): "This was a formidable desert, where along the road the bleaching bones of mules and horses testify to the danger to be apprehended from the want of water and pasture, and many human bones likewise tell their tale of Indian slaughter and assault" (161-62). When the missionary reached a fertile valley offering a feast of vegetables and the comfort of gardens, the aesthetic experience was unexpectedly muted in comparison to a harrowing passage through La Jornada del Muerto where animal bones testified to "the danger" and human bones told a "tale of [...] slaughter." For Machebeuf the oasis was a deceptively shining apple. There was work to be done in the Great Diocese with the battle cry "Rest in work."
Once, however, the austere Bishop flirted with aesthetics, mentioning "picturesque mountains" in his description of a village, Pena Blanca:
From the window of my room I can see the richness of the soil in the abundant harvest of wheat, corn and wine promised to the laborer, and beyond the limpid Rio the picturesque mountains with their slopes covered with majestic pines, and their summits crowned almost with eternal snow, which the winds and heats of summer fail to dissolve. But it would require the poetic temperament of a Father De Smet to appreciate it fully and describe it, as he described such scenes to me from his own experience of travel in the mountains. I am now quite accustomed to scaling the mountain heights and crossing the winding streams, but I have not the grand and beautiful boats as once upon the Ohio, only a pair of neat Mexican ponies with no poetry in them, and in their company the Muse refuses to mount to Parnassus. But what need have we of poetry? (180)
After the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, Machebeuf becomes increasingly pragmatic. As his work increases, lavish details diminish in his letters. His biographer comments, "The scenery has been so often and so enthusiastically described that the powers of language have been exhausted; this subject is of far greater interest to the tourists of today than it was to the pioneer of 1858" (279). The missionary's concerns are the climate and roads. Subsequent letters do not mention the beauty of mountains, which would require the poetic muse. Rather, like a soldier, he states that the mountains were high and that he had to cross them (389, 404). He relied on ponies, not poetry, to fulfill his mission.
In contrast, Cather's narrative relies on the poetic muse throughout, transporting the reader to the land as constituted at the time of creation, before Europeans developed the frontier. Her text paints the land's physical and spiritual composition. In some places the landscape appears to be an "Indian Garden of Eden" (295); elsewhere it is the wilderness hosting the temptations of Christ, St. Anthony, and European Catholic missionaries. Death Comes for the Archbishop does not treat these events as symbolic, nor did the devout priests attuned to the metaphysical. Spiritual trials are literal, and the land remembers, holding them in a deep well of identity.
While the land was a "new world" from a European perspective, native traditions were as ancient as the 1,000-year-old recipe for French soup that Father Vaillant savored (38). The land endured rivalries between the Mexican government and the Bishop of Durango, as well as Indian massacres, and punished the people with drought. The desert's real threat, however, was its peculiar horror: "The very floor of the world [was] cracked open into countless canyons and arroyos" (7). (3) In this cracked earth, as in the wounded body of Christ, the gospel became indigenous. The sacred red was visible to everyone, and the indigenous people contextualized Scripture.
Cather uses incidents of "translation" as the components of her Southwestern novel. The narrative pays homage to the simplicity with which the Mexicans honored "a goddess who should yet be a woman." Pagan sculptors had long tried to achieve her image "in the long twilight between the Fall and the Redemption" (255). Some devout soul carves wooden dolls in the form of Mary as a poor Mexican, Joseph as a Mexican ranchero (28). In Santa Fe a revered three-foot wooden statue of Mary has "a beautiful though rather severe Spanish face" and more costumes than the Queen of England or the Empress of France (254). After a long trek through the desert, the Holy Family hosts Father Junipero in the guise of a poor Mexican couple, their infant, and a lamb (278-80). The Passion permeates everything; faith is no longer a rite for the elite. Everything points to the Great Martyr of the Great Diocese. In the opening chapter we read that "the Passion of Jesus became for [Father Latour] the only reality; the need of his own body was but a part of that conception" (20). Implicit in creation is both Jesus' sacrifice and the need for that sacrifice, preceding and necessitating the fathers' presence as interpreters and bearers of rituals honoring all deaths in light of the most necessary death in history on the cruciform tree. (4)
The pervasive color of the blazing sun on the clay desert tints the entire story red. We get the sense that the land has been red since creation, long before someone concocted the family recipe of Father Vaillant's cherished soup: from the Fall, to the murder of Abel, to the Flood, to the Crucifixion, the gospel story has been enacted in creation before the missionaries arrived. In Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51, Jesus catalogues seven woes to the scribes and Pharisees. The seventh and climactic woe curses the "brood of vipers" for killing prophets and shedding righteous blood from Abel to Zechariah. The shedding of Abel's blood is a pivotal moment, a sign of human depravity that will later be reversed by Jesus' culminating sacrifice. (5)
The land is more than a metaphor for Christ; his name is not merely transferred to an object as a representative or symbol. Rather, the land metonymically denotes an attribute of Christ, his shed blood, and becomes the thing itself. While metaphors relate two disparate objects, metonyms are integrally linked, in this case identifying the Creator with creation and his death on earth with the Southwest's blood-dyed landscape. There is no explanation; the mountains are simply named Sangre de Cristo. This label seems permanent and indigenous, as though coined by Adam himself.
If the landscape in Death Comes for the Archbishop is to convey adequately the mood of the text, it needs a distinct language for its message. Its under-stated role communicates in part through the color red as the sun paints the land and sky, as fires and candles light dark scenes, and as sangre de Cristo incants the Passion. Two apparently marginalized treatments of the Sangre de Cristo mountains stain the text with the power of this color, event, and name. In these epiphanies all events culminate in the transfigured landscape, and the climaxes suffice for powerful dramatic and thematic effect. The first mention of the mountains is three-quarters of the way through the narrative, almost as though it were a postscript clue justifying the reference to the Passion in the first chapter and the predominance of red throughout the novel.
Less surprising is the absence of red in Cather's source. Sparse in both the emotional extreme of the Passion and the visceral timbre of red, Bishop Machebeuf's biography makes only one mention of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. On a particularly unfriendly night, the topography is not the body of Christ but rather a forsaken land groaning for spring after a long winter. It figures as a mountain range of death:
We climbed the Sangre de Cristo mountains at Blanca Peak and night came upon us while we were still on the high range. We chose a partially sheltered ravine for our camping place and spent a fairly quiet night. The gentle zephyrs may have poetry and music in them for some when heard from the cozy corner of a warm house, but it is different with the traveler camping out in November on the heights of the Sierra Blanca. (300)
Machebeuf might have offered a psalm of praise about the earth if he saw a road leading to a house with a fireplace out of the rain or snow. This industrious bureaucrat saw the groaning terrain and soberly concluded that poetry was for those with content temperaments. Cather reverses Machebeuf's assessment and redeems the land from his rather pessimistic outlook.
In the chapter of Death Comes for the Archbishop titled "December Night," the earth is covered with snow, and Father Latour is despondent because his diocese is still "a heathen country" (211). Entering church to pray, he encounters an old Mexican bondwoman, Sada. Slaveholders prevented her from going to church for nineteen years until one winter night she gathered courage for a heroic action. Sada runs to the house of God also to pray. When Latour finds her weeping in the doorway, they enter the dark church together. The only color is the red spark of the sanctuary lamp before the high altar, a reminder not of death hut of the power in sacrifice. Latour witnesses Sada's persistent devotion, despite her distance from religious rituals. "Never, as he afterward told Father Vaillant, had it been permitted him to behold such deep experience of the holy joy of religion [...]. He received the miracle in her heart into his own, saw through her eyes, knew that his poverty was as bleak as hers" (216-17). Father Latour has a revelation about the "Kind Woman in Heaven" through a slave who understands Mary's suffering, as Mary understands the slave's: "The beautiful concept of Mary pierced the priest's heart like a sword" (217). Our attention has been diverted from the red altar candle to the metaphorical wound in Latour's chest, a wound that will save his heart from the cold detachment he confesses. This epiphany of "the Image, the physical form of Love,' denotes both the slave Sada and the Virgin Mary (218). All saints are valued as embodiments not of power but of devotion. Since the first will be last and the last first, the two women are equal in heaven's estimation (Matt. 19:30).
After this revelatory moment Latour leaves the church, and Cather writes:
The snow had stopped, the gauzy clouds that had ribbed the arch of heaven were now all sunk into one soft white fog bank over the Sangre de Cristo mountains [...]. The Bishop stood in the doorway of his church, lost in thought, looking at the line of black footprints his departing visitor had left in the wet scurf of snow. (218)
We do not see black footprints in white snow and think of the dark figure in the moonlight; instead, we concretize the naming and invocation of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. In the image of a red altar candle, Christ's wounds liquefy into a pervasive covering of sanctity reaching outside the church. The land, rather than Father Latour, ultimately sanctions devotion. The mountains rise above a distressed woman returning to her servitude, and, when we turn our focus from the heathen land that Latour and Machebeuf scorned, we can see them too.
As Cather explained, the essence of her writing strategy is not to hold the note but "to touch and pass on" once the mood is realized. Rites in the church are a means to an end. The mountains need no architecture or adornment; they are sufficient cathedrals. The statue of Mary at the altar is a harbinger of the mystery. She invites pilgrims to the fulfillment they seek and points the way to empty footprints in the snow, fallen like a shroud over hard ground. And so we proceed to the second appearance of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
In the closing chapter of Book 9 titled "Death Comes for the Archbishop," Father Latour is near death. His consciousness slips through time, and he recalls the Italian architect building the cathedral on the one golden mountain surrounded by carnelian hills (266-70). As the saint's death is approaching, the redness of Christ's Passion is recalled in the persecutors' anger and in his bleeding wounds. The Archbishop's obsession with his cathedral is both an acceptance of and preparation for his burial. The cathedral is called his tomb (271), the site of his death.
Howlett's biography chronicles the lives of deceased missionaries and murderous terrain, but for Cather the mountains are a range of life, the backdrop for her saints' lives. The Archbishop lives until the final paragraph, hallucinating and believing. In the final sentence he lies dead, but he is ultimately a builder: "The old Archbishop lay before the high altar in the church he had built" (297). Like the Creator buried in his creation, the architect is laid to rest in his. Or is he? Where has the discourse placed his body? In the penultimate paragraph the narrative states:
But in reality the Bishop was not there at all; he was standing [...] among his native mountains, and he was trying to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eyes by the desire to go and the necessity to stay. He was trying to forge a new Will in that devout and exhausted priest. (297)
The reality for the Archbishop is that he is not at all present in either world. He is in a state of flux, of being "in between." As God and man, Christ is best known through the sacrament of communion; his body and soul are permanently torn between this world and heaven. The Archbishop's body and will are torn between the old and new worlds in his final vision or, rather, his reality.
In perfect dramatic sequence, as a storm rises over the hills, Latour envisions an "intense lavender," a color appearing for the first time in the novel. As the sky grows black, "the carnelian rocks became an intense lavender, all their pine trees strokes of dark purple" (270). In Cather's Episcopal heritage red signifies the Holy Spirit during the Feast of Pentecost and is also used for any of the martyrs' days; during Lent red also replaces purple as the color worn by the bishop, who is the symbol of Christ. Then a voice out of the present calls Latour from his visionary memories. His attendant, Bernard, says: "A fine sunset, Father. See how red the mountains are growing; Sangre de Cristo." Father Latour does not respond, but the narrative voice concurs with Bernard in a mythical explanation, reflective of the overall legendary tone of the novel's fantastic spiritual adventures coupling miracles and the mundane:
Yes, Sangre de Cristo; but no matter how scarlet the sunset, those red hills never became vermilion, but a more and more intense rose-carnelian; not the colour of living blood, the Bishop had often reflected, but the colour of the dried blood of saints and martyrs preserved in old churches in Rome, which liquefies upon occasion. (270)
One is certain that the blood of the saints in Death Comes for the Archbishop includes that of un-Christianized Indians who have places "more sacred" than churches. The Archbishop is buried in the New World cathedral, under indigenous yellow rock, emphasizing that he is buried under Indian ground that is not profane but sacred. The red sky blesses all of creation, severely humbling any attempt to judge other religious beliefs, since Christ is the head of his Church; all who participate in his body, whether through the Church or the land, are dependent on this source rather than on their own creeds.
Amid this profusion of vermilion, the next chapter opens with the cathedral, his tomb, as an illumination of the heavenly city Father Latour will soon inhabit. With this abrupt juxtaposition, in the spirit of Cather's literary aesthetic, the golden cathedral becomes colored with the red mood of the narrative. In spite of the lush green gardens, lavender sunsets, and golden cathedral, sangre de Cristo persists. Its touch predominates.
Before the Archbishop imagines rather than speaks his last words (in a vision of a boy deliberating whether to stay at home or leave), the narrative includes a story set in the Navajos' sacred canyon between red sandstone walls. The indigenous people believed that it would never be conquered until Kit Carson defeated them. Navajo blood is shed on the red sandstone, a potent image of dust to dust, and also of sacrificial martyrdom for a holy cause--their sacred canyon. The narrative defends the Indians' plight; they simply want their land and their religion. Their gods dwell in the canyon, "just as the Padre's God was in his church"; however, the Indians' sacred place is more sacred "than churches, more sacred than any place is to the white man" (293). The Navajo chief from the Canyon de Chelly told Father Latour of his hardship as an "outlawed chief" who, though impoverished, refused to be exiled with his people: "My mother and my gods are in the West, and I will never cross the Rio Grande" (294). He did not care for his life; he loved the sacred land and would die with it. Reflecting on the remnant of the Navajos who returned to their chief and their sacred places after five years of exile, the Archbishop murmurs: "I do not believe, as I once did, that the Indian will perish. I believe that God will preserve him" (296). Latour's belief is life-affirming: though the Indians lacked the sacraments, God tabernacled nomadically with them.
In these passages we see how Cather takes the single citation of the Sangre de Cristo mountains from her source and expands it into two cameos. The mountain range appears in two epiphanies, or spiritual revelations of creation's undercurrent, yet through Cather's aesthetics of accentuating "mood" the rare metonym spills over the entire novel from just these two instances. As seen from the perspective of a bronze statue and a woman of faith, sangre de Cristo has saturated the physical world for the Church and the "heathen." With only two brief appearances, the Sangre de Cristo mountains (and the nature of epiphany) epitomize Cather's "touch and pass on" method. The words barely imprint the page before erasure, and in that fleeting impression the reader knows the mountains' prominent signature. (6)
The cathedral and the hill are golden, but we cannot forget that upon occasion the dried blood of saints and martyrs in Rome and the New World liquefies and the color vermilion spills. The blood of New World martyrs may not come from the pages of the Bible, but it becomes a narrated life and land, fueling legend, art, fiction, and heroic acts unimaginable to Europeans: "Surely these [early Spanish missionaries] endured Hunger, Thirst, Cold, Nakedness, of a kind beyond any conception St. Paul and his brethren could have had [...] in that safe little Mediterranean world" (275-76). A New Eden necessitates a recast Christ; following his model are the martyrs who died in the New World, both indigenous people and saints listed in the novel's obituaries and war chronicles. Rather than usurpation there is inheritance and coexistence. The narrative embraces compatibility between different faiths, yet revelation of eternal truth comes through a saving, supralinguistic knowledge of sangre de Cristo. Missionaries do not prune other visions of the divine but live among people in peace. The presence of saints and blood, not dogma, signifies sanctity.
Cather's vision of the land as sacred allows people to unify as a community and to honor the gift of this resource, paradoxically surpassing materialism through the material of earth given to a sacred purpose. A similar paradox is that the physical novel embodies creation's metaphysical cry of both praise and agony for its Creator. The Sangre de Cristo mountains remind us of the once-and-for-all sacrificial death and the commission for disciples to spread the gospel, but Death Comes for the Archbishop does not indoctrinate. Father Latour merely serves the people by performing such rites as baptizing babies and sanctioning marriages.
The Bishop enacts the inclusivist sympathies of Cather's novel. The "elect" is not any particular group or church; it is instead the Great Diocese, a sprawling space with various ethnicities, fluid boundaries, and a mosaic of rites. Within its compass a redeemed humanity is any people who exist in harmony with nature and one another, who revere sacred places as much as the Indians do. Like the unfolding of Scripture, Death Comes for the Archbishop reads as the redemption of earth: the old has passed away; the new has come. This did not begin, the novel suggests, when the Church was built on the rock of St. Peter; it happened at creation, when God dwelt among mortals and when His people dwelt in His house.
No longer a welcome guest among mortals, God seems to place signs as prophetic invitations for people to recognize. Father Latour finds one yellow hill among green ones, the only one of its kind. Holding a chip of the yellow rock in his hand as a beautiful, sacred object (239), he has a vision of the future Romanesque cathedral on the rocky mountain that parallels St. John's eschatology:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them [...]." (Rev. 21:1-3)
The house of God in both texts is larger than any cathedral.
While recognizing Cather's inclusivist ecclesiology, we also should admit that her stance on religious imperialism is characteristically ambiguous. The often fickle native population is depicted as an untended garden in need of pruning, or like seeds full of potential germination but lacking moisture. "The Faith planted by the Spanish friars," she writes, "and watered with their blood was not dead; it awaited only the toil of the husbandman" (32). However, the narrative is also awestruck at the Indians' childlike, deep-rooted faith. Father Vaillant believes that "it was people like them our Saviour bore in mind when He said, Unless ye become as little children" (206). Behind Jacinto, the Indian scout, "there was a long tradition, a story of experience, which no language could translate" (92). Rather than indoctrinating Jacinto on journeys, the Bishop nurtures "some sort of human companionship" with him, and the novel invites us to share this bond and appreciate other expressions of faith (93). Zeb Orchard, a white trader, is rumored to know everything about Indians, yet this knowledgeable man concludes that "No white man knows anything about Indian religion" (134). He surrenders to the dead end of empiricism and adopts other ways of knowing, much like Cather in attempting other ways of interpreting than through language ("On Death" 5-6).
All-pervasive in Death Comes for the Archbishop is the blood of saints' lives and the blood of the land where European, Mexican, and Indian saints have died. Do Cather's "saints" include all innocently killed Indians and Mexicans who revere creation as sacred, and not exclusively Catholics who received their "last rites"? Her art is not overtly didactic, yet Cather shows a redeemed humanity--indigenous Mexicans and Indians, as well as self-exiled Europeans--on a redeemed, red earth. Death Comes for the Archbishop is nonpartisan because it treats ethics rather than dogma and because it never brands any religious sect "superstitious." The natives' beliefs are validated as much as those of the Catholic Church. Veneration for old customs, as viewed in the novel, is an admirable quality shared by Indians and Catholics alike (135). Humble, poor characters are sympathetically portrayed regardless of creed. When missionaries are near death in the desert and Mexican shepherds appear, the priests do not offer this family the sacraments but instead wonder whether their deliverers could be Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus (278-79).
Just as the rainbow symbolizes God's pledge that the earth will not be destroyed by water again, so the red land may be seen as a promise signifying that there has been enough killing--that there is no need for more slaughter after sangre de Cristo. If we live metonymically with the sanctified land, we will not reign in conquest but in awe at having become the embodiment of redemption. It may sound naive, but the intended audience of a promise receives it with a trusting child's heart.
Rilke concludes in "Concerning Landscape" that "man is placed among things like a thing, infinitely alone, and [...] all which is common to them both has withdrawn from things and men into the common depth, where the roots of all growth drink" (5). With Rilke's point in mind, we can appreciate Cather's translation of Father Machebeuf's "topography as ordeal" into her own "nature as sublime." The land outlasts every individual; its laws transcend the rise and fall of cultures. Moreover, the secular landscape of Machebeuf is sanctified in Cather's novel. The lonely world has slowly been transmuted into landscape, and as such it is sacred.
Cather collects the fragmented cultures in a New World into her rainbow mosaic and fuses them into place with red--the land's promise of sustenance and redemption. The novel's creator makes a work of beauty out of a pragmatist's letters and the fragmented cultures in a New World. Howlett's biography of the pioneer priest is incomplete in a sense because it offers a complete portrait of the missionary but not of the Southwest. In Cather's narrative a mesa plain is like the biography, abandoned by readers and awaiting its fulfillment in the novel:
[It] had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape. (94-95)
Death Comes for the Archbishop is the resulting landscape.
Father Lamy and his fictional counterpart, Father Latour, signify the infinite loneliness that Rilke describes. On alien ground they model another type of citizen: through the miracle of communion, both missionaries drink spiritually with imaginations, eyes, and mouths. Father Latour imbibes Sangre de Cristo when the sun illumines the truth of redemption on a physical earth, recalling that our flesh has been made of this reddened earth, both soiled and sanctified with blood.
One figure remains infinitely alone: Bishop Lamy, separated from his diocese and colaborers, an anachronism. Cather saw the statue of the Bishop and, through him, the land. During a jaded Gilded Age, with its post-Edenic disillusionment in the wake of Darwin, Marx, and Hegel, Lamy was the guide who directed her gaze to sangre de Cristo. As his successor Cather is a lonely figure, a solitary novelist, who in turn can reorient our gaze. Her novel is so convincing that one wonders whether she not only imagined but also experienced epiphanies of a redeemed earth and a Creator immanent in creation. Understanding such visions would redeem us from our abuse of the earth and of our humanity. Our world could exist as one victorious community rather than as vanquished individual nations.
University of California, Riverside
(1) The biography is out of print but available on microfilm, copied from the original manuscript stored in Yale's Sterling Collection.
(2) Especially relevant here is Stouck's profound reading of Death Comes for the Archbishop as a saint's legend. Stouck writes: "Art and religion are seen to be analogous, since the individual's renunciation of power is vital to the integrity of both. Ultimately this theme is fully realized through the style and form [Cather] has chosen [...]. The style is the traditional form of hagiography, which demands the subordination of the individual to a spiritual and communal ideal [...]. [Cather] was not, in the strictest sense, a religious writer, but religious art suggested to her the further possibility of the esthetic experience as a great source of enduring happiness" (149).
(3) Harvey notes the cultural implications of the fragmented region: "The Southwest that [Latour and Vaillant] encounter on their arrival in 1851 is both culturally and geographically fragmented, as Cather makes clear in the prologue. A visiting missionary who describes the region to the cardinals in Rome emphasizes its fragmentation: the cracks and fissures, canyons and arroyos that divide the desert floor. This description is certainly a trope for the other kind of fragmentation that the two missionaries encounter in a region that encompasses Mexicans as well as numerous Indian tribes, each with its own distinct customs and language. Latour and Vaillant attempt to unite these groups spiritually in the broader community of the Church while keeping in mind that each still needs to retain its cultural uniqueness" (97). The missionaries succeed due to their flexibility that counters the brittle, fissured desert floor.
(4) Rene Girard's seminal work calls for a return to myth so that cultural ignorance might yield to knowledge. His classic study Violence and the Sacred explores how violence is at the heart of all that is sacred, belonging to all and no one in particular (esp. 274-308). A provocative analysis of persecution texts, The Scapegoat explores collective violence from the standpoint of the persecutor but reads the Passion from the point of view of Christ, who breaks the mythic cycle of violence in knowing that "they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). The Passion was the revelation of the scapegoat mechanism, which before then operated in the unconscious of human history (111). With the Crucifixion the persecution mechanism is identified, and once understood it collapses (101).
(5) Paul contrasts Mount Sinai and Mount Zion in Hebrews 12:22-24: "But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, [...] and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel."
(6) "Two Zuni runners speed by Father Latour with the swiftness of their author's light touch. A description of these runners matches that of Cather's aesthetic: "They coursed over the sand with the fleetness of young antelope, their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried flight" (234). Cather wrote in Indian fashion and not as a "white man." The white man asserted himself and changed his environment, but an Indian passed through a landscape without disruption, "like fish through the water, or birds through the air," and then vanished (232-33).
Butterfield, Herbie. "Willa Cather." American Fiction: New Readings. Ed. Richard Gray. Totowa: Barnes, 1983. 133-49.
Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. 1927. New York: Vintage, 1990.
--."On Death Comes for the Archbishop." On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. New York: Knopf, 1953. 3-13.
Girard, Rene The Scapegoat. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986. Trans. of Le Bouc emissaire. Paris: Editions Grasset & Fasquelle, 1982.
--. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Johns Hopkins UP, 1986. Trans. of La Violence et le sacre. Paris: Editions Bernard Grasset, 1972.
Harvey, Sally Peltier. "Fulfillment through Tradition and Family: Death Comes for the Archbishop." Redefining the American Dream: The Novels of Willa Cather. Madison (NJ): Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1995. 94-101.
Howlett, Rev. W. J. Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf, D.D.: Pioneer Priest of Ohio, Pioneer Priest of New Mexico, Pioneer Priest of Colorado, Vicar Apostolic of Colorado and Utah. Pueblo (CO): Franklin, 1908.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. Ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy. New York: Oxford UP, 1994.
Ostwalt, Conrad Eugene, Jr. After Eden: The Secularization of American Space in the Fiction of Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2000.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. "Concerning Landscape." Where Silence Reigns. Trans. G. Craig Houston. New York: New Directions, 1978. 1-5.
Stouck, David. "Death Comes for the Archbishop: A Saint's Legend." Willa Cather's Imagination. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1975. 129-49.
Pam Fox Kuhlken received her doctorate in Comparative Literature this year from the University of California, Riverside. Editor of the forthcoming On Human Nature: A Symposium at the Jerusalem Center, she has taught at colleges throughout California and in Prague. Her essay in this issue of Christianity and Literature developed from a paper that she presented at the CCL Western Regional Meeting in 2000.
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|Author:||Kuhlken, Pam Fox|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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