'Death Comes for the Archbishop' is Published

Cather at her most matter-of-fact and, as a consequence, her most powerful.

She based this book on the life of Bishop Jean Baptiste L'Amy — she calls him Father Latour — the French-born Ohio cleric who was assigned by the church to rebuild the faith in New Mexico after the territory was annexed by the U.S. in 1831. With an old friend, Father Vaillant, Latour sets out for Santa Fe. He will find the church there to be fragmented and corrupt, with priests taking wives and charging exorbitant fees to perform marriages. Latour embarks on a decades-long effort to reform and reinvigorate the diocese. The style and structure of this book are strange, unemphatic, as if Cather had simply laid the scenes side by side in a tapestry. She compared the book to a legend, in which no event is given much dramatic weight. If this sounds like a formula for boredom, it's not. Her serene language, with its immemorial simplicity, gives the story a weight mere drama could never provide.

The primary character is Bishop Jean Marie Latour, who travels alone from Sandusky, Ohio to New Mexico to take charge of the newly established diocese of New Mexico, which has only just become a territory of the United States. He is later assisted by his childhood friend Father Joseph Vaillant. The names given to the main proponents reflect their characters. Vaillant, valiant, is fearless in his promulgation of the faith, whereas Latour, the tower, is more intellectual and reserved than his comrade.

At the time of his departure, Cincinnati is the end of the railway line west, so Latour must travel by riverboat to the Gulf of Mexico, and thence overland to New Mexico, a journey which takes an entire year. He spends the rest of his life establishing the Roman Catholic church in New Mexico, where he dies in old age.

The novel is notable for its portrayal of two well-meaning and devout French priests who encounter a well-entrenched Spanish-Mexican clergy they are sent to supplant when the United States acquired New Mexico and the Vatican, in turn, remapped its dioceses.

Several of these entrenched priests are depicted in classic manner as examples of greed, avarice and gluttony, while others live simple, abstemious lives among the Native Americans. Cather portrays the Hopi and Navajo sympathetically, and her characters express the near futility of overlaying their religion on a millennia-old native culture. Cather's vivid landscape descriptions are also memorable. A scene where a priest and his Native American guide take cover in an ancient cave during a blizzard is especially memorable for its superb portrayal of the combined forces of nature and culture.