The Protestant who wrote the greatest book about American Catholicism

Though she never became a Catholic, Willa Cather’s novels—especially her masterpiece Death Comes for the Archbishop—are profound and intense Catholic artistry.

“I am amused that so many of the reviews of this book begin with the statement: ‘This book is hard to classify.’ Then why bother?”—Willa Cather, 1927

Willa Cather’s novel—or “narrative” in the style of legend as she preferred—Death Comes for the Archbishop is not only the greatest book ever written about American Catholicism, it also might very well be the “Great American Novel.” Huge claims, I know, but solid possibilities nonetheless.

At the beginning of Death Comes, we meet the titular character, Father Jean-Marie Latour.

“Mais, c’est fantastique!” he muttered, closing his eyes to rest them from the intrusive omnipresence of the triangle. When he opened his eyes again, his glance immediately fell upon one juniper which differed in shape from the others. It was not a thick-growing cone, but a naked, twisted trunk, perhaps ten feet high, and at the top it 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. The traveler dismounted, drew from his pocket a much worn book, and baring his head, knelt at the foot of the cruciform tree. Under his buckskin riding-coat he wore a black vest and the cravat and collar of a churchman. A young priest, at his devotions; and a priest in a thousand, one knew at a glance. His bowed head was not that of an ordinary man—it was built for the seat of a fine intelligence. His brow was open, generous, reflective, his features handsome and somewhat severe. There was a singular elegance about the hands below the fringed cuffs of the buckskin jacket. Everything showed him to be a man of gentle birth—brave, sensitive, courteous. His manners, even when he was alone in the desert, were distinguished. He had a kind of courtesy toward himself, toward his beasts, toward the juniper tree before which he knelt, and the God whom he was addressing.

It would be hard, not to mention foolish, to miss Cather’s appreciation of her subject, a fictional protagonist based on the real-life figure Archbishop Jean-Baptist Lamy. It would also be hard to claim that Latour did not represent the best of the Catholic Church in Cather’s mind. Yet, in the previous chapter to this second one in which she introduces the main character, she described several of the highest members of the Church, meeting in the Vatican in the tumultuous year of 1848, with no pretense of delicacy. Her descriptions of these clergy are nothing short of profoundly despicable. The Vatican officials are soft, effete, disordered, arrogant, and ignorant. In short, they could not achieve a higher state of decadence if they tried. The Church, Cather seems to be arguing in strict Augustinian fashion, survives through the small and generally unrecognized acts of holiness, and not through its corrupt and powerful offices and bureaucracies. Cather focuses on the heart and soul of the Church, not its physical body per se.

Death Comes is not Cather’s only Catholic novel, but it is her best. She also wrote Shadows on the Rock, the story of a pre-teen Catholic girl in Quebec in 1697 and 1698. And, in her best known and best regarded novels—such as O Pioneers (1913), My Antonia (1918), and, especially, The Professor’s House (1925)—Cather favorably and accurately depicts the drama, the struggles, and the successes of Catholic immigrants in the New World. Prolific as a fiction writer over roughly two decades, she also wrote Alexander’s Bridge (1912); The Song of the Lark (1915); Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920); One of Ours (1922; for which she won the Pulitzer Prize); A Lost Lady (1923); My Mortal Enemy (1926); Obscure Destinies (1932); and Lucy Gayheart (1935).

Despite of all of this rather profound and intense Catholic artistry, Cather was not a Roman Catholic, nor was she ever tempted to become one. Understandably, many during her own life presumed she was a practicing Roman Catholic. How else could she grasp the essence of the faith—in all of its beauties and in all of its failings—so majestically?

“No, I am not a Catholic, and I do not think I shall become one,” she responded to a faithful reader in October, 1931. Yet, she continued, she saw the Church as something much more than a mere tool for her stories. The Church, she believe, was good and wholesome in and of itself, regardless of what she did or did not write regarding it. “If the external form and ceremonial of that Church happens to be more beautiful than that of other churches, it certainly corresponds to some beautiful vision within. It is sacred, if for no other reason than that is the faith that has been most loved by human creatures, and loved over the greatest stretch of centuries.” A year later, she wrote another reader, noting: “I am a Protestant, but not a narrow minded one.” Could any institution but the Catholic Church “have brought the beliefs of the early church across to us through the anarchy and brutality that followed the fall of the Roman Empire” through the age of Martin Luther? Several years later, in a somewhat humorous vein, she expressed frustration to her sister that one could not enter a Protestant church late at night for prayer and peace. “The Catholics seem to be the only people who realize that in this world grief goes on all night.”

After the release of Death Comes for the Archbishop in 1927, the interest among American Roman Catholics about Cather’s religious views and the sources for her story became so intense that she decided to write an open letter to the then burgeoning and young Catholic periodical, Commonweal. Simply put, she could not have possibly answered individually all of the letters that flooded into her and to her publisher’s offices after the success of the book. Her open response to Commonweal is a revealing letter, both in terms of what Cather had to offer the world of art, and equally in terms of what art should mean to Catholics and the Catholic Church. 

Over fifteen years of traveling to and through the Southwest, even before the availability of accessible transit and roads, Cather began to feel that Catholicism permeated the very landscape itself. Of all the peoples, individuals, cultures, and institutions present in the region, she found herself drawn to the stories of the Catholic Church as the most interesting and the most moving. In some strange way, the Church had captured the spirit of the land as well as baptized the culture of its native and itinerant peoples.

The old mission churches, even those which were abandoned and in ruins, had a moving reality about them; the hand-carved beams and joists, the utterly unconventional frescoes, the countless fanciful figures of the saints, no two of them alike, seemed a direct expression of some very real and lively human feeling. They were all fresh, individual, first-hand. Almost every one of those many remote little adobe churches in the mountains or in the desert had something lovely that was its own. In lonely, somber villages in the mountains the church decorations were somber, the martyrdoms bloodier, the grief of the Virgin more agonized, the figure of Death more terrifying.

The Church in the American Southwest, Cather believed, told its history in images rather than in mere words. A hand-carved pillar might very well reveal far more love of the infinite than a European import.  Hand-crafted furniture, for example, and the intricate woodwork on the support beams, remained as tangible and sacramental realities in that desert world.

As inroads and “progress” continued in the region, the new priests, Cather feared, were conforming to East Coast standards, unwittingly diminishing and even dismantling the unique culture of the Church in the region. They substituted the humane and particular for the cold and manufactured. In large part, Cather hoped, Death Comes would capture and preserve that original spirit now becoming somewhat ephemeral in her day and age. It might well prove a literary act of preservation, an Augustinian response to loss.

All of Cather’s ideas about the mystery of the Southwest remained unfocused until she encountered the statue of the very French and aristocratic Archbishop Lamy, situated near the cathedral in Santa Fe. How could someone so noble and civilized come to such a rustic and dusty region? 

After devouring a number of published letters on Catholic life in the Southwest, Cather decided to write “legend” rather than fiction. Inspired by the European frescos she had loved in earlier days, she decided to do for prose what frescos had done for painting. Further, she wanted to echo the traditional hagiographies which never privileged the deaths of martyrs, but rather “dwelt upon…the trivial incidents of their lives.” Rather than research too much into the history of the Catholic church in the Southwest, Cather talked to a priest friend and rehearsed the narrative in her mind innumerable times before, as she put it, joyously writing the book, letting it all flow through her rather than from her. “It was like going back and playing the early composers after a surfeit of modern music.” Instead of immersing herself in myriad information—which “often makes one pompous”—Cather imagined the spirit of Catholicism. The result, she admitted, was first, “a vacation from life,” and, second, the “paying an old debt of gratitude to the valiant men whose life and work had given me so many hours of pleasant reflection.” In addition to her fictional Latour, Cather also created Father Joseph, a bull of a priest, based upon Lamy’s closest companion. At the completion of Death Comes, Cather believed the two main subjects of the book had become her intimate companions of a sort.

As with all of Cather’s fiction, a straightforward simplicity of writing style hides depths and depths of thought and spiritual intent. Just as the American Southwest serves as a theater for the great drama of the passion of the Church, so it can also represent the evil that lingers after centuries of brutal paganism. In one of the most powerful scenes in the narrative—and, perhaps, one of the finest scenes in American literature—an incoming storm forces Latour and his native guide, Jacinto, into a cave, known to the local Indians as the Stone Lips. As he entered the shelter, giving thanks for protection from the storm, Latour at first imagined the cave’s opening as the opening to a Gothic Cathedral, grace perfecting nature. The smell and feel of the place, however, promptly shocked him and revealing something quite different to his soul. Here was evil, palpable, tangible, and fetid. Noticing that the priest was growing physically ill, Jacinto apologies, noting that his own ancestors had done horrific things here, all in the name of ritual to their gods. A fire of local pinon somewhat purifies the air, but Latour continues to sicken. 

Jacinto leads Latour deeper into the cave, allowing the priest to listen to some constant noises, a flowing river of sorts.

Father Latour lay with his ear to this crack for a long while, despite the cold that arose from it. He told himself he was listening to one of the oldest voices of the earth. What he heard was the sound of a great underground river, flowing through a resounding cavern. The water was far, far below, perhaps as deep as the foot of the mountain, a flood moving in utter blackness under ribs of antediluvian rock. It was not a rushing noise, but the sound of a great flood moving with majesty and power.

“It is terrible,” he said at last, as he rose.

“Si, Padre.” Jacinto began spitting on the clay he had gouged out of the seam, and plastered it up again.

Here, the reader learns, as does Latour, that Jacinto’s ancestors had sacrificed untold numbers of their children to their bloodthirsty gods, dropping the broken bodies into the crack.

To honor the traditions of Jacinto and his people, Latour never spoke to anyone of his experiences in the cave. What had happened had happened, and it was no longer a part of the traditions of these peoples, now baptized as Catholics. Still, the horror of the cave haunted Latour for the remainder of his life. Just as the martyrdom of a saint sanctifies the land upon which its blood spills, so, too, do the evils committed on a land, allowing the foul deeds to linger for time immemorial. What Latour experienced in the cave was pure and simple hell.

In his own exploration of American Catholic culture, Thomistic philosopher Ralph McInerny brilliantly argued that Cather was so very Catholic in her writing that American Catholics would do well to count her among their number.

Even a single read of Death Comes proves McInerny, once again, correct. 

Sources:

L. Brent Bohlke, ed., Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990).

The various novels of Willa Cather.

Willa Cather, Open Letter to Commonweal, November 23, 1927.

Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, eds., The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).


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About Bradley J. Birzer 13 Articles
Bradley J. Birzer is author of biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and Christopher Dawson. He is Professor of History at Hillsdale College and was the second Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado-Boulder. His most recent book is the acclaimed biography Russell Kirk: A Conservative Life (University Press of Kentucky, 2015). Visit him online at his personal website "Stormfields".