You Should Read Death Comes to the Archbishop (before you read Moby Dick)

In preparation for our trip to the American Southwest this summer, I am reading some of the classic literature set in that region; I started by re-reading Death Comes to the Archbishop, a nearly plotless collection of vignettes by Willa Cather, based on the lives of two French Catholic religious men-- a bishop and a priest-- who leave civilized Europe in the mid-1800's and travel to the wilds of the New Mexico Territory-- newly acquired by the United States after the Mexican-American War-- in order to establish an organized diocese amidst the corruption of the Spanish, the poverty of the Mexicans, and the traditions and mysticism of the Native Americans; I admit that's a mouthful for a synopsis, and that hardly does justice to what happens in the book, but I regard this as one of the best American novels ever written-- while I love Moby Dick, Cather's masterpiece is probably a more worthwhile read and it certainly addresses much more modern issues-- race, class, religion, mysticism, greed, politics, assimilation, and borders . . . it is an absolute refutation Crevecoeur's outdated "melting pot" metaphor . . . the book was published in 1927 and it is utterly modern, like a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, it is a collection of climactic scenes and anecdotes (think There Will Be Blood or Magnolia) without much transition-- Elmore Leonard codified this into his mantra: "try to leave out all the parts people skip"; Cather's language is as rugged and sharply defined as the terrain she writes about . . . here are some of the passages I highlighted:

1) he seemed to be wandering in some geometrical nightmare;

2) he saw a flat white outline on the grey surface-- a white square made up of white squares . . . that his guide said, was the pueblo of Acoma;

3) one could not believe the number of square miles a man is able to sweep with the eye there could be so many uniform red hills . . . he had been riding among them since early morning, and the look of the country had no more changed than if he had stood still;

4) No priest can experience repentance and forgiveness of sin unless he himself falls into sin . . . otherwise, religion is nothing but dead logic;

5) their Padre spoke like a horse for the last time: "Comete tu cola, comete tu cola!" (Eat your tail, Martinez, eat your tail!) Almost at once he died in convulsion;

6) in his experience, white people, when they addressed Indians, always put on a false face;

7) he had the pleasure of seeing the Navajo horsemen riding free over their great plains again . . . the two Frenchmen went as far as the Canyon de Chelly to behold the strange cliff ruins; once more crops were growing at the bottom of the world between the towering sandstone walls;

and while most of the prose is impeccably lucid, Cather was also not afraid to use specific words that will make you consult a dictionary (partibus, calabozo, codicil, pyx, hogan, coruscation, turbid, jalousies) but these only crop up occasionally, otherwise it is a smooth read; in the end, it is a tale of friendship between two religious men, Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant, in a harsh, complicated, inspirational, and fascinating environment; Cather's treatment of the Native Americans is empathetic and vivid (and must have influenced Aldous Huxley when he wrote Brave New World) and while she moves from mundane politics and vanity to the holiest of mysteries, the story never loses its historical grounding, it is set amongst realpeople-- Kit Carson especially-- and real events-- the Colorado Gold Rush near Pike's Peak and the building of Santa Fe's Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis Assisi, which Jean-Baptiste Lamy-- the man Bishop Latour was based upon-- oversaw and initiated . . . anyway, I've gone on far too long and I haven't even scratched the surface of what lies inside this book, but I guarantee it is an America that they don't teach you about in school, Jamestown and the Pilgrims and the Boston Tea Party and all that, and I'm sure when I'm visiting these spots this summer, Cather's words will ring in my ears . . . so if you feel like you want to read a classic piece of literature, and you don't want to slog through The Brothers Karamazov, I recommend this-- it's short, episodic, perfectly written, and full of valuable insight on the origins of our national character.


zman said...

Speaking of Andersons and the southwest, you should read The Not So Wild, Wild West by Terry Anderson and Peter Hill. It's about the ad hoc development of property rights on the frontier and how many of those systems are still in use today.

fatguyinaspeedo said...

Desert Solitaire and Crossing Open Ground

Dave said...

ok, i have "desert solitaire" and was planning on re-reading that one, but i will add the other two to my list. thanks! by the time we travel, i should be a font of annoying and useless information . . . the car ride will be intolerable.

zman said...

As opposed to usually being a font of entertaining and useful information.

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