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J A M E S M. D I N N University of Notre Dame A Novelist’s Miracle: Structure and Myth In Death Comes For The Archbishop One hardly expects enchantment to begin, “One afternoon in the autumn of 1851 . . . in central New Mexico . . . .’n But the measure of Willa Cather’s experiment in Death Comes for the Archbishop is that she seeks to involve the reader in the preter­ natural world of the miraculous without detaching him from the familiar sphere of history and geography. While unfolding a tale anchored in the prosaic spheres of when and where, she uses struc­ ture and myth to evoke more ethereal spheres. In the same matter-of-fact tone with which she introduces the solitary horseman in New Mexico, Cather in the prologue has already introduced four dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church dining in Rome. One is a pleading missionary bishop, and the others are cardinals who barely feign interest in the frontier Church in North America. It is out of the “monotonous persistence” of the bishop and the tepid interest of the cardinals that the pro­ tagonist’s destiny is arranged. On this literal level, the book is what one would expect— an account of Bishop Latour’s work in the new territory. It is a collage of the places, the people, the problems that he encounters in his early years in New Mexico, and finally a glimpse of his retirement, his contentment, his peaceful death. On this level the reader can praise the author for her historicity, her fidelity to sources, her topographical detail; or he can qualify his praise by an inventory of her derelictions in these spheres. Either is faint praise—as if a botanist praised a poet for the “accuracy” of his flower. Willa Cather’s achievement on this level is the substratum of her work. It assures the literal credibility, the vivid sense of reality which entices the least romantic to trust the solidity of her fictive world. 1 Willa Cather, Death Comes For the Archbishop (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), p. 17 40 Western American Literature But to regard the Archbishop simply on that level is like respond­ ing to Walden as a literal journal. Very much like Thoreau, Willa Cather begins on the most prosaic level but offers a gradual initia­ tion into lyrical flights of the spirit. The timeless preternatural world she opens is not "afar off.” It interpenetrates the literal, historical world which we share with her protagonist. Entrance into it for Latour and for the reader does not depend upon our being transported but “upon our per­ ceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always” (p. 50). This is Latour’s idea of a miracle, and the miracle achieved by the novel. An examination of the novel’s structure and its underlying myth should illuminate this elusive level. Structurally, the miraculous is introduced in the novel’s opening book, and unobtrusively pervades it. Because the very characteriza­ tion of Latour de-emphasizes the miraculous, the reader’s initiation is gentle and subtle. The cruciform tree is after all only a tree, and the discovery of Agua Secreta is occasion for gratitude but not for ecstasy. The reader smiles with the protagonist to envision how Vaillant might have responded to the same experiences. The re­ straint of Latour’s piety is so disarming that one scarcely notes that he does after all consider the second event a miracle (p. 29). The succeeding vignettes of Book I seem trivial enough. They seem to focus on Vaillant’s soup and on an old bell. Yet, in each of these Latour’s sensibility discerns and welcomes the presence of the past— even the non-Christian past. By Latour’s own definition, cited earlier, this very discernment is a repeated miracle. The eyes of Latour, which are aesthetically as well as religiously refined are much more attuned than the impetous Vaillant’s eyes to see “what is there about us always” (p. 50). Latour is consistently “sensitive to the shape of things” (p. 18). The account of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 39-46
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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