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D A V I D S T O U C K Simon Fraser University Cather’s Archbishop and Travel Writing There has always been a problem classifying Death Comes for the Archbishop. Early reviewers of the book said it could hardly be termed a novel bccausc it had no plot. Willa Cather in turn suggested the term “narrative.”1 As time passed her critics fell into the habit of referring to the Archbishop as an historical novel. Certainly the book is set in the nineteenth century and is more or less faithful to the history of the Catholic Church in the American Southwest. In her letter to The Commonweal Cather says she wanted to do something in the style of legend, which is rather different from history in that it almost entirely eliminates causc and effect, i.e., the temporal conditions of a narrative sequence. She says her title comes from Holbein’s Dance of Death, which also suggests an aesthetic intention somewhat different from historical fiction.' The greater part of that letter to The Commonweal, however, describes the genesis of the book in terms of her experiences as a traveller in the Southwest, how she not only admired the churches and the people of the Southwest, but how she experienced the country for herself at first hand during several sojourns there. What I will suggest in this paper is that the rhe­ torical occasion underlying the composition of Death Comes for the Archbishop is that of travel writing, the oldest form of narrative indige­ nous to North America, and that when we view the book in this way we can appreciate more fully not only its formal characteristics but the living, dramatic texture of its content as well. 1iVilla Cather On IKninig (New York: Knopf, 1949), p. 12. 2Ibid, pp. 3-13. 4 Western American Literature Altogether Willa Gather made six trips to the Southwest before Death Comes for the Archbishop was published in 1927. The first trip, in the spring of 1912, was to Winslow, Arizona, where she visited her brother Douglass, an employee of the Santa Fc railroad. She and her brother made many trips about the country, including a visit to Walnut Canyon where she saw for the first time the ruins of Indian cliff-dwellings . On this trip she met some of her brother’s friends who were Mexi­ cans and drove around the country with another of her brother’s friends who was the Catholic priest at Winslow. The latter told her about the country and its people and related to her many of the old Spanish and Indian legends that still survived. She went to the Southwest again in 1914, travelling as far as New Mexico, but we have little record of the trip. The following year, 1915, she went with her companion, Edith Lewis, who in her memoir gives us a good account of their adventures in a part of the country that was not yet very much travelled; for as Miss Lewis explains, “the distances were too great, the roads too rough . . . and there were few ho t el s . The big adventure in 1915 was visiting Mesa Verde. They stayed a week at a government camp, and during their explorations with an untrained guide they got lost in Soda Canyon for several hours. That summer they also went on to Taos where they explored the country either on horseback or by driving a team. It was better than travelling by automobile, says Edith Lewis: [this way one] was able to note all the contours of the land, all the detail; the streams, flowers, trees, rocks, and any traces of human habitation. It was necessary to be on the alert for every landmark, otherwise we were likely to lose our way on those long drives and horseback rides through unknown country. Each Mexican village had its own identity and setting, did not look like all the other Mexican villages. Each little church had its special character, its own treasures. [P. 100] In 1916 they went back to New Mexico for an even longer stay, visiting Santa Fc, exploring the Española Valiev, and meeting the Belgian priest, Father Haltcrmann, at Santa...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 3-12
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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