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HAGIOGRAPHICAL STYLE IN DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP MARY-ANN AND DAVID SToueK In almost every novel she wrote Willa Cather experimented with a new mode Or form of writing: the pastoral in My Antonia, the naturalistic novel, with its wealth of material and psycholOgical detail, in One ofOurs, the musical sonata form in The Professor's House, a Jamesian diptych in My Mortal Enemy, the lristorical novel in Shadows on the Rock. The most successful of these formal experiments is her use of the saint's legend in Death Comes for the Archbishop. In a letter to the editor of The Commonweal' she explains that she had wanted for a long time to try something that would be the equivalent in prose of the frescoes of a saint's life, a narrative which, like the non.aramatic stories of the Golden Legend, would have none of the artincial elements of composition. She also ex' plains that for several years she had wanted to write a novel about the Southwest, and that the one subject that particularly captured her imaginative interest there was the story of the Catholic Church. In the saint's legend she found an aesthetic form which provided her, a non-Catholic, with an approach to her subject. But doubtless the real attraction of the saint's legend was that it was a non.aramatic form of narrative which would allow full play to her considerable powers of deSCriptive writing (she had little talentfor dramatization). No longer restricted by the necessity of organizing action in terms of plot, or by the need to realize character in terms of psychological cause and effect, she was free to develop her descriptive writing as a mode of reflection upon some of the aesthetic and moral problems with which she was most concerned. Death Comes for the Archbishop, a 'narrative" recounting the life stories of two missionary priests in the American Southwest, was written with an ease and flawlessness that few books ever achieve. Yet in no other novel does Willa Cather so constantly draw the reader's attention to the book's form and to the particular style she has adopted. From the outset it becomes clear that the essence of the book lies in its form - that our appreciation of the lives of the two Jesuit missionaries depends upon an appreciation of UTQ, Volume XLJ, Number 4, SunJ.mer 1972 294 MARY-ANN AND DAVID STOUCK the novel's style. Miss Cather's full statement of her artistic intentions provides a suggestive point of departure: My book was a conjunction of the general and the particular, like most works of the imagination. I had all my life wanted to do something in the style of legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment. Since I first saw the Puvis de Chavannes frescoes of the life of Saint Geneyj~ve in my student days, I have wished that I could try something a little like that in prose; something without accent, with none of the artificial elements of composition. In the Golden Legend the martyrdoms of the saints are no more dwelt upon than are the triyjal incidents of their lives; it is as though all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual experience, were of about the same importance. The essence of such writing is not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in it - but to touch and pass on. I felt that such writing would be a kind of discipline in these days when the 'situation' is made to count for so much in writing. when the general tendency is to force things up. In this kind of writing the mood is the thing - all the little figures and stories are mere improvisations that come out of it,S Further in the same letter she refers to Holbein's Dance of Death as the source of the novel's title. Some useful studies have been made of these remarks" but most of these have focussed on the Significance of the pictorial models she cites for the novel. While the unique plastic quality of the Archbishop certainly owes much to the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 293-307
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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