Study Guide

Death Comes for the Archbishop

By Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop Introduction

Hey, Shmooper: you're gonna die.

No, we're not threatening you, geez. Calm down. We're just stating a fact. Death doesn't just come for archbishops, you know.

In Death Comes for the Archbishop, death isn't staring us in the face on every page. But the fact that the book is titled Death Comes for the Archbishop means that the Grim Reaper is hanging out in the back of our minds as we read through this novel.

It doesn't matter how great you are or what you accomplish—we all die and the world moves on. Willa Cather was already a pretty established writer by the time she published Death Comes for the Archbishop in 1927, having already won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1922 novel One of Ours and gained literary superstardom for novels like My Ántonia. By the time she got around to Death Comes, She was 54 years old and no doubt wondering—like her protagonist, Father Latour—what kind of legacy she'd leave behind when she died.

Hint: she left behind a spectacular literary legacy. She's got her face on a stamp, a foundation dedicated to preserving her memory through Cather scholarship, and is in both the New York Writer's Hall of Fame and The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. Double whammy.

Willa Cather lived a pretty sweet life, to be sure. But it's nothing compared to what Archbishop John Latour goes through in Death Comes for the Archbishop. He leaves France for North America and ends up getting sent to New Mexico right after it became part of the United States. He then spends his middle-to-old age doing important work as a bishop and then archbishop: he has conflicts with corrupt priests, he builds a cathedral, and he spreads the word of Catholicism.

He also does awesome Old West stuff: rides around New Mexico on a mule, gets in good with a prominent Navajo chief, almost gets killed by bandits, and falls in love with the scenery of the American Southwest.

If Willa Cather gets to be in the New York Writer's Hall of Fame and The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, we'd nominate John Latour for the New Mexico Archbishop's Hall of Fame and the National Awesome Wild West Mule-Riding Adventurer Hall of Fame.

And yeah, the title doesn't lie. Death comes to Latour, but only after he's changed a few thousand lives, traveled a few thousand miles of Wild West desert, changed the face of New Mexican architecture and met with a bunch of weird, colorful-as-the-New-Mexico-rocks characters.

And that's not too shabby at all.

What is Death Comes for the Archbishop About and Why Should I Care?

Have you ever walked through a graveyard, maybe doing crayon rubbings of tombstones on a grade-school field trip, and suddenly wondered about the life of one of the people buried? You don't know why one tombstone pops out at you, but it does. And bang: you're curious.

Or, in some sudden weird flash of curiosity, you spend a long time looking at a figure in an old portrait. Or mull over the life of the person whose name is on a park bench or memorial highway. You know you've done it.

Sometimes that weird historical curiosity just pops out at you, and you're deeply interested in the life of someone who died maybe before you were born. That's exactly what happened to Willa Cather. She got fiercely curious about the life of John-Baptiste Lamy, the first Archbishop of New Mexico. She was so fascinated with him that she wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Although she calls Lamy by the name of John Marie Latour, it's the same dude. She embellished some stuff—what fiction writer wouldn't?—but everything laid out in Death Comes for the Archbishop is pretty much what happened to Latour's real-life inspiration.

Latour's journey to New Mexico in the 1850s? Fact. His mission to replace the corrupt Mexican priests in New Mexico? Fact. His relationship with a prominent Navajo chief? Facty-fact. His friendship with notorious Wild West stereotype Kit Carson, and his plan to build the bestest cathedral in New Mexico? Yessirree Bob: true facts.

Seriously, with a life like that, who wouldn't be fascinated?

Like Latour's cathedral, Willa Cather's books are the monuments that still remain with us now that she's gone. Death Comes for the Archbishop really make us wonder sometimes if there's any consolation to be found in the idea of leaving behind a legacy when you die. After all, when you're dead, you're gone.

Unless someone in the future becomes eerily, inexplicably fascinated by your tombstone or memorial bench and writes a novel about you. It could totally happen.

Death Comes for the Archbishop Resources

Websites

The Willa Cather Archive
Check out this site for all your Willa Cather needs. We're assuming there are many.

The Willa Cather Foundation
On this site, you can even do a virtual tour of Cather's home to get a better sense of where she wrote books like Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Willa Cather at Encyclopedia Britannica Online
For a brush up on all the basics you need to know, check out this entry.

Articles and Interviews

Cather in New Mexico
Taking the Cather Trail through the Land of Enchantment.

More Travel Tips, Cather-Style
Cather seriously loved those red rocks, almost as much as the NY Times loves Cather.

1925 Interview with Willa Cather
Once in her life, Willa Cather taught a course in creative writing. That was enough for her, but interviewer Flora Merrill wanted to find out why.

'Wonderful Words' in Willa Cather's No-Longer-Secret Letters
The good folks at NPR delve into some of Willa Cather's unpublished letters to learn more about the great woman.

List of Existing Willa Cather Interviews
Check out the Willa Cather Archive's database for all of your interview needs.

Video

Meet the Past: Willa Cather
This informative movie will take you right into the life of Willa the Thrilla' Cather. Okay, so no one actually called her that. Still a cool name, though.

Discovering Willa Cather's Letters
Jump right into Willa's secret mind in this movie about her unpublished letters.

The University of Nebraska's Willa Cather Archives
Here you'll find a presentation on just how amazing it is for all of Willa's Cather's books, stories, interviews, and letters to be digitally available through her alma mater, the University of Nebraska.

Audio

Paul's Case
Check out this audio reading of one of Willa's short stories.

Summary of My Antonia
There are no available audiobooks for Death Comes for the Archbishop, but be sure to check out this rundown of one of her most famous works.

Paul's Case by Willa Cather
Here's a one-sitter of a short story that'll help round out your sense of what Willa Cather's whole deal is as a writer.

Images

Cather Getting Her Think On
We don't know if she's daydreaming or if she sees a butterfly off-camera.

Cather in a Fancy Getup
These clothes must not have been very comfortable in the Midwest heat.

Cather-Bieber Comparison
At 14 years old, the two looked kind of similar.