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Book Group Report 2009 -Death comes for the archbishop. 12 June 2009

Maggie finally took the bull by the horns, or perhaps the archbishop by the mitre, and finalized the report of our June 12th meeting. Gretchen noted that, as it was our last meeting of the year, she had had all year to prepare.

Gretchen's preparation included reading the 500+pages autobiography, Willa Cather - A Literary Life, by James Woodress, so eleven of us, including a brand new member and the AWG "stagiaire" were able to take advantage of all the research.

Willa Cather was born in 1873 in Virginia, the oldest of seven children. The family followed her paternal grandparents and her uncle's family and moved to Nebraska when she was ten years old. She did not consider herself a "southern" writer, and according to her biography, her subject matter only once included the South. Cather is classified more for her novels on the plains of Nebraska. Mentors in Red Cloud, Nebraska, counseled her to draw on her experiences for her writing. She had neighbors who spoke French and German, and who gave her access to their library. Although Cather learned to read French, she could not speak it. Neighbors served as prototypes for characters in her novels. In 1890, at the age of 16, Willa Cather graduated from the high school in Red Cloud along with two other students, both boys. All three delivered graduation speeches. When Cather's speech, which was a reply to local people who had been critical of her interests in biology and medicine, was published in the local newspaper, The Red Cloud Chief, the Chief "foresaw great accomplishment for the two boys but was silent on Cather's prospects."

Cather defied the norms of her times. She cut her hair short; she called herself Willie, William, or Wm. She enrolled at the University of Nebraska to study medicine, but when her first English professor submitted one of her essays, on Carlyle, to the Lincoln Journal, and the Journal published the essay, her goals changed. It was like seeing her name in lights, and she later recalled that it was at that moment that she decided to become a writer. After five years at the university, she began a career as a journalist. She moved to Pittsburgh, where she ran the Home Monthly magazine, an imitator of Ladies' Home Journal. A year later she became telegraph editor on the Pittsburgh Daily Leader, where she remained until 1901, when she accepted a high school teaching position in Pittsburgh.

The most notable friendship Cather made in Pittsburgh was with Isabelle McClung, the daughter of a prominent Pittsburgh judge. Without question the closest emotional attachment Cather had outside of her immediate family, Isabelle inspired, encouraged and fostered Cather's writing, bringing her into the McClung home in one of the best Pittsburgh neighborhoods (nearby neighbors were the Carnegies and the Fricks), and providing a quiet space where Cather could write. The two set off in 1902 on Cather's first trip to Europe, to Britain and France.

Cather was writing fiction and poetry in 1903 when she came to the attention of S.S. McClure, then one of America's best-known editors. His McClure's Magazine was the leading monthly publishing fiction, poetry, and other items of cultural interest. The most momentous result of Cather's first interview with McClure was his decision, in 1906, to offer her a job and bring her to New York. She accepted, and this was the decision that transformed her career. Through McClure, she met many prominent authors. At McClure's she also connected with Edith Lewis, a person she knew from Nebraska, and who was to be her closest lifetime companion. They took an apartment together in New York City and lived together for the rest of Cather's life. Throughout Cather's adult life, her most significant relationships were with women.

She never intended to write a novel about the southwest, as she felt it was too big and too varied, too many individuals involved and all of them too little related to each other. Her trips there, in her own words, were "simply a matter of self-indulgence" because she enjoyed the country so much. On a trip to Santa Fe, she came across a biography of Father Joseph Macheboeuf, a missionary priest who served as Vicar to Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the first bishop appointed to New Mexico after its annexation to the U.S. The biography was full of information about the lives and works of the missionary priests in the Southwest, documented by letters written by Father Macheboeuf to his sister in France and by other contemporary accounts, both clerical and secular. (We noted that Auvergne and Brittany produced many missionaries.) Cather felt that the "real story of the Southwest was the story of the missionary priests who came from France with cultivated minds, large vision, and a noble purpose." Death Comes for the Archbishop was based on the life of Archbishop Lamy (called Jean Latour in the novel), and the character of Father Joseph Vaillant was based on Father Macheboeuf. "The opening chapters set the mood for the novel: cheerful acceptance of the physical hardships and the joyful conduct of the missionary labors." Bishop Lamy had said to Father Macheboeuf, "From these two vicars we shall try to make one good Pastor." There is a statue of Archbishop Lamy in front of the cathedral in Santa Fe.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is Cather's most innovative book. Each chapter could be plucked out and would stand alone. Cather had seen frescoes of the life of Ste.Geneviève in Europe and wanted to do something in the same style, the style of legend. She felt that the essence of such writing is "not to hold the note, but to touch and pass on." A few things in the book are not historically true. The Archbishop did not live to see the Cathedral finished, and Father Joseph did not die first. The biography of Father Macheboeuf was only a partial source for Cather, but it was enough to fire her imagination, and what she didn't know about Archbishop Lamy, she made up. She found the title for the book in a series of woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger, Dance of Death, in one of which a skeleton comes for an archbishop, and in another, for a priest, summoning them to their posthumous rewards. Yet why the title, when the story is about life? In the course of the story, death comes for not just the Archbishop and Father Joseph. There are 96 specific deaths in the novel. Catholics do not believe that death is an end, but Willa Cather was not a Catholic, and it peeved her to be considered one. She was an Episcopalian, and was exasperated to receive letters asking about her supposed conversion to Catholicism.

Although Cather said that Death Comes for the Archbishop was "a long, slow walk on two mules," she wrote it relatively quickly, finishing it in only one year. During that time, she took a trip to the Southwest which lasted 6 weeks. When the novel was published, it was very well received and was "buried under an avalanche of superlatives." One of our members said the book was unlike anything she had ever read before. She found the landscapes and descriptions to be breathtaking. She felt that Willa Cather was equally talented at depicting nature and depicting characters and what makes them tick. Other members echoed that feeling, saying it was like looking at a tapestry and listening to an audio tape, and one said that it is a book that you can read again and again. But one member said, "If there was a plot, I missed it," to which Gretchen replied that Cather was creating an "ambiance." Character development was a big chunk of her style. She was making a conscious effort to have things static. It was a narrative, and she didn't want dramatic moments.

In discussing the novel, we remarked that although the licentiousness in the Mexican clergy was treated as objectionable, the feast in Rome at the start of the book seemed to be acceptable. We were surprised by the character of a (Spanish) Catholic priest who seemed prepared to sire an entire congregation. We were amused that the Archbishop liked nice things to look at, and Father Joseph loved his food and drink (understandable, if one knows that Hopi food, such as beans, boiled dough, and greasy mutton, is extremely bland), and we noted that Spaniards made good martyrs, but they also made good inquisitors. We commented on the Archbishop's idea of miracles as beautiful passages, and the fact that the Navajo Eusabio was careful to obliterate any trace of their passage when they broke camp.

Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for one of her novels. When Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize, he said Cather should have won it instead of him. Other honors include a US postage stamp and a gold coin. She was very close to her family and spent holidays with them. Her family often provided source material for her writings (which got her in trouble at the start). Although scholars can generally pinpoint which neighbor or relative Cather was writing about, they cannot figure out who was the basis for My Mortal Enemy.

Willa Cather died in New York in 1947, victim of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. She actually lived longer in New York than in Nebraska, but Nebraska "claims" her, and the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Foundation in Red Cloud was created to preserve her childhood home and other buildings associated with her life and writings. She is buried in New Hampshire, where she had done much of her writing. Her tombstone has an incorrect birth date (1876). She was a resolutely private person, and destroyed many old drafts, personal papers, and letters. Her will restricted the ability of scholars to quote from those personal papers that remain.

(ed.- I have taken several quotes from the biography, Willa Cather - A Literary Life, by James Woodress.)

p.s. One member who was not able to attend the meeting sent an e-mail which read:
The book, Death Comes to the Archbishop, was my favorite book of this year. It is so beautifully written and has such a powerful style - dramatic but not dramatic. Everything about it rang true for me - and knowing that it was based on the life of a real man is even better. The fact that these are French missionaries going to New Mexico is very much adapted to this club.

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