Willa Cather (born this day, December 7th in 1873) was an uncharacteristically quiet voice of the roaring twenties. Unlike many of her contemporaries who delighted in inventions of wordplay, her prose was unadorned and straightforward. The power of her stories was found in the lives of her characters who were unvarnished and transparent in their exposure to the reader. A pristine example of her clean, powerful voice can be heard in her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop.
In it, she writes
One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me not to rest so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.
“The more I visited in the Southwest,” she wrote in an essay about the novel,
…the more I felt that the story of the Catholic Church in that country was the most interesting of its stories. The old mission churches, even those which were abandoned and in ruins, had a moving reality about them; the hand-carved beams and joists, the utterly unconventional frescoes, the countless fanciful figures of the saints, not two of them alike, seemed a deeper expression of some very real and lively human feeling.
In his book, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know, Terry Glaspey writes
Death Comes for the Archbishop, like the landscape described in its pages, has a sparse, elegant simplicity. Its pace is languid; the story will not be rushed but rather unfolds quietly in the deserts of New Mexico as it records the life of Father Jean Marie Latour, who comes to these barren lands—a vast territory of red hills, towering mesas, and forbidding heat—to take his place as a missionary to the Mexicans and Native Americans who dwell there. Over a period of forty years, Latour spreads his faith with an inward passion and an outward gentleness, dealing with the harsh conditions, the spiritual confusions of his vast flock, openly rebellious and immoral priests, and his nagging loneliness and longing for his home in Ohio.
Throughout the novel Cather evokes the strange magnificence and wonder of the Southwest landscape with such precision that the reader can feel the oppressive sun beating down upon the long and dusty roads the archbishop must travel to minister to his widespread flock, yet still revel in the mystery and timelessness of the desolate landscape. Cather, and her archbishop, show great respect for the Native Americans who live on this land and the spiritual relationship they have with it. Though this is not a novel primarily concerned with the ethics of colonialism, the archbishop is aware of the injustices that have been perpetrated upon these people. Near the end of the book he says, “I have lived to see two great wrongs righted; I have seen the end of black slavery, and I have seen the Navajos restored to their land.
Does evangelism ever suffer from embellishment?
Dig Deeper: Willa Cather
(1873–1947). In such classic American novels as O Pioneers! Willa Cather wrote of people she had known as a girl in Nebraska. Her friends were native Americans as well as European immigrants and their children. She showed how these pioneers were able to adapt to the rugged prairie life in the western area of America. For her depictions of this valiant spirit, Willa Cather won wide acclaim as a novelist.
Willa Sibert Cather was born on Dec. 7, 1873, on a farm near the town of Winchester, Va. The Cather family had been living in Virginia for four generations. When Cather was 9 years old, her father bought a ranch that was located near Red Cloud, Neb. The child was excited by the change from a settled, eastern community to a semifrontier area where she was free to roam outdoors. Often she would ride her pony to a neighbor’s farm and listen to old immigrant women tell stories of their childhood experiences and adventures in Sweden or Bohemia.
There were no schools near the ranch, so she studied at home. A neighbor taught her Latin, and Cather read English classics aloud to her grandmother. When Cather was in her teens the family moved into the village. She attended Red Cloud High School and the University of Nebraska.
After graduation in 1895 she worked on a Pittsburgh newspaper for six years and then taught high school for a time. On vacations she traveled to Europe and the American Southwest.
Meanwhile, she contributed stories to McClure’s Magazine. She also accepted a post on the magazine, and in 1908 she became its managing editor. But editing left her little time for creative writing, and in 1912 she resigned to devote full time to writing her own stories.
Her first novel was unsuccessful, but when she turned to frontier themes she won a wide audience. O Pioneers!, published in 1913, was followed by Song of the Lark (1915) and My Ántonia (1918). One of Ours (1922), which won the Pulitzer prize, and A Lost Lady (1923) mourned the passing of the pioneer spirit in the Middle West. Also popular were Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), a study of Roman Catholic missionaries in New Mexico, and Shadows on the Rock (1931), a story of early Quebec. She described her clean, meticulous writing style as “démeuble” (unfurnished).
Cather never married. She lived quietly in New York City and traveled frequently in Europe, avoiding public appearances whenever possible. She remained loyal to childhood friends and visited them often. She died in New York City on April 24, 1947.
Sources & Resources
“Cather, Willa,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).
Birzer, Bradley J. “The Christian Humanism of Willa Cather.” The Imaginative Conservative (blog). August 27, 2013. http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2013/08/the-christian-humanism-of-willa-cather.html.
Brown, E. K. Willa Cather. New York: Avon Books, 1953.
Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. New York: Vintage, 1990.
McInerny, Ralph. Some Catholic Writers. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2007.
Ryan, James Emmett. Faithful Passages: American Catholicism in Literary Culture, 1844–1931.
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).