Borderlands Identities and Borderlands Ideologies in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop

When New Mexico became a territory of the United States, the Catholic Church divided what had hitherto been the North Mexican diocese of Durango to form the Apostolic vicariate (later elevated to diocese and then archdiocese) of Santa Fé and thereby make ecclesiastical territories comply with the new national borderline between the United States and Mexico. Told in a non-chronological series of loosely-connected episodes informed by Christian hagiography, art, and symbolism (Chinery 98; Cohen 150), Death Comes for the Archbishop depicts the struggle of the titular cleric and his vicar general to establish their newly formed diocese and (re)install Church authority in this neglected area of the Catholic empire in the second half of the nineteenth century. Willa Cather, who had made several trips to the region during the 1910s and ‘20s, was inspired to write this novel in particular by a statue of New Mexico’s first archbishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy (1814–1888), that she saw in Santa Fé as well as by a biography of his fellow French priest and missionary companion, Joseph Macheboeuf (1812–1889) (Cohen 149; Sevick 191; Stout 230–33).

Missionaries of Manifest Destiny . . .

In a similar manner to many of Cather’s other novels, Death Comes for the Archbishop addresses the European pioneer experience on the U.S.-American frontier as well as the interconnected U.S.-Americanization of a culturally and ethnically diverse population, on the one hand, and the “civilization” process of a frontier and border region, on the other.1 Although told through the voice of a third-person narrator, the novel presents all action from the perspective of its French missionary protagonists, fictionalized here as Bishop Jean Marie Latour and Father Joseph Vaillant. And while Death Comes for the Archbishop draws the French priests as highly distinct figures of rather contrary social background, personal character, and approach to faith,2 the narrative depicts the two men’s joint “heroic” struggle to fulfill their mission in a uniquely positive manner. This mission is a dual spiritual and political one—in Christopher Schedler’s words, “to maintain the faith in the New World, expand the reach of the Catholic empire, and work with the ‘progressive government’ of the United States to settle peacefully the new territory of its expanded empire” (119). In an early scene, Latour summarizes what he considers his task:

All day I am an American in speech and thought—yes, in heart, too. The kindness of the American traders, and especially of the military officers at the Fort, commands more than a superficial loyalty. I mean to help the officers at their task here. I can assist them more than they realize. The Church can do more than the Fort to make these poor Mexicans “good Americans.” And it is for the people’s good; there is no other way in which they can better their condition. (Cather 35–36)

The bishop’s support of U.S.-American society further includes a policy of public non-interference with hegemonic Protestant Anglo society in the United States on behalf of oppressed ethnic and religious minorities. While he happily confesses near the end of his life, “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 country” (290), the bishop, fearing anti-Catholic Anglo resistance against his religious-political mission, fails to publicly intervene in the forced displacement of the Navajos to a distant reservation and a Protestant U.S.-American couple’s abuse of their Catholic Mexican slave Sada, even though he sympathizes with the plights of the victims in both cases (212–18, 294; also Stout 244).

This understanding of his and Vaillant’s mission in a newly founded border diocese and the two men’s active work to fulfill it render the bishop and his vicar general to some degree proponents (Stout 237–38; Tellefsen 8)—and, on a metatextual level, metaphors—of the ideology of U.S.-American Manifest Destiny (Besier and Lindemann 84–86). Death Comes for the Archbishop merely alludes to the concrete political context of the narrative, the forced integration of formerly Mexican territory into the United States, and its consequences for the Mexican and Amerindian populations of the region in question, especially their ensuing ethnic discrimination and mistreatment by the U.S. government and society (Gonzales 82–84, 92, 99–104). Set in the Vatican shortly after the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the prologue of the novel characterizes New Mexico laconically as “a region recently annexed to the United States” (Cather 4; also Stout 237; Tellefsen 8). In a similar vein, Death Comes for the Archbishop briefly refers to the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, by which the United States acquired another stretch of Mexican territory, as a natural incident of progressive development, “the march of history” (Cather 199). Especially by presenting the political events of 1848 and 1853 as almost apolitical matters of Church jurisdiction affecting the boundaries of a diocese (3, 199), the narrative fails to acknowledge, and more to criticize, the complicity of the Catholic Church in the United States policy of Manifest Destiny (Sevick 196, 200; Urgo 49).

Despite their support and embodiment of Americanization in newly annexed New Mexico, the two French priests (re)establish Catholic doctrine in their diocese by replacing a well-entrenched but religiously aberrant and politically abusive Mexican clergy with more orthodox and loyal French and Spanish priests rather than with U.S.-American clerics (Cather 117, 156–59, 161). This signifies a shift from the Spanish Dominion to French civilization (MacDonald 73–75) and Catholic Ultra-Montanism (Urgo 43, 49) rather than to Anglo U.S.-Americanization. The work of the two missionaries thus entails the very kind of Eurocentric view on the New World the sister paradigm of U.S. Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, was directed against (Besier and Lindemann 83). Latour fittingly looks more up to the Spanish colonial missionaries in New Mexico and California (Cather 32, 101–02, 275–80; also Sevick 196) as model for his own work than to Catholic missions elsewhere in the United States, even though both he and Vaillant acknowledge the Spaniards’ violence and abuse of the Natives (Cather 53, 97, 101–14, 123; Gonzales 29–38, 45–47).

In line with both Eurocentric and Anglo U.S.-American perspectives (Rinke 209–15), both the bishop and his vicar general tend to view the Mexicans as either pious, puerile “poor natures” (Cather 208; see also 25–28, 49–50, 117, 141–42, 206–08, 211, 257–58) in need of guidance or as frivolous, lazy, selfish, and/or cruel opponents that must be subdued (32, 83–84, 139–40, 147; also Stout 240; Urgo 141). In contrast to the Mexicans, Latour perceives the Amerindians as timeless creatures, akin to nature as much as to civilization, whose cultures were irreconcilably different from Western civilization and its progressive drive (Cather 53, 92, 100, 102–03, 133–35, 211, 232–34; also Broncano 130; Schedler 121–22; Stout 228, 240–43; Tellefsen 10). On a visit to the Native pueblo of Ácoma, he muses, in telling words:

He was on a naked rock in the desert, in the stone age, a prey to homesickness […] for European man and his glorious history of desire and dreams. Through all the centuries that his own part of the world had been changing like sky at daybreak, this people [the Ácomas] had been fixed, increasing neither in numbers nor desires, rock-turtles on their rock. Something reptilian he felt here, something that had endured by immobility, a kind of life out of reach, like the crustaceans in their armour. (Cather 103)

. . . or Pioneers of Transculturation?

However, despite their Eurocentric and homogenizing vision of Natives and Mexicans as ethnic groups, Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant meet individual representatives of these populations in their diocese with sympathy and respect and, in turn, widely win their trust (25–32, 58–63, 72–77, 92–94, 175–77, 290–91). Moreover, both missionaries favorably compare Mexican generosity, Catholic devotion, and lack of crude materialism to Anglo society in the United States (26–28, 206, 248, 256–58), and Latour even draws parallels between Mexican religious art and practice and Catholic European culture (28, 135, 255).

The bishop, his own and Vaillant’s struggle to spread their faith and establish religious orthodoxy notwithstanding (206–07, 211), similarly admires the Amerindian nations for their sense of tradition, inner strength, and respect for nature (53, 92–94, 232–34, 290–91; also Cohen 150; MacDonald 77). Despite their differences, he sees Native cultures as being parallel in age, richness, and value to his own European and Catholic traditions (Cather 121, 135; also Tellefsen 9–10). Latour likens the face of the Navajo chief Eusabio to “a Roman general’s [face] of Republican times” (Cather 220; also Tellefsen 10). And traveling together with his Laguna Indian guide Jacinto, he realizes that “there was no way in which he could transfer his own memories of European civilization into the Indian mind, and he was quite willing to believe that behind Jacinto there was a long tradition, a story of experience, which no language could translate to him” (Cather 92; also Cohen 150; MacDonald 78–79). Latour ultimately even reflects upon his own implication in the order of coloniality (on this order see Tlostanova and Mignolo 132–35), pondering that “one called the young Indians ‘boys,’ perhaps because there was something youthful and elastic in their bodies. Certainly in their behavior there was nothing boyish in the American sense, nor even in the European sense” (Cather 93; also Tellefsen 9).

In the course of their lives among and constant interaction with the different ethnic populations, the bishop and his vicar general themselves develop a transcultural (Ortiz) Borderlands identity that blends elements of French, Native, Mexican, and Anglo cultures. Wearing U.S.-American clothes but also wrapping themselves in Indian blankets against the cold, they come to feel at home in adobe houses and Native cabins (Cather 33–35, 220–21, 269). While both missionaries retain a certain sense of their native French identity (35–41, 176, 200–02), Vaillant in particular adapts to Mexican customs, learning quickly to communicate in Spanish, to feel at home in the saddle, and to make the causes of the faithful Mexicans his own (39, 45–46, 49–50, 60, 206–08, 214). While he complains about Mexican food early in his New Mexican life (39, 57), he later identifies with the Mexican way of life, as he admits, “I have almost become a Mexican! I have learned to like chili colorado and mutton fat. [The Mexicans’] foolish ways no longer offend me, their faults are dear to me. I am their man!” (208, italics in the original; also Schedler 120). Latour, for his part, decides to remain in his diocese and be buried there rather than return to France after his retirement. However, his explanation that New Mexico makes him feel young and free (Cather 271–73; also Cohen 157) can be read as a benevolent manifestation of the melting-pot ideology, according to which the United States offer newcomers—both immigrants and appropriated territories in the novel—liberty and a new beginning if they modify their old ways to blend into the U.S.-American “fusion” (Cohen 157) culture.

Rancheros, Padres, and Pious Women

Death Comes for the Archbishop complements the depiction of French missionary life in the mid- to late nineteenth-century U.S.-Mexico Borderlands by integrating the portraits of a series of Mexican, Amerindian, and Anglo U.S.-American characters and their cultures in the narrative. The novel’s representation of Mexican identities and culture is striking, though, for drawing various characters as either “good” or “bad”—those who adapt to the new religious and political order of orthodox Catholicism and United States rule, on the one hand, and those who resist either or both, on the other—and for its retributive logic of rewarding the former and punishing the latter.

Main examples of “good” Mexicans include the only Mexican female characters of importance. The trapper’s wife Magdalena and the slave Sada represent the “positive” stereotype of the Mexican woman as subservient, innocent victim, whose potentially “dangerous” sexuality is contained by their religious devotions as well as old age or self-chosen chastity (Kaye 170). Inspired by a meeting with the French missionaries, Magdalena escapes her abusive, criminal Anglo husband and helps bring him to his just punishment. She is duly compensated for her suffering, when she regains her lost beauty and happiness after Bishop Latour finds her a new home as cook in a nuns’ convent (Cather 67–74; also Kaye 166). While the young Magdalena wins a certain agency as well as a new perspective in life through her own action (for a contrary reading see Kaye 166), the elderly Sada remains a passive victim, whose plight arouses compassion but not change in the novel. When she manages to escape to Latour’s church one night, the bishop shares prayers with her and gives her a medal of the Virgin Mary as a gift, but does not even try to protect her from her abusive owners (Cather 213–18). Thus, Sada’s preserving her Catholic faith against the will of her Protestant proprietors—an act of resistance to the Anglo U.S.-American claim to cultural hegemony—is rewarded only with spiritual renewal, not with gaining her freedom.

Magdalena and Sada find their equivalent in the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose story is retold in the novel (46–49). Widely venerated among Mexicans but also known in European Catholic circles, as Latour points out (46), this legendary sixteenth-century indigenous Mexican appearance of the Virgin Mary functions as a cultural mediator in Cather’s narrative, as she ennobles Mexican and indigenous female identity in the eyes of Europeans and Anglo U.S.-Americans, yet she affects little change in the lives of Mexican women or the course of history here.3

Several members of New Mexico’s well-entrenched Mexican clergy figure as the “bad” Mexicans in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Epitomizing the seven deadly sins of Catholic doctrine, tyrannizing their local communities, and fiercely fighting both U.S.-American political and Roman religious rule (32, 58–59, 82–84, 139–53, 159–63; also Cohen 151–52; Sevick 197–99), Padre Gallegos of Albuquerque, Padre Martínez of Taos, and Padre Lucero of Arroyo Hondo, all based on historical figures, embody a blend of anti-Catholic and anti-Mexican stereotypes (Rinke 212, 214). The novel especially depicts Antonio José Martínez as the key antagonist to Latour and as a threat to the religious-political changes the bishop as well as the narrative as a whole endorse: “Both the priest and people [of Taos] were hostile to Americans and jealous of interference. Any European, except a Spaniard, was regarded as a gringo” (Cather 139). Martínez specifically challenges the Vatican’s authority in defining doctrines for Church members all over the world (145–47; also Cohen 151–52), as he tells Latour:

We have a living Church here, not a dead arm of the European Church. Our religion grew out of the soil and has its own roots. […] We do not require aid from the [Roman] Propaganda, and we resent its interference. The Church the Franciscan Fathers planted here was cut off; this is the second growth, and it is indigenous. (Cather 146)

Strikingly akin to the U.S.-American claim to national identity and independence from European interference put forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Monroe Doctrine (Besier and Lindemann 59–62, 83), the Padre’s argumentation underlines the function of the Catholic Church as a metaphor for the United States in the novel. Death Comes for the Archbishop acknowledges the pastoral presence, intellect, and profound theological and historical knowledge of this historical figure (Cather 150–53). Yet, by presenting him exclusively through the eyes of Latour and Vaillant as well as by depicting him as a physically and morally repugnant abuser of political and religious ideas for worldly personal gains, who is duly punished with displacement as priest and excommunication (139–47, 158–63), Cather’s narrative clearly discredits not only the historical Martínez but also the Native and Mexican acts of resistance against United States occupation of their territory in the U.S.-Mexican War in which he was said to have played a role (Cohen; Macdonald 76; Stout 239–40, 245).

The individual aberration exhibited by Padre Martínez finds a collective echo in the novel’s denigrating portrayal of the Mexican religious brotherhood of the Penitentes as a group of violent zealots (Cather 154–55; also Chinery 105–06; Cohen 147, 154; Stout 238–39). In this manner it makes a claim for Catholic unity and United States social conformity. In contrast to the way the narrative depicts the Penitentes, Death Comes for the Archbishop validates the anxiety of loyal Mexican Catholics about the new political order in the Southwest by giving a voice to the Mexican residents of the settlement of Agua Secreta. Their view of all Americans as “infidels” (Cather 27) and fear to lose their own religion, culture, and land under the new rule is justified by their having witnessed U.S. soldiers desecrate Mexican Catholic churches and by their own lack of legal papers for their property (26–27; also Stout 237–38).

In contrast to either the women or the influential priests, Death Comes for the Archbishop paints a more nuanced picture of the Mexican ranchers of New Mexico (Tellefsen 9): The jovial patriarch Manuel Lujon perfectly agrees with the Mexican priests’ enjoyment of worldly masculine activities, such as gambling, drinking, or horse-riding. His respect for Father Vaillant’s riding skills at the same time moves the ranchero to make him the generous gift of two precious mules that will carry Vaillant and his bishop on their extensive missionary journeys for many years (Cather 53–63). Antonio Olivares is an intellectually minded, devoted supporter of the French priests and their missionary activities, who also has good ties to other Mexican ranchers, Anglo traders, and U.S. army officers alike (175–83). Boasting his descent from Castilian knights, his friend Manuel Chavez, in contrast, has “never reconciled to American rule” (185; also Schedler 122). As he considers both U.S.-Americans and Amerindians culturally inferior to the Spanish-Mexican population of New Mexico (Cather 183–85), he distrusts Bishop Latour for the latter’s “friendliness toward Indians and Yankees” (185). The novel scrutinizes Chavez’s position, especially his lifelong hatred of and fighting against Natives by pointing out, though not completely scrutinizing, its socio-economic origin, the “sport” of violently chasing Indians that was popular among the Mexican elite before 1848 (184).

Native Voices from the Pueblos and the Plains

Similar to its treatment of the Mexican ranchers, Cather’s novel provides a comparatively complex and sympathetic depiction of different Native cultures. Death Comes for the Archbishop looks in a positive manner at the Amerindian religious syncretism that blends elements of Native religions and Catholicism, such as the Isleta pueblo’s veneration of parrots supported by their Mexican priest or the Ácoma Indians’ using a portrait of Saint Joseph in a ceremony to conjure rain (85–87, 107). When traveling with the bishop, Jacinto and Eusabio, respectively, are the ones who possess the relevant skills and knowledge for the journey, leading the way, knowing place names, weather conditions, and the local history (90–102, 120, 232–34). This becomes manifest especially in a scene in which Jacinto and Latour one night find shelter in a secret cave that plays a crucial role in the Laguna religion. In a reversal of the ethnicized power-knowledge relationship between white employer and Native servant, the bishop, who otherwise leads the Laguna Indian in the Catholic prayers (93, 131), now obeys Jacinto’s orders and pays respect to his religious observance (126–31; also Broncano 128). This reversal, along with another scene in which Latour muses that “just as it was the white man’s way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little […] it was the Indian’s way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace” (Cather 232–33), makes a claim for the (almost) equal value that Bishop Latour—and the novel as a whole—attributes to European and Amerindian civilizations.

Native characters actively scrutinize the French missionaries’ stereotypes of their civilization. Traveling with Latour, Jacinto not only responds to a compliment of the bishop about an Amerindian place name by insisting that “Indians have nice names too!” (90) but also contests Latour’s Western knowledge about stars with his Native belief about them (92–93; also Tellefsen 9). Moreover, through the figures of Jacinto, a representative of the non-itinerant Pueblo Indians, as well as Eusabio and Manuelito, both chiefs of the nomadic Navajos, Death Comes for the Archbishop presents its readers with different Native cultures and their perspectives on the European and Anglo U.S.-American presence in New Mexico: “The truth was Jacinto liked the bishop’s way of meeting people. […] In his experience, white people, when they addressed Indians, always put on a false face. […] The Bishop put on none at all” (Cather 94). In a later scene, Manuelito, who fights against his tribe’s displacement to a reservation (290–95; also Schedler 122), utters his thoughts: “It was Manuelito’s hope that the Bishop would go to Washington and plead his people’s case before they were utterly destroyed. They asked nothing of the government, he told Father Latour, but their religion, and their own land where they had lived from immemorial times” (Cather 292). Akin to its depiction of Mexican resistance to U.S.-Americanization—validating the fears of ordinary people but scrutinizing the rebellion of Padre Martínez and Manuel Chavez—, the novel legitimizes the insurgence of the Pecos Indians against their abusive Spanish priest by emphasizing that the Natives did not turn against the Catholic church and Spanish rule in general (113–14). The narrative further justifies the Navajos’ resistance to relocation, yet it does not stake a claim for white intervention into the U.S. government’s genocidal Indian policies in support of the Native cause (290–95).

A Lady and Two Frontiersmen

In contrast to the depiction of Mexican and Amerindian identities and cultures, Anglo U.S.-American life plays a rather marginal role in Death Comes for the Archbishop, as the novel features only three relevant Anglo characters. The first of these, Magdalena’s abusive and serial murderer husband Buck Scales, epitomizes the type of the ruthless U.S.-American seeking to make his fortune on the moral and geographical brink of “civilization,” that is, the Southwestern frontier. His ethnic and national identity alone seems to have enabled him to find a wife, as “for Mexican girls marriage with an American meant coming up in the world” (72). In a classical way of connecting character to physiology (see Lupton 58), the novel makes Scales’s evil doings show through his physical appearance: He is described as “an ugly, evil-looking fellow […], gaunt and ill-formed with a snake-like neck, terminating in a small, bony head” that “showed a number of thick ridges, as if the skull joinings were overgrown by layers of superfluous bone” (Cather 66–67). Thus appearing as a Darwinian sub-human species, he tellingly “seemed [to be] no more than half human” (67). The joint victory of the French priests, Magdalena, and the U.S. justice system over Buck Scales—he is captured and sentenced for his deeds—argues for the possibility, if not necessity, of interethnic collaboration in fighting the downside of U.S.-American expansionism in the Southwestern Borderlands. It also makes a claim for the establishment of Anglo “civilization” on the frontier, as the Mexican population has failed to effectively deal with criminals like Scales in their region.

Isabella Olivares, the Kentucky wife of Antonio Olivares, is a more complexly depicted character. A French-educated, cultivated woman, her evening parties provide the two French missionaries with a rare distraction from the hardships of their frontier lives. Yet, it seems that Cather’s narrative pities, even punishes, Doña Isabella for her vanity, exaggerated refinement, and attempts to Europeanize her husband (175–77). Her adherence to the gendered social role of the Southern Lady, especially her claim to be much younger than she really is, almost costs her the inheritance from her deceased Mexican husband when his brothers contest his will (187–92; also Kaye 167–68). While the novel addresses the subject of slavery in the United States only in passing (Cather 212, 290), Doña Isabella’s story can be read as a tentative commentary on the incompatibility of the values of the “Old South” with life on the Southwestern frontier.

Death Comes for the Archbishop engages in another act of cultural critique in its depiction of the legendary U.S.-American trapper, western guide, and military officer Christopher “Kit” Carson. The novel clearly euphemizes Carson’s role in the forced relocation of the Navajos, in which he employed methods of economic warfare—destroying the Natives’ crops, livestock, and settlements—to make them move to the distant Bosque Redondo Reservation. Latour refers to Carson, the Indian hunter, as his “misguided friend” (291) and justifies the trapper’s behavior by emphasizing that he “was a soldier under orders, and he did a soldier’s brutal work” (292; also Cohen 156). Yet, by pointing out this side of Carson as well as by introducing him as a shy, short man with “delicately modeled” lips that “suggested a capacity for tenderness” (Cather 75), who is further illiterate, Catholic, an enjoys the trust of the Mexican population (74–76; also Cohen 155), the narrative deconstructs the popular “heroic” and hegemonic Anglo image of the trapper in U.S.-American culture (Tellefsen 9). In this manner it offers an ambivalent image of the paradigm of Manifest Destiny upon which the violent Indian policy of the United States represented in the figure of Kit Carson was based. Moreover, as the trapper consoles the desperate Magdalena, translates and verifies her testimony against her abusive husband, and helps Latour and Vaillant in dealing with Southwestern frontier life (Cather 74–77, 132, 134), the Kit Carson of Death Comes for the Archbishop acts as a mediator between Mexican, Anglo U.S.-American, and European cultures.

Landscapes of Identity

The missionaries’ experiences and the Borderlands politics and cultures they encounter in Death Comes for the Archbishop find a mirror image in the narrative’s rich descriptions of nature. At first New Mexico appears to the French priests as a primitive, mystic wilderness the newcomers need to culturally map as well as physically experience in order to render it meaningful to them. In Latour’s words, “New Mexico lay in the middle of a dark continent” (20; also 17–23; Dollar 6). In the course of the novel, the depiction of the New Mexico landscape becomes increasingly nuanced and “legible” in its underlining the character of the different populations who live there: Austere deserts and rocky mesas mark the lives of the dying-out Pueblo Indian nations; the more rebellious Navajos reside on the more fertile, though still rough ground of plains, forests, and canyons; and fertile valleys shelter various smaller (Native-)Mexican settlements (Cather 24, 32, 84–85, 88–90, 94–100, 118, 123, 164–65, 220–22, 291–95).

These differentiations aside, New Mexico in Death Comes for the Archbishop remains a hostile wilderness “waiting to be made into a landscape” (95) through human intervention. The un-appropriated nature “evok[es] the dream of America as refuge, where all things are possible” (Urgo 147) and where European cultures and religions transculturally merge with Amerindian and mestizo ones (Broncano 128–30). Yet, this “American dream” entails not only the demand for cultural conformity (Urgo 145) but more precisely for a conformity to European and U.S.-American standards. Parallel to the French priests’ missionary and reformatory work among their Native and Mexican congregations (Broncano 130–31)—as well as symbolic of it (Dollar 7–8)—, European and Anglo cultures domesticate the New Mexican nature through the advent of the railway as well as the cultivation of European-style gardens. While the garden of the abusive Spanish priest Fray Baltazar is doomed to die along with its proprietor (Cather 104–11, 114; also Broncano 133), the French gardens Latour and Vaillant keep or nostalgically remember (Cather 39, 41–42, 84, 263–65) provide the landscape ideal throughout the novel and hereby contribute to its claim for the superiority of European (Dollar 8; Macdonald 74–75) and—if one sees the French missionaries as a metaphor for the missionary impulse of United States society (Urgo 137–38)—U.S.-American civilization over the Native and mestizo cultures of the New World. While the New Mexico landscape changes little over time except in the perception and appreciation of the French priests, developments in architecture and engineering signify the cultural changes the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands underwent in the second half of the nineteenth century. Through the figure of Eusabio, the novel articulates mixed feelings about the meaning of the railway for the history of New Mexico: Happy that train connections facilitate travel and hence intercultural contact, the Navajo chief, nonetheless, muses prophetically that “men travel faster now, but I do not know if they go to better things” (Cather 289). However, for Latour, as the key voice of the narrative, the railway symbolizes progress and his own participation in history, when he ponders that “he had come with the buffalo, and he had lived to see railway trains running into Santa Fé. He had accomplished an historic period” (271; also Urgo 148).

The development of Santa Fé plays a similar role in Death Comes for the Archbishop. A “thin, wavering adobe town” located on a “depression in the plain” (Cather 22; also 268) when the missionaries arrive in the early 1850s, Anglo architecture has taken over half of the city by the end of the century (268). Desiring to set up a symbol of the future of Catholicism in New Mexico, the bishop sets yet another architectural style against both the Native-Mexican and the U.S.-American building traditions, when he commissions a cathedral for his diocesan town in Southern French Neo-Romanesque style (239–42). As a church “of the South” (269), closer to New Mexico’s Spanish-Catholic heritage than the “English coach house” (240) churches of the U.S.-American heartland, as well as constructed out of a local New Mexico stone (239), this building symbolizes the transcultural nature of New Mexico Catholicism and its first archbishop (Broncano 133–34), and hereby represents an act of resistance to Anglo U.S.-American hegemony in the recently annexed Southwest. As it fails to incorporate any of the local cultural traditions and, instead, imposes a French architectural model, the cathedral, at the same time, expresses the complicity of the Catholic Church in the European cultural imperialism in the New World (Sevick 202–03; Urgo 138–39).


As Christopher Schedler points out, “Death Comes for the Archbishop represents the borderlands of the Southwest as an intersection of different cultures understood not as fixed totalities but as social processes subject to change, conflict, and resistance” (120). In a context in which Amerindians, Mexicans, Anglo U.S.-Americans, and Europeans living in the region struggle to preserve their cultural identities, often through acts of resistance to orthodox Christianity or United States political rule, the novel exemplifies the possibility of interethnic mediation and even transculturation through the figures of two French missionaries, several Mexican ranchers, Native chiefs and guides, and an Anglo frontiersman, who act as intercultural interlocutors among the distinct populations of mid- to late nineteenth-century New Mexico (Schedler 120–21). Even though the novel presents its Mexican and Amerindian characters mainly as Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant view them, especially Mexicans and Natives actively “talk back” to the hegemonic point of view the two Frenchmen provide.

While the narrative fictionalizes the historical archbishop and his vicar general as well as paints a benevolent picture of Anglo U.S.-American Kit Carson, it clearly vilifies the Mexican Padre Martínez. In so doing, Janis Stout points out, the narrative “defined in exaggerated terms the conflict between the two cultures [these men] represented, further loading the terms of her legend of enlightened American expansion.” (245–46; also Cohen 147, 152, 155–56; MacDonald 75–76; Tellefsen 8). In a similar vein, the novel argues for the socio-cultural benefits of U.S.-Americanization as well as positively depicts the works of the French missionaries and the transformation of the New Mexican landscape as metaphors of U.S.-American appropriation of the Southwest. Death Comes for the Archbishop, despite its critique of certain aspects of Anglo rule in the newly annexed Southwest, hereby endorses the paradigm of United States Manifest Destiny as well as maintains a problematic notion of European cultural superiority to the New World that mars its nuanced depiction of the different Borderlands identities and its claim for validating their cultures.


Works Cited

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Dollar, J. Gerard. “Desert Landscapes and the ‘Male Gaze:’ Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.” Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletter and Review 42.1 (1998): 6–9.

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1   I use the term “frontier” here in the Turnerian sense, to demarcate the westward-pushing zone of encounter and conflict between Euro-American and Amerindian cultures (Turner), and “border”/“borderlands” to denote a border area between nation states or their respective colonies—in the present case the U.S.-Mexico border region.

2   Bishop Latour (“tower”), who descends from an educated upper-middle-class family, suffers from loneliness, makes friends rather slowly, and has a strong intellectual bent. His companion, the baker’s son Joseph Vaillant (derived from “valiant,” “brave”) is energetic and optimistic despite his lifelong physical frailty as well as pragmatic, almost naïve in his understanding and spreading of the faith (Cather 18–19, 22, 29, 36–38, 42–45, 49–50, 117–20, 202–06, 223–27, 243, 248–54, 259–60, 271, 281–84). For a critique of the novel’s depiction of the priests, especially Vaillant, see Cohen 155.

3   See also Schedler 121; Warren 81. According to Robin Warren, this mediator function applies to the Virgin Mary in the novel in general. He further points out the culturally mediating function of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose blending elements of the Aztec and Christian religions facilitated the spread of Catholicism in Mexico (81). The figures of Catholic saints Latour and Vaillant appreciate in Mexican homes and churches fulfill a similar mediator function, this time validating Mexican popular religious culture (Cather 27–28, 248; also Schedler 121; Warren 81–83).


Astrid Haas is a postdoctoral researcher in American Literary and Cultural Studies at Bielefeld University, Germany. She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Münster, Germany. Her research interests include travel writing in the Americas, U.S.-American drama and autobiography, Ethnic Studies, Sport Cultures, and the visual arts and media. Her most recent publications are Stages of Agency: The Contributions of American Drama to the AIDS Discourse (Heidelberg, 2011), “Canon y Cálculo: Jaime Escalante, Richard Rodriguez y el debate educativo latino entre asimilación y multiculturalismo” in Forum for Inter-American Research 4.1 (2011) and “A Raisin in the East: African American Civil Rights Drama in GDR Scholarship and Theater Practice” in Germans and African Americans: Two Centuries of Exchange (Jackson, MS, 2011).

Suggested Citation

Haas, Astrid. “Borderlands Identities and Borderlands Ideologies in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.” American Studies Journal 57 (2012). Web. 13 Apr. 2024. DOI 10.18422/57-02.


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