Willa Cather described the result of her bold experimentation into advancing the art of the novel in Death Comes for the Archbishop as “altogether a new kind of thing.” Reviewers, critics, scholars and academicians have described the work in a multiplicity of terms: chronicle, character study, intimate epic, regional historical fiction and even, in the lyrical language of one writer, “an interplay of environment and character.” Such a distinctively idiosyncratic and successful endeavor was Death Comes for the Archbishop in the eyes of its creator that it moved Willa Cather—arguably one of the five best writers in America at any time during her long career—to request an increase in her standard royalty payment by one percent.
The story of French missionaries in the second half of the 1800’s is based on the historical events of attempts to establish a diocese in the frontier territories of New Mexico and Arizona. Bishop Lamy of Santa Fe and his vicar, Father Machebeuf are transformed through Cather’s imagination into Father Latour and Father Vaillant. Their story is told not in a traditional fashion linking one chapter to the next nor as a collection of independent short stories trading upon a common theme, but as nine “books” that are each composed of several evocative vignettes that construct a portrait of an era. In this manner, Cather addresses the personalities of the two main characters and the alien experience of being a Catholic priest with dreams of building a cathedral sharing the same time and region in which Billy the Kid lived and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place (neither of which actually plays any part in the narrative, of course, although Kit Carson does show up ).
When the Modern Library composed their list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century, Death Comes for the Archbishop was ranked 61st. What may well be the single most surprising appearance of Willa Cather’s “new kind of thing” on any list is its placement at number 7 on the Western Writers of America picks for the all-time best western novels, ranking ahead of such iconic examples of the genre as True Grit, The Searchers and Riders of the Purple Sage.