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The standard popular narrative of American religion follows the arrival of the Pilgrims to the New World, where they spread the good news of liberty and capitalism across the continent. God bless America!
On the surface, Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop seems to reinforce all that. Father Latour, a Catholic priest moving from East to West, intends to missionize the noble savages. He is regal and pious. Indeed, his “bowed head was not that of an ordinary man—it was built for the seat of a fine intelligence. His brow was open, generous, reflective, his features handsome and somewhat severe.” He resembles the mythical George Washington praying at Valley Forge. Cather continues, “He had a kind of courtesy toward himself, toward his beasts, toward the juniper tree before which he knelt, and the God whom he was addressing.”
Cather - Death - Comes - Archbishop - Paean
Cather, however, complicates the usual narrative. Death Comes for the Archbishop is not a paean to America. Indeed, the United States is not even the main character. Beginning in France and ending in Mexico, the priest shows just how transnational America has always been. Latour’s frames are Native American territory and European empires. The Italian Wars and the election of new popes shape even the wilds of New Mexico. Latour might embrace the new land, but he is nonetheless nostalgic about the Old World, especially his native France, waxing rhapsodic about “towering peaks of his native mountains, the comeliness of the villages, the cleanness of the country-side, the beautiful lines and cloisters of his own college.”
Nor is this a Protestant story. American religion here takes the form of cathedrals, ecclesial hierarchies, miraculous mirages, Marian devotion, venerations of the saints, and celebrations of the Eucharist. It explores many Catholicisms that range from the generosity of Latour to the imperious cruelty of Friar Baltazar to...
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