We began our class on Death Comes for the Archbishop by focusing on the novel’s historically suspect account of the American Southwest as the site of idyllic, even Edenic, encounters between global authority and local populations. We turned to the generic mystification of the novel—Cather refers to it as a “narrative”—to make sense of the text’s ostensible repression of colonial violence in Southwestern history. We read the text’s generic ambiguity not as a claim to documentary or historical authenticity, but as the generation of a regional mythology particular to the Southwest.
While the interactions between the French priests and the Southwestern locals appear remarkably egalitarian, the novel marks these relations as regional contingencies, produced by the infrastructural instability and arrested rate of modernization on the Southwestern frontier. Without steady lines of global communication or even reliable forms of local transportation, global power structures like the Catholic church appear unable to reproduce themselves fully on the regional level. Within Southwestern localities, the typical vectors of colonial power invert, and we see the French bishops appealing to their own parishioners for physical protection and the legitimation of their authority.
The novel’s form, which seems organized by encounters with regional art—the Santos tradition and other religious art in particular—allowed us to talk about material culture and the transmission of regional history. We looked at the moment where Latour and Vaillant appraise a church bell and dispute the indebtedness of Spanish silverworking to Moorish craftsmanship. Latour celebrates the Moorish origins of the craft, seemingly eliding or repressing the violent history that allowed that craft to develop in Europe. Jason suggested that repressions of this kind may be endemic to the material archives on which Southwestern regional histories rely, and from which the bell issues. Material, as opposed to textual, archival objects are by nature unable to give a full account of their origins, enfolding a necessary repression of the violence that might characterize their genealogy.
We turned to how visual art both mediates Latour’s relationship to the Southwestern landscape and how it structures the novel’s representation of New Mexican locality. Latour’s aesthetic sense is both the reason for his dispatch to the Southwest—his ability to appreciate art is one of the primary reasons he’s made bishop—as well as an essential and perhaps inextricable part of his devotional practice. The revelation of the cruciform tree in the opening chapter consolidates his missionary purpose, while the construction of a cathedral, formally wedding both his aesthetic values and religious devotion, functions as the capstone achievement of his life. We discussed how art, almost without exception, takes on a devotional function in the novel—from the santos artwork to the cloth painting ostensibly made by the Lady of Guadalupe, the kind of visual art documented by the novel produces locality as it elaborates religious belief and practice.
From there, we looked at the novel’s attention to the Southwestern landscape to understand how cross-cultural exchange functions within the context of ecological practice: specifically, how the local populations abandon an abusive priest’s draconian gardening projects after his death, and how Latour reacts to local practices which ritualize nature and natural formations. For Latour, the relationship of Southwestern populations to the landscape evokes or is implicated in a history that is not only premodern, but pre-Christian—a history that proves both threatening and inaccessible to Latour, a foreigner and a clergyman. For the Mexican and Native American populations, ecological practice allows for both the production of locality and a primary form of local control. After Friar Baltazar is executed, his church is left intact, but his garden is left to wither—suggesting, perhaps, that his abuses of power were felt most strongly in their ecological, as opposed to religious or social, effects.