Willa Cather by Carl Van Vechten (Library of Congress)
Published in 1927, Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop is still widely read and admired. The fictional portrayal of New Mexico’s first Catholic archbishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy (called Jean-Marie Latour in the book) is beautifully written in Cather’s sparse but descriptive language.
Its chapters—a series of tableaus in Latour’s life—are based on Cather’s own research and travels, and the many places she describes are real: Acoma Pueblo, Chimayó, Taos, and the Lamy quarry that provided the ochre sandstone for the St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe. Garrett Peck examines how Cather’s visits to Santa Fe with her partner Edith Lewis in 1925 and 1926 inspired her to research and write the novel.
Cather and Lewis, a professional editor who assisted Cather with each of her novels from 1915’s The Song of the Lark onward, were a couple for nearly four decades. Their creative partnership was largely unrecognized until recently, and since the publication of Cather’s letters in 2011 she has become an LGBTQ+ icon.
On the eventful 1925 trip to Taos, where Mabel Dodge Luhan held court as the town’s artistic doyen, Lewis kept a simple Blue Jay notebook to record her vacation adventures with Cather. The ideas that would become Death Comes for the Archbishop are found there, and the first words of the novel appear in its pages, pointing the way to Cather’s extensive research.
How Cather wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop, what she got right (and wrong), and the public perception of what Cather would later call her “best book” are aspects of Peck’s discussion of one of the 20th century’s most enduring novels.
Peck is an author, public historian, and tour guide who lives in Santa Fe. He is working on a book about how Cather wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop.
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