An enduring paradox of American literature is that a Protestant author, Willa Cather (1873–1947) wrote novels with Catholic themes that have been ardently acclaimed by critics and readers alike for generations.
There is Catholic subject matter throughout Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), which describes attempts by clergy to establish a diocese in New Mexico Territory; and Shadows on the Rock (1931), set among French colonists in Quebec.
Other Cather novels, too, including O Pioneers! (1913), My Ántonia (1918), The Professor’s House (1925) and My Mortal Enemy (1926) feature Catholic dogma, doctrine and practices, described with affection and sympathy.
Why was Cather so persistent in her chosen themes? One essential motivation was that Cather defined religion as humanism incorporating artistry. She depicted the arts as a fundamental part of Church history through protagonists such as Jean-Marie Latour in Death Comes for the Archbishop, a fictionalised version of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the 19th-century prelate who served as first Archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
To counteract Latour/Lamy’s idealism, Cather introduced Joseph Vaillant, inspired by Joseph Projectus Machebeuf, an American Catholic missionary who served as the first Bishop of Denver, Colorado. Cather’s Vaillant is frankly acquisitive and towards the end of the novel his financial dealings attract an investigation by Vatican authorities. Other priests in New Mexico are also described as fallible, prey to greed, lust, gluttony and other sins.
Juxtaposing such personalities was the focus of Cather’s art, as she deliberately downplayed historical drama. Instead of suspenseful plot lines, she aspired to a narrative akin to that in the Golden Legend, a collection of hagiographies by Blessed Jacobus de Varagine. Cather gave major events no more overt emphasis than apparently humdrum details of everyday life.
In a letter to Commonweal magazine from 1927, written to explain the Catholic content in Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather observed that in the Golden Legend, “it is as though all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual experience, were of about the same importance.”
Such equanimity and de-dramatisation were part of Cather’s conviction that Catholicism and the arts were inextricably intertwined. In The Professor’s House, the protagonist Godfrey St Peter, faced with spiritual challenges related to family and home, declares: “Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had… [Cathedral builders] might, without sacrilege, have changed the [Lord’s] Prayer a little and said, ‘Thy will be done in art, as it is in heaven’.”
In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Jean-Marie Latour is one such cathedral builder. Cather encountered others during her lifetime. As her letter to Commonweal noted, the presence of Catholicism in her novel was due to her frank admiration of the “spirit in which [French priests] accepted the accidents and hardships of a desert country”.
Cather knew the desert country well.
She was born a Baptist in Nebraska and later joined the Episcopal Church. During her childhood, her friends and neighbours were mostly Catholic, from Scandinavia, Germany, Bohemia and French Canada.
She forged a particularly lasting friendship with the local priest, Fr Dennis Fitzgerald of Red Cloud, Nebraska.
Decades later, as a renowned novelist, she enjoyed exchanging letters with Catholic readers, with a special fondness for men and women in religious orders. She supported them by writing cheques and with other donations, as she informed her brother Roscoe in a letter from May 1931: “My initials seem to be fashionable now-a-days. An initialled cigarette case which I had used was lately sold for 25 dollars at a Catholic dinner fair. And for so many years my cigarette case was a family skeleton!
Well, all things come to him who waits.”
Her correspondents also included Alexander Kaun (1889-1944), a lecturer of Russian Jewish origin at the University of California, who praised Death Comes for the Archbishop as “propaganda” for Catholicism that
made him “yearn for conversion, for refuge under the wing of such a warm and wise mother church”.
Yet despite such devotees, as the Great Depression advanced, socially conscious critics would slate Cather for apparently retreating into a bygone age.
One such was Granville Hicks, who wrote in the English Journal in 1933: “For the reader who is not seeking an opiate, Shadows on the Rock has little to offer.” Hicks’s words deliberately echoed the claim by Karl Marx that “religion … is the opiate of the masses”, since Hicks was at the time an adherent of Marxism (which he later disavowed).
Despite the naysayers among influential 1930s East Coast critics, literary historians today disagree over whether Cather underwent any real loss of popularity. She has always retained a devoted readership, and was steadfastly admired by a range of eminent writers, including Eudora Welty, HL Mencken, Wallace Stevens and Rebecca West.
Benjamin Ivry is the author of biographies of Ravel, Poulenc and Rimbaud, and is a translator from the French of authors including Gide, Verne and Balthus