Death Comes to the Archbishop: Biography: Willa Cather

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Biography

Born in Virginia in 1873, Willa Cather moved with her family a decade later to Nebraska (later the setting for much of her fiction). Following her graduation from the University of Nebraska (1895), Cather began a career as a journalist. She shortly moved to Pittsburgh, where, in addition to editing a magazine, she was a high school English teacher. In Pittsburgh, in 1903, she published her first book, a collection of verse, rather than the prose for which Cather is now remembered—she would publish her first work of fiction two years later. In 1906, she was hired to edit McClure’s magazine, and so became a writer based in New York City. Her career as a novelist began after the first of what would be many visits to the American Southwest in 1912. Cather would go on to write a dozen novels, including Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).
“Cather’s passion for the Southwest was most fully expressed in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). She considered this book her best, as do many critics. It is an experimental modernist work, loosely episodic, with no conventional plot and laced with inset stories. Cather said she was trying to write a novel that was like a series of frescoes by Puvis de Chavannes depicting the life of Ste. Geneviève, which she had seen in Paris in 1902. She also drew on the way the lives of the saints were written in The Golden Legend, in which their martyrdoms are no more emphasized than the trivial events of their lives. The immediate inspiration for the book, however, was the biography of a priest who had been vicar to the first bishop (later archbishop) of New Mexico. The novel fictionalizes the lives of John Baptist Lamy and Joseph Machebeuf, missionary priests from France, as they organize and minister to the new diocese of New Mexico after its annexation by the United States following the war with Mexico. Beautifully told in Cather’s simple but eloquent style, it is one of the classics of modern American literature” (American National Biography, www.anb.org).
O Pioneer! (1913) and My Antonia (1918) are two of Cather’s other most famous works; they are both tales of immigration and the pioneer spirit in the American Plains. She won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1923 (for One of Ours, even though the novel was not well received by literary critics). She died in 1947.

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