Diversity appears in unusual places. When it comes to Westerns, the stereotype is that old Westerns included almost no minorities, and new ones have seen the light and are giving a fair shake to everyone. But I recently finished a book that, while unique as a “Western” then or now, breaks almost every stereotype I can think of.
Westerns are plot-driven. This one is episodic. Westerns include cowboys. Cowboys are only mentioned in passing. Westerns don’t focus on clergyman. The main character is a Catholic bishop.
The book is Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. It reads as a succession of vignettes based on one man’s life—Catholic bishop, later archbishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy (called Jean Marie Latour in the book), who was sent to New Mexico shortly after it was taken by the United States. I’m not sure how many were based on actual incidents in his life, but in any case, Latour’s background and experiences make for a Western unlike most of its time.
Latour is a Frenchman who speaks both English and Spanish. In fact, he insists that his household speak either English or Spanish, since English is the language of the Americans who rule the region and Spanish is the language of the Mexicans whom he spends most of his time serving. Native Americans come into the story often, as well. In fact, I estimate that at least half the characters in the book are non-white. Probably more. And of the white characters, many are not even American. In fact, the only important white American in the book is Kit Carson, who is presented as a complex character. Carson converted to Catholicism after marrying a Mexican wife (a historical fact), and he befriends Bishop Latour by helping him save the life of another Mexican woman, one who was being abused by her murderous American husband. Yet Carson also takes part in an attempt to force a group of Native Americans from their lands, an action that Bishop Latour strongly disagrees with. (Sadly, he can do nothing, even when a chief begs for his help—Catholics were, at that time, viewed as suspect by the United States government.)
Cather’s book offers a rarely seen glimpse of Southwestern history. Most older stories on the West focused more on areas farther north, where Native Americans were the original inhabitants. The Southwest included a far greater array of cultures. Not all Hispanics immigrated to the United States in the last century. Some have been here far longer. There were Hispanics fighting alongside William Travis at the Alamo. The Southwest has traditionally been a region of considerable political, cultural, and religious complexity, much of which Willa Cather chose to address in her novel.
Death Comes for the Archbishop isn’t a very entertaining story. There are adventures, but not enough of the building tension that makes for a gripping read. Yet it offers a broad look life in the American Southwest that can be found in very few early writers. If you want to take a look at the early West’s multiculturalism, you do not need to go to modern Westerns. Just read Willa Cather.