Book 8 Chapter 1
Book VIII: Gold Under Pike’s Peak
Summary: Three weeks after Vaillant’s return to Santa Fe, Latour invites him to take a ride with him to a rocky ridge sixty miles distant from Albuquerque. There, the bishop shows his vicar the site upon which he hopes to build a cathedral—one yellow hill among many green ones. Latour tells Vaillant he hopes to have the cathedral finished before he dies. Vaillant is supportive of Latour’s plans, but finds himself not as passionate about the project as is his superior and his friend, and still wondering why he was recalled from his missionary work in Arizona.
Analysis: Taken together with the next chapter, this chapter gives readers another glimpse into the differences between the two characters of Latour and Vaillant. Although both are similar in their desire to serve their Church and the people to whom it ministers, we see that service taking different shape.
Latour has finally found the spot where he wants to build a cathedral—but it is not just any cathedral. It is not to be, for instance, a mere copy of “one of those horrible structures they are putting up in the Ohio cities” (p. 240). All of Latour’s talk about architectural styles is, at a deeper level, talk about the need for the Church to accommodate itself to the environment in which it works—as we have seen, a recurring thematic concern of Cather’s novel. Latour’s cathedral will be a fusion of the past, the present, and the future: the stone with which it will be built is “something nearer home, I mean, nearer Clermont [in France, from whence Latour hails]. When I look up at this rock I can almost feel the Rhone behind me” (p. 239). Yet the stone so similar to the stones of Latour’s native France and the architectural style of the European cathedrals he most loves—like “the old Palace of the Popes, at Avignon” (p. 240) are suitable for the New World: “Our own Midi Romanesque is the right style for this country” (p. 240). Latour is not really concerned with his own vanity, despite his jesting comments to Vaillant along those lines. Rather, he is honoring his new “home” by introducing into it the best elements of his old “home.” Notice the particular manner, as Cather describes it, in which Latour fingers the soil of the site of the future cathedral: “As he had a special way of handling objects that were sacred, he extended that manner to things which he considered beautiful” (p. 239). There is, then, something sacramental in the way in which Latour handles the earth of his new home—just as we saw, in VII.3, that there is something sacramental in the way in which Vaillant can transform fine meals into spiritual energy (p. 226). Latour’s experiences in his “great diocese” have led him to see the holiness inherent in the land and in its people, and it is that holiness he now seeks to honor by building his cathedral. Thus, he can truly say, “the Cathedral is not for us… We build for the future” (p. 241). The cathedral is not the end in and of itself, but a means to the end of continuing, vital ministry among the peoples of the Southwest.
For his part, Vaillant is no less concerned with the people and their future, but “whether [a cathedral] was Midi Romanesque or Ohio German in style, seemed to him of little consequence” (p. 243). As we have seen throughout the novel, Vaillant has a passion for active missionary work; and all the while Latour is envisioning his cathedral, Vaillant is “still wondering why he [has] been called home from saving souls in Arizona” (p. 243). He tells Latour he is “a little restless” (p. 238). As we saw in VII.1, Vaillant has discovered that his life’s true work is “to hunt for lost Catholics” (p. 206), and that he has “almost become a Mexican” (p. 208) in his love for the people. This mission and identity combine to explain Vaillant’s restlessness in this chapter—a restlessness that will be resolved in the next.