1. Discuss the concept of “miracles” in Cather’s novel. What are they? How do they compare with traditional understandings of the miraculous? How are miracles, in Cather’s text, to be recognized?
Answers should note the key text from the book regarding the miraculous: Latour tells Vaillant, “Where there is great love there are always miracles… One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love… [Miracles] seem to me to rest… upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always” (p. 50). In Cather’s novel, then, miracles could easily be mistaken as everyday occurrences; or, at the least, occurrences that demand no supernatural explanation. They are thus at odds with traditional definitions of the miraculous (as, for example, the story of Juan Diego, related in I.4). These events, however, when seen through the eyes of faith and love—faith in God and love for one’s fellow human beings—reveal a divine aspect of life always present. Examples of such miracles in the text could include Manuelito’s willingness to give his pair of prize mules to Vaillant (II.1); Madame Olivares’ willingness to reveal her true age in order to secure the Church’s inheritance from her late husband (VI.2); and Latour’s experience of the Blessed Virgin through his encounter with Sada (VII.2), among other possibilities. In Cather’s text, miracles are recognized wherever love and connection among people triumph.
2. How does the novel’s prologue introduce some important themes of the book as a whole?
>Answers should include a close textual readings of the prologue, highlighting dialogue and details that anticipate later themes in Cather’s book. For example: The portrait of Saint Francis of which de Allande speaks symbolizes the legacy—or, perhaps, the burdensome baggage—of the past, a constant concern for Latour and Vaillant as they strive to reach the people of the New World with the Catholic faith. Readers are unsure how seriously de Allande makes the request that the newly appointed Bishop “keep my El Greco in mind” (p. 13), but the very fact that de Allande would bring up this long-lost painting when Bishop Ferrand is focused on the future of the Catholic Church in the New World hints at de Allande’s small horizons—as does his apparently complete disinterest in hearing the truth about New Mexico’s native inhabitants: “My knowledge of your country is chiefly drawn from the romances of Fenimore Cooper” (p. 10), a reference to such novels by James Fenimore Cooper as The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Cooper tended to idealize and romanticize the Native Americans—his works reinforce the common stereotype of “the noble savage”—and yet de Allande makes it clear that he prefers this romantic image to thinking of the people of New Mexico as true human beings. When Ferrand tells de Allande that “Indians do not dwell in wigwams,” the Cardinal replies, “No matter… I see your redskins through Fenimore Cooper, and I like them so” (p. 13). Latour and Vaillant, in contrast, have a successful ministry precisely because they connect with all people, including the natives, as real people.
3. Discuss the novel’s characterization of historical figure Kit Carson. Does he emerge as an ultimately positive or negative character—or both or neither? How do you assess Cather’s treatment of Carson?
>For most of the novel, Carson is presented in a positive light. He is, in fact, presented as a kind of parallel to Latour: he is a guiding figure, who identifies with the local population (e.g., Carson dresses in buckskin and speaks Spanish, pp. 73-74) and seeks to serve them and treat them well, as his kindness in taking in Magdalena demonstrates. Carson is his own kind of “blossom in the wilderness”: despite the hardship of the western frontier, Carson, in Latour’s judgment, “had preserved a clean sense of honor and a compassionate heart” (p. 77). In his own way, he lives up to his name (Christopher) as a “Christ-bearer”—even though he converted to Catholicism “merely as a matter of form” upon his marriage (p. 75), and religion seems to him “pretty much a woman’s affair” (p. 75). But he does hint that perhaps he is reconsidering his religious views: “I thought I might some day be a Catholic in earnest” (p. 76). History, however, presents a mixed judgment on Carson, due to his involvement in the Long Walk. When the novel references Carson’s later life, then, readers may see the famous scout’s fate as a fall from grace—or, perhaps, potential grace. By introducing Carson to readers through Latour’s eyes, and by bringing up the matter of the “earnestness” (or lack thereof) of his Catholicism, Cather presents the frontiersman as another participant in the drama of salvation or destruction in the New World being carried out, usually in small ways, throughout the book. Students’ reactions to the characterization of Carson will vary.
4. How does the mesa country of the Ácoma illustrate the importance of both place and past in Cather’s novel?
The mesa country is regarded as sacred because it expresses a desired continuity with the past. For example, the storm in the mesa country makes Latour think of “the first Creation morning… when the dry land was first drawn up out of the deep, and all was confusion” (p. 99). And the people of Ácoma are “antediluvian creatures” [i.e., dating from before the Flood of Noah]… types of life so old, so shut within their shells, that the sacrifice on Calvary could hardly reach back so far” (p. 100). This is quite a thought for a Catholic priest to be thinking! Little wonder that the celebration of the Mass leaves Latour with “a sense of inadequacy and spiritual defeat” (p. 100), if he feels that Jesus’ death, remote in time as it is, cannot draw near to the Ácomas, who seem to be mired in a deep, changeless, primordial past. Latour’s reflection is probably not meant to be understood as heretical, however; rather, it both reinforces the changelessness of the mesa country and serves to evoke awe. Latour feels “inadequate” because he and his religion have been humbled before something much simpler, much older, and thus much more powerful. Perhaps this is why the appearance of the Ácoma cathedral strikes Latour as “warlike” (p. 100). We learn that it was built for the “satisfaction” of past Spanish missionaries, “rather than according to the needs of the Indians” (p. 101). The Indians labored to construct it, but the cathedral stands as a monument to human pride: “Fray Ramirez, or some Spanish priest who followed him, was not altogether innocent of worldly ambition…” (p. 101). Now, in Latour’s eyes, the cathedral stands exposed as a “grim” (p. 100) relic of a past conflict between the native experience and the imported religion—a conflict that, despite the cathedral’s construction, the imported religion lost. The Spanish priests are long gone, yet the ancient, unchanging Ácomas remain—“a kind of life out of reach” (p. 103). Such is the situation confronting Latour and his Church in the mesa country. It is a situation Latour must learn to correct by adopting a new approach to ministry and mission, one that is “according to the needs of the Indians.” If his ministry is to bear fruit in the mesa country, Latour will have to—literally and figuratively—build a new church.
5. What does the novel’s final chapter imply will be Latour’s lasting contribution to and legacy in the New World?
The chapter emphasizes the Cathedral—congregants throng it and others stand outside it to keep Latour’s death vigil, and the dead Archbishop is laid for viewing before its high altar—but we are reminded once more that the people whose lives Latour has touched will be his lasting memorial. The chapter (and thus the book) ends with one last glimpse of the Archbishop in his Cathedral, mourned by his true monument: the people he served and loved so long and so well. It is a catholic (i.e., universal) assortment of humanity—“nuns and old women, young men and girls… Some of the Tesuque Indians… his old servants” (p. 296)—and this variety of status and situation exemplifies the nature of the Church: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, KJV). Yet, truly, all here seem to be one in Archbishop Latour, for, at his death, “the Mexican population of Santa Fe fell upon their knees, and all American Catholics as well. Many others who did not kneel prayed in their hearts. Eusabio and the Tesuque boys went quietly away to tell their people…” (p. 297). It is a remarkable legacy of deep connectedness that Latour leaves behind him in the New World.