Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Legendary Affect: Intimacies in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Legendary Affect: Intimacies in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop

Article excerpt

In the opening pages of Mimesis, Eric Auerbach insists that it's easy to separate the historical from the legendary. Legendary narrative, he tells us, "runs far too smoothly" because it arranges events in a simple, straightforward way, detached from historical context: "it knows only clearly outlined men who act from few and simple motives and the continuity of whose feelings and actions remains uninterrupted" (19).' Revisiting Willa Cather's turn to legend in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), this essay argues that her chronicle of missionaries and empire proves Auerbach both right and wrong about continuity of feeling. Instead of extracting her characters from history, as Auerbach suggests, Cather's enduringly popular novel enmeshes them in it so deeply that she generates continuity at the expense of emotional texture. In Archbishop, affect is best described as legendary, as continuous but far from simple. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this legendary affect produces no grand gestures, but rather a succession of impasses. Cather never lingers over the emotional stalemates, however. She smooths her narrative by refusing to be interrupted by any individual affective experience. Legendary affect never erupts; it accrues, inexorably, as the novel's suspenseless plot unfolds.

Archbishop articulates the value of legends directly and repeatedly. (2) Moreover, Cather viewed Archbishop itself as a legend. She famously defended the book from reviewers who objected that it wasn't really a novel by saying she had written it as a legend, which she called "a special genre which I had long wished to try" (11-12):

I had all my life wanted to do something in the style of legend, which
is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment.... something without
accent.... In the Golden Legend the martyrdoms of the saints are no
more dwelt upon than are the trivial incidents of their lives; it is as
though all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual
experience, were of about the same importance. The essence of such
writing is not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there
is in it--but to touch and pass on. (9)

Cather nods here to the etymology of "legend," which derives from both Latin and French and in its earliest uses referred to stories of the lives of saints. "The Golden Legend" to which Cather refers--a collection of saints' lives compiled by an Italian archbishop in the thirteenth century and widely read in late medieval Europe--was first translated into English in 1483. The Golden Legend reference reflects her fondness for history and her understanding of Archbishop as a contribution to a centuries-old transnational tradition of literature. It also articulates her understanding of legendary style as "the reverse" of dramatic. Fundamentally paratactic, it touches and passes on, representing a plurality of intimacies rather than a singular one. (3)

Affect theory--which treats emotions not as phenomena interior to individuals but as dynamic, circulating impressions within social networks--can help us to better understand Cather's experiment with legend. The genre, as Cather uses it, makes possible the feelings described within and generated by Archbishop. Wrapping the brutal past of a contested region in a weirdly quiet atmosphere, Cather's serene tale of nation-building sacrifices, for the most part, emotional complexity for breadth of scope. Although centered on a forty-year span of the nineteenth century, the novel crosses centuries and cultures with dizzying facility. For most readers, Archbishop doesn't bring to mind encounters of the cozy, sensual kind; one insightful critic calls it "extremely institutional" and "extremely male" (Stout 106). At times, it is dignified to a fault. Yet it manages to represent some of the most elusive, unpredictable, and disturbing affective dimensions of cross-cultural encounters. (4)

The blurb on the back of my Vintage Classics edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop, which says "the story it tells is that of a single human life, lived simply in the silence of the desert," is wildly inaccurate. …

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