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February 28, 2014

The Question of American–ness

The setting of Death Comes for the Archbishopis a peculiar one because it is situated in the newly acquisitioned state of New Mexico, which in turn complicates and heterogenises the idea of what can be considered American. It is a complex state filled with a variety of characters (Indians, Mexicans, white Americans, with a French bishop and vicar as its two protagonists) and spoken in a variety of languages (even though the novel is written primarily in English the dialogue is supposed to be in Spanish with the occasional smattering of French).

There are two instances when Father Vaillant, in particular, blurs the distinction between multiple nationalities. In Book 7, Chapter 1, he tells Latour: "I have almost become a Mexican! I have learned to like chili coloradoand mutton fat. Their foolish ways no longer offend me, their very faults are dear to me. I am their man!" And then in Book Eight, "Gold Under Pike's Peak", there is a peculiar instance when Father Latour and Vaillant are both informed of the gold rush situation at Colorado. Absent of "hospitable Mexicans" and populated by "saloons ... gambling rooms ... wanders and wastrels [and] many honest men", Father Vaillant remarks, "So now I must begin speaking English again!" - a curious remark to be made in a largely English-dominated country which nevertheless stresses the heterogeneity of America's culture and spoken language. There is also a particular anti-American sentiment in the way how personal wealth is portrayed and viewed in Friar Baltazar and Padre Martinez.

But there are instances as well when we are reminded of how intrinsically American the state of New Mexico can be as well. There are occasions in the novel when we see Father Latour tending to his garden, recalling the mythic image of the European immigrant farming in the colony; meta-fictively, Carter's own lush descriptions of the New Mexican landscape represents a kind of colonialism as well. Secondly, in the second-to-last scene of the novel, the motif of conquering and braving towards the new frontier is recalled once again when Latour remembers the moment when his journey to America first began: the image of the "diligence... already rumbling down the mountain gorge".


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