Willa Cather (1873-1947) was born in Virginia but spent most of her childhood in Nebraska when her family moved there to benefit from the abundant farmland and to escape the rampant tuberculosis in Virginia. The pioneer life and influx of immigrants made a strong impression on Cather as shown in “My Ántonia”, “A Lost Lady,” “O Pioneers!,” among other novels. She also wrote another novel, “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” which captures the same adventuresome spirit through the experiences of a French Roman Catholic missionary sent to the American Southwest.
Cather based “Death Comes for the Archbishop” on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy who ventured out to the Southwest after the United States won the land in the Mexican-American War in 1848. She also drew on her own travels and wanderings in the Southwest. The novel follows the lives of missionary priests in an episodic way, revealing their arduous journeys and rich interactions with the Native Americans and Mexicans. In an open letter to the “Commonweal” in 1927, Cather writes about the episodic style, the lack of a dominant plot, and her desire to write in the style of legend:
“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 experience, were of about the same importance. The essence of such writing is not to hold the note, not use an incident for all there is in it—but to touch and pass it on.”
Years after the novel's positive reception, a small printer, named Pynson who worked with Alfred A. Knopf, approached Cather about publishing one of the short scenes from “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” Pynson Printers was run by Elmer Adler who was fond of saying “in the eighteen years of its existence Pynson Printers charged more than any other shop in the country and never made a profit.” The print shop was located in the old New York Times building and was composed of a suite of rooms. There were three prints rooms, a library and gallery, and offices filled with chandeliers, art work, elegant furnishings, and architectural detail. These rooms were inviting places for afternoon tea with colleagues and visiting authors like Willa Cather. “December Night” was the short, but poignant, scene chosen to be published in a limited edition format. In “December Night,” the archbishop experiences a crisis of faith and is drawn to the sanctuary to pray in the middle of a cold, snowy night. Outside the door, he finds Sada, an old Mexican woman, who has suffered dreadfully at the hands of a white family. He prays with her and lends her his fur-lined cloak. Seeing the faith and perseverance of Sada, the Archbishop gains the strength to carry out his wor
“December Night” was hand-bound and lavishly illustrated by Harold von Schmidt and released for the 1933 Christmas season. The work reflects a peak in limited edition publishing after World War I and the willingness of small presses like Pynson Printers to work closely with the author. The short print runs of several hundred copies were sold out ten times over for their high quality and artistic taste despite the high prices. These beautifully handmade editions were collectible then and even more so today.