This short novel by Willa Cather is a great example of the Schiff-era output of The Limited Editions Club as he changed the direction of the LEC from using book illustrators and graphic artists to using “fine art” artists to produce Livres d’Artiste style books. While I haven’t seen a lot of the Schiff produced books, the emphasis does seem to be on the artist over the writer and the work of literature. In this case, the choice of author can certainly be justified. Willa Cather was a well-respected writer of the early 20th century and was a Pulitzer Prize winner. The illustrations are perfectly suited to the text. The book itself is beautiful and it was a joy to read.
The Monthly Letter that accompanied the edition back in 1984 was especially full of interesting tidbits about Cather. It notes that A Lost Lady was published in 1922 at a “crossroads in literary attitudes” with Marcel Proust dying and Ulysses and Eliot’s The Waste Land being published. The book certainly looks back with nostalgic longing and forward with disdain, but more on that later. The Letter also notes that along with George Bernard Shaw, Cather was one of the few authors to have knowledge of typefaces and a desire to dictate which ones to use for a given work:
Their first publisher, Alfred Knopf, honored their typeface requests for Death Comes for the Archbishop as well, setting it in Monotype Old Style No. 31 to make it seem like it was printed on a “country press”.
Finally, the letter brought it to my attention that some think Cather’s ability to develop their male characters and those characters’ admiration for remarkable women stem from their sexual orientation as a lesbian. What!? As if male writers who are able to capture a female’s perspective must also be homosexuals and the ones that can’t are obviously heterosexual. Give me a break. The only thing the revelation of their sexual orientation did for me was to make me switch to gender-neutral pronouns. Since they lived before choosing pronouns was a thing, and I don’t know what they would have chosen. Got your back, Willa.
But enough about the Monthly Letter, this is a solid example of book design and craftsmanship. The combination of the printed cloth covering the boards and the German aniline leather quarter binding is elegant and a perfect match for the period of the story. Three different papers were used for the edition, a Mohawk Mills cream-white letterpress stock for the text, Somerset for the frontispiece etching, and an unidentified paper for the pen-and-ink drawings. The insertion of tissue for each of the drawings is a nice touch and greatly appreciated even if there is no trace of bleeding after thirty years. The two antique initials that begin Parts 1 and 2 are another little touch of elegance.
All this being said, I’m still scratching my head about this choice from Willa Cather’s oeuvre. The introducer, John Hollander, loves it and calls it “one of those strong, intense shorter novels which literary modernism prefers to great, sprawling ones, and whose careful and significant structure and control of indirection enlist the reader in filling and fitting it out.” But if Willa Cather were to have one book given the private press treatment, why this one? Why not My Antonia or Death Comes for the Archbishop? Maybe Schiff or his art director and editor David Glixon also loved it. And with the dearth of women writers who have received a private press tribute, I can think of two others that wrote in the first half of the 20th century that I would have preferred: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening or Mari Sandoz’ Crazy Horse. But while I probably won’t hurry to reread A Lost Lady, I’m still happy to have a nice copy of it in my library.