Great Writer, Great Machine

The New Yorker Online, Blogs, Books, December 2009

Great Writer, Great Machine
By Thessaly La Force

Last Friday, Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter sold at Christie’s for a staggering $254,500 to an anonymous American collector. “I have typed on this typewriter every book I have written including three not yet published,” McCarthy wrote in his authentication letter. Of the machine—an Olivetti Lettera 32—Glenn Horowitz, a rare-book dealer who handled the auction for McCarthy, told the New York Times:

When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac’s typewriter. It’s as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife.

Otherworldly fiction, okay, fine. Talismanic, sure. But is it me, or does Horowitz sound genuinely unimpressed with the Olivetti Lettera 32? Because he really shouldn’t be. “He has all his metaphors right, but he doesn’t understand design,” Paola Antonelli, the Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, told me this week. “Olivetti was a great company. And actually—the Swiss Army knife is another masterpiece!”

Designed by Marcello Nizzoli, the Lettera 22 (and its later incarnation, the 32), was a lightweight and luxurious machine. Simple, as Horowitz said, but purposely so. “Before the Olivetti, typewriters had an old-fashioned look,” said Antonelli, “You could see the keys. There was more decoration. Nizzoli basically changed the shape of typewriters by taking a technological innovation from the auto industry—press-forming steel—and applying it to typewriters. All of a sudden, they had a monocoque look, a real smooth line.” Nizzoli’s first typewriter, created in 1948, was called the Lexikon. Encased in enameled aluminum, a light, malleable metal, the machine has a glorious curve, like an inverted Nike Swoosh. The Lettera 22, made two years later, is encased in steel, and, though boxier, is more portable. Everything, from the keys to the corners, feels as though it’s been smoothed down and rounded over. The Lettera 32 (McCarthy’s version) which was introduced in 1963, retains the same essential shape, but has square keys. Both the Lexicon and the Lettera 22 are in MoMA’s permanent collection.

Horowitz also describes the Lettera as “frail-looking.” It may look frail, but McCarthy used his machine for forty-six years and, in his letter, added: “It has never been serviced or cleaned other than blowing out the dust with a service station hose.” Most Olivettis have a longer lifespan than today’s computers.

Olivettis were cherished by many other talented writers, too. Sylvia Plath owned one; so did the playwright James Purdy; John Updike favored a nineteen-forties variety; Ann Landers typed her famous column for the Chicago Sun-Times on one; T. C. Boyle used one his mother gave him until switching to a computer; and Thomas Pynchon likes his so much he even mentions it on page fifteen of “Inherent Vice.”

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