No Country for Old Typewriters- A Well Used One Heads to Auction
By Patricia Cohen
Cormac McCarthy has written more than a dozen novels, several screenplays, two plays, two short stories, countless drafts, letters and more — and nearly every one of them was tapped out on a portable Olivetti manual typewriter he bought in a Knoxville, Tenn., pawnshop around 1963 for $50.
Lately this dependable machine has been showing irrevocable signs of age. So after his friend and colleague John Miller offered to buy him another, Mr. McCarthy agreed to auction off his Olivetti Lettera 32 and donate the proceeds to the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit interdisciplinary scientific research organization with which both men are affiliated.
“He found another one just like this,” a portable Olivetti that looks practically brand new, Mr. McCarthy said from his home in New Mexico. “I think he paid $11, and the shipping was about $19.95.”
Mr. McCarthy, 76, has won a wagon-full of honors including a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and the MacArthur Foundation’s so-called genius grant. Books like “Blood Meridian,” “All the Pretty Horses” and “The Crossing” have propelled him to the top ranks of American fiction writers.
Even nonreaders are familiar with his storytelling since his two most recently published novels, “No Country for Old Men” and the 2007 Pulitzer winner “The Road,” have been made into movies. (“No Country” won best picture and three other Oscars last year.)
Christie’s, which plans to auction the machine on Friday, estimated that it would fetch between $15,000 and $20,000. Mr. McCarthy wrote an authentication letter — typed on the Olivetti, of course — that states:
“It has never been serviced or cleaned other than blowing out the dust with a service station hose. … I have typed on this typewriter every book I have written including three not published. Including all drafts and correspondence I would put this at about five million words over a period of 50 years.”
Speaking from his home in Santa Fe, Mr. McCarthy said he mistakenly thought that the typewriter was bought in 1958; it was actually a few years later. He had a Royal previously, but before he went off to Europe in the early 1960s, he said, “I tried to find the smallest, lightest typewriter I could find.”
Mr. McCarthy is known for being taciturn, particularly about his writing. He came to realize that not only his working method but even his tools are puzzling to a younger generation.
He remembers one summer when some graduate students were visiting the Santa Fe Institute. “I was in my office clacking away,” he said. “One student peered in and said: ‘Excuse me. What is that?’ ”
“I don’t have some method of working,” he said, adding that he often works on different projects simultaneously. A few years ago, when he was in Ireland, “I worked all day on four different projects,” he said. “I worked two hours on each. I got a lot done, but that’s not usual.”
Glenn Horowitz, a rare-book dealer who is handling the auction for Mr. McCarthy, said: “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.”
The institute is in a rambling house built in the 1950s that sits on a hill overlooking Santa Fe. “It’s been under not-so-benign neglect,” Mr. McCarthy said.
He is working to help upgrade parts of the house, like the library. It turns out that architecture is one of the many odd jobs that Mr. McCarthy said he had had in his life.
He joined the institute at the invitation of its founder, the physicist Murray Gell-Mann, whom he met at a MacArthur Foundation meeting years ago. “It’s just a great place,” said Mr. McCarthy, whose primary responsibilities at the institute are eating lunch and taking afternoon tea.
He still has a house in Texas. If he had his druthers, he would live there now, except “they wouldn’t move the institute.”