Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Cormac's Knoxville Typewriter Being Auctioned

Christie's will auction an Olivetti Lettera 32 portable typewriter on Friday - the very typewriter which writer Cormac McCarthy bought in Knoxville at a pawn shop in the early 1960s, the one McCarthy has used ever since, pouring his thoughts and words through the device for the last 50 years.

He says in this NYTimes story, "No Country For Old Typewriters", that every book he's ever written was made with that Olivetti. From the early days of usage by writers through to today's digital writing programs, writers and those who observe them eyed the typewriter as a mystery:

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?’ ”

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 Olivetti was held in high regard as an art form itself. The Museum of Modern Art focused on the Olivetti in an exhibit in 1952, while the French put together a touring art exhibit devoted to it in the late 1960s.

Is it the power of words or the skills of the writer which captures the imagination so?

A 2007 book, "The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting", author Darren Wershler-Henry writes how the device was used by the likes of Nietzsche and that Mark Twain was the first major writer to turn into publishers a typewritten manuscript. And he offers up some prose of his own to evoke the imagination:

The typewriter has become the symbol of a non-existent sepia-toned era when people typed passionately late into the night under the flickering light of a single naked bulb, sleeves rolled up, suspenders hanging down, lighting each new cigarette off the smouldering butt of the last, occasionally taking a pull from the bottle of bourbon in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet."

Yeah, but those things were very loud, pounding out words meant making sounds like a World War 2 anti-aircraft gun. The sound was so well-known that it had it's own song, was used as percussion in Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" song, and once was the universal sound of a working newsroom or busy office, and even a comedy routine by Jerry Lewis.

Christie's says McCarthy's machine should bring about $15-20,000. Good money for any writer.

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