Cormac McCarthy's Typewriter
January 29, 2010 9:42 PM   Subscribe

In 1963, in a pawnshop in Knoxville, Tennessee, Cormac McCarthy bought an Olivetti Lettera 32 manual typewriter for $50. After typing 5 million words on it - including all his novels - he replaced it with an identical model purchased by a friend for $20. Last month, the original typewriter was auctioned for $254,000 to benefit the Santa Fe Institute. (previously)
posted by Joe Beese (36 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Geez. This makes my accomplishment of three years on the same laptop just a little less impressive.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 9:44 PM on January 29, 2010

" key missing.
posted by Artw at 9:46 PM on January 29, 2010 [35 favorites]

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be....
War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.
. . .

Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn.

posted by nola at 9:52 PM on January 29, 2010

Wow. Once again, Italian engineering impresses.
posted by longsleeves at 9:55 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

A writer has got to retire on something... royalties sure ain't gonna do it!
posted by markkraft at 9:57 PM on January 29, 2010

The crickets and the rust-beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sagethicket. Vamanos, amigos, he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintscraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 10:14 PM on January 29, 2010 [11 favorites]

" key missing.

Right along with Tab.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:14 PM on January 29, 2010

Whenever I want to get some real writing done, I bust out the manual typewriter. It feels so much more real.
posted by dunkadunc at 11:17 PM on January 29, 2010

I learned to hunt-and-peck on a manual Smith-Corona (I think). Occasionally I will gain a sense-memory of the smell, sweet light machine oil with a hint of resinous plastic. I don't miss it per se, but it is missed.
posted by mwhybark at 11:24 PM on January 29, 2010

The nice thing about a typewriter is that it forces you to just go with it you can't go back and edit your thoughts, which means that once it's on the page it's on the page.

Neil Stephenson actually does all his writing with a pen (I think I heard during the Baroque Cycle he was using a quill for a while.) then types it into a computer when it's done.

That said I haven't actually written anything on a typewriter since I was a little kid I don't think. And for school assignments and stuff I would usually dictate to my mom. Even in elementary school we learned to type on an Apple II.
posted by delmoi at 3:00 AM on January 30, 2010

he replaced it with an identical model purchased by a friend for $20.

The price doesn't surprise me.
posted by ersatz at 3:55 AM on January 30, 2010

Later in the day the boy turned to him. Can you tell me about apostrophes?

What do you want to know about them?

I dont know. Where did they all go?

I dont know, the man said, and it was truth. He didnt know where all the apostrophes had gone.

In the gray and cloven coldstunt they came upon a supermarket. A few old cars in the lot, the windswept bleary goam. The man pushed the cart towards the cartstation nearest the entrance, nesting it with the others, and went inside. The boy gripped his hand. They walked slowly up and down the aisles, hoping to find something that had been overlooked. A bottle of water. A can of soup. Craisins, even. In the dustfilled refrigerator case he came upon a warm stack of Lunchables. With his hand, he brushed one clean and looked it over. The ham, cheese, and crackers each sat in its individual station, looking suspiciously fresh. The man’s eyes narrowed as he inspected the pink roundlet of ham, the tiny orange cheddarblock.
The Road: A Comedic Translation (multi-part)
posted by cowbellemoo at 4:55 AM on January 30, 2010 [15 favorites]

The Lettera 32 is, in its way, the laptop of the previous generation. I've got two, they're small, light, and have a breezy, open touch that makes long sessions of typing nearly effortless. I don't have the rapport with it that I do with my little fleet of Olympia SM9s or my gargantuan green goddess, the Hermes Ambassador (with so much metal in the frame that letting it tab uninterrupted all the way across the platen will build up enough momentum to knock over a small typing cart), but it really makes you write in a certain way. Lovely machine, and I love to see them worn down to a frazzle like that.
posted by sonascope at 6:26 AM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I guess the process is:

1) Buy reasonably-priced typing implement.
2) Put together a multi-decade, distinguished career.
3) ???
4) Profit!
posted by Hiker at 7:01 AM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

" key missing.

Curse you, Artw! Curse to the bowels of overwrought prose and people sitting around campfires and not saying anything for long stretches of time!
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:13 AM on January 30, 2010

Apparently he is regular at the St. John's College book store.
posted by MNDZ at 7:42 AM on January 30, 2010

That's cool that he made it a donation to the Santa Fe Institute. He's been a friend of SFI for years, I saw him around there at a couple of events back in 1996 or so. Very modest guy, very attentive, at the time I couldn't figure out why this Western writer would be hanging around a bunch of physicists. Having read a couple of his books now I get it, I think he's one of those people who absorb anything intellectual.
posted by Nelson at 8:08 AM on January 30, 2010

Neil Stephenson actually does all his writing with a pen...

Cite? Not that I'm calling BS, but his hands must be crippled after 1,000 pages per book.
posted by fixedgear at 9:34 AM on January 30, 2010


"GR: You've mentioned that you use a different writing system for each book. You famously wrote the nearly 3,000-page Baroque Cycle with a fountain pen. Did this book demand a new system? Describe a typical day spent writing.

NS: In this case I used a very similar process. Up in the morning, go to office, read through yesterday's pages and edit them, then move on to writing new pages. By 10 or 11 in the morning I'm done. Eventually I transfer it into a computer. Then I go exercise and spend the afternoon working on something completely unrelated. The only real difference between how I wrote Anathem and how I wrote The Baroque Cycle was that in the case of Anathem I printed out the manuscript and read through it quite a bit more frequently than I did in the case of The Baroque Cycle."

The only famous story I know of being crippled-by-pen is Lousia May Alcott, who wrote way-way-way more potboilers under different names and held her pen so tight her paralyzed the tip of her finger.
posted by The Whelk at 10:07 AM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

And, you know ...every long-form writer before the invention of the typewriter.
posted by The Whelk at 10:08 AM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

" key missing.

I could be wrong, but I think the " and the @ are swapped, like with a British QWERTY layout. You can see if this you look very closely at the New York Times image of Olivette Lettera 32 in the op. This Flickr image of an Olivette Underwood Lettera 32 is bigger and easier to see the keyboard layout. sonascope may know more about this, but I think the Underwood is the same typewriter, just branded for America.
posted by Hoenikker at 10:21 AM on January 30, 2010

(it was a joke. McCathy is one of those nonstandard speech indicator types.)
posted by Artw at 10:34 AM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

(There is no need for my keyboard layout knowledge then. Move along.)
posted by Hoenikker at 10:54 AM on January 30, 2010

A fountain pen is not as bad as a ballpoint. You don't need to apply any pressure---just touch the paper.
posted by asusu at 11:10 AM on January 30, 2010

posted by Artw at 11:12 AM on January 30, 2010

Cite? Not that I'm calling BS, but his hands must be crippled after 1,000 pages per book.

The Baroque Cycle manuscript
posted by Artw at 11:13 AM on January 30, 2010

Somewhat o/t but, for Suttree fans: Searching for Suttree

[NOT ANTI-TYPEWRITERIST] having owned and used two (2) manual machines
posted by maggieb at 11:28 AM on January 30, 2010

Where she ran the cries of the coyotes clapped shut as if a door had closed upon them and all was fear and marvel. He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it.
posted by nathancaswell at 12:36 PM on January 30, 2010

Cite? Not that I'm calling BS, but his hands must be crippled after 1,000 pages per book.

It's 100% true. Crazy, but 100% true.

Stephenson talked about his preference for handwriting in an essay that seems now to be gone from his website. And as Artw linked above, said manuscript is enshrined at the Sci Fi Museum in Seattle.
posted by ErikaB at 12:50 PM on January 30, 2010

Apropos of nothing except that I'm putting off starting my own writing work for the day: I saw Neal Stephenson on the bus once, about five years ago.

(For those not In The Know, Stephenson is famously grouchy with the masses, and has a reputation for being a hermit.)

I hop on the bus, which is one of the 70 routes going from Eastlake to the U District in Seattle. Stephenson was sitting in the back, and when he saw me recognize him, he glowered and buried his face further in his book.

I gave him his privacy and tried to stifle a grin at the perfection of the moment. It was way better than if he'd agreed to sign an autograph or something.
posted by ErikaB at 12:58 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

You know what I would like to have running nonstop on a television at my place? Footage of Cormac McCarthy sitting at a typewriter and writing 5 million words. There would have to be audio though.
posted by dogwalker at 4:55 PM on January 30, 2010

@Hoenikker - Olivetti bought the remains of Underwood back in the sixties, and would curiously brand things with either Olivetti, Underwood, or some hypenated version of both. My Vietnam-war journalist's typewriter, with a US key layout is just Olivetti, while my Canadian version (with Frenchy accents in place of fractions) is Olivetti-Underwood. Lots of branding weirdness went on after the Underwood purchase, though I'm not sure why, as the Underwood name had lost most of its historical cachet by then.

I think the " on the 2 was a pretty standard thing for English language QWERTY implementations until the eighties and the IBM Model M keyboard, which moved the @ to the 2. Both my Apple ][ plus and my Commodore 64 (my, how I loved those chunky, chunky keys) used the former layout. All of my other manual typewriters (stupid compulsive collecting habit) use the " on 2, as well. Come to think about it, now I'm curious why they all made that change...
posted by sonascope at 7:12 PM on January 30, 2010

I'm doing it wrong.
posted by shockingbluamp at 8:31 PM on January 30, 2010

Sonascope -- So it's a change? I was wondering if the @ symbol is more important in the UK? or maybe there is another reason the " is tucked up by the two? But really at some point they were just switched? We need to figure out why.
posted by Hoenikker at 12:10 AM on January 31, 2010

He's just so bleak.
posted by clockzero at 1:40 AM on January 31, 2010

Shelby Foote was another pen and ink man. Dip pen, not even fountain, never mind ball point.

And speaking of pen and ink...

posted by IndigoJones at 4:10 PM on January 31, 2010

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