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Rising Star - Steve Davis

Cormac McCarthy at Texas State

For many years, no one was even sure if Cormac McCarthy was keeping his research notes, manuscripts, correspondence and other records of his work. He is widely viewed as a genius of American literature, but he is also a legendary recluse, having granted only two interviews in 60 years of writing.

In 2007, McCarthy let it be known that he did have an archive and was ready to dispose of his literary papers. Top universities as well as private individuals competed to acquire the archive. Owing to his long friendship with Bill Wittliff, McCarthy chose the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University to house his archives.

Steve Davis, curator of the Wittliff Collections, along with three colleagues, traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico in two cargo vans on a memorable trip to retrieve one of the most sought-after literary archives in the country – the papers of Cormac McCarthy.

In preparation for mounting the Wittliff’s first exhibit on Cormac McCarthy in 2010 as well as a new one in 2014, Davis has spent time with the 98 boxes that comprise the McCarthy papers. He has carefully studied the writer and his work.

Who is Cormac McCarthy and what makes him one of America’s greatest writers?

Cormac McCarthy is considered to be one of the world’s foremost writers, and is the greatest practitioner of literature in America. He is the modern day equivalent of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. He is intensely admired not just by critics but also by audiences who have become fans of his bestsellers, which include All the Pretty HorsesNo Country for Old Men and The Road. He has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and is frequently seen as a finalist for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

What exactly is found among McCarthy’s papers?

McCarthy’s literary papers document his entire writing career. At the core are correspondence, notes, handwritten and typed drafts, setting copies and proofs of each of his 11 novels, from The Road back to The Orchard Keeper, plus the draft of an unfinished novel. The archive also contains similar materials related to his work on the plays, The Stonemasonand The Sunset Limited as well as the four screenplays, including No Country for Old Men, which McCarthy began as a script in 1984 and then adapted as a novel 20 years later. There are also over 250 pieces of professional correspondence.

What will Cormac McCarthy fans appreciate the most about the archives?

For those interested in McCarthy’s writing, nothing beats access to the archives. People read a Cormac McCarthy book and see his flawless prose. Keep in mind that this is a writer who may have spent up to 20 years working on one novel before he felt it was ready to be put out to the world. By going through his papers, anyone can track the creative process of this great author. They can trace his creative art from the very first draft through revised versions of that draft. It’s an excellent way to see the path of his work. Like any other great art, McCarthy’s writing shows that it’s a lot more than talent; it’s really perseverance and hard work.

What related collections on Cormac McCarthy are housed at the library?

What is wonderful about our archive is that so many generous people have stepped forward with their own Cormac McCarthy collections and have placed them here. Among the most prominent is the Woolmer Collection consisting of letters between McCarthy and J. Howard Woolmer, a friend and rare-book dealer. Woolmer developed a decades long correspondence with Cormac McCarthy. Since very little is known about McCarthy’s personal life while he was producing his masterpieces, these letters help to give a good look at his decision to move to El Paso, Texas from Knoxville, Tennessee and to transition from writing about Tennessee to writing about Texas and Mexico. McCarthy’s letters to Woolmer report about his rafting trips on the Rio Grande, research trips to Mexico and many other activities in different parts of Texas. In addition to his manuscripts where we can see his creative process come to life, we have this correspondence showing how his personal life dovetails into his writing to give a complete portrait of this renowned writer.

Another important secondary collection that we have is the John Sepich Papers. John Sepich went and methodically tracked down all the historical sources McCarthy used in constructing Blood Meridian. His research resulted in the book,Notes on Blood Meridian. He donated all of his research, correspondence and drafts of work to the Wittliff. As a result of having Sepich’s material, it has inspired people to do similar kinds of research with other McCarthy novels. Blood Meridianis considered to be McCarthy’s masterpiece so it’s no surprise that it is the most requested work we get from researchers.

What does this archive reveal about this intensely private man?

It gives a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at a writer’s life, shedding light on everything from early struggles to how significant work came into being. In viewing McCarthy’s papers, you can see the meticulous, uncompromising attention he gives to his manuscripts. After looking at several of his manuscripts, I gained a decent understanding of how he works but I learned little about the man. This, I suspect, is how McCarthy wants it. He has always sought to deflect questions and steer people toward the writing.

What role does a computer play in McCarthy’s writing?

He is one of the last generations of writers to type all of his drafts on a manual typewriter. He also carefully annotates his manuscripts in pencil with very neat handwriting. Unfortunately so much of this detailed process is lost with today’s technology so we miss out on seeing many writer’s work from start to finish the way we do with McCarthy’s. Thanks to his use of the typewriter, what we have in McCarthy’s papers is very important to history. Cormac McCarthy has used the same Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter his entire career. He allowed it to be auctioned off for charity in 2009 when it sold for $254,500. Its replacement is another Olivetti bought for McCarthy by a friend for $11.

As a novelist, what is McCarthy’s interest in the big screen?

Even though McCarthy is a reclusive person who prefers a private life unfettered by media attention, he is vitally interested in the movies. When you look at his papers, you can see his longstanding fascination in film. Now that so many of his novels are being turned into films, it is quite a validation for what he was trying to do for a long time. Many of his letters to J. Howard Woolmer discuss his interest in film. He enjoyed early success as a screenwriter when PBS filmed his script for The Gardener’s Son in 1977. McCarthy wrote a screenplay for No Country for Old Men, which he completed in the 1980s but was unable to sell at the time. He eventually reworked the screenplay into a novel, and 20 years later, No Country for Old Men was published. The Coen brothers wrote a screenplay adapted from McCarthy’s novel and went on to direct the film version, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2007. McCarthy’s original version is unusual by McCarthy standards as a pessimistic writer because it contains a conventional Hollywood happy ending.

What does the entire McCarthy collection mean to Texas State University?

We are the center for Cormac McCarthy research. This collection really shines a light on Texas State University. We draw researchers from all over the world. An astounding number of people come every day, every week, during the year to look at the McCarthy material at Texas State. We hosted the Cormac McCarthy Society’s conference here and a number of events paying homage to McCarthy. When people think about this man who is one of the most important literary voices, they think of Texas State. As an Emerging Research Institution, this archive positions us within Texas, the United States and the world as a major resource for major study of a significant author.