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New McCarthy exhibit tracks growth of an author

Luke Quinton
A first edition of 'Blood Meridian' and a draft of the manuscript are on display at the Cormac McCarthy exhibit at Texas State University.

Nestled inside a rancho-styled exhibit space on the Alkek Library's top floor, you'll find a three-walled altar adorned with artifacts from the life of novelist Cormac McCarthy.

Oprah's voice carries around the room, echoing off terra-cotta tiles; "By the way, I think 'The Road' makes a perfect Father's Day gift," she says, throwing to commercial.

In an alcove behind the television screen, a framed print reimagines the same scene. It's a comic sketch of Oprah on her couch, interviewing not just McCarthy, but his legion of dingy characters: hobos, bears, American Indians and outlaws, one of whom is slumped over, arrows in his back.

It's all part of the Wittliff Collection's exhibit of McCarthy's papers, keyed to Texas State University's recent hosting of the annual conference of the Cormac McCarthy Society, drawing scholars from Europe and all parts of the United States, people who, curator Steve Davis says, "bring their own irreverence."

Among the group is Rick Wallach, a large, bearded man, huddling with a group of young scholars. Wallach spouts off an exuberant flow of thoughts and obscure references in his New York accent, and he's important here: He has written books on McCarthy characters and edited anthologies of criticism. But 20 years ago, Wallach was a latecomer to the author's work. In fact, he had to go to Australia to find McCarthy's books.

It was 1990 and Wallach was in Melbourne at a conference for another misunderstood author, Australia's Patrick White. (White shares McCarthy's ability "to inhabit nature at a molecular level," Wallach says.) Someone asked him what he thought of McCarthy, "and I thought he was talking about Mary McCarthy," Wallach says. "At that time, not a single Cormac McCarthy book was in print in the U.S."

Later, Wallach, about to catch a train in Adelaide, popped in a pharmacy and was staring at a paperback of "Blood Meridian." He sat in the parlor car and only looked up to see a blood-red sun rising, 6 or 7 hours later. Then he read it again.

The exhibit

The exhibit pictures publicity-averse McCarthy out in practically proper society: in the shadows of a rundown El Paso pool hall; mustached and overlooking a Tennessee bridge; white-haired and applauding the Coen brothers at the Academy Awards.

Lead archivist Katie Salzmann says the author often kept a running tally of each day's work, listing the number of words typed. In total, there are 98 boxes of papers, some a little yellowed, some handwritten in pen in a reporter's notebook, the majority typewritten. McCarthy crafted his own numbering system to keep track of revisions and edits. It wasn't high-tech, but it was meticulous.

McCarthy is deeply organized and immersed in research. A map of Saltillo, Mexico, shows a number of pencil notes, like a fat arrow on a main street, above the word "uphill." These are details that made their way into McCarthy's border trilogy.

Another sheet lists the ingredients for makeshift gunpowder, including cubits of "saltpetre" and, if necessary, "stale urine."

Also on display is the surprising array of foreign translations and alternate editions that appeared through the years, including one in French that claims to be translated from the original "American."

This exhibit highlights key finds from the author's papers. Curator Davis was a reluctant aficionado at first, using words like "anti-humanist" and "unrelentingly grim" to describe his original impression. But Davis has found plenty of little jewels. Perhaps his favorite is the pulp western ending of the original "No Country for Old Men" that features a shoot-'em-up gun battle, with the good guys teaming up to triumph over the deranged coin-flipping murderer.

Davis suspects a marketing ploy at work. McCarthy's MacArthur Foundation fellowship had run out, so he resorted to an anti-McCarthyan resolution, one that might convince publishers, eager to sell copies, or perhaps readers, eager for happy endings.

McCarthy certainly struggled to rectify his vision and popularity. In July 1983, book collector J. Howard Woolmer was sent an accounting of recent book sales. Of the book "Suttree," it states: "6,413 printed/ 2,705 sold." This is four years after its publication.

Without definitive tales of the author's life, McCarthy's persona predominates. So Wallach is anxious to dispel the portrayal of McCarthy as "a recluse or hermit." If you were to meet him in a pool hall, you'd find a gregarious, engaging man, Wallach says. "He simply doesn't talk about his work." It's unsurprising, then, that the author so famous for protecting his privacy has carefully guarded his personal letters from hungry eyes.

What's left are hints and insinuations that will form the building blocks of a better understanding of the man and his work: letters to publishers, editors, book collectors and translators. Other than that, we're left to literally read between the lines. The author is just pleased that we now care to do so.

The expansive McCarthy exhibit is at the Wittliff Collections (on the top floor of the Alkek Library at Texas State University at San Marcos) until Dec. 12. An appointment must be made to access the papers not already on exhibit.

Cormac McCarthy: Selections from the Permanent Collection

When: Through Dec. 12. Hours vary.

Where: Seventh floor, Alkek Library, Texas State University, San Marcos

Cost: Free

Information:www.the wittliffcollections.txstate.edu. 512-245-2313

Note: This story has been updated to correct the fellowship Cormac McCarthy received. Also, the 1983 accounting of book sales was sent to bookseller J. Howard Woolmer, not McCarthy.