The Orchard Keeper

BY Cormac McCarthy
Book Information1/1/0/US/RH/1965/c1,000  •  215x145x30  •  456 

An opportunity opened up recently to acquire a first edition copy of Cormac McCarthy's "The Orchard Keeper" along with an intriguing letter and I seized it. "The Orchard Keeper" is McCarthy's first published novel, and along with, chronologically, "Outer Dark", "Child of God", "Suttree", and "Blood Meridian", made up McCarthy's first five novels - four Appalachian and first Western (Blood Meridian) - published by Random House to critical acclaims but sold poorly. I do not have the official publication or sales figure for this book, but here's a piece of interesting information: according to a PhD thesis citing Random House's internal memo in April 1969, "The Orchard Keeper" sold 660, 155, and 65 copies in 1967, 1968 and Q1 of 1969 respectively with 18 copies still held by the publisher, and was "effectively out of print". Assuming the 1967 sales figure was cumulative from 1965-1967, the first printing would be around 1,000 copies.

McCarthy was immediately labelled as Faulkernian with this book, and one critic went as far as to note that McCarthy used "so many of Faulkner's literary devices" that "he half submerges his own talents beneath a flood of imitation". Interestingly, McCarthy's editor at Random House was Albert Erskine, who was also Faulkner's editor, and the book won the 1966 William Faulkner Foundation Award for notable first novel.

This book came with a signed letter from Anne Freedgood, an editor at Random House, to Robert Fitzgerald, likely the American poet and Harvard professor famed for his translation of Greek classics based on the Hamden, Connecticut address. Freedgood was Fitzgerald's editor at Random House when he published the translation of Virgil's The Aeneid in 1983, and that tied in with the date of 1976 on the letter, strengthening the case for Fitzgerald's identity. It is likely that Fitzgerald requested a copy of McCarthy's "Outer Dark" from Freedgood, whose reply in this letter was intriguing to say the least. In it, she mentioned that "Outer Dark" was out of stock and, in place, she was sending him McCarthy's "next book", "The Orchard Keeper". Clearly, Freedgood made a chronological error here, which can be explained away by the fact that she was not McCarthy's editor and that McCarthy's published work, or at least its chronology, was likely little known within Random House then as very few of those books were sold. What's interesting to me as a collector though, is the possibility that I now have the Fitzgerald's copy of "The Orchard Keeper".

There is something about Cormac McCarthy, apart from his literary flair, that makes collecting his early first editions worthwhile. To me, it is his unflinching single-mindedness to write, that unwavering commitment to the Southern Gothic despite the very abysmal initial sales. Unlike Roth, Pynchon, Morrison, or even DeLillo, it took 27 years after the publication of "The Orchard Keeper" before McCarthy would begin to enjoy commercial success with "All the Pretty Horses", published in 1992. How does one deal with the self doubts over the years? Surely the mind must have stopped by that dark, lovely and deep Frostian wood from time to time, but McCarthy clearly believed in something - destiny, karma, promise, or something else - that kept him going. 

This is the first edition first printing with the original dust jacket that is unclipped, reflecting the correct price of $4.95. The book is bound in cranberry board with black board and gilt lettering at spine, and has green topstain. The copyright page should state "First Printing". It is worth mentioning that there was a second printing after "Outer Dark" was first published in 1968, and the dust jackets for this second printing is identical to the first printing except that they are always price clipped. For this reason and for its scarcity  - some first printing dust jackets were also clipped - collectors place a lot of value on an unclipped dust jacket. Only a first printing book with an unclipped dust jacket guarantees the true first edition.

This book is quite rare, especially one with an unclipped dust jacket, and a VG copy can be purchased from eBay or Abebooks from $3,500 onwards. This is a VG+ copy with VG+ dust jacket with moderate sunning at spine, and a VG+ book whose lower left corner of the front board is bruised. There are also minor foxing on some pages. The second printing copies are still collectible and come with a much lower price tag. A NF copy of the second printing which invariably comes with a clipped dust jacket, should sell for around $1,500.