05 March, 2016

On Collecting Cormac McCarthy's First Edition Novels


As I wrote in this blog's entry for "The Orchard Keeper", there is something about Cormac McCarthy, apart from his literary flair, that makes collecting his first editions, especially the early ones, 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, starting with "All the Pretty Horses". 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.

Today, McCarthy is one of America's pre-eminent writers with his unique brand of poetic violence in a style characterized by sparse punctuation, lyrical prose, vernacular dialogue, and arcane vocabulary. His earlier works were given a Faulkernian label but I think his voice is now regarded as a passionate original that explores the meaning of life by examining death and violence. While Harold Bloom endorsed and lauded McCarthy's work, especially Blood Meridian, newer generation of critics like James Wood took issue with his cultic stature and "mindless" violence. I imagine time will be the best judge.

McCarthy's novels, ten in total to date, can be divided into three broad groups. His first four works are known as the Appalachians for their geographical settings. This is followed by the westerns, first of Blood Meridian and then of The Border Trilogy. Finally there are his later work. Of the first editions, the Appalachians and Blood Meridian are most desirable, especially the non remaindered ones, mainly because there are very few copies in the market since they did not sell more than a few thousand copies each. This is followed by the first of The Border Trilogy - All The  Pretty Horses. The last four titles can be gotten at less than $100. It is worth noting that McCarthy is also an intensely private person, and signed copies of his books are rare and therefore command a premium. Because of that, forgeries abound and some book sellers pass off dubiously obtained signatures as genuine ones by issuing their own certificate of authenticity, which is obviously circular. Fortunately, there are official signed copies issued by the publishers that should, almost surely, be signed by McCarthy. Here, I'll write a few lines about what to look out for in each of McCarthy's first edition novel, apart from the usual wears and internal markings.

1965 The Orchard Keeper: McCarthy's first novel is quite rare and commands asking price in the thousands. The true first edition book should state "First Printing" on the copyright page. For the book condition, check that the green topstain is still fresh and the gilt lettering and red device on the spine are bright. I haven't seen a remaindered copy of this title, but make sure by checking the top and bottom edges for any remainder mark that will discount the price. On the dust jacket, the ones for the first and second printings are identical but it seems that all dust jackets from the second printings were price clipped. Because of this, unclipped dust jacket commands a higher premium because it is the only way to ensure that a dust jacket is from the first printing. Also, the dust jacket is printed on very flimsy paper so be suspicious of those without tear or with very bright red lettering on spine, which usually suffers from moderate fading due to sunning, and check if any restoration was done. From what I've seen, the clipped dust jacket tends to be more vibrant than unclipped ones. This might be a consequence of better quality second printing or lesser extent of time wear since the second printing was issued after 1968. I do not know of any official signed copy for this title so if you are looking to buy a signed copy, which will be in the high thousands, make sure the seller has convincing provenance. Avoid copies with signature on book plate or card.

1968 Outer Dark: This title is also very scarce, especially for copies with very good dust jackets. The true first edition book should state "First Printing" on the copyright page. For the book condition, check that the blue-green topstain is fresh and the lettering and devices on front board and spine are bright. Again, it is common for this book to be remaindered, but check the top and bottom edges just to be sure. The dust jacket is printed on coarse paper without the usual protective veneer common today, and is very prone to tear. Check that the dust jacket is not price clipped and the condition of the spine as sunned spine tends to bring down the price. There are no known official signed copies, so apply the usual provenance requirement when buying a signed copy. Avoid paying a premium for copies with signature on book plate or card.

1973 Child of God: For some unknown reasons, this is the least desirable book, in term of price, of McCarthy's early work. Very good copies of this title are routinely made available on eBay and auctioned for price range in the middle hundreds. The true first edition book should state "First Edition" on the copyright page and has no top stain. Because of its availability, condition is everything. For the book, the lettering on the spine should be bright and there should be no remainder mark, which, roughly estimated, is present in about 20% of the first edition population. For the dust jacket, check that it is not price clipped, which, again for unknown reason, is very common, affecting at least 50% of the population. This means that dust jacket that is not price clipped commands a premium. Finally, check that the spine is not sunned. There are no known official signed copies, so apply the usual provenance requirement when buying a signed copy. Avoid paying a premium for copies with signature on book plate or card.

1979 Suttree: This is McCarthy's longest novel that took him 20 years to write. The true first edition book should state "First Edition" on the copyright page. The main issues with the book are remainder mark and poor binding condition because of the weight of the book block (this is McCarthy's longest work). For a pristine copy, check that it has no remainder mark on the top or bottom edges, and that the binding is still sound and the spine is not too shaken. For the dust jacket, check for the usual price clipped and sunned spine issues. There are no known official signed copies, so apply the usual provenance requirement when buying a signed copy. Avoid paying a premium for copies with signature on book plate or card.

1985 Blood Meridian: This is considered McCarthy's opus magnum and is highly desirable. the true first edition should state "First Edition" on the copyright page. The main issue with the book is the notorious remainder mark, which roughly affects at least 50% of the population, that drastically devalues the book. The dust jacket is prone to darkening at the edges and check for the usual price clip and sunned spine issue. There are no known official signed copies, so apply the usual provenance requirement when buying a signed copy. Avoid paying a premium for copies with signature on book plate or card.

1992 All the Pretty Horses: This is the first and most desirable title of the Border Trilogy but its price still trails the early work because of abundant supply. The true first edition should state "First Edition". There seems to be no remainder issue with this title as it enjoyed enormous commercial success. The dust jacket is also straightforward with no price clipping or sunning issue. However, there are two variants of the dust jacket. The common one, probably 99% of population, starts with a green "A" on the front flap and has five reviews on the back from Peter Matthiessen, Jim Harrison, Shelby Foote, Barry Lopex, and Publishers Weekly. The very rare second variant starts with a black "A" on the front flap and has four reviews on the back with the Publisher Weekly one missing. I've seen one copy with the second variant dust jacket sold on eBay auction at just around $1,000. The bibliographical detail of the second variant is still unclear. There are no known official signed copies of the first edition, but there are official signed advanced reader copies issued by Alfred Knopf in paperback and slipcase. The design for the ARC is different from the first edition, and is quite attractive. For those who desire a signed copy, this ARC is the only version that guarantees a genuine signature, and it sells at a significant premium to the first edition.

1994 The Crossing: This is the second title of the Border Trilogy. The true first edition should state "First Edition". There seems to be no remainder issue with this title as it enjoyed enormous commercial success. The dust jacket is also straightforward with no price clipping or sunning issue. Copies are readily available and are very affordable. There is an official signed limited edition, issued by Alfred Knopf, that is identical to the first edition but with a tipped in limitation page that the author signed on. The limitation page also states that there are 1,000 such copies. This limited signed edition sells at considerable premium to the unsigned first edition. Apparently there is also an unknown number of first editions that was signed on a blank tipped in page but I haven't them.

1998 Cities of the Plain: This is the last title of the Border Trilogy. The true first edition should state "First Edition". There seems to be no remainder issue with this title as it enjoyed enormous commercial success. The dust jacket is also straightforward with no price clipping or sunning issue. Copies are readily available and are very affordable. There is an official signed limited edition, issued by Alfred Knopf, that is identical to the first edition but with a tipped in limitation page that the author signed on. The limitation page also states that there are 1,000 such copies. This limited signed edition sells at considerable premium to the unsigned first edition. In addition, B.E. Trice also issued separate limited signed editions (not first edition) of different binding with slip case and no dust jacket - 300 numbered edition and 50 deluxe edition. The numbered edition sells at about the same price as the publisher's signed limited first edition. The deluxe edition is very rare and typically retails at a few thousand dollars.

2005 No Country for Old Men: This title was adopted into the eponymous Academy award winning movie. The true first edition should state "First Edition". There seems to be no remainder issue with this title as it enjoyed enormous commercial success. The dust jacket is also straightforward with no price clipping or sunning issue. Copies are readily available and are very affordable. There is an official signed limited edition, issued by Alfred Knopf, that is identical to the first edition but with a blank tipped in page that the author signed on. It is not known how many of such copies exist. This limited signed edition sells at considerable premium to the unsigned first edition. In addition, B.E. Trice also issued separate limited signed editions (not first edition) of different binding with slip case and no dust jacket - 325 numbered edition and 75 deluxe edition. The numbered edition sells at about the same price as the publisher's signed limited first edition. The deluxe edition is very rare and typically retails at a few thousand dollars.

2006 The Road: This title won the Pulitzer Prize. The true first edition should state "First Edition". There seems to be no remainder issue with this title as it enjoyed enormous commercial success. The dust jacket is also straightforward with no price clipping or sunning issue but sometimes suffers from staining on its black background. Copies are readily available and are very affordable. Based on an interview with Wall Street Journal, it is accepted that McCarthy signed about 350 copies of this title for his son, whom the book was dedicated to, and none of these 350 copies is on the market yet.

If you are interested in a grade-based price analysis of first editions for Blood Meridian and Suttree, see my article here.





















































3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the informative post. I admire Cormac McCarthy's work and have been lucky enough to collect two of his early first editions. Have you heard if there are any signed US first editions of The Road aside from the 350 he put aside for his son, John? I've found two, but I am uncertain despite the excellent reputation of the dealer. Thanks, Jay

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  2. Hi Jay. The only known signed copies that McCarthy acknowledged are the ones for his son, which is not on market yet as far as i know. It is possible that he might have signed a few copies for friends, but be very careful with the provenance if you are buying the signed copy that you found. A first edition of The Road is worth very little, but once signed, it goes into the hundreds immediately. The question that I always ask myself is: can I prove the authenticity of the signature when I finally sell the book to another collector? If the answer is no, then I will not pay the premium for the signature.

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    1. Thanks for your feedback. Your criteria for purchasing a signed copy makes sense. The copy under consideration is owned by a documented acquaintance of McCarthy's, and the dealer selling it has an excellent reputation and, based on my research, lives in the same community and knows the owner. Still, there is no documentation linking the two. As much as I'd like to own the book for the sake of owning a signed 1st of The Road, the price is about one thousand dollars and I would have no proof of authenticity if I decided to sell it at some point in the future. Thanks, Jay

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