The printing history and legend behind the first edition of one of the great 20th century Texas books has been the subject of myth and misinformation for years. I try to set the record straight and identify the various printings and issues for this most collectible book.
Thanks to booksellers Jim Bowling, Burnside Rare Books, Cahill Rare Books, Herland Books, and Ed Smith for sharing information about their copies of In a Narrow Grave, and to the Wittliff Collection at the Southwestern Writers Collection, Alkek Library, Texas State University, San Marcos.
[Minor revisions, May 8, 2023]
It's fitting that a book about Texas has generated a Texas-sized collection of tall tales, half-truths, flights of fancy, and out-and-out fabrication.
That book is Larry McMurtry's first collection of essays, In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas, written when he was known as much for the movies that had been made from his books as for the novels themselves. Improbably, these essays, which reconsidered Texas's literary past and defined the state's culture for the future, became his first stand-out work. A fiftieth anniversary edition was published in 2018 and the book has been continuously in print since its first publication.
After the manuscript was rejected by McMurtry's New York publisher*, In a Narrow Grave was issued by a regional outfit, Bill Wittliff's Encino Press, which released several hardcover printings and a signed, limited edition.
Among modern first edition collectors, the book has become legendary. The collectability of In a Narrow Grave is undoubtedly enhanced by a comical typo: "skycrapers" for "skyscrapers" (emphasis added) on page 105. Even though the expected English pronunciation of skycrapers would be sky-crepe-ers, most collectors refer to this first edition as the sky-crap-ers version. Crap being an appropriate adjective for a book with some 60 typographical errors.
McMurtry has written about In a Narrow Grave several times in his numerous memoirs and in his various introductions to the book, but he has shed no light on the errors and how they ended up in the printed book. The only statement by McMurtry that I have found is in a second printing offered for sale by the William Reese Company that McMurtry inscribed, "For Lee, Nobody knows the truth about this book."
If you believe the book descriptions on AbeBooks, when McMurtry realized the first printing had so many errors, he "insisted it be withdrawn and reprinted." Another bookseller embellished that detail: "the erroneous and farcical" error of "skyscraper" (sic) as "skycrapper" (sic) "infuriated McMurtry." In fact, there's no evidence that McMurtry even knew about the errors until after the publisher decided to fix the problem.
Despite the errors, McMurtry has always liked the way the book turned out. In a Narrow Grave, he wrote in his memoir Literary Life, "happened to be the best-designed book I'll ever have. Bill Wittliff was reaching his peak as a book designer just about then."* McMurtry and Wittliff remained friends (frenemies, by some accounts) after the supposed dust-up over the typos plaguing In a Narrow Grave. Two decades after that book came out, Wittliff adapted McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove into the memorable miniseries based on the book.
What Happened With the First Printing of In a Narrow Grave?
The most commonly repeated story, quoting from a copy offered online when this essay was written (2021), is that "reportedly all but 15 of the error-riddled first issue were destroyed." One bookseller even added a conflagration to the myth: "Supposedly 12 copies of the first edition survived a fire." The latter account seems to conflate two stories—the destruction of the first printing and a fire at Encino Press's warehouse* that happened before McMurtry's book of essays was published.
Booksellers can't be blamed for repeating the story that only 15 copies of the first printing survived. That tale dates from January 1970, just over a year after In a Narrow Grave was published and the source was the publisher himself, Bill Wittliff. In an interview conducted in late 1969 and reported by University of Texas at Austin student Deborah Detering Pannill in a very thorough 46-page term paper, "The Encino Press: A Regional Publisher, Its History and Its Books", Pannill reported, "Of the 845 copies bound before the error was realized, McMurtry kept 5, the Encino kept 8, and an attempt was made to destroy the rest." That's how legends begin.
Wittliff told Pannill that the problems began with the expletives McMurtry used in "Eros in Archer County", an essay on obscene language which predicts in its first line the publisher's future troubles with the book: "Sex is still a word to freeze the average Texan's liver, particularly if the Texas is over forty and his liver not already pickled." While it seems hard to believe now, the publisher had legitimate concerns about obscenity charges, particularly in Texas, which sent someone to jail for selling obscene material as recently as 2002.* The Supreme Court had legalized the US publication of Fanny Hill (originally published in 1749) just two years before In a Narrow Grave, in 1966.*
According to Pannill's term paper, Witliff told her that
"his regular typographer was unwilling to 'contribute to moral decay' and refused to set the type for that language, even though it really isn't terribly obscene. Wittliff had to resort to a Mexican typesetter [racism in the original] whom he had used before but whose quality was somewhat below standard. After the proofs had been checked, the typesetter took it upon himself to reset type during the slicking process if the slugs were too high or too low. Unfortunately he never mentioned it to Wittliff and his own proofreading was not the best.
"Of the 2250 copies printed, 845 were bound before anyone realized there were any errors. The first person to notice was Betty Greene, wife of [Texas author] A. C. Greene. She told Wittliff and they all began to read, carefully. There were over sixty errors. At first Wittliff thought he could salvage some of those printed but finally they decided to destroy the edition and reprint it, saving a few for Wittliff and McMurtry."
David Streitfeld, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and book collector, also interviewed Wittliff about In a Narrow Grave. According to Streitfeld (conveyed in an email to me), Wittliff assigned the blame to the printer. "Wittliff told me that he had to use a new printer because his regular printer declined to do a book with cuss words. The first printing came in and it had problems."
The problem is that the physical evidence doesn't match the story.
Peter Howard, who was one of the great specialists in modern first editions, was skeptical of Wittliff's efforts to blame the errors on the typesetter (and presumably, had he known about it, his later statements to Streitfeld deflecting blame to the printer). Howard wrote in one of his catalogs*, "A recent inspection of three sets of proofs for the book, each representing a successive stage of the production of the book, revealed the presence of the determinative errors in each case."
The only set of page proofs I have located—the first typeset version of the text delivered by the printer—did indeed include the "skycrapers" error (sold most recently in 2016 by Heritage Auctions for $2750). If the errors survived three sets of proofs, then they weren't introduced by the typesetter or by the printer after the proofs had been approved, as Wittliff long claimed.
In Peter Howard's account, he adds a new detail, "The few copies which had been distributed for sale, chiefly to Austin bookshops, were picked up by Wittliff. The press kept eight copies, the author five, and the rest were deep-sixed in a dry well behind the old Encino offices and bulldozed over with fill." Dramatic stuff!
Nevertheless, Peter Howard expressed some doubts about Wittliff's story about the "skycrapers" issue. He described the copy he had for sale as "one of the mysterious 'few' which evidently, according to Wittliff, escaped the recall in spite of his genuinely conscientious efforts to retrieve all copies." His quotation marks around "few" and his general tone suggest he thought Wittliff had oversold the scarcity of the book. Howard noted that he had obtained another copy of the "skycrapers" printing from a book reviewer who got it direct from the publisher, adding reviewers and Austin bookstores to the potential list of recipients of the error-filled copies.
According to Streitfeld, who asked Larry McMurtry about it, the author also took Wittliff's tale of recalling the book with a grain of salt. "McMurtry does not believe this," Streitfeld told me in an email. "He thinks Wittliff was too cheap to throw away a couple thousand books." Or even all the 845 he had bound when the errors were discovered.
Clues to What Happened
A unique copy of In a Narrow Grave in my possession at the time of writing offers a hint of what probably happened after Wittliff realized how poor the copyediting had been (Given that at least three states of the page proofs had the error, the responsibility for poor copyediting was the fault of Encino Press and not the typesetter or the printer).
In her essay, Pannill wrote, "At first Wittliff thought he could salvage some of those printed but finally they decided to destroy the edition and reprint it." My unique copy has the "skycrapers" error on page 105, but it does not have the errors on pages 56, 134, or any others of the dozens of pages with typos. It also has a second page 105 with the corrected text (this is printed on a "bifolium", or two leaves with the pages 105–108).
Getting a bit into the weeds, this extra sheet makes for 10 leaves in the eighth gathering (a gathering is a unit of pages sewn together when a book is bound). Typically in modern books, gatherings have multiples of four leaves, most commonly 8 or 16. The only way to make a gathering of 10 leaves is to print a standard gathering of 8 leaves and add a single sheet, folded to make two leaves or four pages. This is hand bookbinding work.
My unusual copy is strong evidence that when Wittliff told Pannil that he "thought copies could be salvaged" meant that the press attempted to replace the pages with errors with corrected sheets. According to Pannill's account, only 845 copies had been bound when the problems were discovered, leaving some 1400 in unbound sheets. In the case of my copy, they failed to remove the original sheet at the center of the gathering with page 105 and instead added the corrected sheet to the gathering, leaving both the corrected and uncorrected "skycrapers" page in the book. How many of the unbound copies were fixed before Wittliff gave up and reprinted is anybody's guess.
Despite devoting two pages to the history of In a Narrow Grave in his Serendipity Books catalog listing, Peter Howard does not mention that the printing errors extend to the dust jacket as well. There are two typos on the front flap, "wtih" in paragraph 5, line 3, and "head" for "heard" in the first line of the last paragraph. Both of these errors are direct quotes from the text; ironically, the book text for these passages is correct, even in the "skycrapers" copies. Either Witliff didn't notice the jacket copy errors when he started fixing the errors in the book or perhaps by that time, he was tired of spending time and money on the project. He used the jackets with typos on both the "skycrapers" copies and on the corrected second printing.
How Many Copies of the First "Skycrapers" Printing Are There?
In his catalog entry, Peter Howard said he had accounted for twenty-two copies of the "skycrapers" issue while noting he had "seen five times as as many of corrected printing over the last decade." That's just one bookseller in the pre-Internet era who was able to identify more copies of the book than the publisher said survived in total.
At the time of this writing (2021), there are five copies of the first "skycrapers" printing for sale on AbeBooks. That compares to seven copies of the signed, limited edition, which was 250 copies. That proportion suggests there are maybe 200 surviving uncorrected first printings. However, the book is much scarcer in the auction records, with just one copy in the last 10 years, compared to seven or eight of the signed, limited edition. My guess is that the real number is somewhere between 100 and 200 surviving copies, not all in collectible condition.
To summarize, the first printing of In a Narrow Grave survives in small numbers, but they are much more common than typically reported. Bill Wittliff took the story to his grave and when Larry McMurtry wrote, "Nobody knows the truth about this book," he may well have been including himself; if he did know something, he doesn't appear to have shared that information with anyone else.
Uncorrected Proofs before publication
0.a. Long galley page proofs, 7-1/2 by 25 inches. 61 leaves. With the uncorrected skycrapers text. One copy in the auction records, sold by Heritage in 2016 and Christie's in 1996.
0.b–c. [Two other states of the proofs, reported by Peter Howard but not described sufficiently to identify here]
First edition (first printing)
1.a. First printing, first issue.
Book: Skycrapers text on page 105, line 12; "in in" on page 56.2; and duplicated text in the second paragraph on page 134, and many others. Collation: [1–5]8 10 [7–12]8
Binding: Yellow cloth binding; paper spine label; author's signature stamped in black on the front board.
Dust Jacket: Dust jacket printed on tan Kraft paper; $7.50 price on front flap; "wtih" on line 5 of the fifth paragraph on the front flap and "head" for "heard" in the first line of the last paragraph on the front flap.
2250 to 2500 copies printed; 845 copies bound; most tossed allegedly tossed down an old well. Perhaps 100–200 copies survive.
1.b. First printing, first issue, publisher's variant
Book: Same as 1.a.
Binding: Same as 1.a., but without the spine label (may or may not have McMurtry's signature stamped on the front cover).
Dust Jacket: No dust jacket.
According to Peter Howard's catalog description, "The press kept eight copies... usually bearing cryptic inscriptions by the publisher. These copies lack the printed paper label on the spine, and do not have the dust jacket unless the purchaser supplied one from another copy."
The Wittliff Collection at Texas State University in San Marcos appears to have one of these publisher's variant copies, which is described on their website as "the infamous 'skycraper' (see page 105) hardbound edition, no dust jacket. Inscribed by McMurtry as follows: 'This is the supra-legendary real first edition. L. McMurtry.'"
1.c. First printing, hypothetical second issue (indistinguishable from 2.a.)
Book: Errors fixed by replacing the leaves with errors with corrected ones. These leaves were (hypothetically) replaced before binding, and would be nearly impossible to distinguish from the first issue.
Dust jacket: Same as 1.a, with errors.
This issue is theoretical, based on the physical evidence of one copy with p. 105 in both issued; but sometimes one is enough.
2.a. Second printing, trade issue
Book: No printing letter on the copyright page; the correct skyscrapers on line 12 of page 105; other errors fixed. Same collation as 1.a.
Binding: Same as 1.a.
First issue, same as 1.a.
Second issue, with and heard correct on the flap. The paper is brown Kraft paper, noticeably darker than the first printing jacket. Also priced at $7.50.
I have had a copy of 2.a. with the second issue jacket. Most copies of the second printing, trade issue, have jackets with errors. It is unclear whether the jackets were fixed at the same time that the books were reprinted or if the jackets were fixed only with the "B" printing (see below). Under either scenario some copies of 2.a. could have had the corrected jacket from the get-go. Or such copies could have had jackets married by collectors or dealers from later printings.
Note: This second printing of In a Narrow Grave is sometimes called the first edition, second issue. This is incorrect. Issues occur within a single printing. When the first printing and the second printing are different, they are just separate printings. See John Carter's ABC for Book Collectors entry for "Issues and States" on page 134 of the online version, particularly the notes at the end which refer to impressions (the British word for printing).
2.b. First limited edition (from second printing sheets)
Book: Corrected text printed on Artlaid paper.
Binding: Quarter-suede leather and paper-over-boards, reproducing the dust jacket art. Signed by McMurtry on the half-title; with a tipped in limitation sheet at the front, numbered in ink.
Slipcase: Apparently covered with the same cloth as the regular trade edition and stamped with McMurtry's signature on the front cover. No dust jacket issued.
Limited to 250 signed and numbered copies.
This version was almost certainly issued to the public after the second printing (2.a). The publisher was desperate to replace the defective first printing copies. Wouldn't they do that first and then put out a special signed, limited edition?
If there were lettered or presentation copies, I haven't seen any reference to one.
Third printing with a "B" on the copyright page. Same binding as the first printing. Corrected text in book and jacket. $7.50 jacket price.
Fourth printing with a "C" on the copyright page. Corrected text in book and jacket. $7.50 jacket price. Seen in two bindings: a) brown cloth, stamped in gilt on the spine; no stamping on front cover; and b) apparently the most common, a tan binding with brown streaks, stamped in black on the spine, with no stamping on the front cover.
Some copies of the fourth printing have price-increase ($12.50) and ISBN stickers on the front flap. In 1979, Encino Press was still advertising the book for $7.50 in the Texas Monthly.
* [...rejected by McMurtry's New York publisher] McMurtry, Larry. Literary Life, p. 17. Simon & Schuster published the book in paperback in 1971. Encino Press sold hardcovers for more than a decade.
* [...his peak as a book designer just about then] Ibid.
* [...and a fire at Encino Press's warehouse] "Working long days, they were able to move the press to its own space on South Lamar Street in 1968. Unfortunately, that was the same year the Whitley Company warehouse fire destroyed most of their book stock." Quoted from "A Brief History of the Encino Press", retrieved from https://thewittliffkeystone.com/2018/12/05/a-brief-history-of-the-encino-press/ on December 18, 2020.
* [...as recently as 2002] As recently as 2002, a Texas court convicted Jesus Castillo for selling a comic book. They take alleged obscentity seriously in the Lone Star State. The Encino Press used McMurtry's strong language as a selling point in a review of the book planted in the Austin American Statesman (November 24, 1968). The glowing article was written by A. C. Greene (husband of the Betty who found the errors). "The actual publication took a good deal of bravery, for McMurtry's vocabulary, while essentially detached and cool is godawfully precise in its use of certain popular words, terms and descriptions not hitherto put into print by a Texas publisher."
* [...in one of his catalogs] Ed Smith kindly shared his photocopies of the relevant pages with me, but neither of us have the rest of the catalog. In a Narrow Grave is item 417; I don't know which catalog this was or when it was published.
* [...Wittliff ordered 2500 copies] Wittliff later told David Streitfeld that the print run was slightly lower—2250 copies—but repeated that only 845 of them were bound.