Putting pen to paper (II)

The novelists’ instrument

We examine an incident in which new technology did not change literary genres.

In our writer’s storeroom there is a manual typrewriter.  (“Old” is understood.)  It probably still works mechanically, though the ink ribbon has no doubt dried out so producing a typescript would be difficult.  It hasn’t been used in many years.  But we are not going to comment on the displacement of this technology, for all that it has extensive social implications.  Instead, we’re going to talk about displacement by this technology.  Specifically, about displacement that did not happen.

We were prompted by a bit of family history.  One of our ancestors enlisted as a 19-year-old private in the Civil War.  As an infantryman in that conflict, his chances of not making it through were better than any US war before or since (though he woudn’t have known this at the time).  Indeed, his descendent’s presence among us would have been a bad bet on several occasions.  But he also spent much time in the safer environment of the general’s headquarters.  No, he had no precocious military genius or organizational skill; he was pulled from his company simply because he could write legibly.  Being able to copy the general’s orders quickly and accurately, in handwriting that harassed colonels could read on horseback at night in the rain, was a priceless asset.  (Small things like this have probably had much more effect on wars than anyone realizes.)

It was sometime in the 1870s-1880s that typewriters became common, leaving privates with excellent handwriting unmolested in the front line.  These machines changed much else in business practice and journalism.  They did not, however, seem to change the personal letter.  Most private letters, up to the time of their demise, were handwritten.  This is not what we would have predicted.  Even when typewriters were common, so that just about every literate house had one, writers would use pens to scratch out with great effort something they could have done more quickly and legibly on a machine.  We’re not entirely sure why this is.  Perhaps it was just a little too much trouble to pull out the instrument; perhaps it was seen as too mechanical for a personal communication.  Perhaps the fact that you could put so many more words on a page, and thus had to come up with many more words, was discouraging.  (Some people with much to say, in particular mothers of several children with many aunts and uncles to keep informed, kept a sheet of paper in the typewriter and added to it as convenient until it was full and could be sent off.)

Certainly longer compositions should be greatly affected.  A novelist, for instance, could write much more quickly and easily now.  We’d expect, then, that the novels of the early 20th century would be longer than those of, say, the mid-19th.  But no: Dickens wrote by hand, and Dumas; that byword for length, War and Peace, was hand-scribed.  The products of the last century, though there were many more of them, tended to be rather shorter than those of the previous one.  (Explaining this would take us well out of our areas of expertise.)

So two literary genres, the novel and the personal letter, were not greatly changed by a quite revolutionary new technology, as we would have predicted.  Prediction is a chancy business.

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1 Comment

  • Marion R Dowell

    October 31, 2018 at 10:11 am

    it is easier to add in a forgotten thought on a hand written letter. Also, writing by hand takes time, allowing for time for thoughts to congeal with correct grammar and spelling. While typing on a computer has eased all that, (several times in this comment already), our punctuation, spelling and grammar have not necessarily improved