On Typewriters

Of course, they are merely a sign of the times, but anyone who has sat in an office with eighteen or twenty of them rattling like a brook in full spate within the compass of four too-narrow walls, retains a searing of the mind. One of many captains lays down one of many cigarettes, calls one of many stenographers, and begins: ‘Take this.’ Then, in a wasting monotone, the soulless voice of a Frankenstein, varied only by an occasional, ‘No—scratch that out,’ he drones a letter to his tailor, an advice to the General Staff, or a description of the cotton plains of Turkestan. The form of the sentences varies as little as the captain’s voice. They are short. They begin with the substantive, followed by a verb, which is in turn followed by an adjective or another noun, and at the end, as a kind of miserable rear-guard, is suspended the phrase — ‘there being’ such and such a thing, or such and such a condition. It was my fortune to read a great many army reports during a year in the War Department, and I speak from experience when I say that the ‘there-being’ construction is one passionately admired by the military man. At last the drone dies away in a discussion of the latest regulation concerning the form of signature, and, wafting oriental odors, the stenographer resumes her place at her machine, draws a powder-puff from her bosom, — for, like Moses, ‘the skin of her face did shine,’ — and pats her nose. These formalities concluded, the noise is increased by her contribution on the keys.

Well, that is the business world, and undoubtedly the typewriter is of immense value; but do you not resent its intrusion on the world of friends and social relationships? It is part of the Zeitgeist that tolerates ‘ thru ’ and ‘ yours aff’y.’ People say that it saves so much time in writing; but how much loss it causes in individuality! When I receive a typed letter from a friend, it makes me feel as post-cards do, that I am on his conscience, not in his mind. Also it makes people careless of their grammar and spelling. A very delightful young man of my acquaintance, with an Oxford education and a real knowledge of literature, can write that he was ‘much empressed by the difficulty of getting a birth’ on a steamship to Japan.

You are typing. You come to the end of the line, thinking there is room to strike the final e of ‘ possible,’ or the t of ‘just’; but the little beggars stick, so you either let the word go as it is, or allow the e or t to dance off on the next line as Karen’s red shoes danced away when she tore them from her feet in the churchyard.

So much of modern literature bears the stamp of having been composed on the typewriter — the sentences sometimes brisk and impatient, sometimes lumbering along like a train of mulewagons over a sandy plain. Perhaps one half of the books one so criticizes were produced by the old-fashioned means of a pen, but I do maintain that very few appear of which the reader can say, ‘This is a labour of love, the work of a man who lingeringly wrote each sentence as though it were his last.’ Could Sir Thomas Browne have captured the mood which sombres the lovely pages of his Hydriotaphia while seated before a clacking machine, or the translators of the Bible have touched the wings of Gabriel? Surely they wrote, as Fra Angelico painted, on their knees. Gone are the days of Grub Street, when the author, his feet curled under his chair, a wad of paper thrust under the hind-legs of the table to keep it steady, and before him scribbled sheets and a china ink-pot, sat with his pen between his lips and eyes fixed on the patch of sky behind the garret window. Unless he has been changing the ribbon of his typewriter, the author of to-day no longer has an inky finger. Before anyone catches me up on this generalization, I hasten to make a few exceptions— notably Henry James. Great man as one has always considered him, one’s admiration leaps to amazement on realizing that he dictated his books. Mon Dieu! quel homme! Surely he must have had some physical method of keeping track of his rhetorical labyrinths, such as walking down a long room dropping pebbles to record the fall of his relative, subjunctive, and parenthetical clauses, and on the return journey picking them up, — thus sure that not one had escaped, — until all were safely gathered in the rare triumph of a full stop.

I have a little collection of French poems of the nineteenth century, after many of which is a reproduction of the original, with its blots, its erasures, its emendations. It is a pleasure to go over the pages and see the poet s hesitations — an encouragement, indeed, that brings the Olympians nearer earth. Who, I ask you, would treasure the first draft of ’La Maison du Berger, were typing substituted for the delicate flow of De Vigny’s pen; and for the impatient dash over some discarded word, — a gesture of dismissal, it seems, to the second-rate, — a row of little x’s? Such a sacrilege were comparable to reading Keats to the accompaniment of an insecure set of false teeth.

One more protest, and I have done. It is against t hose apostles of efficiency who, overvaluing that most common commodity, time, bring their typewriters on the train with them, and make the journey hideous by an incessant flow of soul. A parlor-car, to normal people, is a place where they read novels they would not dare read at home, sit vacantly counting the silos on the various farms they pass, plan campaigns for seizing railroad crossings, or, from the appearance of the houses, decide the fitting names for the families that inhabit them. When my brother and sister and I were small, our mother and governess could always be sure of one peaceful quarter of an hour during the journey which we frequently made between Albany and Buffalo. That time came when we approached Syrause; for having been told that there were a great many negroes there, we always pressed our noses against the window to enumerate rapturously all persons of color whom we saw. I still do it, and achieved, a month ago, the fine total of thirty. On the return journey I found, to my anger, that the counterinterest of watching a one-armed man typing took my mind from the main business of the day, so that my score was only seven.