Slanting the History of Handwriting

From Public Books:

Years ago, I wrote my signature on a piece of white paper, scanned it, and inserted it as a picture at the bottom of my digital letterhead. It’s a perfect example of what Richard Grusin has called the “premediated” sign. Others in academia sign their letters by typing out their names in cursive fonts. Whether Zapf, Apple Chancery, or Lucida Calligraphy, the important thing is that the font gestures to cursive, which has become the avatar of handwritten-ness in digital media today. We make these insertions not because we need to signal our authenticating presence but because formal letters are a genre of writing, with certain expectations regarding not only content but also appearance. A formal letter should conclude with the writer’s name inscribed to look a particular way, whether it’s a picture of a signature or a digital simulacrum of one.

All of which is to say, whatever writing is today, it is not self-evident. In the introduction to the new edited volume Handwriting in Early America: A Media History, Mark Alan Mattes suggests that we can come to grips with what writing is by triangulating between inscription, the people inscribing, and the systems of communication in which their inscriptions circulated. The 16 essays in the collection bear out the expansive potentials of this framework, not only by truly taking on the contingency of writing itself but also by revealing how the same kinds of writing can do radically different cultural work.

For example, almost every essay in this rich volume finds a counterpart or mirror image of itself, underscoring just how relative and relational the meaning of every kind of inscription is. A poem on penmanship quoted and copied by a teacher into an African American girl’s friendship album endorses the value of “polite culture” as a means of advancing in the antebellum Black elite.  A different friendship album, owned by Omaha activist Susette La Flesche, also features an array of handwritten quotations, but they document a tense ethics of obligation between writers and recipient—both are impelled to act in accord with an assimilationist vision of Indigenous self-determination.

While this volume underscores the benefits of historicist thinking about writing, Joyce Kinkead’s A Writing Studies Primer attempts to short-circuit that project by taking the opposite approach: condensing 5,000 years of writing technology around the world into a single, unbroken thread. After visiting museums, libraries, and paper-making firms in the US, Europe, India, Japan, Nepal, and South Korea, Kinkead, a professor of English with a focus on writing studies, synthesized her knowledge and experiences into a book that covers a vast range of topics, from the origins of writing, writing systems, implements, and supports to the history of the book and the printing press, punctuation and calligraphy, ancient epistles, and social media. Each of its 16 chapters concludes with prompts for leading class discussion, hands-on exercises, and a short reading from a source such as the New York Times.

While many of the essays in Handwriting in Early America hinge on Foucault’s idea that writing is a technology of the self—the process by which the individual is formed through various mechanisms of social replication—A Writing Studies Primer is a contemporary example of what this theory describes. And not always for the good. The book leans heavily on ethnographic methods that are almost indistinguishable from the Western gaze. The college student reader—presumably American—is advised in the first chapter to avoid getting “lost in a history that crosses so much time and space” by writing their own biography of themselves as a writer. The student’s story then gives way to Kinkead’s, and the Grand Tour of writing on offer measures all material forms and genres against the yardstick of Euro-American writing norms today—norms that, for example, assume handwriting stopped having a history after the advent of print. But writing by hand did not simply continue to “advance” until it inevitably began to erode; its meanings and the cultural work it performed varied. They still do.

. . . .

Nineteenth-century writing exercises were meant to unite the individual body with pen, ink, paper, and prescribed word, thereby fostering the growth of national subjects. A young boy from Massachusetts, for example, practiced his personal hand by rehearsing over and over again the words “Independence now and independence forever,” the announcement Daniel Webster imagined John Adams to have made upon signing the Declaration of Independence. I am reminded of the stock phrase I see from time to time sprinkled in the margins of medieval manuscripts by readers trying their sharpened pens or simply enjoying the scratch of an inky nib on parchment: “ego sum bonus puer quem deus amat.” I am a good boy whom God loves. Surely some of the boys or men who wrote that were at times naughty, but what is a jingle if not aspirational? As Danielle Skeehan remarks on 16th-to-19th-century English copybooks, “authors often draw connections between alphabetic literacy, the literate subject, discipline, and imperial ambition.” The legacy of alphabetic literacy’s facilitation of empire is a long one, still being written, albeit now in corporate blog posts and emailed memos to vendors on the other end of a supply chain thousands of miles away.

A Writing Studies Primer attempts to supplement and enhance the necessarily instrumental nature of a handbook for composition courses by cultivating students’ awareness of writing as a culturally determined act. This is great. But, teeming with factual errors and underpinned by a triumphalist Eurocentrism, it only embraces the surface relativism of liberal values, which ultimately needs history to be quaint so that the surface relativisms of modernity can emerge as modernity’s greatest distinction. From the volume we learn that books lacked page numbers, chapter headings, and indexes until the 16th century. False. “Islam prohibits images of people in art.” Demonstrably not true. Parchment is of lower quality than vellum. Incomprehensible. The printing press in Europe made scribes “irrelevant.” Incorrect. The entire output of medieval European book production equaled 30,000 volumes. Perplexing. Gutenberg had to hide his work on the printing press for fear of being accused of “dark forces or magic.” I am at a loss

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG notes that the publisher of Handwriting in Early America, University of Massachusetts Press, failed to make Look Inside available.