Monkey about with a hunt-and-peck history

The Iron Whim
August 10, 2007

This book is a meditation on the cultural significance of the typewriter. The machine, a vital component of 20th-century history, has become, with alarming abruptness, "an object of nostalgia" in the 21st. As Darren Wershler-Henry observes, its Homeric epithet is no longer "office", "portable" or "electric" but (on eBay, notably) "vintage". Old technology.

The machine was variously named over the century and a half of its supremacy: polygraph, pantograph, plume kryptographique , mechanical typographer, Schreibkugel (the philosopher Nietzsche's preferred term), writing automaton and a dozen other things. All are unsatisfactory. The eventual name "typewriter" is similarly so. Nor, mysteriously - and inconveniently - has it ever (by analogy with that other ubiquitous, and still triumphant, machine) been abbreviated to "TW".

As Wershler-Henry points out, for much of its history, the word "typewriter" irritatingly confused machine and operator. "Typist", "secretary" and "stenographer" are, in various ways, also unsatisfactory.

Wershler-Henry's book is what Dr Johnson would call "a loose sally of the mind" - elegantly incoherent. It offers a disconnected series of epigrams and Shandean digression. The titular "whim" is borrowed from Marshall McLuhan. One of the word's remotely obsolete meanings, the media guru gleefully discovered, is "wheel". McLuhan also (as Wershler-Henry seems not to have picked up) alludes to the jokey locution "whim of iron".

Among impressive erudition (on the transformation the typewriter brought about in the White House of Theodore Roosevelt, for example) there are small pockets of ignorance in The Iron Whim . Wershler-Henry seems, surprisingly, not to have read Walter Benjamin's seminal essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". There is a yawning gap in the index between "Benedict, H. H." and "Bennett, William R. Jr".

The author is an assistant professor in the communications studies department at Wilfrid Laurier University. His courses must be fun but, one suspects, immethodical - whether to a fault or a virtue only his students can say. He is principally interested in the mystique of typewriting (not, he insists, "typewriters"), and lets his mind run freely, not to say wildly. The book's epigraph is J. G. Ballard's apophthegm "It types us, encoding its own linear bias across the free space of the imagination". It sounds awesome in a familiarly sinister Ballardian way. But is it true?

Apropos of Paul Auster's fantasia, The Story of My Typewriter , Wershler-Henry asserts that "it's common for writers not only to attribute souls to their machines but to attribute someone or something else's soul to their machine". This may, conceivably happen in literary flights of the imagination, but is it really "common"? "No one," Wershler-Henry asserts, "is ever alone at a typewriter". The Iron Whim is replete with this kind of whimsical nonsense. Perhaps it's ironic.

Among the less counter-commonsensical things in the book are the author's revisionary comments on Christopher Latham Sholes, generally credited as the Henry Ford of the modern typewriter. Wershler-Henry is deeply sceptical about the Sholesian doctrine that the typewriter was a principal agent of liberation for women in the late 19th century. He backs up his revisionism with a discreet dip into "typewriter girl pornography". Milton's daughters were as exploited by Qwerty as by the quill pen. More objectionably, they were invisibly exploited, uncredited. Who can recall the Henry James novels that Theodora Bosanquet typed for the "Master"? Or thinks about her nimble fingers when reading them?

The typewriter, as Wershler-Henry conceives it, was a necessary component in the 20th-century tyrannies of Time and Motion and Taylorism - a conveyor belt that chained its operators to the factory system as efficiently, and soullessly, as Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times . Foucault is invoked to identify the typewriter as a prime instrument of "discipline".

Wershler-Henry's book is a glorious vindication of indiscipline. Particularly engaging is his digression on, for example, how long it would take how many monkeys to reproduce the works of Shakespeare. "Sooner or later," he blandly observes, "anyone writing about typewriting has to deal with the monkeys." He himself does the monkey business amusingly.

The Iron Whim is as enjoyable to read as, manifestly, it was to write. One does, however, rather wonder what kind of writing machine the author used - a detail that, unless I've missed it, he never discloses.

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe professor emeritus, University College London.

The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting

Author - Darren Wershler-Henry
Publisher - Cornell University Press
Pages - 344
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 9780801445866

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