Different Strokes for Different Folks

By David Hayes, The Globe and Mail Book Review, January 7, 2006

The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting
By Darren Wershler-Henry
(McClelland & Stewart, 331 pages)

In my living room, under a kidney-shaped, glass-topped coffee table, sits a Remington No. 2 portable typewriter, given as a Christmas gift to my mother in 1928. The keys are a yellowish ivory and its metal frame is painted a lustrous purple and lavender, a two-tone colour scheme meant to appeal to women, to whom portable typewriters were marketed as a way of typing up letters and recipe cards. Today, it’s an objet d’art, or maybe retro artifact is closer to the truth. (I have three other typewriters, including a sturdy 1940s-era Underwood on which I wrote articles early in my career, but they’re in storage.)

In The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting, cultural critic Darren Wershler-Henry describes this sort of artifact-collecting as a “kind of emotional and intellectual life preserver; we expect [antiques] to lift us out of the sea of our present uncertainties and surround us with the reassuring comfort of the known.” Referring specifically to the allure of old typewriters, he adds, “the typewriter has become the symbol of a non-existent sepia-toned era when people typed passionately late into the night under the flickering light of a single naked bulb, sleeves rolled up, suspenders hanging down, lighting each new cigarette off the smouldering butt of the last, occasionally taking a pull from the bottle of bourbon in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet.”

Well, yes, and that’s the attraction, with associations drawn from The Front Page, Hemingway’s reputation and much more, although don’t most of us enjoy it as an amusing diversion rather than believe in its historical accuracy? But never mind, this kind of reductionist observation is the exception, rather than the rule, in Wershler-Henry’s rollicking history-cum-treatise on typewriting. The Iron Whim — the title is from Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man — is not a commodity history, like books on salt, honey or the colour mauve. It’s more of a cross-cultural romp — what Wershler-Henry at one point calls an “arcane cross between forensic science and archaeology” — through everything the author could find out about the typewriter and typewriting.

Like a forensic scientist, he’s interested in studying the fragments left scattered on the roadside now that the typewriter has been displaced by the computer. (“Typewriting is dead, but the ghosts still haunt us,” he writes.) But Wershler-Henry is a critic, experimental poet and former editor at alternative publisher Coach House Press who teaches communications at Wilfrid Laurier University, and The Iron Whim is adapted from his PhD thesis. It’s the pop-culture scholar in him, then, that explains: “I’m interested in typewriting as a discourse: one of the systems of ideas and rules that structure our lives in ways that are subtle and brutal by turns.” (Memo to William Gibson: What about a novel exploring a future in which a book like this can be written about the computer?)

Wershler-Henry’s approach is as subversive as the machine he documents. He ingeniously hunts and pecks his way from the making of American pop artist Ed Ruscha’s Royal Road Test, a 1967 book of photographs depicting a vintage typewriter being jettisoned onto the highway from a speeding Buick, to Frank Gilbreth’s time and motion studies of the late 19th century (he developed ever more efficient ways to increase typing speed and accuracy by using his 12 children as guinea pigs).

From the typewriter’s central role in the samizdat culture that operated underground in Soviet Bloc countries to its presence in literature (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, Rudyard Kipling on the phenomenon of the “Type-Writer Girl,” Henry James’s inability to write without the sound of a clattering typewriter, and the novels of Franz Kafka, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs), as well as David Cronenberg’s film version of Burrough’s Naked Lunch, with insect-like typewriters playing support roles.

I’ve read quite a bit about the typewriter, but Wershler-Henry has done exceptional research into its origins (many originators at various times, all tinkering with mechanical writing machines with various applications in mind), the relationship of women to typing and how the modern workplace and the military were transformed by the typewriter. He also overturns conventional wisdom when he explores the story of the keyboard: how the QWERTY arrangement of keys became ubiquitous and why the Dvorak layout, developed in the 1930s and to this day believed to be another example of the mass marketplace choosing an inferior product over a superior one (like VHS videotapes triumphing over BETA, or PCs over Macs) was, in fact, no better than QWERTY.

Nor did I realize that in the late 1880s, typewriter companies developed stables of racing typists who toured the country dazzling the public with net speeds of 120-150 words per minute. (The current champion, incidentally, is an Oregon woman who has hit 212 words per minute.) And who remembers that in 1929, a 15-year-old Northrop Frye took part in a typing contest at Toronto’s Massey Hall, taking second place (at 63 words per minute), an achievement sadly overshadowed by his later literary criticism and teaching.

Speed is an important theme in The Iron Whim. Wershler-Henry makes it clear that part of the demise of the typewriter (using the term to mean both the machine and the operator) occurred because the modern computerized and networked office, with blindingly fast processors and vast storage capacities, has rendered obsolete the need for fast and accurate typists. The illusion of a connection remains because the QWERTY keyboard is still in use, even though employers usually care most about their applicants’ facility with Word, Excel and PowerPoint, not their typing speed.

What would a discourse on typewriting be without the animals? Wershler-Henry doesn’t overlook the typewriting cows, rats and a cockroach named Archy (all fictional) and an English Setter belonging to the daughter of German novelist Thomas Mann, who used a donated Olivetti equipped with large keys to accommodate the dog’s nose.

And he covers perhaps the greatest shaggy-dog story of them all: the proposition that one (or more) monkeys left in a room with one (or more) typewriters will eventually reproduce every book in France’s National Library or the British Museum, the complete works of Shakespeare, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake or the Bible. Lest you think this was all just academics inventing playful ways to describe probability theories, Wershler-Henry reports on a 2003 study by a team of British scientists involving six monkeys and a computer keyboard. (The monkeys produced five pages of text, most of it the letter S, perhaps because they chose to spend much of their time sitting on the keyboard.)

There are moments when fragments of Wershler-Henry’s thesis gum up all this entertainment. (“Communication always depends on two empty spaces that we take turns occupying: ‘I’ and ‘you.’ When I speak, I’m ‘I’ and you’re ‘you,’ and when you speak, it’s your turn to be ‘I.’ In typewriting, ‘I’ (the dictator) and ‘you’ (the amanuensis) continue to oscillate back and forth.”) But, happily, not often enough to spoil the fun.