Slanting the History of Writing
By Sonja Drimmer | Wednesday, August 9, 2023
By Sonja Drimmer
Wednesday, August 9, 2023
Published by Public Books
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.
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.1 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.2 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.3
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.4 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.”5 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.
But these are merely matters of fact. Far more troubling, given this book’s intended audience of undergraduate students, is the Orientalism that subtends almost every chapter. For Kinkead, “true” writing is alphabetic and even better when it uses vowels—the Greeks had the “stroke of genius” to invent them, and democracy rose because of their easier-to-learn writing system; and a real printed book is a codex printed with movable metal type.
Essentializing these as the norms toward which everything else evolves or from which everything else deviates, the book follows a hackneyed track. We are told that writing was born in the East, then taken up and made into its full mature self in the West. Likewise with printing—China was “sluggish” in its adoption of movable type, and its (alleged) reluctance to share the technology of paper production trots out the Orientalist trope of secrecy. Lucky for the Cherokee Nation, Europeans inspired one of their own to produce a syllabary so they could at long last record their stories for posterity. No consideration whatsoever is given to what might have made oral and other material forms of transmission a precarious way of preserving their culture. Alas, Kinkead eulogizes, having a writing system wasn’t a bulwark against the Trail of Tears, a bizarre performance of lip service to genocide that misses the forest of settler colonialism’s extractive logic (the Cherokee language without Cherokee people) for the trees of alphabetic literacy. Brief sections on Cyrillic, Arabic, and Hebrew describe these writing systems only in relation to the Roman alphabet and the technologies devised for inscribing it. Writing may have a history, and it may look different around the world, but its modern face in the West occupies a commanding position that dictates the story Kinkead tells, for reasons left unexplored.
It feels churlish to train such an unforgiving lens on something that was earnestly designed for students, with accessibility in mind and an eye to liveliness. Getting students to denaturalize something they probably take for granted and whose cultural particularities they may not have considered is, I think, one of the most important objectives of a liberal arts education. The pedagogical exercises and questions concluding each chapter are creative and have the potential to generate the kind of reflection that is especially productive in the classroom. Yet I cannot forgive a scholar who has neglected to apply even a modicum of skepticism to the narrative heirlooms of antiquarians, failed to conduct even the most basic fact-checking, and presented a vision of the history of writing as an onward march of progress led by (individual geniuses of) the West.
What would students today make of the knowledge that cursive is not just fancy or sophisticated or old-timey writing? In certain contexts in the Middle Ages, cursive perched on the lowest rung of writing’s hierarchical ladder, a grade of script used for mundane administrative documents and notes because of the speed afforded by running letters together—hence the term “cursive,” from the Latin currens, running. Drew Gilpin Faust’s dirge, “Gen Z Never Learned to Read Cursive,” is just the latest in a long line of popular think pieces on the demise of linked letters.6 Faust knows well enough not to clutch cursive like pearls, and offers the qualifications about its cultural specificity learned from Tamara Plakins Thornton.7 And yet after enumerating some of these stipulations like so many asides, she laments,
All of us, not just students and scholars, will be affected by cursive’s loss. The inability to read handwriting deprives society of direct access to its own past. … The spread of literacy in the early modern West was driven by people’s desire to read God’s word for themselves, to be empowered by an experience of unmediated connection. The abandonment of cursive represents a curious reverse parallel: We are losing a connection, and thereby disempowering ourselves.
What society are we talking about here? What literacy? Who is being disempowered? The literacy that Faust invokes spread on the back of print, Christian evangelization, and empire, and came at a cost that we can see in Christen Mucher’s contribution to Mattes’s volume.8 She examines the “Indian signatures” of the Nolwottog (Nonotuck) inscribed on the 1653 land deed to Northampton, Massachusetts, the town where she—and I, incidentally—live. Through close looking, she sees how these iconic marks resembling a beaver tail, bird tracks, and a lamprey, among other natural elements, were read by colonizers as prewriting—a sign of inferiority—and misread to satisfy Europeans’ proprietary rationales: featuring the requisite “signatures” that testified to ownership, the document followed legal procedure fair and square. Yet when treated as “Indigenous handwriting” and the complex system of signification they are, which requires its own kind of literacy to decipher, these inscriptions betray a different rationale. The Nolwottog writers were not naives duped out of their land; they were writing themselves into new relationships of stewardship in which they envisioned themselves as having a future. This is just one kind of literacy that has been lost to people like me who, yes, were schooled in cursive.
The point isn’t that cursive and the Roman alphabet it records are the media of empire. Rather, uncritical lamentations of cursive’s disappearance from school curricula (or handwriting’s displacement by typing) tend to present it “as a generational disability,” as Christopher Hager notes in his afterword to Mattes’s volume, which looks at the results of left-handed penmanship contests held between 1865 and 1867 for Civil War veterans who had lost their right hands, as well as the 2019 campaign to crowdsource transcriptions of their submissions. Volunteers and other commentators, in terms similar to Faust’s, construed the campaign as an effort to salvage the past for future generations who will lack the ability to read cursive. But Hager’s stories of students developing fluency in reading cursive after a mere half hour of instruction echo my own experiences teaching students to read Gothic textualis (no knowledge of Latin required!).
It’s possible we overvalue the difficulty of these skills because we, the cursive literati, overvalue ourselves. Lisa Maruca, in considering the rise and fall of penmanship’s status in the 18th century, remarks that “economic factors, including new forms of labor and shifting ideas about class status, can radically transform our understandings of what counts as writing and how that skill should be taught.”9
How should it be taught? I don’t know. But I hope that, however it is taught, it would lead future readers of any formal letters I write to wonder why their cursor changes from a text pointer to a precision cursor when it hovers over the .png of my signature. I hope they wonder why I bothered. Above all, I hope they don’t care that they can’t read it. It’s illegible anyway.
- Ricard Grusin, “Signature Identity Content: Handwriting in an Age of Digital Remediation,” in Sign Here! Handwriting in the Age of New Media, edited by Sonja Neef , José van Dijck, Eric Ketelaar, et al. (Amsterdam University Press, 2006), pp. 95–115.
- Carla L. Peterson, “Handwriting and the Cultivation of Taste: Lines Copied into an African American Schoolgirl’s Friendship Album, Philadelphia, 1840,” in Handwriting in Early America.
- Frank Kelderman, “Rites of Encouragement: Cultivating Indian Reform in Susette La Flesche’s Friendship Album,” in Handwriting in Early America.
- As Karen Sánchez Eppler observes in “Foreword. Copybooks and the Rescripting of Cultural Values,” in Handwriting in Early America.
- Danielle Skeehan, “Feathers and Quills: New World Beasts and the Natural History of Handwriting,” in Handwriting in Early America.
- Drew Gilpin Faust, “Gen Z Never Learned to Read Cursive,” The Atlantic (September 16, 2022), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/10/gen-z-handwriting-t...
- Tamara Plakins Thornton, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (Yale University Press, 1998).
- Christen Mucher, “The Mark of Chickwallop,” in Handwriting in Early America.
- Lisa Maruca, “‘VIVE LA PLUME!’ The Pleasures and Problems of Handwriting Pedagogy in the Long Eighteenth Century,” in Handwriting in Early America.