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The Iron Whim

A Fragmented History of Typewriting

by Darren Wershler-Henry

Hardcover, 331 pages, Cornell Univ Pr, List Price: $29.95 |


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The Iron Whim
A Fragmented History of Typewriting
Darren Wershler-Henry

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Excerpt: The Iron Whim

The Iron Whim

A Fragmented History of Typewriting

Cornell University Press

Copyright © 2007 Darren Wershler-Henry
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780801445866

Chapter One

Typewriting is dead, but its ghosts still haunt us. Even in our image-­saturated culture, the iconic value of the typewriter looms large. Artfully grainy, sepia-­toned close-­up photos of its quaint circular keys grace the covers of tastefully matte-­laminated paperbacks, announcing yet another volume extolling the virtues of the writing life. In magazine and billboard ads, magnified blotchy serifed fonts mimic the look of text typed on battered machines with old, dirty ribbons: pixel-­perfect damaged letters that sit crookedly above or below the line with paradoxical consistency. On radio and tv, the rapid clatter of type bars hitting paper signals the beginning of news broadcasts. We all know what this sound means: important information will soon be conveyed. Typewriters may have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but their ghosts are everywhere.

What’s remarkable is not that typewriting continues to haunt us, but that typewriting itself was always haunted.

Consider the case of Felix Pender, a successful young author of humorous stories. Pender, a character in “A Psychical Invasion," one of Algernon Blackwood’s turn-­of-­the-­century tales of the paranormal, has a problem. Though he is producing new work at an alarming rate, the young Pender is no longer capable of writing anything funny. All his laughter seems “hollow and ghastly, and ideas of evil and tragedy [tread] close upon the heels of the comic.”

In the best Edwardian fashion, Pender’s difficulties stem from his misguided attempt to learn Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. In order to experience the ludicrous in a manner that he would not normally, and therefore, presumably, to generate some new material, Pender starves himself for six hours, then takes an “experimental dose” of hashish.4 After a slightly disconcerting laughing jag, he goes to bed, wakes late, and sits down to write:

All that day I wrote and wrote and wrote. My sense of laughter seemed wonderfully quickened and my characters acted without effort out of the heart of true humour. I was exceedingly pleased with this result of my experiment. But when the stenographer had taken her departure and I came to read over the pages she had typed out, I recalled her sudden glances of surprise and the odd way she had looked up at me while I was dictating. I was amazed at what I read and could hardly believe I had uttered it . . .

It was so distorted. The words, indeed, were mine so far as I could remember, but the meanings seemed strange. It frightened me. The sense was so altered. At the very places where my characters were intended to tickle the ribs, only curious emotions of sinister amusement resulted. Dreadful innuendoes had managed to creep into the phrases. There was laughter of a kind, but it was bizarre, horrible, distressing; and my attempt at analysis only increased my dismay. The story, as it read then, made me shudder, for by virtue of those slight changes it had come somehow to hold the soul of horror, of horror disguised as merriment.