A colleague of mine assigns one paper each semester that must be handwritten. He doesn’t just require students to hand-write a draft; they must write the whole paper by hand, and after he corrects it by hand, they must rewrite a final copy of the whole thing. I’ve expressed astonishment that he’s able to read his students’ handwriting. “I’m used to it,” he says. “And everyone who takes my classes knows, now, about the handwriting assignment. They ask, ‘When are you going to assign that paper?’ They dread it. And afterward, they love having done it. They think differently.”
Many of us suspect that our mode of thinking while writing changes depending on the technology we use. I initially began using a computer in the 1980s with precisely that trepidation. And many express anxiety about the disappearing art of handwriting — by which we mean, generally, cursive, the Palmer method that elementary students learned, by rote and painstakingly, for many decades in American schools.
But Anne Trubek, the director of Belt Publishing, investigates that nostalgia in her charming and informative book, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, and unmasks several canards. The first is that handwriting has always been a treasured mode of self-expression. Not so, according to Socrates, whom Plato quotes as saying that men’s acquisition of writing “will implant forgetfulness in their souls” and that writing’s value pales in comparison to the living art of conversation: “If you ask a piece of writing a question, it remains silent.”
Taking us all the way back to cuneiform, Trubek points out that most manual writing had nothing to do with self-expression, but was a continual attempt to make handwriting as uniform and devoid of personality as possible. Hieroglyphics, medieval illuminated manuscripts, Roman capitals, the Spenserian “scrivenings” of Melville’s Bartleby, the simpler loops and slants of Palmer cursive — all these were taught, and acquired, by careful rote. Good penmanship was, at different times, lauded as a quality of the highly born (and later decried as a quality with which the highly born needn’t be bothered); praised as a form of religious devotion; inculcated as a moral duty; and praised as a muscular expression of manliness in a capitalist age.
But neither at the invention of the printing press nor during the introduction of the typewriter almost half a millennium later did a great hue and cry arise about the lost art of handwriting. On the contrary, people were generally glad to have writing that was readable and that did not cause, as one ad put it, “pen paralysis, loss of sight, and curvature of the spine.”
Funnily enough, between the typewriter’s introduction and the invention of voice-recognition software, authors who could afford “type-writers,” that is, generally female typists who could tap keys faster than anyone could scribble, often reverted to the spoken word. That is, they dictated their prose, and as Henry James remarked, it seemed “to be much more effectively and unceasingly pulled out of me in speech than in writing.”
(Coincidentally, as I was perusing Trubek’s book, my brother was visiting, and we waxed nostalgic, not over cursive, but over those early typewriters, whose developers, as Trubek points out, devised the QWERTY keyboard in order to retard typing. Otherwise those hammers that struck the paper on our mom’s manual typewriter would have jammed up because she typed so fast. I also learned that a typing class was required at my brother’s all-boys’ school. It was offered at my all-girls’ school, but my mother dissuaded me from taking it. “If you never learn to type,” she said hopefully, “you’ll never be tempted to take a job as a secretary.”)
Handwriting as personal expression evolved, finally, in the 20th century, perhaps as one of Freudian theory’s many stepchildren, perhaps along with the pseudo-science of graphology, which arose around the same time as phrenology and eugenics. If our handwriting could reveal our inner moral character, then surely it was an expression of our unique selves. And if our unique selves are our best and brightest selves, then surely … well, Trubek reports, no. Handwriting does not make us smarter: “There is is no convincing empirical evidence that handwriting is superior to keyboarding.” Our attachment to cursive is emotional. We learned it at a formative part of our lives, and it’s hard to accept that the formative part of children’s lives now will not include that element. Building, as commercial enterprises so often do, on our emotions, National Handwriting Day (January 23, 2017; mark your calendars!) and the lobbying for handwriting as a lost art are largely sponsored by manufacturers of writing implements and publishers of penmanship curricula.
So I won’t get weepy about the passing of cursive. I will note in closing, though, that as an avid follower of the tribulations of the billionaire murder suspect Robert Durst, I was disappointed to learn that the discovery of the shockingly similar pieces of Durst’s block handwriting
pictured here may not prove effective evidence against him in a forthcoming trial for the murder of Durst’s friend Susan Berman. According to Anne Trubek, following a 1993 Supreme Court decision, ”handwriting analysis, always on shaky scientific grounds, became particularly dubious.”