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  • Inscribing the Self
  • Shirley Teresa Wajda (bio)
Handwriting in America: A Cultural History. By Tamara Plakins Thornton. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. 248 pages. $30.00 (cloth). $15.00 (paper).

The physical act of writing has vexed many Americans. Take for example, Rutherford B. Hayes. The young “Ruddy” Hayes at Norwalk Seminary in Ohio, just beginning to learn genteel performance in 1836, asked forgiveness of his correspondent—his Uncle Samuel Birchard—for his quill pen scrawl: “You must excuse my bad writing as I cannot write any better, and I have a poor pen.” Once motor coordination could not blamed for unskillful rendering of letters, Ruddy could blame only the writing implement. Another, seven-line letter to Hayes’s uncle ended with “This letter is large enough for me and a bad pen.” And that explanation seemed to placate correspondents even into Hayes’s adulthood. Hayes, as a young Ohio lawyer, blamed his lack of proper feeling on the equipment:

I am writing with my partner’s gold pen, and if I write you a cold, stiff letter you must not attribute it to a muddy head or a hard heart. It’s the pen that’s to blame not me myself.

Changing implements midway, Hayes admitted failure at the end of what he believed an inadequate letter for his beloved sister Fanny’s eyes:

O pshaw! I don’t feel like writing, especially with this vile pen. It’s worse than the gold one I threw down a minute ago, and I’ve no knife in these Sunday breeches’ pockets and can’t mend it, so good-bye. 1 [End Page 461]

More is at stake here than a neatly inscribed page, free of inky blotches, scratched- or cut-out words, and scrawled characters. After all, Hayes could have easily taken another sheet of foolscap and copied anew a letter. But would that have been an act of deception, not only for the intended reader but also for Hayes himself (“me myself”)? Whatever Hayes’s role (if any) in the disputed election of 1876, most Americans thought of him as a man of character. And surely a man of character did not intentionally deceive society. Hayes’s chirographical frustration not only intimates a duel between the power of the pen and his desire to write something more fitting for his intended reader. His explanations also reveal a self-formation, a process involving the relationship between the body, mind, and heart. As Tamara Plakins Thornton points out, “We should not study handwriting as a phenomenon that reflects changing conceptions of the self but as one of the places where the self happened” (xiii).

Handwriting in America: A Cultural History is an elegant and illuminating study of the social implications and cultural meanings of the physical act of writing by hand. The merits of this work are so many as to impoverish criticism, especially as conveyed in the “impersonal” medium of print. As a skill that requires the mental and the physical, and as the endeavor of an individual emulating a standard penmanship, handwriting occupies the “cusp” of mind and body, individuality and conformity (xiv). As a site where “the self happened,” this mundane and incidental practice of character inscription, in the physical sense, bears an inverse importance in the cultural sense of character formation. Handwriting possesses a history of its own, and in Thornton’s capable hands, reinvigorates the debates about the nature of the self in America from the colonial period through the twentieth century.

How better, then, to commence a history of handwriting as a key to self fashioning than to have the reader imagine John Locke’s idea of the human as tabula rasa: “Let us suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters” (3). That “blank white paper” also describes the “lost world” of meanings ascribed by colonial men and women to handwriting, meanings recovered in chapter one. Reading and writing were separable activities in the British American colonies. Reading provided the direct access to Scripture desired by New Englanders, and reading instruction, offered by women, began early. Not so for writing, which was taught to far fewer persons...

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pp. 461-471
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