• August 20, 2014

A Type of Nostalgia

An Academic in American Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Last month I threw away the tiny, ugly, complicated cordless phone that had occupied my desk for nearly a decade. My fingers were too big for the buttons, and the phone seemed too small for my head; I couldn't rest it on my shoulder, and I couldn't figure out most of its functions. It made me feel like a stupid, lazy giant. It took some searching, but I replaced it with the kind of basic black desk phone that was common 30 years ago.

The new "old" phone looks great, and it's easy to use: 12 single-function buttons—no codes to memorize—the handset rests nicely on my shoulder, the bell is pleasing (not a piercing shriek), and it works when the power goes out. The phone is lighter than I would have liked, causing the coiled cord to pull it around my desk, so I opened the case and filled it with five pounds of lead sinkers: Now it's as solid as an old manual typewriter.

I am not a Luddite—I write about digital technology, too—but sometimes I find that older things are better because they are simple, reliable, and easy to repair. I'm writing this essay on my beloved iMac, but, for the last few years, I've also resumed the practice of using a manual typewriter for tasks such as filling out forms and writing notes. Sometimes I use it just for the fun of it. I like old typewriters for the same reasons that I like old books, as aesthetic objects and containers of memory.

I was reminded of my apparently advancing age recently when a news article on Techspot felt the need to explain, "The typewriter is a mechanical device with keys that, when pressed, cause characters to be printed on a medium, usually paper." Maybe that's a hopeful sign: Typewriters have been gone long enough for them to acquire the aura of the authentically antique. They've become one of those bits of archaic technology that are status-enhancing rather than simply out of date.

Last December, for example, The Chronicle reported that a program called "Amherst After Dark" had drawn about 350 people eager to revisit the old-fashioned pleasures of writing on manual typewriters, along with quill pens and wax seals. You also may have noticed women wearing bracelets or earrings made of old typewriter keys: the little, round, black ones with old-fashioned letters. What do they signify, I wonder?

Typewriters—especially the black-and-chrome ones made before World War II—possess a retro-glamour unmatched by anything apart from the automobiles of that era. Back in those days, films capitalized on type­writers almost as supporting characters. In a crucial scene in Citizen Kane, for example, Orson Welles uses what appears to be an Underwood typewriter to punctuate a conversation. The final rejection of Kane's only true friend is reinforced by a sharp return of the typewriter's carriage, like the brutal slicing of a knife.

The manual typewriter makes similar appearances in more recent films. Moulin Rouge, for example, begins with Ewan McGregor weeping before his battered Underwood as he types with agonizing slowness: "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is to love and be loved in return." The scene dramatizes—somewhat comically and anachronistically, in postmodern quotation marks—the bohemian mystique of the American expatriate on the Left Bank (Hemingway, Pound, Eliot), struggling to type the words that will liberate us from the Victorian era and give birth to modernism.

And, after that struggle, we can envision all those fedora-wearing hardboiled writers of noir in the 1930s and 40s toiling away on their typewriters, followed in that procession by the Beats: Ginsberg and Kerouac, as seen in the recent film adaptation of Howl. The image of the artist and his typewriter explains the reverence accorded the typewritten scroll of On the Road. Tapping into that legacy, Don DeLillo writes his novels on an Olympia Deluxe, and the historian David McCullough is proud to have written all of his books on a Royal typewriter that he bought secondhand in 1965. (The Levenger Company, by the way, sells a seven-inch-high replica of McCullough's typewriter for use as a bookend—even though a real secondhand Royal might be cheaper.)

In that context, the typewriter is almost too much for the weak-willed man to confront: It terrifies the writer played by Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. Instead of attacking the unravished white page in his machine, he loses himself in alcoholic procrastination. In the film's most memorable sequence, the writer plans to hock his typewriter to buy more booze; he limps up Third Avenue lugging his 15-pound Remington, block after block, unable to find an open pawnshop. Hours later, he learns that they are all closed, and his situation becomes desperate: He is reduced to begging for money. Ultimately we are led to believe that he is redeemed by the love of a good woman and finally empowered to write his novel, The Bottle.

Perhaps the most moving typewriter moment in the history of film is in Schindler's List, when the character played by Ben Kingsley compiles the names of some 850 Jews—who will thus be saved from imminent death—on a black-and-chrome manual typewriter, a machine whose clacking reminds us of the repeated firing of automatic weapons: "The list is life," he says, holding up the typed pages. The scene reminds us, too, that it was illegal for Jews in Nazi Germany—like many other people under oppressive regimes—to own typewriters. In all of those films, typing becomes a sacramental act: God is in the machine; to type is to go up to the mountain.

Notably, all of those examples involve men. The typewriter as instrument of creation is seldom wielded by a woman. Women who are assertive, literary professionals, such as the character played by Tallulah Bankhead in Hitchcock's Lifeboat, are often redeemed when they accept subordinate romantic roles. Bankhead's Remington Noiseless Portable—the one that's traveled with her all over the world—must fall into the sea before that transformation can be accomplished in the arms of the conventionally masculine, tattooed, patriotic John Hodiak, a kind of pseudo-Hemingway who says her name "like a sock in the jaw," with all that that implies. Perhaps readers will recall similar examples in other movies. An exception is His Girl Friday, with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, which concludes with the man saving the woman from a boring marriage and convincing her to keep working as the great reporter she is.

In such a context, the typewriter becomes a more complex symbol. The romance of the masculine author (c. 1900 to 1960), alienated from the dominant social order, who struggles with inner demons and strives to take dictation from God, stands in sharp contrast to the female secretary, once called a typewriter girl, who takes dictation from a male superior—as did Milton's daughters—in the context of a corporate or government office.

At the dawn of the typewriter era, most secretaries were men; by the 1930s, nearly all were women. Of course, women were working with dangerous machines before and during that era—in textile mills, for example—so the typewriter seemed to offer liberation from factory work, as well as a chance to live a more independent and adventurous life in the city, free from the patriarchal and religious demands of one's family.

But that change also made women subject to the predation of the men in the office: Sexual harassment was part of the job in many cases. Until quite recently, secretaries were generally depicted as the willing subjects of the sexual advances of their supervisors. Perhaps that complicated history—freedom and subjugation—may provide the frisson of the typewriter-key bracelet.

If typewriters represent masculine empowerment and self-transcendence, computers may dramatize the increasing impotence of everyone to master technology. We are never fully in control of computers; they are constantly evolving ahead of our ability to learn; they fill us with a sense of submission to surveillance, and we never lose the vague fear that our work—and perhaps years of family memories—will vanish for no reason that we can understand or anticipate.

Writing on a computer means resisting a thousand digital distractions. And if we manage to produce something, our public presentations become more stressful because of the possibility of insoluble technical failures: We are forced to admit our incompetence before large audiences on a frequent basis when the computer refuses to do what we want it to.

Meanwhile, back in our offices, amid the book-lined shelves, perhaps seated on an oak desk, the old typewriter continues to work, reliably, as it always has. It reassures us, like some kind of mechanical velveteen rabbit that we have rediscovered in the playroom of our professional lives. The sound of typing is comforting for a writer; it means work is being accomplished; some writers become addicted to the sound. Henry James asked that someone type on his Remington as he lay dying.

Every typewriter has a personality; they are said to be as unique as people. The typewriter seems more human, somehow, compared with the antiseptic, odorless, plastic, and mostly silent computer. It's easier to feel connected to something that requires so much tactile and sensory engagement; it makes appealing sounds when you touch it. And the smells of ink and oil are powerful memory triggers, especially for anyone my age or older who learned to write on a typewriter.

Nostalgia is an affliction of modern life that derives from the rapidity of change and forced displacement—when we have to move from our place of origin, when we lose parents, when we see our children growing up. I often hear that nostalgia is bad because it is inherently conservative; it wants to restore the past instead of moving toward a better future. According to Svetlana Boym in The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, 2001), nostalgia "is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition."

For some, the typewriter can be about yearning for a simpler time, a younger self, a lost integrity, a relation to the text that seems as authentic as writing with pen and paper. One thinks more carefully, and one means what one writes on a typewriter in a way that one never does on a computer, in which the text is always subject to revision. On a typewriter, the thought is fixed forever. It makes one believe that the computer has magnified the pathologies of our culture in which everything solid melts away. Only the typewriter can make us whole again.

Isn't it pretty to think so.

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich.

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