The Magazine

Is the Pen Mightier?

The moving hand writes, and having written, moves to keyboarding

Apr 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 31 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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All this came to an end with the invention of the movable-type printing press, around 1450. Still, there remained a need to produce a “fair hand” in documents and correspondence, both business and personal. During the 15th century, the Italian humanists developed a graceful script that slanted obliquely to the right and featured the joining of letters. This “italic” penmanship, one of whose virtues was that it allowed the writer to lift his pen from the page less frequently, and thus write even more speedily than the Gothic scribes, became the basis of modern cursive. 

One of its offshoots was “copperplate,” so named because it was modeled after a hand used on copper engravings, whose clarity and delicate flourishes made it the dominant script of the 18th and 19th centuries in England and America (the signed fair copy of the Declaration of Independence was executed in copperplate), and it lives on among calligraphers. 

During the 1840s, an American, Platt Rogers Spencer, developed a simplified form of copperplate and also set up a school for teaching his new style of penmanship. Thanks to the energy of Spencer and his disciples, who traversed the American heartland promoting their invention, Spencerian script—most famously preserved in the Coca-Cola and Ford Motor Company logos—became the American standard until the 1920s, when the typewriter rendered it otiose for business correspondence and the Palmer method supplanted it in schools. Now, even the Palmer method—along with every other handwriting method—is on life support; there are even apps for making out your grocery-shopping list. Unthinkable though it may be, handwriting has either reached the end of its useful life, or most iPhone-thumbing people think it has. 

I’m now one of the few human beings I know who still corresponds with a pen on stationery. (Whether anyone can read what I write is a different story.) Hensher, according to his own account, is another. I can’t recommend his book, though. Maybe it’s the shopworn anti-Babbitry: A chapter on Spencer sneers at the “practical, business purposes” for which the writing master designed his script and “the fine, upstanding young men and women of the new high school at Dead Man’s Gulch” who were to learn it. (Hensher seems to be one of those Britons who thinks that every small town in 19th-century America was named Dead Man’s Gulch.)

Maybe it’s the book’s general disorganization. The chapters flit from a denunciation of the “militaristic” drills involved in the Palmer method (Hensher is a fan of “child-centered” pedagogy) to a history of graphology (the pseudoscience of analyzing people’s personality via their penmanship) to a disquisition on Proust’s use of handwriting in his fiction to a lumbering account of Hensher’s own efforts to buy himself a new fountain pen. 

Maybe it’s the pompous tone: “I’ve come to the conclusion that handwriting is good for us.” Or the cringe-making efforts at wit, as in this purported sample of a copperplate wedding invitation: “Mr and Mrs Edward Boffin  / Unwillingly invite you to the wedding of / Their Pregnant Daughter / Ethel / To the Worthless Wretch Who Did the Deed.” Har, har. Or maybe it’s the tedious “interviews” that pad out the thin material—with anonymous subjects complaining about their penmanship.

“I want everyone to maintain an intimate and unique connection with words and ink and paper and the movement of hand and arm,” Hensher writes. Well, yes, I agree. But I’d rather read those sentiments in some other book.

Charlotte Allen is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.