There was a time when the typewriter was distrusted as being too modern. Typewritten letters requesting reservations were rejected by hotel clerks as ridiculous—the way email was rejected as inadequate for the same task 15 years ago. And how could one possibly compose literature on those clunky, clanky machines? Writers penned their compositions; this served well enough for Shakespeare, after all.
But early adopters in the 1920s and 30s, the kinds of people who today might revel in iPhone apps and Twitter, bought typewriters, including small portable ones that fit into tough little black suitcases and traveled to Africa and war fronts and summer cottages, where American literature was revolutionized by the keystroke rather than the stroke of the pen.
The sound of typewriters—the tappety-tap and the tiny bell signaling need for a carriage return— became part of America’s soundscape in offices and late-night garrets.
Ironically, the new machine imposed its own rituals and pacing that turned out to be marvelously compatible with good writing. And the machine was taken in lovingly by writers, much as doctors took to their stethoscopes, and judges their gavels.
So woven into American literary popular culture was the typewriter—in a publicity photo of Hemingway, in George Peppard’s poignantly missing ribbon in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—we wanted to pay our own Levenger tribute to the now quaint but transforming technology.
What better way to salute the typewriter than to reproduce the iconic machine still used by a beloved historian who demonstrated just how well the machine could perform?
I’ve asked Levenger Press editor Mim Harrison to tell the story that came from our idea to reproduce, in bookend form, the typewriter of David McCullough.
The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author (Truman, John Adams) and recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation may be talking about the way he types, but David McCullough is revealing how he thinks.
“When rewriting, I’m not just typing it all over again, I’m thinking through it again, rethinking, rewording where need be, saying it a little differently on second thought.”
And David McCullough is not typing on a computer. He’s using the pre-digital dinosaur that requires a considerable force of those digits called fingers: the typewriter. Not even a zippy electric version, but a 1940s vintage Royal manual typewriter that he bought second-hand in the 1960s.
So if you want to know how it is that David McCullough’s books always hit the New York Times bestseller lists, capture Pulitzers, and have never gone out of print, it just may be this old machine.
The mind of the machine
When Mr. McCullough graciously agreed to let us reproduce his typewriter as a bookend, we thought the story would be about the machine. But the real story is how an accomplished mind works—not at the speed of a computer, but at a pace that’s thoughtful, deliberate, contemplative. The machine helps set the pace.
And so you have to wonder: What would happen if we all slowed our thinking down a bit, if we dialed it back to the point where we were actually thinking rather than scrolling and texting, and cutting and pasting? Would we all trade in our laptops/notebooks/smart phones for a typewriter?
Probably not. But it would do us good to remember that machines are supposed to make our lives better, not faster. Perhaps we should unplug just a little before we become undone. Such decompression is why we think so many Levenger customers savor the pensive pause of the fountain pen (which David McCullough also uses).
In fact, Thomas Mallon, who just wrote a book on the letters famous people have written through the centuries, maintains that pens and typewriters have more in common than do typewriters and computers. Typewriting reveals its own quirks of the writer, much like penwriting. Computers can make us all look the same.
Here’s how David McCullough looks on his typewriter; he takes the typed sheets and edits them by hand (click on each image to get the larger view):
These sheets are Mr. McCullough’s original drafts for the ode to his typewriter he wrote to accompany the bookend. Isn’t it nice to know that even the great ones revise?
Another writer, Carl Honore, realized the value of slow when he found himself contemplating 60-second bedtime stories to read to his toddler. He caught himself in time. “The secret is balance: instead of doing everything faster, do everything at the right speed,” he advises.
He and his typewriter are, in fact, currently at work on his new book about Americans in Paris. What do you want to bet that as soon as it’s published, that slowly written book will hit the New York Times bestseller list in no time flat.
The typewriter lives on
And so we are happy to return, with this iconic bookend sculpture, to the days when putting a sheet into the roller was as common as pouring a cup of coffee.
And if you, like many of us at Levenger, can’t get enough of David McCullough, be sure to read our exclusive interview with him. It’s where he reveals, for the first time, whom he’d most like to write his own story.
Now how about you, dear reader: have you tried a slower pace for better thinking? I’d love to hear what worked for you. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).