Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Fall 2008 Newsletter

The "Write" Tool: Getting It Down on Paper

By Suzy Banks

Typewriter. Click to enlarge.

Anne Sexton's typewriter

Chair. Click to enlarge.

Sir Compton MacKenzie's writing chair

Pen. Click to enlarge.

Gertrude Stein's silver pen

Inkwell. Click to enlarge.

Evelyn Waugh's inkwell

Of all the millions of manuscripts at the Ransom Center, few are more than paper and ink. Some include paste or tape, ribbon carbon or crayon, sweat stains or blood, but the overall gist is paper and ink. For some authors, the physical tools for getting the words from the head and onto the page were irrelevant. For others, the writing instrument itself, and even supporting characters like an inkwell or desk, were vital parties to the creative feat.

Some instruments seem particularly suited to their owners, like Gertrude Stein's silver pen. Although references to it in her writing are elusive (or incomprehensible), maybe the pen, with its multiple cartridges, inspired such signature repetitions as "To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write." Picture her taking it up late at night, and, as Mabel Dodge Luhan describes in Intimate Memories, "writing automatically in a long weak handwriting—four or five lines to the page—letting it ooze up from deep down inside her, down onto the paper with the least possible physical effort." And picture Alice B. Toklas as she gathered the pages each morning to type to type to type to type.

British novelist Evelyn Waugh also left the typing to someone else. He bragged about being 200 years behind the times. He refused to drive a car, communicated with neighbors by letter rather than telephone, and wrote everything longhand, believing so firmly in the primacy of the holograph that he didn't bother preserving typescripts (although others did). And when he wrote, he didn't use just any newfangled pen, but one that had to be continually dipped in an inkwell. In the semi-autobiographical The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, the title character, when packing for an extended trip, frets that he must take ink since "foreign ink was never satisfactory." He must also take pens and nibs since "all foreigners, he was now convinced, used some kind of stylographic instrument."

So, however ornate Waugh's inkwells might have been, they were never purely decorative. But could their forms have inspired specific uses? Did he reserve his crystal inkwell, with its many sharp edges, for letters to his agent A. D. Peters wherein he claims to hate Americans, deems them all insane, and wonders if he has received no answer from them because they cannot read his handwriting? Maybe he called upon his dour-faced Queen Victoria inkwell when he penned Charles Ryder's swipe at both the Oxford don, Mr. Samgrass, and a typewriter in Brideshead Revisited: "There was something a little too brisk in his literary manners; I suspected the existence of a concealed typewriter somewhere in his paneled rooms."

But even the prolific Waugh, who churned out stacks of holographs and letters written in script tinier than eight-point type, seems a slacker compared to fellow longhander Sir Compton Mackenzie, who wrote more than a hundred books, numerous screenplays, and many articles. Was his custom-designed chair an agent of such industry, at least in part? Once he was in it, sunk deep into the velvet, with the built-in oak desk secure before him, escape would have been difficult. With his body captive, maybe his mind was freer to wander, to explore topics ranging from the merits of Siamese cats to his first memories of flowers, from the liquor heists of Whisky Galore to the priests in The Altar Steps. And considering his penmanship—at best, every tenth word is legible—his typist deserves a portion of his acclaim.

Of those authors who did embrace the typewriter, few asked more of the machine than poet Anne Sexton, who milked her Royal Quiet De Luxe for all it was worth, employing it as both a tool and subject. In an essay about her time as a writer-in-residence in Boston, she quotes her youngest daughter as saying, "A mother is someone who types all day" and then Sexton later complains of "fingers sore from constant typing." Her typewriter appears frequently in her poems: sometimes watchful ("the forty-eight keys of the typewriter/each an eyeball that is never shut"); sometimes as a poor substitute ("and this is the typewriter that sits before me/where yesterday only your body sat before me"); sometimes as the poet itself ("I am, each day,/typing out the God my typewriter believes in"); and sometimes as victim ("For I pray that my typewriter, ever faithful, will not break even though I threw it across the hospital room six years ago.").

Norman Mailer didn't mollycoddle his typewriters, either, judging from the platen of the one used to hammer out his first novel, The Naked and the Dead. (He wrote the first draft in seven months.) Pounded around its middle until the rubber completely disappeared, the pocked cylinder was part of the typewriter his parents bought him when he requested one with "ridged keys and a hard touch and lot of noise. Somehow I don't like most of the new models with their slippery keys and noiseless action. When my machine clacks and snaps I know it's happy, but you can never tell about those quiet ones."

A self-proclaimed Luddite, Mailer considered it a point of honor never to use a computer, considering it "below the spiritual punishment of those who bang away at typewriters all their lives." (One look at—and whiff of—the nicotine-soaked laptop used by Mailer's longtime assistant, Judith McNally, and you'd guess she retaliated against her high-tech punisher by subjecting it to years of secondhand smoke.)

Mailer eventually abandoned even typing (platens the world over must have rejoiced), shifting to longhand during the revision of his second novel, Barbary Shore, and then writing in longhand all the time by the time he got to Deer Park. "It's hard to explain how agreeable it is to go at one's writing in longhand," he said during his interview for The Big Empty: Dialogues on Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America. "You feel that all of your body and some of your spirit has come down to your fingertips."

E. E. Cummings's Paint Box

Paint box. Click to enlarge.

Box of paints belonging to E.E. Cummings

No one can accuse E. E. Cummings, best known for his self-proclaimed poempictures, of dabbling in painting; more than 1,600 oils and watercolors were in the Cummings estate, and this did not include those he'd sold. One critic claimed, "Compared with his writings, Cummings's art is as soft and wholesome as fresh butter."

Cummings responded, "Since my writing is hard, then the natural thing would be that my paintings are soft." He also knew what his paintings were not: "painstakingly washed flat surfaces sans brushstrokes" or "fine camel's hair delineation." Instead, he pinpointed his style as "chunking ahead with a big brush held loosely & loaded with paint." The condition of his paint box reflects this exuberance.

David Douglas Duncan's Cameras

Camera. Click to enlarge.

Leica camera fitted with a Nikkor lens for David Douglas Duncan

While David Douglas Duncan was in Turkey in 1947 on assignment for LIFE Magazine, he got wind of Rolleiflex cameras going for a hundred dollars in Bulgaria. His ensuing bargain hunting landed him behind the freshly-minted Iron Curtain where, from his exclusive vantage point, he documented the Communist takeover and bagged a multi-page cover story in the magazine.

Despite the professional payoff by the alluring Rolleiflex, Duncan became most closely associated with Leica—but with a twist. He was so impressed with shots taken by a Japanese photographer, Jun Miki, using a then little-known Nikkor lens, that Duncan fitted one to his Leica III C. This combo, used throughout his lauded coverage of the Korean War, produced 35mm negatives whose quality rivaled that of large format cameras, which could prove unwieldy on the battlefield. (Although this hadn't stopped Duncan and his Zeiss Super-Ikonta B from capturing stirring World War II images, sometimes while stuffed in a P-38 wing-tank with a Plexiglas nose.)

By the time Duncan began photographing the war in Vietnam, he was shooting with Leica M3Ds (D for Duncan), which the company manufactured and designed especially for him, limiting production to four. The battle-hardened camera, curiously enough, also proved ideally suited for one of Duncan's subsequent and more intimate topics: Pablo Picasso and his family. With its soft-click shutter, this camera helped the photographer document the artist's private moments as unobtrusively as possible.

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