canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Type cast: Darren Wershler-Henry 

explores typewriting throughout history

Interview by Derek Beaulieu

(January 2006)

Reading Darren Wershler-Henry’s The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of the Typewriter, I looked up from the page, and saw, on the end table beside my couch, an old Underwood No. 5 typewriter. When I originally spotted the machine at a garage sale, I knew I had to own it, even though I didn't understand why. It just had something to do with what a writer was supposed to be.

In The Iron Whim, Wershler-Henry argues that the typewriter defines not only how we write, but also what we write, who does the writing, and how we look upon writing itself.

Despite the fact that typewriters have become an antiquated form of communication, replaced by personal computers, they are still icons of the writing life, part of the romantic sepia-toned image of the struggling author ensconced at his desk, surrounded by gray smoke, discarded drafts and frustration. The typewriter however, is just as clearly associated with typing pools, secretarial positions and even speed-typing competitions. It
is these images, and what Wershler-Henry describes as the "haunted" relationship between machine, dictator and "amanuensis" (the person who receives the dictation and does the actual typing, receiving transcription from the dictator), that is the focus of The Iron Whim (McClelland & Stewart, 331 pages, $29.99).

As the Winnipeg-born writer, critic, editor and poet explains in the book, inventors tried to create a writing machine for more than 200 years. Those efforts eventually culminated in Christopher Latham Sholes's invention of what we today recognize as the typewriter in 1866. Since that date, for the past 140 years, the typewriter has had a striking effect on how authors approach writing. This is where The Iron Whim comes in. Wershler-Henry has focused not so much on the history of the typewriter itself, but on the history of typewriting.

Wershler-Henry, who teaches communication studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, is the author or co-author of nine books, which include the tapeworm foundry, a book of poetry nominated for the Trillium Award in 2000, and five books on Internet technology and culture. With fellow poet Christian Bok, he co-authored the infamous Virus 23 Meme (a meme is an idea, behaviour, style or usage that passes from person to person in a culture
like a virus), which they posted on Andy Hawks' Future culture mailing list in 1993.

Clearly, Wershler-Henry is a computer man. He was drawn to write about the
history of the typewriter and typewriting because of what he feels is a "disconnection" between us and the typewriter. While we feel an "incredible nostalgia for the typewriter," very few people "recognize typewriting when they see it and, in fact, very few people even own a typewriter." The typewriter as a tool has been completely replaced by the personal computer, and its very form is antiquated. Instead, he argues, we have an "intellectual and emotional investment in it as the symbol of writing."

Collectors have brought their hunt for old typewriters - like the one I have on my end table - online. Strangely enough though, Wershler-Henry says, "a typewriter is only valuable if it doesn't look like a typewriter. The late-19th century, strange things are what collectors go nuts for."

"It's always struck me as odd and improbable that people are invested in this. Writers that still use typewriters are deliberately contrarian. It's a world of computers."

Writing The Iron Whim, which is based on his doctoral dissertation at York University, enabled Wershler-Henry to understand how nostalgia "looks back on the way that we no longer write and says that it was the correct way." As an example, he said, "we are blinded to the media technology that is organizing how we are writing now, we only recognize that influence after the technology is gone."

Not only is the typewriter indicative of our dependence on and blindness to technology, it also reflected and defined gender roles in the workplace for decades. Wershler-Henry explains that "the Industrial Revolution brought a massive amount of paperwork memos, bills of lading, invoices for the goods that are circulating. No longer were rows of clerks on stools sufficient. Women started to enter to workforce in a very complex way."

"Typewriting is associated with the suffragette movement and the independent woman, but on the other hand, this figure is either alien and cold or a new sex-toy for the male office workers of the world. Originally, the typewriter sales companies sold the typist with the typewriter: she was part of the package." This contradictory packaging of the typewriter with the typist in the case of the suffragette, caused G.K. Chesterton to quip that "women refused to be dictated to and went out and became stenographers."

It is also ironic that the 1930's romantic image of a journalist sitting long into the night, with his suspenders down and a bottle of bourbon in the desk drawer, has come to represent unalienated, direct, honest writing. Only a few decades earlier, the typewriter was not seen as the symbol of writing; the pen was the direct mode of communication. Typing was seen as an inferior mechanical process. Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood, once infamously dismissed the work of Beat generation author Jack Kerouac's On The Road saying "that isn't writing, it's typing."

As Wershler-Henry and I spoke over the telephone, we recreated the dictator-transcriber role. I frantically attempted to speed up my typing to make sure my transcribing of our conversation on my computer keyboard kept up with his admission that "I can't type  - I've never been able, I've never taken a typing class. I've tried to teach myself ever since the third grade, and now I'm an insanely fast hunt-and-peck two-finger typist."

Like so many writers today, however, Wershler-Henry is hunting and pecking on digital technology that not only records but links him to information from anywhere in the world. "My own writing is structured around the computer. Not only do I write on a computer, it's a network computer and can access the Internet and the hundreds of feeds that come into my path at any given moment. These are the terms under which I write now - it would be difficult to consider it any other way."

derek beaulieu is the author of several books of poetry (with wax Coach House, 2003; Frogments from the Frag Pool Mercury, 2005; fractal economies Talonbooks, 2006). His poetry and artwork has appeared extensively in magazines and galleries across Canada. He recently co-edited Shift & Switch: new canadian poetry (Mercury, 2006). He lives, with his young daughter, in Calgary where he is Administrative Director at The New Gallery, an artist-run centre.







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