Some of the historical figures whose penmanship I’ve replicated over the years were true heroes—like Frederick Douglass (abolitionist, statesman, orator, and inspiration for Douglass Pen). But some also had a shady side. For instance, most of those whose hands inspired my Texas Heroes Font Set owned slaves; then again both Sam Houston (Houston Pen) and Thomas J Rusk (Texas Hero), Texas’s first two U.S. Senators, opposed secession from the Union.
Bonhomme Richard, my latest, just-released old pen font, is modeled after the fine cursive script of John Paul Jones, who happens to fall into the latter category. On the one hand, he was the hero of one of the earliest and most famous U.S. naval engagements, the Battle of Flamborough Head; on the other, Jones demonstrated something of a disagreeable nature, leading to lifelong disputes, accusations, and clashes with authority.
As a Scottish youth named John Paul, Jones went to sea, sailed the Atlantic on merchant and slave ships, and worked his way up to ship’s master—albeit with an apparent affinity for violent leadership. He spent time in jail for flogging a crew member who died as a result, and later he killed a mutinous crewman with a sword. Although he claimed self-defense in the second incident, he doubted he’d get a fair trial and fled to the American colony of Virginia, where he added the last name “Jones.”
In the Colonies, thanks to his undeniable mariner’s skills, Jones soon found himself a commander in the fledgling Continental Navy. In France in 1777, appealing for the Colonial cause, Jones met (perhaps even befriended) American Commissioner Benjamin Franklin. Two years later, he took command of the Continental frigate Bonhomme Richard, named after Franklin (from Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard, the French translation of Poor Richard’s Almanack). Although his ship was lost at Flamborough Head, Jones and crew emerged victorious over the British warship HMS Serapis, commanded by Richard Pearson. When Pearson challenged Jones to surrender, he’s said to have replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!” (It’s likely to have been something more like “I may sink, but I’m damned if I strike!”)
The next year,King Louis XVI of France honored Jones with the title “Chevalier,” likely the high point of his career.
After the war, Chevalier Jones had various commands fall through or expire until 1887, when he entered the service of Catherine the Great of Russia. But there, too, he found himself mired in controversy—including an 1889 charge of having sexually assaulted a ten-year-old girl. Although very likely guilty of the deed, he managed to avoid punishment and died in Paris three years later, at age 45.
Humanity is full of good and bad characters. But just to be clear, the old pen fonts I design don’t celebrate the characters of the historical figures who wrote that way—just their writing styles. Some folks just had very cool handwriting. And the ability to write clearly and stylishly by hand seems a dying art these days.
Having received a particularly thoughtful gift over the holidays, I picked up a pen, wrote a thank-you note, put it in an envelope, and dropped it in the mail. Only afterward did I realize it was the first handwritten letter I’d produced in a long, long time. I’ve written daily for many years, but these days I do it on a laptop keyboard. Nearly everything I write is digital: email, PMs, digital documents I can print out and send by the U.S. Mail. My handwriting has badly suffered for lack of practice.
Soon after I composed that note, I read about a family who nearly lost four decades of valued personal correspondence. (The story has a happy ending. And, yet again, I got to thinking about what we’ve lost with the decline of the habit of putting pen to paper.
I’ve written here about the thrill a person gets to recognize the handwriting of a loved one on, say, an envelope. Yet in these digital, online days, cursive script is no longer a core curriculum in schools. My guess is a new generation has trouble even deciphering cursive. No doubt kids still pass notes in class, and recognizing familiar hand-printing can certainly engender an emotional response. But what percentage of us actually bother to write a letter by hand anymore, cursive or no?
Losses to mourn
In thinking about my thank-you note, it struck me that there’s plenty more losses to mourn—beyond simply the thrill of recognition. Chief among them: a sense of intimacy.
To write a letter, a person must first feel a sense of urgency, a desire or obligation to communicate with another person too far away to talk to, when a phone call simply will not do. Letter-writers must then choose paper and a pen, make time to sit at a desk or table or subway car, compose mental sentences, and transfer those sentences via pen to page. They must have the address of the recipient handy (maybe know it by heart), likely have to fold the paper, might even have to lick the flap of the envelope before sliding it into a mail slot. The process involves lot of decisions, and a lot of touching (the pen, the paper, the envelope). Assuming the letter reaches its recipient, the results of all those motions appear in an actual physical object—one that might even get passed down through generations. As used to happen back when we bothered to go through the motions.
Intimacy by hand
The intimacy of an old handwritten letter, seems to me, surpasses even a photo of a lost loved one. It surpasses the intimacy of a handkerchief or tool or hairbrush belonging to a historical figure. Consider a signature— an important, personal, persistent creation by someone wielding a pen. But a letter goes further—comprises thoughts, observations, stories, communication. It might contain good or bad news, words of love or aggravation—emotions that often come right through.
The font I’m currently working on replicates the penmanship of John Paul Jones (1747–1792). Among the source material I’m consulting you’ll find a letter, dated 11 November 1779, to M.J. Luzac, editor of the Gazette de Leyde. Its first sentence:
“It gives me great Pain to see that the translation which has appeared in your Gazette of the extract of my Journal is preceeded [sic] by an Observation which leaves room to suppose that it has been my intention to augment the merits of my Own Services by diminishing those of others.”
(Despite his long, careful, polite language, clearly Jones is pissed.)
Such clear, evocative sentences written centuries ago become much improved when seen written by the hands of the original authors, on paper they’ve chosen, closed with signatures that belong only to them. You can imagine the writing table, the inkwell, the oil lamp, the sealing wax. The words rise as intimate as whispers—far more considered and precise than remarks made during casual conversation. It strengthens the feeling that you’re catching a glimpse of the contents of the writer’s mind.
Of course an even greater sense of intimacy comes from holding the letter in your hand, touching a page also touched by the letter writer, a page perhaps still containing traces of the author’s DNA.
A confession: my cursive handwriting sucks. I write by hand so rarely these days, and when I do, it tends to come out as a sort of stylized printing I forced on myself thirty or forty years ago. So I just tried writing a few short cursive sentences on an index card to see what it looks like.
Yeah, it sucks. In fact, I couldn’t even remember how to write a capital “T.”
Alas, I’m not alone. What got me testing out my cursive today was a recent news item about how Cambridge University educators are considering dropping their handwritten exam requirement—after more than 800 years. The problem being that the faculty is having trouble reading students’ handwriting.
18th-century penmanship from Kentucky County, Virginia.
“There has definitely been a downward trend,” says history lecturer Sarah Pearsall. “It is difficult for both the students and the examiners, as it is harder and harder to read these scripts.”
A Need for Speed
But I’ve long predicted this. Our smart digital devices are feeding our need for speed when it comes to all forms of communication. I mean, let’s face it: it takes a lot longer to write a thank-you note by hand than to tap out a text with your thumbs. Sure, taking the time to learn cursive might be good for your brain, your manual dexterity, and your memory, but first-world humans just prefer living in the fast lane these days, apparently.
The handwriting of Meriwether Lewis.
This got me wondering (not for the first time) how things might change if the grid goes down. Say a computer virus, an asteroid, a natural (or nuclear) disaster, solar flares, or Siri Personified takes us all offline in an instant. How will we communicate over long distances in such a post-apocalyptic scenario? Well, I reckon we’ll have to go back to scribbling out notes using charcoal on birch bark and handing them to a courier, who will deliver them to our remote recipient in person. And I can imagine the dismay on the face of our correspondent who can’t read a word we’ve written.
“Return to Sender. Illegible.”
Learn by Doing
Perhaps at the very least it’s worth practicing—if not your cursive—your hand-printing every now and then. Maybe by jotting down a grocery list, composing a thank-you note by hand, or authoring an actual letter, inserting it into an envelope, and dropping it in the U.S. Mail. I daresay pen makers and the U.S. Postal Service will appreciate it, as will your recipients. So long as they can read your writing.
The irony is that, during the decades of the decline of my penmanship, I’ve taught myself to decipher various styles of cursive handwriting from centuries gone by. And you can bet there’ll be someone with similar skills to help us out centuries from now: