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.
Last February I released Austin Pen, my 14th typeface simulating real historical handwriting—and my 33rd overall. Soon after, I decided it would be my last original type design. Making a modern font takes hundreds of hours over a span of several months. At least for me it does. Probably I’m slow, or overly painstaking, or merely perfectionistic (considering I’m never entirely satisfied with the end result).
But I’ve reached an age where I feel compelled to spend time creating other things I’d like to make while there’s still time. Which is no doubt why I haven’t polished off a new Antique Penman post since February. I apologize for that.
Thomas J. Rusk’s lament.
Just yesterday I got to looking back at Texas Hero, my very first old pen font, which I started working on pretty much exactly 25 years ago. Texas Hero was, I’m pretty sure, the first typeface designed to replicate the look of genuine old handwriting, warts and all. I was new at the font game back then, having made three eclectic faces earlier in 1993. Didn’t know what I was doing at first, and certainly had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I recall one day hunting around for a font that looked like 18th century handwriting—and finding none. For not the first time, I decided to fill a void. My indispensable partner in this enterprise was my late ma, Jeanne R. Willson, a historical librarian who then worked at what is now the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas (my alma mater). I knew she had long studied historical letters and documents and would certainly be able to supply examples of old cursive script.
Emily Austin Perry’s hand.
And she did. I got photocopies of letters from several famous Texans (naturally) dating back to the time of the Republic. I got to see the handwriting of folks like Sam Houston, Mirabeau B. Lamar, Stephen F. Austin, Emily Austin Perry, David Burnet (I think), and Thomas J. Rusk. All their hands were distinctly different—fancy, flowery, bold, intricate, and/or a bit messy—but one had just the balance of legibility and period authenticity: Rusk’s.
When people think of Texas heroes, they don’t usually think of Thomas Jefferson Rusk. But he served as a general at the Battle of San Jacinto, as the fledgling Republic’s first Secretary of War, and in 1846 was elected one of the new state’s first U.S. Senators (the other being Houston). He died in 1857, at age 53, by self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Frederick Douglass’s penmanship.
I remember vividly having to look extremely closely at Rusk’s handwriting, getting intimately familiar with his loops and curves, reading and rereading several of his official letters—and one sad, oft-folded lament of the death of his two-year-old namesake son. It was the first of many times I found myself both deeply moved and somehow changed by the words and penmanship of a person who’d died more than a century ago.*
And still I think often of the closeness, familiarity, and nuance we stand to lose in this era of keyboards and texting and speech-to-text. We might even end up communicating like we did before the age of literacy: verbally or visually or via smoke signal.
I hold out hope, though, that writing by hand will remain a thing—even if only a sort of calligraphic art form.
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: