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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Handwriting Conveys as Much as the Words : HANDWRITING IN AMERICA by Tamara Plakins Thornton; Yale $30, 237 pages

December 18, 1996|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

It was 55 years ago and in another country: Argentina, where I was raised. Each fall, there was the gleam of the school year starting, with crisp textbooks, clean binders and a new book bag. There was quiet apprehension--will the fourth-grade teacher be harsh or gentle, sour or cheerful; will she look nice? What will her handwriting be like?

Her handwriting, yes. From the moment she went up to the blackboard, we watched the letters take shape: agreeably rounded with attractive flourishes, or angular and spiky. It mattered. Our whole year ahead lay in the balance along with its reigning personage.

The relation between handwriting and character has been affirmed, denied and variously poked at over the past couple of centuries, as Tamara Plakins Thornton relates. In the 1920s, graphological columns were as much a feature of newspapers as astrology columns are today, and with a similar purpose.

A German scholar went so far as to distinguish the signals emitted by different groups of letters. The upward sweep of an "l" or a "b" revealed intellectual and spiritual qualities; the down curve of a "p" or "j" had to do with sexuality and physique; the squatty letters--"a" and "n"--were clues to social success and the emotions.

For us at school, there was no doubt about it. Handwriting was character was fate; our own because--the teacher aside--the report cards had a box in which were inscribed "exceptional," "sufficient" or "insufficient" and comments on the order of "a very beautiful hand" or "untidy and careless."

Perhaps, as one of the very "beautifuls," there is bias to my belief in the importance, not so much of handwriting--mine is minuscule and crabbed by now--as of writing by hand. Perhaps Professor Thornton's scholarly but distant approach has something to do with the fact that she learned to read on a computer, and that hand printing came later and handwriting a good deal later. There is a photo of her as a child sitting at the keyboard.

"Handwriting in America" informs us that up through the 18th century, the shapes given to cursive writing had nothing to do with either forming or expressing character. Their different styles corresponded to a variety of social functions.

There were particular handwritings for royalty and its scribes, for the law courts, for merchants and their clerks--the "round hand"--for ladies and for gentlemen. Not even these last two were the same. The former was deliberately decorative, the latter deliberately insouciant. Thornton nicely compares the first to dressing, the second to dancing.

Victorian reforms put an end to all this in two successive and very different waves. The first came with the teachings of Platt Spencer, whose handwriting theories took America by storm. Simplifying the old copperplate flourishes, he prescribed curves and angles based on the forms of nature.

The observation and practice required to achieve the Spencer hand had a moral purpose as well. In the turbulent city schools of the mid-19th century, they would strengthen the moral fiber of young people and refine their sensibilities. Handwriting would not express character; it would mold it.

By the end of the century, this relatively humane if didactic method was superseded by the injunctions of Austin Palmer. Generations of American children were made to stiffen wrists and fingers and, by the mere pumping of the elbow, inscribe ovals and ups-and-downs, and from these derive the alphabet. No will, sensibility or character was involved; merely a machinelike muscle habit.

By the 1930s, the method was practiced pretty much exclusively in handwriting classes; in other classes, the students crimped and cramped their wriggly fingered way across the page.

Thornton's book places more stress on what people said, wrote and taught about handwriting than on handwriting itself. Through her discussion of the pedagogical and philosophical currents that swirled about the topic, she twines a thread of social reflection, mainly feminist and often loosely attached.

It is hard not to wish for more. It would be good to read about handwriting not as symptom and theory, but as something that happens to the writer as well as to the paper, and to the reader as well as to the writer. What was Emerson's handwriting like? Or Melville's? Emily Dickinson's? Hemingway's? Wallace Stevens'? What is the difference between writing a letter with a pen and tapping out e-mail? I'm inclined to think it's the difference between walking through the countryside and flying over in a plane. Would Thornton tell us what she thinks? Would a pen help?

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