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Typestruck: On Women and Writing Machines

The crown jewel in the 1937 Hollywood musical Ready, Willing, & Able is an elaborate song-and-dance number called “Too Marvelous for Words.” A lovestruck male theater producer, attempting to write a love letter by dictation, is surrounded by an army of female secretaries: hanging on his words, clinging to ladders, sitting at typewriters. As the music picks up tempo, the secretaries tap their keys in time.

Soon, through the magic of montage, the fella and his leading lady are performing a tap dance number on a gargantuan typewriter (fig. 1). The couple’s dexterous legs mime the motions of typing fingers, while—more bizarrely and mass-ornamentally—the secretaries’ legs, clad in black tights, serve as the machine’s typebars (also called strikers, though there’s little chance this scene will resolve in a labor dispute). A gigantic letter unscrolls from the huge typewriter, line by line:

You’re just too --- --- and much too !  !  !  !  !  !  !  !  !

In other words, use your imagination!

Screenshot from Ready, Willing, & Able
Fig. 1. Screenshot from Ready, Willing, & Able, dir. Ray Enright (Warner Bros., 1937).

Taking this as a prompt, we might imaginatively describe “Too Marvelous For Words” as a technography, defined by literary theorist Steven Connor as “any writing about any technology that implicates or is attuned to the technological condition of its own writing.”[1] What the sequence tells us is that, at least in mid-century America, typing’s association with femininity was nearly total—young women were ghosted into the machine.

This is a story with blind spots. While forthcoming work by scholars such as Raja Adal and David Arnold is poised to expand the global canon of typewriter culture, few extant works of scholarship extend their analysis beyond white women in offices. In the US context, African American writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks certainly did make visible the powerful relationship between typewriting and modernism; however, as the Early Office Museum details, clerical job opportunities were extremely limited for Black Americans at the turn of the century due to segregation. This may account, at least in part, for the relatively scarce work on Black typewriter culture.

When it comes to gender, though, the association is clear: typing was in the early twentieth century overwhelmingly a women’s occupation.[2] It had become so in the late nineteenth century, and by the 1930s women entered the typists’ workforce as a prelude to marriage. Following the introduction of the typewriter—after many attempts to perfect the technology, the first successful patent was taken out in 1868 by the Milwaukee inventor Christopher Latham Sholes—women began using the machines in offices across America. The new occupation was in many ways similar to others then available to working-class women. Under the paper-thin pretext that they had more “nimble fingers” than men, women had long been confined to the manual, low-paid jobs that made the industrial revolution go, working, for instance, as seamstresses with sewing machines or as spinning mill operatives.[3] The first commercial typewriter, the Model 1 Remington, was even designed to look like a sewing machine: its distinctive grapevine stand was outfitted with a foot treadle, which controlled the carriage return (fig. 2).

Illustration of the Remington No. 1 from The Story of the Typewriter, 1873–1923
Fig. 2. Illustration of the Remington No. 1 from The Story of the Typewriter, 18731923 (New York: Andrew H. Kellogg Company, 1923), 65. Photograph by Amy E. Elkins.

The difference between typists’ work and other kinds of employment undertaken by women was that typists worked in offices alongside men. Typists’ salaries were low, and their machines just as heavy and clunking as the period’s textile technologies. But their surroundings, at least, appeared to be middle class. Sholes came to feel that he had (inadvertently) struck a great blow for the advancement of women, a message that was propounded in celebratory books like The Story of the Typewriter (1923): “That it was the writing machine which opened to women the doors of business life is so well known that mere mention of it sounds like a commonplace. . . . The suffrage, the winning of greater social freedom, the wider participation of women in every phase of public life, all these are children of the same parent” (fig. 3).[4]

Cover of The Story of the Typewriter
Fig. 3. Cover of The Story of the Typewriter. Photograph by Amy E. Elkins.

Actually, matters were not nearly so neat. The typewriter may have brought women a degree of economic independence, but to the extent that it became a real or symbolic tool of creative autonomy and cultural power, it did so principally for men. As recently as 2013, when the Atlantic published a piece on the typewriters of the rich and famous, the only woman who crept into the list—alongside Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles, John Updike, and the Unabomber—was Marilyn Monroe, who shared her machine with Joe DiMaggio. As Matthew Kirschenbaum has written,

the stock of cultural imagery around the typewriter [has] diverged: on the one hand the hardboiled noir writer, inevitably and inveterately male . . . ; on the other hand, the secretary, a product of pink-collar office culture, the silent and passive conduit for the words of others. She listens but does not speak, she transcribes but does not compose, and she types but never reads. Or at least she’s not supposed to.[5]

But of course, women did read—and write. And when they seized on the typewriter as a means of creative expression, they often turned to technography. While Hollywood’s leading man may have been “at a loss” for words, his secretaries are Ready, Willing, and Able to assist in the creative act of writing. As the musical number suggests (in its own sexist way), women at typewriters wield a particular kind of agency, editing the boss on the fly, supplying him with the right words, proving themselves to be creative, collaborative technographic agents.

More generally, the idea of the passive transcriber fails to account for the dynamic activities of modernist women at the typewriter. While working on her 1938 manifesto Three Guineas—a plea for professional equality between the sexes—Virginia Woolf made explicit reference to this tension between literary labor and the means of that creative, manual production.[6] She clipped an article from a newspaper titled “Machines Prefer Girls: More Accurate Than Men” and pasted it into her scrapbook. (Woolf is known to have often borrowed her husband’s typewriter to work, and once noted the struggles she was having with her own machine: “This spelling is the spelling of a Portable Underwood—not mine!”) The queer turn of the clipping’s title, “machines prefer girls”—like something out of Donna Haraway—captures Woolf’s emphasis on the “relationships” between women and their typewriters. It also implies women’s capacity to use typewriters to produce great works of literary art, regardless of any technological difficulties.

The Girl Who Typed the Letters

A couple of years before Three Guineas appeared, British writer Stevie Smith published a particularly salient example of women’s creative and literary uses of the typewriter. Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, Or, WORK IT OUT FOR YOURSELF, published in 1936, follows a typestruck secretary’s stream-of-consciousness narration of her experiences of love, sex, and a growing awareness of—and resistance to—religious convention and political cruelty (fig. 4). Many editions of the novel are printed on yellow paper, which gives visual presence to the making of the text—even before the opening line.

It is a quintessential example of modernist technographic writing—an orientation made additionally clear in the frontispiece, an illustration that Smith herself did for the book. It depicts the novel’s protagonist Pompey (a stand-in for the author), one hand on and one hand off the typewriter (fig. 5). She is, we might say, semi-detached. Looking over her shoulder, Pompey’s expression conveys the tension between the ambition of her literary creation and its physical context (an office, eking out words on a borrowed typewriter). But like the novel itself, Smith’s fast line drawing makes visual the urgency of Pompey’s work. It is the perfect technographic self-portrait, capturing in a few strokes the courageous act of transcription in the midst of life’s messiness.

Amy E. Elkins holds open the title page of the first US edition of Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, or, Work It Out for Yourself
Fig. 4. Amy E. Elkins holds open the title page of the first US edition of Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, or, Work It Out for Yourself (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1937). The book’s title is typewritten and reproduced on a printed yellow square. Photograph by Amy E. Elkins.
Illustration from Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper, or, Work It Out for Yourself
Fig. 5. Illustration from Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper, or, Work It Out for Yourself (New York: New Directions, 1994). Photograph by Amy E. Elkins.

Graphically, the novel looks and feels mostly familiar; and yet, its difficult subjects and experimental narration expand across yellow pages in typewriterly serif font with large gaps on the physical page—for example, a large break after introducing “that mighty ogre Sex that is a worse ogre to the novelist.”[7] After giving some literal space to her contemplation of the subject, Pompey says, “Some people take sex like it was a constitutional exercise, some people take it like it was a conflict . . . all hatred and cruelty” (Smith, Yellow, 121). A few lines down, Pompey offers a four-line poem on the matter, a blending of genres and typographic experiments that attest to her working through complex social subjects. Throughout Novel on Yellow Paper are these thinking spaces, visual phenomena on the page, interwoven with poems—a way for the reluctant novelist to further assert her literary agency.

Thus, while entertaining, Novel on Yellow Paper is also challenging. Smith’s readers find themselves navigating “a series of tableaux, built from a succession of framed scenes,” as William May describes it.[8] The tone often approximates that of Sylvia Plath, avant la lettre, a mood that Smith also captured in her poetry:

Deeply morbid deeply morbid was the girl who typed the letters

Always out of office hours running with her social betters  

But when daylight and the darkness of the office closed about her

Not for this ah not for this her office colleagues came to doubt her

It was that look within her eye

Why did it always seem to say goodbye?

The protagonist of Novel on Yellow Paper has the name of a Roman emperor, Pompey, but an unenviable job as a put-upon private secretary. The bright side of the arrangement is access to tools and office paper, as she explains: “I am typing this book on yellow paper. It is very yellow paper because often sometimes I am typing it in my room at my office.”[9] Pompey draws the reader’s attention to the creation of the text they hold in their hands, using direct address in the style of George Eliot and making note of the manuscript’s gradual accumulation as a typescript: “I’m getting on and sticking to my typewriter, and come Christmas this book will be ready for binding in limp yap and setting on your rich aunt’s breakfast plate next the crumpled corn” (28–29).[10] And, about 200 pages later, with idiosyncratic punctuation: “I can write only as I can write only, and Does the road wind uphill all the way? Yes, to the very end. But brace up, chaps, there’s a 60,000-word limit” (231). Alongside the office setting, the book evidences both the liberation and the constraint Pompey associates with her typewriter. It is, for her, both a tool of creative expression and stultifying labor.

Actually, this distinction is not absolute, for Pompey constantly indicates just how hard-won her pages are. This self-referentiality is in keeping with broader tendencies in modernist writing, but as a reflection on the conditions of writerly production, the book registers as a particularly acute and poignant statement of feminist principle. In the novel’s best-known passage, these themes of meta-commentary, physicality, and struggle are intertwined: 

And it is not to be proud I say: I am a foot-off-the-ground person; or to be superior that I say: Foot-on-the-ground person, keep out. It is to save you an exasperation and weariness that have now already hardly brought you to this early page. But if you do not know whether you are a foot-off-the-ground or a foot-on-the-ground person, then I say, Come on. Come on with me, and find out. And for my part I will try to punctuate this book to make it easy for you to read, and to break it up, with spaces for a pause, as the publisher has asked me to do. But this I find extremely difficult. … Oh talking voice that is so sweet, how hold you alive in captivity, how point you with commas, semi-colons, dashes, pauses and paragraphs? (39)

Pompey struggles with the constraints of conventional written language—like her illustrated self-portrait, in which she is pictured with one hand on and one hand off the typewriter, she describes herself here as caught between the fixity of typescript and her pledge to live “foot-off-the-ground.” Pompey extends this experiment to her readers, inviting them to come along for the literary journey, all the while pulling back the curtain on the difficulty of that process.

As Hannah Sullivan has explained, typewriting as a medium “became associated with aesthetic, even political strategies” in modernism.[11] Smith’s alter ego Pompey wants to craft a book that’s accessible to readers, but she also knows she is writing a difficult novel. She may aim to write something “easy for you to read,” but the reality is more in line with “exasperation and weariness.” Meanwhile, Pompey embraces the erratic flourishes of her own divided attention. Initially, the confessional pages of the novel lay bare her ennui, her anti-Semitism, and her shallow approach to relationships. After an eye-opening trip to Germany during the early stages of Nazi occupation, Pompey experiences an epiphanic shift in perspective, and consequently goes on to explore the complexity of sex and friendship, reflects on her development as a writer, and documents her first-hand experiences of the Nazi encroachment on Germany. In this sense, the book engages its reader while also charting the deeply personal account of Pompey’s innermost thoughts and discoveries, both as a writer and a citizen of the world.

While at times deeply anxious, and always damnably distracted, Pompey’s narrative ultimately coalesces into a challenge, one manifested in both the form of Novel on Yellow Paper (the typewriterliness, the yellow paper, the non-standard line breaks) and its content (political disillusionment, romance and friendship, artistic agency).

Typing Matters

Pompey’s use of her typewriter, her illustrating pencil, and her yellow paper reflects her desire to matter—as a writer, as a modern woman, and as a member of a global, more humane community. We can see this desire expressed in a different way in mattering, a 1997 installation by the American artist Ann Hamilton. Five male peacocks greeted visitors in the large gallery of the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Lyon, France. Amidst their six wall-mounted perches was a utility pole in the center of the room that emerged from an expanse of red silk fabric overhead. The pole held a perch for a weaver pulling from a blue line: an inked typewriter ribbon. The figure used his fingers, as Hamilton says, “as warp, the typewriter ribbon as weft.” As the weaver’s hands wound the ribbon and were stained with blue ink, he was “defining and marking the negative space of the hand.”[12]

Documentation from Ann Hamilton, mattering
Fig. 6. Documentation from Ann Hamilton, mattering, Ann Hamilton Studio.

Hamilton explained the title of her work in this way:

The notion of “consequence,” of “mattering,” is nearly inseparable from the substantive face of “matter.” Or, phrased in the opposite direction, when “matter” goes from being a noun to being an active verb—when we go from saying of something that “it is matter” to saying “it matters”—then substance has tilted forward into consequence. What matters (what signifies, what has standing, what counts) has substance: mattering is the impingement of a thing’s substance on whatever surrounds it. (80)

If mattering is “the impingement of a thing’s substance on whatever surrounds it,” then the typewriter very much matters to modernist women writers, both as a physical tool of the trade and a self-reflexive tool of cultural inquiry. In turn, it comes to matter to us. Novel on Yellow Paper was published just a year before Ready, Willing, and Able hit the Hollywood Big screen, and Smith’s pugnacious subtitle for the novel—“or, WORK IT OUT FOR YOURSELF”—seems to echo the film’s call to its audience: “Use your imagination!” In telling her readers to work it out on the page, Smith issues a modernist technographic challenge: to figure out what matters. She uses the typewriter to impinge on us, to provoke her “wretched Reader” to leave behind the comfort of “safe, warm, smelly earth” by lifting, in our own ways, off the ground (229, 232).

In the spirit of Smith and Hamilton, then, we conclude this piece by turning to the typewriter as a tool for figuring out how the typewriter mattered to modernist women writers. “Typewriter Composite” is an experiment in feminist technography by Amy E. Elkins that takes Smith’s poetry as a starting point and brings together meditations on typewriters from Marianne Moore and Maya Angelou to Adrienne Rich and Bryher (fig. 7-9). Consolidating references to women and typewriters we gathered as part of our research, Elkins’s composite poem is typewritten on Smith’s signature yellow paper. With this technographic feminist text, which functions as both creative endeavor and as a primary archive, we too ask our readers—you—to participate in the process of literary (and scholarly) creation. The result, like Hamilton’s mattering and Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, juxtaposes the handiwork of making things matter on the page with the friction exerted by working the modernist machine.

Amy E. Elkins, “Typewriter Composite: An Experiment in Feminist Technography.”
Figs. 7-9. Amy E. Elkins, “Typewriter Composite: An Experiment in Feminist Technography.” Reproduced by permission of the author.

Notes

[1] Steven Connor, “How to Do Things with Writing Machines,” in Sean Pryor and David Trotter, Writing, Medium, Machine: Modern Technographies (London: Open Humanities Press, 2016), 18.

[2] See Claudia Goldin, “The Quiet Revolution That Transformed Women’s Employment, Education, and Family,” American Economic Review 96.2 (2006): 1–21.

[3] On the ongoing effects of these stereotypes in the globalizing economy, see Diane Elson and Ruth Pearson, “Nimble Fingers Make Cheap Workers: An Analysis of Women’s Employment in Third World Export Manufacturing,” Feminist Review 7 (Spring 1981): 87–107.

[4] Herkimer County Historical Society, The Story of the Typewriter, 18731923 (New York: Andrew H. Kellogg Company, 1923), 134, 140.

[5] Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 141.

[6] The clipping is included in the edition of Three Guineas annotated by Jane Marcus (New York: Harvest, 2006), 326.

[7] Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper, or, Work It Out for Yourself (New York: New Directions, 1994), 120-21.

[8] William May, Stevie Smith and Authorship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 170.

[9] Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper, or, Work It Out for Yourself (New York: New Directions, 1994), 15.

[10] Yap or yapp binding was traditionally used in Bibles or other devotional or sentimental volumes. Named for the Victorian bookbinder William Yapp, this style of binding features leather covers that extend far past the pages within, so that they can fold down and provide a measure of protection.

[11] Hannah Sullivan, The Work of Revision (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 255.

[12] Ann Hamilton cited in Joan Simon, “Ann Hamilton: Inscribing Place,” Art in America (June 1999): 80.