The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting

The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting

by Darren Wershler-Henry

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The Iron Whim is an intelligent, irreverent, and humorous history of writing culture and technology. It covers the early history and evolution of the typewriter as well as the various attempts over the years to change the keyboard configuration, but...See more details below


The Iron Whim is an intelligent, irreverent, and humorous history of writing culture and technology. It covers the early history and evolution of the typewriter as well as the various attempts over the years to change the keyboard configuration, but...

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Witty and idiosyncratic, this history of typewriting says more than one might think possible about the subject. . . . Wershler-Henry documents how the typewriter, once a dreaded totem of mechanization, has become an object of nostalgia, in a process that will surely repeat itself as technology advances. After all, as he writes, 'Typewriting died a violent death, and . . . violent deaths lead to hauntings."—The Atlantic, April 2007

"Among the book's many fascinating topics—America's early-20th-century erotic fixation on the Type-Writer Girl; the link between Remington's efforts to develop faster typists and the origins of domestic engineering, via the real-life protagonist of Cheaper by the Dozen; the mathematical formula proving that no number of monkeys could randomly peck out 'Hamlet'; the 2004 flap over the special characters used on a typewritten memo purporting to show that President Bush received preferential treatment in the Texas Air National Guard"The most persuasive is the persistence of the eerie feeling that we're not alone when we sit at the typewriter."—Josh Glenn, New York Times Book Review, May 6, 2007

"Although he sketches in the mechanical evolution of the machine, and the industrial world around it, Wershler-Henry is never reluctant to leave the historical nuts and bolts behind. His larger interest is in the cultural and theoretical resonances of typewriting, and he considers them in an impressively wide-ranging, virtuoso performance which often has a rather Gothic air about it."—Phil Baker, Times Literary Supplement, June 1, 2007

"The Iron Whim should delight all who love typewriters and who appreciate the long, if somewhat rattly, contribution they have made to literacy and general culture."—Larry McMurtry

"The Iron Whim is a pure delight. This 'fragmented history of typewriting' provides fascinating glimpses into the history, culture, and poetics of the typewriter, that instrument that controlled our writing for so many decades and for which nostalgia is currently at a high point. Himself a poet and critic, Wershler-Henry recounts, with great panache, how the typewriter works of such writers as Henry James and Charles Olson were actually produced. The role of the amanuensis, the dictation process, the production and reception of typed text: all these topics, clearly and vividly detailed, ensure the wide reception The Iron Whim is sure to get. I cannot imagine a reader who would not find this book intriguing and compelling."—Marjorie Perloff, Stanford University, author of Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary

"I have been waiting years for just such a book on the cultural imagination of the typewriter, and Darren Wershler-Henry makes the wait well worthwhile. The Iron Whim combines historical rigor, theoretical sophistication, and an amazing breadth of literary knowledge from the canonical to the avant-garde—not to mention a palpable sense of mischievous fun. Wershler-Henry, one of today's most provocative scholars and poets, undertakes this medial archaeology with unerring precision: revealing the most surprising arcana to be central to our cultural history and making the most familiar facts of the modern writing machine seem suddenly new and strange and extravagantly unlikely. This book is necessary, intelligent, and fun."—Craig Dworkin, University of Utah, author of Reading the Illegible

"Who connects the typewriter with vampires, ghosts, sex, drugs, and money? Poet, theorist, and culture critic Wershler-Henry, has produced a surprising book that is nothing short of a cultural history of the complex writing machine. Richly researched, the text is composed with élan and wit. A must-read for students of contemporary literature, media studies, and anyone interested in the interconnections of modern life and technology."—Johanna Drucker, Robertson Professor of Media Studies, University of Virginia

Library Journal
The title and subtitle of this distinctive and well-written book are unduly correct. Unfortunately, it takes a scattershot, whimsical approach to typewriting's impact on culture. References from business, art, literature, film, technology, and science serve as evidence, but they lack a unified focus, and the chapter groupings seem forced. Wershler-Henry (communication studies, Wilfrid Laurier Univ., Ontario; Nicholodeon) guides readers to other books if the history of the typewriteras a machine is of greater interest. His goal is to explore typewritingas an act of social discourse. Although academic in nature, the writing is indeed extremely engaging. Intriguing examples include typewriting in Bram Stoker's Dracula, efficiency studies by Cheaper by the Dozen's Frank Gilbreth, and the Internet-based Monkey Shakespeare Simulator. Other examples, such as John Milton's typing daughters or the poetic "cut ups" favored by Dadaists, may be too obscure for the casual nonfiction reader or too tenuously connected to typewriting for those wanting a closer focus. The author does not make strong assertions about the final importance of typewriting, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. An optional purchase for academic libraries with popular culture or social history collections.
—Marcy L. Brown

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Product Details

Cornell University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

Darren Wershler-Henry is a writer, critic, and the former senior editor of Coach House Books. He regularly appears on TV, radio, and in print as an authority on communications and technology- related issues. He is also the author of two books of poetry, NICHOLODEON: a book of lowerglyphs and the tapeworm foundry (shortlisted for the Trillium Award). His most recent book is The Original Canadian City Dweller’s Almanac (with Hal Niedzviecki).

Read an Excerpt

The Iron Whim

By Darren Wershler-Henry

Random House

Darren Wershler-Henry
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0771089252

Chapter One

Typewriting is dead, but its ghosts still haunt us. Even in our image-­saturated culture, the iconic value of the typewriter looms large. Artfully grainy, sepia-­toned close-­up photos of its quaint circular keys grace the covers of tastefully matte-­laminated paperbacks, announcing yet another volume extolling the virtues of the writing life. In magazine and billboard ads, magnified blotchy serifed fonts mimic the look of text typed on battered machines with old, dirty ribbons: pixel-­perfect damaged letters that sit crookedly above or below the line with paradoxical consistency. On radio and tv, the rapid clatter of type bars hitting paper signals the beginning of news broadcasts. We all know what this sound means: important information will soon be conveyed. Typewriters may have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but their ghosts are everywhere.

What's remarkable is not that typewriting continues to haunt us, but that typewriting itself was always haunted.

Consider the case of Felix Pender, a successful young author of humorous stories. Pender, a character in "A Psychical Invasion," one of Algernon Blackwood's turn-­of-­the-­century tales of the paranormal, has a problem. Though he is producing new work at an alarming rate, the young Pender is no longer capable of writing anything funny. All his laughter seems "hollow and ghastly, and ideas of evil and tragedy [tread] close upon the heels of the comic."

In the best Edwardian fashion, Pender's difficulties stem from his misguided attempt to learn Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. In order to experience the ludicrous in a manner that he would not normally, and therefore, presumably, to generate some new material, Pender starves himself for six hours, then takes an "experimental dose" of hashish.4 After a slightly disconcerting laughing jag, he goes to bed, wakes late, and sits down to write:

All that day I wrote and wrote and wrote. My sense of laughter seemed wonderfully quickened and my characters acted without effort out of the heart of true humour. I was exceedingly pleased with this result of my experiment. But when the stenographer had taken her departure and I came to read over the pages she had typed out, I recalled her sudden glances of surprise and the odd way she had looked up at me while I was dictating. I was amazed at what I read and could hardly believe I had uttered it . . .

It was so distorted. The words, indeed, were mine so far as I could remember, but the meanings seemed strange. It frightened me. The sense was so altered. At the very places where my characters were intended to tickle the ribs, only curious emotions of sinister amusement resulted. Dreadful innuendoes had managed to creep into the phrases. There was laughter of a kind, but it was bizarre, horrible, distressing; and my attempt at analysis only increased my dismay. The story, as it read then, made me shudder, for by virtue of those slight changes it had come somehow to hold the soul of horror, of horror disguised as merriment.

Excerpted from The Iron Whim by Darren Wershler-Henry Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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