HANDWRITING IN AMERICA by Tamara Plakins Thornton

HANDWRITING IN AMERICA

A Cultural History
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 A scholarly stroll through handwriting styles--the good, the bad, and the illegible--and how much we read into them. Thornton's (History/State Univ. of New York, Buffalo) focus is more on social trends and pedagogic approaches than individual practice. She begins her history in the 17th century, when gender, profession, and social standing dictated one's writing style(s) (indeed, what lady would write like a clerk?). Platt Rogers Spencer, creator of the 19th-century Spencerian style, showed himself a child of the Romantic age by looking to ``the sublime and beautiful in nature'' for the ``true imagery of writing.'' Consistent with that period's new sense of the uniqueness of the individual was a corresponding sense of the uniqueness of handwriting, at least of important people. The masses were merely expected to copy what was put before them. The way the rest of us wrote didn't attract interest until later in the century, when graphologists sought a ``scientific'' approach to interpreting handwriting as a way of plumbing character. One might consult a graphologist to size up a prospective spouse, assess an employee, or even search for the hint of something that made oneself seem a little special in the Gilded Age's increasingly impersonal society. By the end of the century, Austin Norman Palmer, attuned to the period's ``rush of business,'' was winning converts to his plainer writing style, the very one gracing many of our own classroom walls. To progressive-era pedagogues, especially those seeing people as ``bundles of neuromuscular connections'' and education as the process of training them, the Palmer writing method was a kind of precision student drill, offering a way to control the disorderly and Americanize the immigrant. As computer fonts begin to displace script, we look again to handwriting to express self, tinkering with calligraphy and toting ostentatiously pricey fountain pens. A history of the ordinary that should pique the interest of nonspecialists. (57 illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-300-06477-2
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1996