Friday, November 30, 2012

Positive Spur: Henry James, Theodora Bosanquet, and a Remington Typewriter

Having seen its heyday, the torch of the typewriter is only carried by a few true believers. We see these Promethians lighting pockets of darkness all over the world. The impetus is drawn from a vast mythology of typewriters; Mark Twain with his love/hate relationship to the Sholes & Glidden, Ernest Hemingway standing at a bookshelf in Cuba, Cormac McCarthy's $50 beat-up Lettera from a pawn shop in Texas. Stories are ambrosia that feed our love of these wonderful iron companions, but there is one great story of a man and a woman and a typewriter that shows how a simple machine intended to complete a task can become integral to a life.

Henry James by John Singer Sargent
Henry James is known for his meandering prose. Jamesian sentences can stretch on for lines. It's his style, and he is a master. What Hemingway did for the terse, short sentence, James did for long, complex syntax. I thought this was a by-product of writing during the Gilded Age, but James was a realist author. He wasn't a victim of Romanticism. Wharton, a compatriot and Gilded Age insider, wrote in a far less complicated way. Reading the criticism you hear mention of his "dictations" and that being an excuse for the prose.

James didn't write many of his books by hand. Early in his career he did put pen to paper, but his handwriting was so poor that it made sense to find some way to alleviate the problem. In a letter to Frances R. Morse dated June 7, 1897 James tells Morse that he took up "the click of the typewriter to which I dictate, and which, some months ago crept into my existence through the crevice of a lame hand and now occupies in it a place too big to be left vacant..."

When James writes about the typewriter he does not describe it as a tool that can be forgotten. James describes it as occupying "a place too big [in his life] to be left vacant." This tool has become far more important than a means of keeping his handwriting in check. It was a tool of composition.

However, James never operated his own typewriter, or at least that is the impression given by the papers he left behind. In 1897 Henry James hired William MacAlpine to serve as his amanuensis; a secretary. James replaced MacAlpine, perhaps due to his completely stoic reaction while James was dictating The Turn of the Screw. Whatever the true reason might be, MacAlpine was replaced by Mary Weld a young woman from one of the many secretarial schools that were popping up in The Strand (James was living in London at the time). In the great pauses that James took while dictating his prose, Weld would take out her crocheting. This, no doubt, aided in making it easy to replace Weld with someone more attuned to James' thought process: Theodora Bosanquet, the woman who would be his amanuensis until his death.
 
Theodora Bosanquet

James described Bosanquet as "boyish" and very much the perfect secretary for his need. Her literary sensitivities were more advanced, and she was able to translate James for the typewriter. Bosanquet read many of James’ early pieces previously and was, indeed, a fan.

Bosanquet described her first experience with the typewriter in a personal journal entry from late 1907:

“[Thursday]. 10 October, Rye…I went to Mr. James’ house and he introduced me to his typewriter—which I inspected for an hour or so—a brand new Remington and very complicated—or so it seemed to me.”

Here we get the only factual piece of information about one of Henry James' typewriters for we must conclude that he had an earlier Remington in 1897 when MacAlpine was working for him. The Remington, most likely in his study at Lamb House, would have been a No. 7. Bosanquet described it as being "brand new" and very complicated.

Remington No. 7
Alan Seaver Collection
The Remington No. 7 above certainly fits the bill. The maze of features, four-bank keyboard, and modern feature-set must have seemed very formidable when new and shiny. Alan Sever’s No. 7 looks the part of a complicated modern typewriter. A preponderance of levers and knobs make early Remingtons look positively byzantine. I have always enjoyed the fact that the key levers-- to which the keytops are attached-- are not metal, but wood. Yes, lumber. It's the Morgan of typewriters.

Remington No. 6
Alan Seaver Collection

However, a No. 7 was probably not the first typewriter that James had. We know that MacAlpine used one and that means that it was lost likely a No. 6. The No. 6 was available in 1897 and a fairly usable machine. While still a blind-writer the escapement, carriage, and ribbon advance mechanisms had all been improved.

The Remington No. 6, as period advertising described, was "A Development, Not An Experiment."

While pinning down the typewriter that James relied on is interesting, the most amazing thing is how the typewriter became more than a way to make a quick letter impression on paper. The typewriter became the trigger for a response in the mind of Henry James. His Remington made him create.

In an excerpt from Bosanquet's memoir, At Work with Henry James we can see how the noise the typewriter made, in effect, became the trigger for creating.

Indeed at the time I began to work for him, he had reached a stage at which the click of a Remington machine acted as a positive spur. He found it more difficult to compose to the music of any other make. During the fortnight when the Remington was out of order he dictated to an Oliver typewriter with evident discomfort, and he found it almost impossibly disconcerting to speak to something that made no responsive sound at all.

The typewriter was part of his creative process and Bosanquet recalls “…he liked to have a typewriter moved into his bedroom for even the shortest letters.” The typewriter became the locus around which his prose was crafted. However, there was Bosanquet, also a typewriter.

Her role is far less understood. Pamela Thirschwell, in her fascinating article "Henry James and Theodora Bosanquet: on the typewriter, In the Cage, at the Ouija board", talks about the unusual working roles of the elderly bachelor novelist and a young woman. As his amanuensis and typewriter Bosanquet was privy to many intimate moments of James' creation. The manner James created was unique to him. First he would think about the characters and the situations. He would do this silently, pacing the room. Bosanquet would be installed at the typewriter waiting for him to start speaking. At a moment’s notice he would start speaking; spending no time indicating punctuation. Often he would have asides and it was Bosanquet's job to decide what James intended to include in his dictated narrative. James told her that “I know, that I’m too diffuse when I am dictating.”

In a sense the typewriter, the machine and the typewriter (women who operated typewriters were called typewriters themselves) were entwined in the creative process. Each was inextricably linked to the other and where James, the typewriter, and Bosanquet melded was on the page. In fact, even Bosanquet became more and more reliant on the typewriter herself. The sound became synonymous with the thinking mind of James which Bosanquet desired nothing more than to completely understand.

…but what I really want most is just to get back to the dear old Remington tick. I hope to arrive with the ticker itself &c on Monday about one; and I will bring a new ribbon...

It was this way up until Henry James died. The typewriter allowed him the freedom of words to write in a way that was immensely unique. James' prose is unlike any others and a James sentence is always identifiable. Even when on his deathbed, Henry James called for his trusty old Remington and his special amanuensis to ease the pain of dying.

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1. Fanny was a long-time correspondent to Alice James, Henry and William James' sister Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute. Fanny's father, Samuel T. Morse was a shipping merchant in Boston.

5 comments:

  1. Very interesting and informative post. Thanks! You are giving Robert some competition in posting such detailed and historic articles.

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  2. Indeed, just as Bill said, this is Messengeresque! And that is quite a compliment.

    I hadn't known anything about James's relationship with his typewriter and his typewriter.

    Personally I always think of writing as a private activity -- I can't imagine dictating a novel.

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  3. What!? He couldn't dictate to an Oliver????? It made no response???? The man must have been a barbarian!

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  4. great post. I've been thinking of James lately, re-reading Portrait of a Lady... and you've filled in some details on his composition method for me. I love that his dictation-to-typist method allowed him to expand and proliferate those darn sentences of his... and that the typewriter was one reason for that. rino

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  5. Thanks Ryan. I have a customer at the (as yet unborn) Wallingford Typewriter Exchange - WTX - who will be interested in this essay. He's putting great store by the machine's ability as a composition aid.

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