My last typewriter I sold almost ten years ago in our first and only garage sale, back in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., shortly before our first move to Houston. It was an electric model, only the second I had ever owned, and once it had seemed intimidatingly high-tech. By 2004, I felt no nostalgia and certainly no sense of momentousness about unloading an outdated tool. Even to me, no technophile, my typewriter, unused for years, seemed clunky and labor-intensive. Selling it eased our move and brought in a couple of bucks.
In a new poem, “The Privacy of Typewriters,” the great Australian poet Les Murray, born in 1938, feels otherwise. He calls himself “an old book troglodyte,” meaning he writes poems longhand and types drafts “as many times as need be.” He claims to fear the computer but his anxiety sounds stylized and self-consciously contrarian, and I think his true objection is less to the computer than the internet. I sympathize but can’t agree. I’ve been at it too long to give up copying, pasting and italicizing with a tap of the mouse. Murray protests “text that looks pre-published,” a homemade elegance I admire, but smartly adds, “and perhaps has been.” Defending his typewriter, he writes:
“I trust the spoor of botch,
whiteouts where thought deepened,
wise freedom from Spell Check,
sheets to sell the National Library.”
As an unceasing reviser, a habit I acquired as a newspaper reporter working on word processors, I too “trust the spoor of botch.” Typos and other errors are a useful part of the process, like changing a ribbon or rebooting. They signify “thought deepened,” whereas “first thought, best thought” signifies narcissism. I too hate the digital nagging of Spell Check.
As a young woman, the mother of one of my college roommates had worked as a secretary or typist for H.L. Mencken. She held on to the typewriter and gave it to my friend, who kept it on his desk in our dorm room. It was tall, black, noisy and heavy, a big piece of machinery at once archaic and intimidating, today best stored in a museum where young people can stare at it and feel superior.