Writing at the Turn of the Century

Over the last few years I’ve read several books that I enjoyed so much, I wanted to know more about their authors. I recently completed Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson and His Times. It took Malone decades to complete. I was fascinated by the sheer dogged persistence of someone completing such a monumental task. It seemed like it was more than a task. It felt like a quest.

I have also read the first four volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization series. I’ve loved those books not just for the history, but for the wonderful writing style. The first volume of the series was published in 1935, years before the beginning of the Second World War. The final volume was published in 1975. All told, it took the Durants 40 years to write the books.

As interesting as I have found these books, I am equally intrigued by the authors. I want to know more about them. After completing Jefferson and His Times, I did some searching and found My Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson: The Life of Dumas Malone by William C. Hyland. This biography was just as enjoyable as the story of Jefferson’s life.

At present, I am also reading A Dual Autobiography by Will and Ariel Durant, hoping gain insight into the authors of such a massive history of civilization.

I have come away from these books with a similar insight I’ve taken from books like Red: The Life and Times of a Great American Writer by Ira Berkow, One Man’s Meat by E. B. White, and Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee: these writers of vastly different backgrounds, and writing on vastly different subjects all managed to do the writing and research without the aid of computers and the Internet.

Much of the shop talk I’ve been involved in with other writers centers around the tools we use: word processors, thought-organizers, outlining tools, citation aids, search engines, discussion boards, etc.

I don’t know why it fascinates me, but I love reading about early twentieth century reporters and writers and how they worked in those seemingly dark ages of technology. They took notes on paper. There were no voice recorders so some reporters learned shorthand. They did research in libraries, and often traveled the world (as the Durants did) as part of their effort to get to source material.

Entire multivolume books were written longhand, the paper handed to typists who produced manuscript copy which served as the basis for the text of the book. While there may have been frustrations over poor ribbon quality, or somewhat messy copy, no one was complaining that their typewriter was “frozen” or that they forgot to save their work for the day. Things like spell-checking didn’t exist in their present form, but were easy enough with a dictionary at hand.

It also seems like these writers provided a treasure trove to archivists that modern writers may lack. Edits can be seen on the page in these old manuscripts. First drafts are often handwritten with cross-outs, corrections, and marginal notes right there on the yellowing pages. It is easy to see the transformation of research notes into final book form because every step is preserved on paper. Today, even a first draft in a word processor is not quite the same as a first draft on paper. Typos, corrections, and changes of thoughts vanish in the digital ether and all we see is the resulting text, not the thought process behind it.

Perhaps I am romanticizing the labor that went into production of epics works like The Story of Civilization or Jefferson and His Times. It is entirely possible that the Durants and Malone complained bitterly about the inadequacies of the typewriter and pen, the limitations of the card catalog and carbon paper. But I’ve found no evidence for this. I think the Durants and Malone and many others could be as productive as they were, and could produce massive volumes of well-researched material as readily as they could because they were not distracted by the bells and whistles of technology. They didn’t worry about formatting and style sheets and the format of the files they saved, and whether or not they saved them, or were working on the right version of the document. They focused on the content and the tools were simple enough to not intrude on that process.

I often daydream of being a sportswriter like Red Smith, sitting in a smoke-filled press box, with a portable typewriter before me, watching a ballgame unfold below as I tap away at the noisy keys, knowing that what I wrote on the pages that emerged from my typewriter would appear in newspapers across the country the following day.

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