Mark Alan Mattes, ed. Handwriting in Early America: A Media History.

Cover features an orange background with some early cave or pictorial writings. The title is at the center of the cover.

Mark Alan Mattes, ed. Handwriting in Early America: A Media History. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003. 300 pages. ISBN 9781625347190. $32.95 (paperback).

In 2010, changes to American education standards eliminated the mandate to teach handwriting in public schools. As a result many states dropped the practice in classrooms. Yet in recent years trends have begun to reverse, and now more than 20 states once again include formal cursive instruction (Elizabeth Heubeck, “More States Require Schools to Teach Cursive Writing. Why?” EducationWeek, 16 November 2023). On the first day of 2024, California became one of the latest to do so, but newspapers reflect lingering skepticism. In one opinion piece entitled “Spare the state’s schoolchildren cruel and cursed cursive lessons,” a columnist for the Los Angeles Times concluded, “Cursive is for when you have nothing else to do, or want to live out some steampunk fantasy” (Gustavo Arellano, “Spare the state’s schoolchildren cruel and cursed cursive lessons,” Los Angeles Times, 15 January 2024). It was with this context in mind that I read Handwriting in Early America: A Media History, edited by Mark Alan Mattes. Why does handwriting matter, and how can scholars and educators better explain its significance? 

Across fifteen essays, Handwriting in Early America provides a wealth of examples demonstrating just what can be gained by valuing how people wrote in the past and its utility as a source of historical evidence. The book is divided into three sections. The first, “Handwriting and the Idea of Writing,” explores historical constructions and understandings of handwriting as a genre. The second, “Handwritten Genres,” focuses more on particular document types, such as diaries or manuscript newspapers, to consider the cultural interplay between genre and handwriting. The essays in the third section, “Scribal Time,” “self-reflexively address our own historicisms in illuminating handwriting’s past while simultaneously exploring how past handwriting and allied forms of expression shaped knowledge production” (p. 16).

To help frame these sections, Mattes’s introduction provides a comprehensive review of the literature surrounding the study of handwriting and offers a convincing argument for the volume’s focus on media history. With essays on friendship albums, quills and feathers, penmanship pedagogy, and other topics, the book brings fresh questions to materials that many gloss over or ignore as mundane. For example, Patricia Jane Roylance’s chapter, “Print Hand: Class, Literacy, and the Mechanization of Writing,” explores the social undercurrents that shaped how people wrote using “detached letter forms…that looked like those produced by type on a printing press” (p. 56). While studying handwritten sources, scholars certainly notice when writers use printing rather than cursive, but Roylance provides a history of why they may have done so and the cultural signifiers embedded within that action. 

The chapters cover varied topics but work in tandem to illustrate what can be gained by turning a close eye to handwriting as a medium of production in conversation with the world around it. John J. Garcia’s essay, “Revising a Narrative of Mental Illness,” provides another compelling analysis using this media history approach. Garcia reads the diary of Charles A. Beach, institutionalized in an insane asylum, by studying the use of “overwriting” to “track the accumulation of his thoughts” (p. 200). Rather than dismissing the object as “messy,” Garcia considers the patient’s choice to write and then write over his own entries as conceptually important, allowing scholars to track how Beach reacted to previous entries and documented his own trauma. This essay, like many in the volume, provides a rich reading of its source while connecting it to the broader social norms surrounding handwriting.

While Handwriting in America will undoubtedly appeal to historians, literary scholars, and librarians and curators, the variety of essays makes this volume especially valuable for classroom use. Instructors can readily pair an essay with an assignment on interpreting diaries, albums, or handwritten letters as models for students to try these analytical approaches. Two intriguing essays address friendship albums: Carla L. Peterson explores how an African American girl’s album relates to the Philadelphian Black elite’s use of polite culture, and Frank Kelderman tracks the cultivation of Native American reform networks through inscriptions in Susette La Flesche’s album. I can envision productive conversations with students after consulting these two pieces about how to analyze an underexplored medium. Friendship albums abound, and there’s undoubtedly one in a special collections library near most campuses with an eager librarian hoping to see them used. The chapters also touch on multiple thematic areas, such as African American history, Indigenous studies, women and gender studies, and mental health and disability, making this volume relevant to many disciplines. 

Most of the contributors to the volume are literary scholars, but they take a range of approaches, “including manuscript studies, media studies, book history, bibliography, textual studies, and archive theory” (p. 4). Like many compilations, there were occasional moments of disjoint. At times, the undergirding concept that united the authors was not immediately obvious, making it difficult to appreciate the connection between less familiar topics. Likewise, the volume aims to be forward-thinking, with the purported “fundamental tension that animates Handwriting in America” being the “entanglement of handwriting’s histories, the potential futures enacted by handwriting, and our readings of past handwriting during our own moment of digital shift” (p. 3). However, throughout the book this nod to the present moment and what is to come was inconsistently addressed, making it feel more an afterthought than a generative concept that connected the essays. The focus on methods and how deep analysis of the history of handwriting as a medium yields new insights is a much stronger throughline. 

Whether thinking critically about what genre a handwritten object embodies, what its material specificities tell us, or how anxieties over the medium have existed in the past, Handwriting in Early America provides digestible examples to spur you. Because, as it turns out, being able to read and understand handwriting isn’t just for “steampunk fantas[ises].” It’s powerful tool for archival and literary studies, and this volume shows just how far scholars can push our thinking when they put it into practice. 

Jayne Ptolemy, University of Michigan