So what is this thing we have for pens?
Yes, I know we're collectors. We have "control issues." We like to find objects and acquire them, classify them, lay them out neatly and admire their even ranks. We won't even begin to discuss the fact that they're long, tubular, full of fluid and that we tend to prize bigger over smaller models. But why pens? Why fountain pens?
Ultimately, I can only speak for myself, so that I will. If you see yourself reflected in my looking glass, even just a bit, then I am not responsible for the glimpse you catch in what may, after all, be only a fun house mirror.
Those of us who are 50 or older started out with fountain pens because ballpoints were greasy, smudgy, unreliable, unattractive creatures good for one and only one purpose: When I was sent home from grammar school with "punishment homework," it was usually to copy the 100 spelling "demons" (frequently misspelled words) 20 times. Those "demons" occupied their own page in the slim spelling text that my school system used which, just coincidentally, was authored by a Dr. Gilmartin, the school superintendent. A moderately reliable ballpoint, five sheets of paper and four sheets of carbon paper made the job a little less onerous. Even so, I still spell "all right" and "altogether" correctly. In all other cases, I found a fountain pen necessary for real writing.
The public school system in Waterbury, Conn., prized a concise, unembellished, Palmer Method, cursive hand. I was in trouble. I'd been reading my grandparents' and great-grandparents' letters and facsimiles of 18th and 19th Century documents since I could sound out words and use a dictionary. The loops and scrolls that embellished those forms of handwriting looked great. But when I tried to add a loop here or a scroll there, my grades in penmanship wilted. Still, quietly rebellious, I continued to loop and scroll, maintaining handsome writing and a C+ for it.
What should loop and scroll better than a fountain pen? Fountain pens glide. They skate over the surface of the paper, hydroplaning on the lines of ink they lay down. A ballpoint drags across the page as reluctantly as I copied and recopied those spelling demons. Where the ballpoint encourages elision and imprecision, the fountain pen encourages precision and beauty (Biased?! Moi?).
I rarely see people with a "personal" ballpoint, but no matter how many fountain pens we have, we all have at least one "personal" pen. That pen fosters the clearest expression of our handwriting. It makes our writing look the way we want it to appear. Whether it's an extra-fine accountant nib or an extra-broad italic, there's a pen that gives your writing a look you want others to see. It expresses your character in ways that no ball-bearing-stuck-in-the-end-of-a-tube-of-grease ever can. So, I would say that a good part of the attraction we have to fountain pens derives from their facility in allowing us to express our individuality through our handwriting.
But this represents a sea change over the last 125 years. To properly understand why my scrolls and loops rated lower grades in the 1950s, let's go back to the 1840s for a moment, to the Russia of Tsar Nicholas I. In The Overcoat, Nickolai Gogol gives us the simple clerk, Akaky Akakyevich. Akaky is a bureaucrat in the earliest sense of the term. He, like thousands before and after him, sits at a desk in a vast rank of desks and indicts copies of official documents. Instead of a goose quill, Akaky probably uses a wooden holder and a soft steel nib. Akaky is the Xerox of his day and the Underwood typewriter of the age before there was an Underwood typewriter. His contemporary kin in London is Bob Cratchit, clerk at Scrooge and Marley's, Mr. Marley being deceased. A half century later ,his skills will be part of what makes Sir Joseph Porter, ruler of the Queen's Navy in H.M.S. Pinafore:
As Office Boy I made such a mark,
Akaky dies of exposure when his overcoat is stolen and so is spared what the British call "redundancy." Though Scrooge may help support the Cratchit family, before Tiny Tim reaches his father's age at the time of Scrooge's repentance, Bob's employment will have devolved upon a young woman with a typewriter and the adding machine on the proprietor's desk. That young woman, a generation later, will long for the 15 shillings a week that Bob received before Scrooge's reformation. By 1900, clerks of the sort of Akaky Akakyevich and Bob Cratchit were in line to follow the Dodo and Passenger Pigeon into extinction. A whole class of employment would disappear before the Armistice was signed in November 1918.
When we moved from dip pen to fountain pen, we also mechanized formal communications. In doing so we gave everyone who could afford a Waterman or Wirt or whatever a license to write and the individuality to express an individual style in ink. Before that, a fine, legible, chancery hand could be the key to steady employment for poor Akaky or the equally poor but more prolific Mr. Cratchit. The hand required was legible, uniform and attractive. But just as Parker Duofolds descend from the exquisite heights of Black and Pearl or Sea Green Pearl to the utilitarian uniformity of the Parker 51, so an elegant "big, roundhand" becomes an unembellished, utilitarian cursive.
Those loops and scrolls take time, you know! And, time is, most decidedly, money. Each loop is a fraction of a second; each scroll several fractions. They add up, sir! As does the extra ink! And the paper wasted when filled with mere ornament! After all, if we are talking about the taxpayers' funds, the ratepayers' funds, the public treasury's funds, then we are talking waste, sir, waste on the order of as much as a penny a page, sir! The waste! The waste!
Elegance and beauty give way to the blandly commercial in a kind of Gresham's Law applied to art. Pallid uniformity for official work drives out artistic individuality.
But beauty, like matter, cannot be destroyed. The bland, uniform cursive hands that drove out more elaborate copperplate scripts were themselves driven out by the typewriter, freeing the handwriter's individuality just as the fountain pen freed the writer from dipping and redipping every few words. And elegance, grace, loops and scrolls find their way into our writing through an irrepressible urge to create and express ourselves individually, an expression that flows most naturally through the feed and nib of a good fountain pen.
And, my dear friend and reader, as you've no doubt guessed,
this whole dissertation was written
on a computer. Without irony,
how boring life would be, don't you think?