Earlier this month, while watching scores of Parisians hoist pens into the air in honor of slain French journalists, I couldn’t help noticing how retro it all looked.
When’s the last time, after all, in this increasingly digital age, that anyone’s celebrated a pen?
Many cartoonists still use pen and ink, I’m told, although software programs can complement — or even serve as a complete alternative — to the traditional drawing board.
But the reporters and editors those cartoonists count as colleagues? They are, more and more often, taking notes electronically, not with pen and paper.
Nothing wrong with that, really, although how we write might, in subtle ways, shape what we write. Or so I was reminded recently in “An Infuriating American,” Hal Crowther’s new book about Henry Louis Mencken, the fiery Baltimore newspaper columnist who held sway in the 1920s.
About Mencken, you might already know. He coined the term “Bible Belt” to describe the South — a designation he didn’t mean as a compliment — and he offered some equally biting assessments of the broader national culture. He’s also famous for the observation that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.
Lots of things informed Mencken’s bellicose style — he seemed born to wisecrack — and to this long list of influences Crowther adds a rather odd one. Mencken worked at a manual typewriter, resorting to the hunt-and-peck method — an expedient that forced him, in maintaining his prolific output, to punch the keys as a boxer might strike a training bag. Typing like a heavyweight fighter, as Crowther sees it, encouraged Mencken to think and write as if he were punching his subjects, too.
All of which made me wonder if there’s some similar influence at work in the kinds of pens writers use. I avoid pens that flow too smoothly, for example, since an overly fluid line can encourage words to race ahead of actual thoughts. The stroke should also be thick enough to declare an idea, yet not so bold that it shouts across the page.
I’ve found the ideal I’m describing in the fountain pen my wife gave me for Christmas. Its metal nib makes a beakish sound as it scratches across the paper, like a finch foraging for seeds, and its rustle reminds me that writing is a tangible act, the making of sentences that are supposed to last.
The only complication, from this pen or any other one, are the ink marks that frequently ruin my sleeves — a calamity that my wife has learned to endure, if not tolerate.
So I raise my pen with the French in a salute to free expression. But I will try, in doing so, to keep my white shirt its proper color.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.