Tuesday, April 16, 2013

long hand

At the Pierpont Morgan museum there’s a display case in the library showing original documents from writers, composers and historical figures. In this day and age, what is more surprising than someone’s handwriting? It's so expressive, and evokes the same intimacy as a lock of hair, or pair of slippers, would.

The first document on the inner side of the case is a short letter from Ludovico Buonarroti to his son Michelangelo, written while the father was ailing. It is a squat, orderly handwriting with squiggly tails. It says, in short, “don’t worry about me; I will be fine.” He dies soon afterwards. 

Beside the Buonarroti letter is a letter from Niccolò Machiavelli, who has just had a close call on the battlefield. Perhaps I read too much into it, but there is a sense of tension in the script, as if he wants to do exercise control over his hand but is in a hurry. 

JRR Tolkien had lovely penmanship, small and ornate. Each letter is like a separate fruit hanging from a tree in an orderly orchard. In the letter he jokes about how little he has earned from “The Hobbit.” 

Though not scrawl, Shelly’s handwriting is less controlled. It most resembles an uneven thicket, where someone has hacked away in places with a scythe. 

I was aware before I visited the museum that Virginia Woolf usually wrote in violet ink on blue paper. Her letter lights up the display. Her handwriting seems the most free of the row. It slants upwards to the right, ascending. It comes out swinging. I could not find an image of the letter online, but here is a short note to her nephew, which gives a good idea, although it is less disciplined than the letter. 

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