Thursday, December 19, 2013

Isaac's Penmanship Revisited

Isaac's penmanship
It came as a surprise to me that my blog "Isaac's Penmanship" has proved to be one of the most often visited, even months after it was first published.  (See 5-2-2012)  I suspect its popularity may have to do with people searching for reference material to use in teaching themselves or younger people the art of cursive, now that many schools are abandoning classroom instruction. 
At the time I wrote the original blog, I knew that a movement to make the teaching of cursive optional was underway, and the May 2, 2012 blog discusses that movement and the pros and cons of teaching cursive as part of the standard curriculum.  As with other fading traditions, the disappearance of cursive has been so gradual that many people did not realize what was happening.  In a recent article by Julie Carr Smyth for the Associated Press, she wrote that the new Common Core educational standards have dropped penmanship classes, citing the state leaders who developed those standards as stressing "the increasing need for children in a digital-heavy age to master computer keyboarding."  An assistant professor of K-12 policy at the University of Southern California was quoted as saying, "'s much more likely that keyboarding will help students succeed in careers and in school than it is that cursive will" 
According to Smyth's article, at least 7 states that have adopted Common Core have chosen to retain the teaching of cursive.  These advocates cite studies on brain science and the value to future scholars of knowing cursive to interpret a range of cultural materials, such as historical documents, ancestors' letters and journals, and handwritten notes by historical figures and scholars.  (See "Isaac's Penmanship" blog for additional discussion.)
Michael Sull

Consulting an old magazine article I had torn from the Nov/Dec 1996 issue of Country Home titled "Letter Perfect," I was reintroduced to a man known today as the leading authority on Spencerian script and as America's foremost living Spencerian penman.  In that article from nearly two decades ago, Michael Sull said of his decision to teach Spencerian script to others, "If I had taken this gift and decided to do nothing with it, I would have been falling down on some sort of moral responsibility.  I had a chance to preserve and extend part of our heritage. 
 Sull has indeed preserved and extended that heritage, as both the author of books and the calligrapher for Ronald Reagan after his Presidency.  The route Sull took to reach his esteemed position began with a degree in forestry from Syracuse University, followed by enlistment in the US Navy.  Only then did he pursue his interest in calligraphy, founding a calligraphy guild, working as a calligrapher and lettering artist at Hallmark, and starting his own ornamental penmanship company.  Like Isaac, Sull made his home in Kansas.  You can visit his face book page at Michael Sull or read more about him at where I found this recent photograph.
Of course, one of the reasons our ancestors polished their penmanship was to present themselves favorably in their letters, whether personal or business.  Author Simon Garfield, a British journalist, writes in his recent book, A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing, "A world without letters would surely be a world without oxygen," calling the distinction between an e-mail and a letter the difference between "a poke" and "a caress."  Yet, Garfield also predicts that the last letter will appear in our lifetimes.

Penmanship of beloved teacher Ralph Bisel

Recently, I bought several sheets of stamps, acknowledging to the postmistress that I had begun collecting as a way to share a common interest with my mother-in-law.  I admitted that with her passing, I should probably terminate my collecting, adding:  "I guess the stamps will always have the value of using them for postage."  The expression on the face of the much younger postmistress did not offer much assurance of the truth of my assumption. 

Penmanship of my parents from my grade card

Smyth's newspaper article cited USPS figures that 1st class mail fell in 2010 to its lowest level in a quarter-century, adding statistics that 95% of teens use the internet, with a rapidly growing number using their smart-phones to go online.  A 2012 Pew report found a rise among teenagers in text messaging from 50 a day in 2009 to 60 a day in 2011.   I would predict that the drift away from 1st class mail has only increased since those statistics were compiled.
Make your own generational handwriting comparisons, as I did with my parents and a special teacher, including the penmanship samples of yourself and your children.  What do you think you will find?  Will anyone write cursive as neatly as my teacher and parents did in the 1950s?
As you know from my earlier blog, Isaac continued to study Spencerian script as an adult, believing that proper penmanship was the sign of an educated man.  His neighbors respected Isaac's knowledge of contracts, grammar, and penmanship enough to turn to him frequently to write their agreements, and he was elected Secretary of most organizations he joined.  Has the time for such traditional skills passed?  Are we content with e-mails and text messages, or the occasional greeting card bearing only a signature? 

Here is a novel idea for your New Year's Resolution:  Consider digging to the bottom of that desk drawer for the old note cards you bought years ago or for the stationery someone gave you as a gift which you have never opened.  What a surprise for a close friend or special relative if you took the time to write a personal note wishing them a Happy New Year!  Or, could just forward them the link to this blog to say that you thought of them when you read my suggestion!   ;-)
New blogs will continue in 2014.  Until then, I hope the past year has brought you pleasures to savor and comfort for your sadness.  I hope you look forward to the New Year with eager anticipation, and may the coming months bring you joys you had not imagined!
Michael Sull's self-study penmanship workbook

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Happy Holidays!

One of the amazing things for me since beginning this blog has been the huge number of international visitors.  Whatever your nationality or however you celebrate the holiday season, Happy Holidays!
The image at the right is from the County Capital  newspaper to which Isaac subscribed, although  Isaac would not have seen this Christmas image from 1896, for his death occurred in 1895.  As a bachelor, living alone on the prairie far from family, Isaac celebrated Christmas Day alone each year.  Sometimes, however, he did attend holiday parties at the homes of neighbors, and one year he was the chairman of the Farmers' Alliance party at the Emerson school house on Christmas Eve.
For those of you planning your Christmas Dinner Menu, I thought you might glean a few suggestions from this menu that appeared in the County Capital.  In the late 1800s, small newspapers would often carry local news on the front and back pages but would purchase the inner sheet containing international and national news, as well as stories and scandalous news articles about the rich and famous or the poor and desperate.  This menu came from such an inner sheet, for it is beyond unlikely that any of the early settlers on the plains of Kansas could have either afforded or located the ingredients for the dishes described on this menu! 
Whatever menu you choose, I hope your holiday celebration is festive, shared with family or friends or in solitary satisfaction.  Have a Happy Holiday!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Publishing Dilemma

Reading the County Capital
Recently, visiting the online newsletter Biographile, Discover the World Through Biography and Memoir, I spotted an intriguing article titled, "No Such Thing as Objective History."  As you know from reading my earlier blog, "What is History, An Update on my Manuscript," posted 5/23/13, one of the issues I have faced in writing my manuscript about Isaac Werner has been--"When documentary material is inadequate to supply every detail, can an author write legitimate history or biography?"  Writers of history and biography who are researching famous people often have a great deal of documentary material available.  With Isaac, I was fortunate to have his journal, his newspaper articles, and his probate documents, but I did not have personal letters, interviews, news reports, speeches, and other documentary material of the sort someone writing about Thomas Jefferson or Marilyn Monroe might have.

Visiting Rossville, IL
I have not read Reza Aslan's best-selling book about the "life and times of Jesus," but the Biographile article questioning "Objective History" was based on an interview of that author, who discussed his approach to writing about the life of Jesus.  Aslan's method for writing about more than the Biblical account was, "[to] rely on the world in which Jesus lived, a world that--thanks to the Romans--we know a great deal about.  By placing Jesus firmly within his time and place, we can fill in the holes of his life and create a picture of him..."  What I found so relevant from the interview of Aslan was how he used the information that was available from that historic period in his book.

Transcribing & Annotating Isaac's Journal
My  manuscript about Isaac Werner also uses what Aslan called research about my subject's "time and place" to "fill in the holes of his life and create a picture" of him.  In addition, I benefitted from getting to know Isaac from the emotions and opinions expressed in his journal.  (Thank goodness he did not always follow the advice of Henry Ward Beecher to keep personal feelings out of his journal.  Blog of 12-7-2012.)

Marketing my manuscript, I am asked to define it.  Biography?...history?...narrative nonfiction?...historic fiction?  That definition is difficult, and it has created a publishing dilemma for me.  Am I prohibited from imagining dialogue if I know from Isaac's journal when, where, and with whom Isaac had a conversation and the likely subjects they discussed?  Does it make a difference that I document in a footnote what I have done, distinguishing the sourced information from the imagined?

Reading books Isaac read
In his interview, Aslan insists, "There's no such thing as objective history:  a scholar cannot help but bring his own impressions and perceptions into his study, no matter how hard he tries."  Aslan argues that his approach in describing Jesus by "immers[ing] readers in the social, political, and religious context of the first century" allows a reader to "figure out for yourself the larger implication of what he [Jesus] was saying or doing."

Here is what I have done:  I have studied Isaac from his daily journal, (Blog of 10-23-11), his published writings, newspaper and other accounts of events he attended and organizations he joined (Blog of 4-12-12 & 4-17-12).  I have traveled to the town his father founded where Isaac was born and raised, (Blog of 2-16-12 & 2-23-12), visited the town where he was a young druggist, (Blog of 1-20-12 & 1-27-12), walked the land he homesteaded (Blog of 5-16-13), and found his forgotten grave (Blog of 1-13-12).  I have read specific books he read, as well as books by speakers and performers he saw in person and with whom he corresponded (Blog of 2-2-12, 5-30-13, & 4-11-13).  I have done genealogy research of his ancestry and descendants of his siblings, as well as searching the ancestry of each of his neighbors, also learning from interviews with descendants and public documents as much about Isaac's neighbors as I could.  I have immersed myself in the history of the period, reading original documents and scholarly books (Blogs of 8-30-12, 9-13-12, & 10-18-12).  I often felt I knew those people and their lives better than I know the people living in Isaac's community today.

Researching Isaac's Neighbors (Doc Dix)
What is important to me is not writing another scholarly book but rather bringing Isaac, his community, and the Populist movement of the Gilded Age alive to readers, whether they are reading for pleasure or for academic information.  Isaac's journal and the other research I have done is valuable to scholars, but it is also incredibly interesting for general readers.  Is there not some way I can present Isaac's story that is accessible to both?

In the interview with Biographile, Aslan addresses this issue:  "The biggest criticism I have of my [academic] colleagues is that they spend all their time talking to each other, that they rarely bother to synthesize their ideas and their research to make it accessible and appealing to a wider audience.  ... There is a culture in academia that tends to look down on those who try to reach a wider audience--we're immediately tagged as not serious."

Interviewing Isaac's cousin in Wernersville
I have successfully published two non-fiction books, Should the Children Pray?  A Historical, Political, and Judicial Examination of School Prayer, published by Baylor University Press, and Private Choices, Public Consequences, Reproductive Technology and the New Ethics of Conception, Pregnancy, and Family, published by Dutton, a division of Penguin.  You can learn more about those books at my author's website,  I sought with both of those books to bridge the gap between writing for general readers and academics, or as Aslan said, to reach a wider audience, although both books were carefully researched and documented.  I was chosen the Georgia Non-fiction Author of the Year for Should the Children Pray?

Visit to town founded by his father
In telling Isaac's story, with a bachelor homesteader at the center of the Populist Movement in his community and events throughout the nation impacting Isaac and other laborers, I am again seeking to bridge the gap between general readers and academics.  By footnoting imagined conversations and describing events based on research and newspaper accounts, I feel that general readers will find the story more involving and accessible while academics will be warned to consult the references provided in the footnote without assuming that the conversation or description is an accurate account of that particular conversation or that the description of the event was exactly as Isaac experienced it, although Isaac's journal does reference the meeting or event.  I may not have an easy label for what I have chosen to do, but as Katherine Hepburn said, "If you obey all of the rules, you miss all of the fun."  I believe trying to fit my manuscript into either an academic mold or reducing it to historical fiction would make it less than what it is as I have written it.  The challenge is to find a publisher that agrees!