Passions: Old Typewriters
A writer stays inspired by collecting and using the old-school keyboards favored by famous authors
Collector’s Name: Matthew Solan
City: St. Petersburg, Fla.
Total Investment: $500
Current Value: Not sure
It’s part romance — the timeless image of writers clicking away late at night, enveloped in cigarette smoke and high on inspiration — and part my deeper exploration of the writing process: the rituals, customs and labor of putting down words. During my ongoing study, I came across pictures of my favorite writers at work with their typewriters and became intrigued. Which one did Ernest Hemingway use for The Old Man and the Sea? How about Jack Kerouac for On the Road? Can you still find the same makes and models? So it grew from there. I have since expanded my search to include all famous writers and not just my faves. I have but one criteria: a picture of the writer using that particular kind of machine, or some other firm documentation.
The poet Anne Sexton’s 1960s-era Royal Quiet de Luxe. I wasn’t sure of the color — this model came in many shades, from robin egg blue to beige. I wrote Anne’s biographer, Stanford University's Diane Middlebrook, who directed me to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, which housed Anne’s memorabilia, including her typewriter. A nice woman there sent me a color picture (beige) along with the serial number so I could narrow down the year it was manufactured. I eventually found one on eBay for $10.
I have no idea about the monetary value of most of my typewriters. Sentimental-wise, I'd say the most valuable is an Underwood Universal, the favorite model of William Faulkner. My wife bought it at a garage sale for $25. It belonged to the woman’s grandfather, who kept it in excellent condition. It's all black and shiny. He bought it in the 1930s. It still works like a charm. He obviously took great care of it.
I have a Corona No. 3 from the 1910-1920 period, a small typewriter that folded. It was one of the first mass-produced machines and was popular with traveling businessmen and journalists. World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle used one. So did Out of Africa author Isak Dinesen. It has only three rows of keys instead of the standard four. I got it on eBay. It even came with the original box, owner’s manual and a tiny metal tube filled with oil for lubricating the occasional sticky key.
While my collection is reserved for models used by famous writers, at times I do pick up machines that aren't associated with known writers. Last year, I found a Sterling Smith Corona from 1963. I haven’t been able to match it to a writer, so I have claimed it as my own, and do most of my personal and creative writing on it.
My Holy Grail
Hemingway used many typewriters: a gigantic Royal No. 10 desktop with glass side panels from his early Key West days; an Underwood Noiseless that helped him finish For Whom the Bell Tolls while vacationing in Sun Valley; and various black matte Royals from the early 1940s, especially the Quiet de Luxe and Arrow, which he favored while at Finca Vigia in Cuba. So far I only have the Arrow.
Finding typewriters is like an Indiana Jones quest. At every Goodwill store, I make a beeline to the used-computer section in hopes of finding that elusive closed typewriter case among the dusty monitors and piles of plastic keyboards. I cruise eBay a lot. My favorite hunting grounds are yard sales. People practically give them away. Their response: “You want that?”
What I Love About It
This has brought me back to how the literary giants used to write before the age of Command-Save. It’s hard for writers today to imagine working with a machine that doesn’t let you correct or delete. But every writer should try one. Typewriters, I think, make you more focused. Every word counts. You have to really think about what you're going to say. If it’s not right, you can’t get rid of it. You just have to plow ahead. Besides, it seemed to work just fine for Steinbeck and Kerouac. They did OK without a laptop.
What I Look For
I keep a file filled with pictures of writers and their typewriters, so when I find one I can make a match. Some on my A list include: Pearl S. Buck and the 1930s Royal Standard she used to write The Good Earth; Kerouac’s road-weary Underwood Standard S; e. e. cummings’ Smith Corona; and Margaret Mitchell’s second-hand Remington No. 3 portable, which banged out Gone With the Wind. Sometimes, when I find that the actual typewriter still exists, I dig deeper for more details, like specific year, model or unique characteristics, like key color. I have written to the foundation of Pearl S. Buck to get accurate descriptions of her Royal. I called the librarian at Flannery O’Connor’s former college, which displays her original Royal Standard, to get the serial number.
Most writers today do not use typewriters, so when I find someone who still does I reach out to him or her. I read a story last year on NPR’s website about the poet Nikky Finney soon after she won the National Book Award. It showed her in her converted garage/office and I noticed a typewriter in the background. So I wrote her. Here is her response:
A Hermes is now on my must-have list.
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