December 24, 2019
By Robert Messenger
Peter Black wrote in The Guardian just before Christmas 1990. “It’s hard to believe that a writer who so often described his craft in painting terms – he speaks of ‘lighting’ and ‘pumicing the thing ivory-smooth’ – could have taken to a machine at the end of his life, but there it is.”
And there it remains. Rudyard Kipling’s little Imperial typewriter – a first model Good Companion, bought soon after it came on the market in the early 1930s – remains on display at Bateman's, Kipling’s residence at Burwash from 1902 until his death in 1936. It’s on the writing table in his study. “Beastly thing simply won't spell," Kipling is said to have complained, and it’s claimed he only used the Good Companion occasionally, having his secretary type out his handwritten manuscripts.
Yet Kipling had actually been using typewriters since at least 1902, when he told the Glasgow Evening News he used a “beautiful 2.h.p. [horsepower], brazed tubular, cam-action, half-silent typer of American invention” to write all his poems. “It is a dandy,” Kipling added. “My greatest joy is to rise early and oil it. I can do poems on this machine without the trouble of thought. I just start the cam-action at the first line, pull open the throttle valve, and go for a walk round Rottingdean [his previous home]. When I come back I find a poem of any desired length completed, and the machine flushed and happy, waiting modestly for my applause.”
Many a modern-day typist finds the effort of writing poetry a little more painstaking than that, but in broad terms the process remains the same. In the case of e.e. cuming, not even the press of the shift key was required.
There is still, nonetheless, resistance to the idea that writers such as Kipling used typewriters. Peter Blake’s words in the 1990 Guardian reflect this. Why would he find the presence of a typewriter in Kipling’s home “hard to believe” ? By 1990, had the memory of the typewriter as an author’s work tool been already forgotten? Or is it perhaps a purely romantic notion that great authors and poets used only pens or quills, and nothing so crass as a machine? The truth is out there – the Imperial Good Companion has not been left in Kipling’s home as superfluous memorabilia. It is his, and he used it.
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