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Typewriter Tributes

Why I Still Use a Manual Typewriter


Kevin McGowin

Since publishing my original essay “Why I Use a Manual” on this site, well over five years ago now, I’ve received letters about manual typewriters and the people that use them from literally five continents. The response has been positive, interesting (often fascinating) and at times almost overwhelming, though the letters have been more or less steady, as I didn’t date that essay. So I’m not dating this one, either. However, since its original online publication (I think I actually wrote most of it a couple of years before it came online) my life has changed often and at times dramatically; but my use of the manual typewriter in my daily life and work has remained a constant.

This is comforting, as are the letters: to date, about 200. I haven’t kept them all and wish I had or could have; I’ve gotten letters and postcards c/o publishers and Universities typed on old machines, notes from both aspiring and well-known writers and, mostly, e-mails from younger people (uh, under 45) asking various questions. I have responded, I believe, to every single one of these I’ve received, whereas I haven’t to mail concerning my actual work. This predilection began to tell me something: if you want to get in personal contact with a writer, don’t gush, or ask them about technique or who their influences are. Rather, ask them about their writing methods, and perhaps what model their first typewriter was, and do they still have it or use it. Seven or eight times out of ten, you’ll get an answer—writers have answered me by typing letters on the actual machines, and that’s what I tend to do, as well. After I sent Don DeLillo a copy of the original essay, he wrote back on his Olympia SM 3 (it wasn’t an SM 7, he explained). Yes—there is a difference, especially to writers who use a chosen machine every day.

I’ve tested and typed on almost 500 machines in the last seven years, and learned that identical models are not always alike. I’ve come to be able to relate to those who collect or (better yet) “use” a certain model and year of car, guitar, gun—the word “action” to describe the relative ease of the “piece” isn’t lost on the ears of a man who taught English for so long (or on other ears, either).

I still teach, but since my unfortunate divorce in 2000 I’ve done so on a part-time basis and written full-time. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been fulfilling in many ways and never boring. I’m writing this essay now because I’ve finally “settled,” in my hometown of Birmingham—but those interim years were ones of almost constant travel, freelancing on various projects or giving readings from the four novels, the book of stories, or the collection of poems I’ve completed since the last essay. Add the academic monograph and that’s seven. I’ve been busy and productive.

But this is not about me, really, it’s about the typewriters. So, with a nod to Jesse Manche, the wonderful typewriter repairman from Gainesville who worked on all my machines through 1999 (and Harry Crews’s, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s!), and to the wonderful and fascinating people and machines I’ve since become acquainted with (Dan Puls set me up with some great machines, and Charles Gu and I are working together on a book), here is my Update, with perhaps a few questions answered along the way.


As for the beloved typewriters I described in my earlier piece, the 1930s L.C. Smith remains and I treasure it greatly. But I report with great grief the death of my Underwood “11”—a piece of the wrought iron cracked during my move from Gainesville to Raleigh, and proved irreparable. I got another one, sure—but it didn’t type the same, and there was no Jesse Manche in Raleigh to help me. So I found an Underwood #5 I could live with and went with that. The Royal KMM, which Jesse reconditioned, is also gone, but into wonderful hands: I saw a picture in a magazine of the great poet John Ashbery at work on one, and in the accompanying interview he said, “When this breaks down, I don’t know what I’ll do!”

By that time, I’d begun a collection (though Richard Polt warned me of the seductive nature of Typewriter Addiction) in the context of my teaching, and had the exact model (so far as I could find it) that a given author we were reading had used to type the book (so far as I could pinpoint this, and with photos and letters it proved easier than you might think). I used the KMM very little, and so sent it to Ashbery as a gift. The surprise and intensity of his graciousness was both pleasant and unexpected; and I saw for the first time how serious writers are about their typewriters. I also began to note that they often become rabidly loyal to a certain brand: Hemingway was a Royal man, Kerouac an Underwood man. Tennessee Williams was a Remington man until the Olivetti Studio 44, and then he was an Olivetti man. I’m…just a man. Some people are said to be “PC” or “Mac” people. I know a woman who has seventeen Macs and claims to use them all. To the extent that I care, I’m with her there, too. The computer is a wonderful tool for revision. But I’ve never had “writer’s block” on a manual typewriter. Copy down an overheard remark in a coffee shop or somewhere, type it, and go with it—make a story out of it. But I digress.

I had about thirty typewriters at one point in Raleigh and could easily have had more with little effort, but I’m a writer, not really a collector—though my amateur stab at it increased my knowledge of many different machines. Aesthetics means a lot to me, but functionality means more. When you have both—Remington No. 5, Royal Quiet DeLuxe, Underwood Standard—you can’t go wrong. But I began to downsize, as I only used a few of those I owned.

I gave away the Olympia SM 7 to another noted writer who has asked not to be named. I replaced it with an SM 9—a fine machine, but for me, one without the great action of the SM 7. I still have it, but the true workhorse of my collection, the all-round machine, is a burgundy Olympia SM 4 I got from Charles Gu, bless him. I’m using it now, and as always will revise when I keyboard into the Mac. It’s great for essays, and I’m drafting a novel on it, as well as some of the vignettes in my upcoming book of same, Slender Accidents. I use different machines for different vignettes—the late 20s Underwood Standard or even the Underwood # 5 for my straightforward, “power” voice, and for a more “lyrical” style, I prefer Olivettis, with their widely-spaced keys. The other all-round machine I own is now in the shop—a Hermes 2000, on which I’m writing my novel The Bible Collector. I’ve never collected Bibles, but typewriter collectors will certainly recognize certain references! I never much cared for the Hermes 3000, and for me the Hermes Baby and especially the Rocket felt to me like typing on bathroom scales, but the 2000…oh, my.

And the Olivettis. I spent April of 2000 in Paris to celebrate my having successfully passed my oral doctoral defense. Every night, I took out my Lettera 32 and wrote a letter, and then a vignette, which I mailed as a gift to someone in the states—at least one of these, on my experience in the bookstore Shakespeare & Company, has been published and is available online. I packed the typewriter in my suitcase. Olivetti cases, the cloth ones, are notorious for tearing around the zipper, and mine was no different. The vignettes of that time reflected the style of Hemingway’s wonderful book of them A Moveable Feast; but a Royal portable is a feast one unfortunately can’t fit comfortably or safely into a suitcase.

This Olivetti, and a similar one (a Lettera 22) literally traveled the world with me. In 2002, however, while in Brooklyn visiting the great and underrated novelist, poet and playwright James Purdy (for whom I worked as a literary assistant on the scripts of several plays) I noticed a broken Lettera 32 on his desk. I asked him what he was working on, and the Grand Old Man of American Letters was working on…nothing, as he had no typewriter and was used to Olivettis. I gave him mine. It was one of the greater honors of my life to do so.

My Lettera 22 was stolen while in NYC (it has a case that looks like a handbag), when I moved from Raleigh to New Orleans I had to fully streamline my “collection.” I had two wonderful Olivetti Studio 44s, an extra Underwood #5 and an Underwood #3, a Remington 7, a few Royals…well, I had to sell a few, and got about what I’d paid for them. I gave my Royal Quiet DeLuxe to my father, who never really used it, and the Remington Noiseless was wonderful but just not for me. The rest, I gave away, usually to ex-students who were aspiring writers and wanted one, on the condition that they write something on it—a novel, a play, a book of poems. And they have, too, many of them. A man from California e-mailed to ask me did I realize I’d almost single-handedly “turned on” the under-30 crowd to the joys of the manual typewriter? Well no, I hadn’t realized that, but we do what we can. Lol.

In New Orleans, I wrote and published two of the four “e-novels”, which are available online, and for which I became semi-well known, for better or worse. I drafted them on my Underwoods. I’m probably best known for my almost 100 book reviews, first for San Francisco’s Oyster Boy Review as Contributing Editor and most recently for Eclectica Magazine as Reviews Editor—I draft most of these on the Olympias. I should caution people that it’s my considered opinion that the newer Olympias, and the Olivetti Lettera 35s, aren’t worth much. Not when you can get one of the others for even less, especially!

And in my Period of Flux I was given a wonderful Corona Sterling for my birthday by someone dear to me while in New Hampshire. When I didn’t have enough room for it on the plane, that person became less dear to me when she never shipped it back after I’d mailed the money! And if it weren’t for that, I’d have never written my first novel. On an Underwood and an Olivetti. I wouldn’t have written much of anything, at that time, and that’s why I’d like to dedicate this essay to Miss Heidi McCollough! Funny and strange how things work out—or don’t.

So there it is—seven years, over 700,000 words published, and manual typewriters. I save most of my typescripts and give them away. And oh, the other questions! I get my ribbons from Office Depot or Office Max—they’re there, and they’re inexpensive—and I type on paper I buy there too, usually Southworth 20-lb cotton bond. I maintain a web page, yes, and my reviews are online but henceforth my fiction is for print only. And what was my “first” typewriter? A Royal HH from the early-mid 50s that belonged to my grandfather. And if I could find a good one now, you can bet I’d be writing on it, too. And hey, manual typewriters are solid. They’ll be here long after you or I am. But for now, keep writing…or get started.


Editor's note: Kevin McGowin died in an accident on January 18, 2005. He will be missed by his friends and family, by me, and by his many readers on this site and elsewhere. --Richard Polt

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