30 June 2009

The Creatured Letter

The other day I went poking around in the Acadia University archives in order to photograph some materials for a print client. The manuscript in question was an autograph transcription of the journal of the New Light evangelist, itinerate preacher and hymn writer Henry Alline (1748–84). Though not a Baptist himself, Alline had a great influence on the establishment of that denomination in the Maritimes. He was a bit of a loose canon, however, with more than a few unorthodox ideas; many in the established churches were suspicious of this young, golden-tongued upstart.

The transcription of Alline’s journals was made by Handley Chipman (1717–99). A ‘New England planter’, Chipman moved to Kings County, Nova Scotia, from Newport, Rhode Island, in 1761. Settling in Cornwallis, he was elected Justice of the Peace, then Judge of Probate, a position which he maintained until his death and which, it appears, left him with sufficient leisure time for copying Alline’s diary. There was no photocopier, camera, or OCR scanner available to him in those days, and you wouldn’t engage a printer if your intention was simply to make one copy. You might engage a copyist, but it seems Chipman viewed this as a more personal tribute to Alline.

My hand cramped just looking at these pages. Notice the careful emendation on the left hand side of the spread (‘Thus’), the space-saving ampersands, and the clear craft and love of making letters evident in the curly extenders of letters like g and d (see ‘Kingdom’ on the right hand page).

Now, if the pen were in your hand, and you actually made it to page 102 of a handwritten manuscript, do you think that you would still be making letters such as these – if you could make them so skillfully in the first place? These days, we live in a world of prefabricated letters, just as we live in prefabricated houses and eat prefabricated food. I wonder what is lost by having only to type one key to make such a letter appear on the screen, and another to reproduce it a thousand times over or to send it hurtling around the world? When we cease to shape our own letters, do we lose something of what they represent?

The penultimate line in Douglas Lochhead’s suite of poems, Homage to Henry Alline is: “The creatured universe is a little song of love.” And so is the creatured letter.


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