Anatomizing Hands and Anonymous Labor

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The hand must have trembled. The regular dip of the capital J turned slightly, yet noticeably, to the left as if by some interruption. I had no idea what might have startled the writer, but my mind took to creatively filling the gaps. A mother of three, she must have been deprived of sleep by a particularly late night reading to the kids about the professional horse races she had loved as a child; startled by the sudden entrance of the Welsh bagman, her pen had slipped creating, for my post-millennial eyes, that lopsided enigmatic “J”.

The story I told myself was, of course, a total fabrication.  I had been transcribing the entries of one of the Hogarth Press’s order books all summer, and, like any repetitive task, it had begun but would not remain a conscious one. At times, the occasional pattern would appear—Blackwell’s would regularly order books right at launch; the Book Society would order enough for a mid-sized town—but even with these moments of clarity the order book remained an imposing, almost uniform mass, its stark anonymity regularly sending me into daydreams. When I entered a “groove” and my muscle memory took over, I needed to create new conscious material—in other words, fictions.   

As I searched for these fantasies, though, they became more fervent and baseless, almost by necessity.  So, wanting some solid historical ground on which to stand, I would look at the handwriting styles and formally designate and differentiate them with alphabetical letters: Hand A; Hand B; etc. Soon enough, my fellow RA Victoria and I created a power point itemizing and categorizing every distinct script we encountered, developing a graphological database of the workers at the press from 1926-1941. But even then, the anonymity remained, almost tauntingly. With the new recognition of each distinct hand but no new biographies, I extrapolated the most absurd of stories. Letter A was a woman in her late 40s who, after reading Marx’s Das Kapital, left her husband for a Soviet; Letter G was secretly the other hand of the ambidextrous Letter D; and Letter J, that aforementioned mother of three, loved strawberries—a detail that I could not substantiate but nonetheless knew.

But this knowledge was a diseased form, a kind of compensatory control. I felt, of course, that my job gave me some unique access to these anonymous press workers: not only was I transcribing their handwriting, I occupied a similarly secretarial position, typing out their writing just as they had copied the words and orders of the Woolfs almost a century ago. As the record-keeper of the record-keepers, I was at once in service to their original labor and nonetheless sympathetic to it. I felt at liberty to exact my frustrations—both about the work and the lack of context—at the same workers whom I felt I knew. Within my own mind, I began to assert control over them. They became dramatis personae conjured for my own boredom. My tyranny over them, which originated as solidarity, only tightened the more I searched for them. The more elusive they were, the more their work went unheeded; the more aggravated I felt with the anonymity of my own transcription, the more I felt that perverse sympathy which led me to appropriate so much of their labor and, indeed, their lives.

I began to understand just how strange this was by comparison with what I already knew about the more famous members of the Bloomsbury group. Every time I caught myself mid-fantasy, I substituted a Bloomsbury figure into the same thought experiment. Did I intend to know whether Virginia Woolf would have liked the Supremes? Did I care if Clive Bell had a guilty fascination with the cinema? Did I simply have to know what John Maynard Keynes did on his Sunday afternoons? As I asked myself these questions, I realized it was never an urgent task for me. And then I understood why: these were, no matter how burnished by historical encomia and gravitas, recorded people; their shapes, their passions, and their personalities remained in the public record so that, even if I did not know every last private feature of their psychology, there was the assurance of their personhood. Their relative conspicuousness sated my immediate curiosity and forestalled any perverse fixation.

Once I understood this relationship between accessibility of information and my own inclination to project and fantasize, I tried both to ride my obsession with the workers and to escape it. I went to the library, took out J. H. Willis’s history of the Hogarth Press, and began writing a chronology of the employees. Some names I had seen before—like John Lehmann, who wrote many of the letters I had to annotate—and others had been intimated by initials—Aline Burch, for instance, was the “AB” I saw all over Leonard Woolf’s letters. Still more were completely new: Alice Ritchie, Marjorie Thompson Joad, Margaret West, Ms. Crabbe, Scott Johnson, and more. All workers, assistants, clerk-typists, travelers, or managers—and all potential scribes of that one order book. And as I ordered them chronologically, I began to lose that very passive mania that used to plague my work hours. I no longer thought of their children, or favorite hobbies, or of their most devastating secrets; for now, they were one step closer to reality and, while not yet identified as themselves in the book, individual and distinct.

There are, to be sure, ways in which they still elude me. I have yet to match each of them to the hands in the book, and I know very little about their daily or personal lives. I can satiate my curiosity endlessly with Virginia Woolf’s letters, diaries, and even novels. She offers herself almost infinitely within these materials. But as for these people, whose handwriting has to me acquired that intimacy only possible by the most pedestrian repetition, I cannot seek for them too deeply, and I suspect that this will remain so. Much of the material of their lives—their private letters, their clothes, their keepsakes—are lost to time and lost permanently. There remains, however, this order book. It may not have been what best represented any of them, nor did it offer them a medium “of their own” to become publicly human or even identifiable. But for that woman who may not have even been a woman, whose hand may or may not have trembled, and who may or may not have adored strawberries, I hope to work, almost anonymously, to make a resource for more than just the world’s great men.