Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940

By Carl F. Kaestle; Janice A. Radway | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Unruly Servants
Machines, Modernity, and the Printed Page

Megan Benton

.  .  .

“Typography is a servant,” thundered eminent designer and artist T. M. Cleland in a 1940 speech aptly titled “Harsh Words.” Typography’s only job is a self-effacing one, he declared: to make an author’s message clear. When instead the look of a printed page impudently calls attention to itself, he scorned, “it is just a bad servant,” frolicking with new freedoms it is ill suited to enjoy. Cleland vowed to suppress those unruly and uppity tendencies of modern typography, “to put it in its place and make it behave like a decently trained servant.”1

Cleland’s contempt for splashy type styles and wayward layouts was more than a single man’s campaign for tradition and social order. It was among the last great rhetorical blasts in a long struggle to define the role and nature of typography in modern America. The fundamental disagreement concerned the appropriate relationship between a text and its printed presentation, a relationship that many felt reflected the cultural status of the written word itself.

Reverberating throughout the debate, the metaphor of the servant echoed earlier, related misgivings about the impact of radical changes in the technology of printing. With full mechanization by the end of the nineteenth century, the printing industry wrestled with deep anxieties about the relative power of human printers and the new machines with which they worked. Many feared that mechanized production rendered the printed word as lifeless as the machines used to produce it. They worried that yielding typographic prerogatives to the machine would surrender the deeply human essence that kept human language alive on the page. Would human judgments and values control what the machines wrought, or would machine production dictate a new industrial typography featuring technology as the agent of modernity itself ? Typographic leader and critic Carl Purington Rollins invoked politically and racially freighted language when he swore that, though he abhorred slavery, he would rather “that the machine should be my slave than my master.” For Rollins, a socialist, the struggle to control print technology was a struggle to protect the very freedom

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