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June 2006: Parker Penmanship: Myth or Reality?

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • I collect books a little like I do pens: More for fun than profit, although if I get hit by a bus and someone decides to liquidate my collection there will be some gems in there, some signed, some tough-to-find first editions, and a few wonderful small-press rarities, enough that someone eavesdropping on the appraiser will hear something akin to:

“Junk, junk, ugh, junk, would be good if there were a dust jacket, hey — look at this! Wow! Junk, junk, [groan] what on earth was this guy thinking, junk,” and so on.

Parker Penmanship? What is that? I’m wondering if that was something that Parker promoted to schoolchildren in hopes of selling them pens… Extra Fine Points

Mostly the bookshelves contain non-yet-collectible books. Fiction, magazine column essay collections, author letter anthologies, journalism history, and writers on writing.

The last category can be an uneven lot, from wise volumes that creatively stimulate my own extrafine for work and play, down to the tritest piffle one could imagine.

Some writers can tell fascinating life stories. Members of this class include adventurous Hemingway types or people fortunate to have grown up in interesting places and times, as well as those rare dually talented writers who not only can put a sentence together but also can persuade tight-fisted magazine publishers into banking a trip to an interesting place during an interesting time.

But the grand majority of writers live humdrum lives; it’s usually their imaginations that take them — and us — to places that make for great books. Their real lives aren’t necessarily anything to write home about. Writing about writing, therefore, requires rare introspective ability.

Which brings us to one paritcular keeper of this ilk, Joyce Carol Oates’ The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art. The book references something that can either be an interesting discovery for the pen hobby, or, as Richard suspects, a wild goose chase.

The relevant excerpt follows. We join her in process of setting the scene of her rural New York one-room schoolhouse:

The floor was bare wooden planks. An American flag hung limply at the far left of the blackboard and above the blackboard, running across the front of the room, designed to draw our eyes to it avidly, worshipfully, were paper squares showing that beautifully shaped script known as Parker Penmanship.

Mrs. Dietz, of course, had mastered the art of penmanship. She wrote our vocabulary and spelling lists on the blackboard, and we learned to imitate her. We learned to “diagram” sentences with the solemn precision of scientists articulating chemical equations. We learned to read by reading aloud, and we learned to spell by spelling aloud. We memorized, and we recited.

Parker Penmanship? What is that? I’m wondering if that was something that Parker promoted to schoolchildren in hopes of selling them pens, sort of like food manufacturers advertise cereals on Channel One in hopes of getting sixth graders to go home and demand sugar-coated, teeth-rotting desserts masquerading as a nutritious breakfast.

A couple other writers, I see — when power-Googling permutations of “Parker,” “Penmanship,” and related terms — refer to it in their recollections of 1940s childhoods. But there’s not a real pen-hobby reference to it on anyone’s Web site; the closest is L.M. Fultz’s article on describing rare, specially marked Parker pens made for the Zaner-Bloser publishing company (Columbus, Ohio) to augment its Zaner Method penmanship educational materials. Which isn’t very close at all.

parker_palmerRichard’s pretty sure that these writers mistaking “Parker Penmanship” in their memories for “Palmer” penmanship, the method he was taught in school back in Bozeman, Montana, when dinosaurs roamed the earth (and he wasn’t on the ball enough to pile up paper-route money and go down to the corner pen counter to sock away a couple-three Parker “51” Flighters, new in box, for posterity).


He just might be right. Yet the matter needs more researching, in my opinion, because in a head-to-head comparison, about 30,000 web pages contain the words “Palmer” and “penmanship,” versus 47,000 containing both “Parker” and “penmanship.” My inner journalist tells me that proves absolutely nothing. Yet it also is too big a disparity to simply cast aside as error without further research.

So I toss the question out to you, pen veterans: Is Parker Penmanship something you recall or have seen in adver­tise­ments or in pen-show ephemera? I’d like to either shed more light on this or debunk the myth. Send me an email explaining what you know or what you’ve heard, and if I get enough info, I will post a future column dealing with it.

cover Further Reading: The Faith of a Writer : Life, Craft, Art, by Joyce Carol Oates

How does a writer evolve from an upstate New York farm kid in a one-room schoolhouse into a pillar of 20th century literature? It’s likely impossible to quantify, but Joyce Carol Oates takes a decent stab at it in her collection of essays.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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