WE AFFIX our signatures to documents everyday—to checks, memoranda, requests, receipts, and felicitations—with nary a thought to where those signatures will go, those hurried scribbles that say “I was here,” “I saw this,” or “I caused this,” and, therefore, “I matter.” For most of us, those signatures will go the way of the documents that occasioned them—to some vault, shredder, or rubbish heap—their practical purposes having been served, and bearing no other value otherwise. That is, unless you’re a George Washington, or a Paul McCartney, or a Princess Diana; and then you might sign a table napkin and turn that into pile of dollars.
I’ve always been fascinated by signatures and autographs (the commonly held difference being that signatures meet legal requirements, while autographs satisfy emotional needs). My earliest model, of course, was my father’s signature, written with that flourish typical of his generation, with an understandable hint of self-magnification. Impressive signatures took time and care to practice and to write, so my father’s attention to his own left me awed and respectful. Even if he was only a clerk in his office, he signed his name as presidents did.
Mine, alas, is completely undistinguished—illegible, to be more accurate, something once likened by a curious onlooker to a paper clip pulled from both ends. I know that some people seek to cultivate a mystique by designing unreadable signatures, but I never meant to, and find the practice pretentious. My father’s signature seemed larger than life, but before and beyond anything else, it proclaimed his name, which (especially in this avatar- and alias-driven present) is probably the most honest thing you can do.
I had these thoughts in mind when—among the last things we did before flying home from Washington—I took Beng to a very special exhibition at the National Archives Museum on “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” (still on until January 5). It promised to showcase the signatures of both prominent and obscure figures and their contributions (positive and otherwise) to the shaping of history, and the exhibition did not disappoint. Being something of a history buff and museum rat, I had previously come across the most well-known ones in facsimile and in other exhibits—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy, and, of course, John Hancock—but here was an opportunity to appreciate them in context, appended to actual documents that should have, but not always, mattered.
Albert Einstein’s ends a long letter passionately—and, in hindsight, poignantly—arguing for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Adolf Hitler’s—accompanying a large sheet attesting to his marriage to Eva Braun—is surprisingly small. Another unexpected twist comes courtesy of the poet Ezra Pound, who can masterfully edit his friend TS Eliot and yet, it turns out, can barely spell, as when he pleads in 1914 with the American consul in London on behalf of his fiancée, and here I quote him verbatim: “As an american about to mary and english woman, I write to you….” The Hopi Indians petition for their land in 1894, signing their names as pictographs of rainclouds, fish, and birds. Their voices are as lost and as forgotten as the letters of ordinary citizens writing to the President for various causes, none more futile than an appeal by the children of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for their parents’ lives to be spared.
As we left the museum, Beng and I wondered aloud why we couldn’t come up with a similar exhibition of historic signatures—say, of our national heroes and National Artists and National Scientists—by way of introducing our younger citizens to the story of our nation, as told by individuals in letters and other interesting and important memorabilia. This is, of course, a generation that writes messages, not letters; that tweets, not corresponds. The value of a signature—think of Manny Pacquiao’s on a boxing glove, or a porn star’s on a T-shirt—is what it will fetch on eBay.
Some people collect autographs for fun and profit, and like any hobby involving demand and supply, a thriving business has grown around the pursuit and acquisition of scarce signatures, especially from people who will never write another one. Sometimes context is everything; a woman who got JFK to sign her newspaper just before he boarded that fateful car in Dallas made $30,000 out of that grim memento. The most sought-after signatures today, according to one listing on the Web, are those of the Beatles, the Apollo 11 crew, Marilyn Monroe, and—no, not JFK, or Churchill, or Hitler, who all follow this curious entry—the Sex Pistols with Sid Vicious. For what it’s worth, George Washington remains the star of the show, his signature on the Acts of Congress earning that book’s owner close to $10 million because of the confluence of the man and the material.
I’d be happy to run into a sheaf of yellowing papers at an antique shop or an old library and to find these signed by Rizal, Bonifacio, Juan Luna, Gregorio del Pilar, Paz Marquez Benitez, Angela Manalang-Gloria, Manuel Quezon, Jose Garcia Villa, Botong Francisco, or some such person. I doubt that I’ll be ever so lucky, precisely because we don’t value old books, especially those that have been scribbled on. As a literary tourist of sorts, I’ve been fortunate to have books signed by Joseph Heller, Kazuo Ishiguro, JM Coetzee, Junot Diaz, Frank McCourt, and Edward Jones, among others, but I’d trade most of them for any one of the above.
Because our daughter Demi still understands what documents mean, she will be inheriting—aside from a trove of leaky pens—a passel of books and letters signed by many of our finest writers, her dad’s friends and mentors. I’ve been quite shameless about soliciting these signatures and autographs, fully expecting that the time will come, sooner than later, when our scrawls will be replaced by digital thumbprints, already a reality with Apple’s TouchID.
Maybe that’s how digital books will be signed in the future—with the press of a thumb or a forefinger on a touchpad—and it will simplify my life as an author, but take me even farther away from the verifiable veracity of the written word, and the written name.