Woodworking in Literature (or, The Lazy Researcher)


An almost-finished joint stool…that has been almost-finished since 2011…

In “The Taming of the Shrew” Katherine calls Petruchio a “joyn’d stool,” to which he responds in a less-than-gentleman-like manner: “Thou hast hit it: come, sit on me,” among other salacious riposts that devolve into talk of tongues in tails. (A stool also appears in “King Lear,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Macbeth,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “2 Henry IV.”) There are handsaws in “Hamlet,” and crowbars in “Comedy of Errors (though for unmaking, not making).

In “The Odyssey,” Odysseus carves a bed from a living olive tree then builds the bedroom around it: “…cut away the foliage of the long-leaved olive,/and trimmed the trunk from the roots up, planing it with a brazen/adze, well and expertly, and trued it straight to a chalkline,/making a bed post of it, and bored all holes with an auger.”

In Adam Bede, the title character is a carpenter; in “Madame Bovary,” Monsieur Binet spends his time making useless things on the lathe.

Woodworking also shows up in such pre-20th-century literary works as the poetry of Walt Whitman, Thomas Dekker’s play “The Roaring Girl,” Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta,” Ben Jonson’s “Eastward Ho,” and “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” And I think it’s woodworkers who start a riot at Lamarque’s funeral in “Les Miserables” – though I’m dreading re-reading Hugo to confirm that (it’s perhaps shameful, but I never could appreciate his novels).

I’m looking for more, in relation to a project on woodworking or woodworkers that appear in pre-20th-century adult literature (that is, not fairy tales or other children’s literature)…and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten some important one such as, I dunno, the Bible.

If any references spring to mind, please help me out by posting a comment below.

Edit: And “Robinson Crusoe,” as I was just reminded by the Saucy Indexer – I knew there was at least one major one I was forgetting!

About fitz

Woodworker, writer, editor, teacher, ailurophile, Shakespearean. Will write for air-dried walnut.
This entry was posted in Books/Editing/Writing, Mortise & Tenon Magazine. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Woodworking in Literature (or, The Lazy Researcher)

  1. pfollansbee says:

    Thoreau and sticking that borrowed axe in a bucket to tighten the handle. stupid move, but HD was alright.

  2. pfollansbee says:

    Oh yea, and Twain has some hickory bark references…I’ll look them up. Two of ’em, Autobiography and Huck Finn. https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2015/11/23/huck-finn-is-just-ignorant-thats-all/

  3. Joe in Hobart says:

    The Decameron! Novel 10 Day 4. The poor joiner has the ‘dead’ body of the doctor’s wife’s lover hidden in a chest he’s selling for someone, and then nearly has to pay off the owner when the man wakes up and breaks his way out. Luckily the doctor’s maid takes the fall and ends up making merry with the couple, and the doctor none the wiser.

  4. captainjack1024 says:

    There’s a lot of mention of wooden tools and machines in Verne’s “The Underground City”, but I can’t recall if there’s any specific instances of someone working the wood. There’s definitely some wooden construction that goes on in “From the Earth to the Moon”.

  5. Terry says:

    Sorry this is not about this post, but just wondering if, with all you have going on, have you had to stop working on your home? I always enjoyed those posts.

    • fitz says:

      Only briefly on hold. I actually processed wood just today for a house project that I hope to have done by the weekend, and as soon as I get back from the LN open house, I’m starting on the hallway built-in.

      • Terry says:

        Well, as I said I do miss those posts. But glad to hear you are still getting time to work on it, though are apparently extremely busy with work stuff; which of course -provides resources for the house stuff.

  6. Swiss Family Robinson definitely contains woodworking! I read that many times as a child.

  7. John Wolf says:

    There’s Noah. Probably some others I’ve forgotten from long ago Sunday school.

  8. motleygruel says:

    Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”? Maybe that’s more wood than woodworking, although the building of the coffin is important. I don’t know if you could call the drilling of the air holes “woodworking” per se.

  9. Brian says:

    That’s a toughie. Gary Snyder is 20th century (there must be some Robert Frost poems, but same problem). Noah builds an ark more by implication than description. George Herbert wrote a poem called the Hold-Fast which is probably involves a Hold-Fast (as a Christ metaphor) though none is described. There is a carpenter named Sloppy in Our Mutual Friend; that one I Googled, I was sure there must have been something in Dickens. I read that novel but don’t remember Sloppy. His name is fun and is a good description of my efforts too. One thing I remember reading was a section of Two Little Savages; it was given to me when I was a kid by my grandmother’s very old boyfriend; in it a boy builds something (a treehouse? an attic playhouse? I’ve forgotten) but the tools and the work are carefully described; his older brother advises him; when finished his brother takes over and kicks the young builder out. The enormous outrage I felt reading it printed it to memory. But it was published in 1917, and is a children’s book; it does have a little in common with a woodworking book, as the author describes a number of projects during the course of the plot that a reader could take on for themselves.

    • Andrew Brant says:

      I’m working on Gary Snyder’s ‘Back on the Fire’ book of essays now, and while it’s not about woodworking it has a lot, lot about sustainable forestry especially in California.

      He has a really great balance of practical and theoretical. He’s aware of the fact that we need wood, but we need wood that will last us hundreds or thousands of years. I’m really really enjoying it.

  10. Brian Hayner says:

    Hmmmm… Bible ? I thought I remembered something about a boat in that book…

  11. captainjack1024 says:

    There’s “The Adventures of Pinocchio”, which comes in just under the wire at 1881. It’s mostly carving rather than joinery, though.

  12. Bob DeViney says:

    Another shapes wood, he extends a measuring line; he outlines it with red chalk He works it with planes and outlines it with a compass, and makes it like the form of a man, like the beauty of man, so that it may sit in a house. Isaiah 44:13

  13. Jeremy says:

    Plenty of construction details about the tabernacle and Ark of covenant (EX 25-28), temple(s), Noah’s Ark (Gen 6). Also Jonah (of big fish fame) among others build booths annually or for other reasons (not much detail). Then there’s Jesus being a carpenter and using illustrations about well made yokes and other implements. I’m sure there are likely others I’m missing.

  14. In the Berenstain Bears, Pappa bear builds a bed when they are expecting a new baby.

    Wait… what decade are you looking for?

  15. Brian says:

    I thought of another example, in memory it was about making a chair, but it is a table. Boswell asked Johnson something along the lines of, how can you criticize play, if you haven’t even written one yourself. And Johnson answered (Google says) “You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table.”

    I remember talking about the passage in a seminar once, and the idea stayed with me (obviously not the details!) and I think there may be more to it in the area around it, though given the nearly 40 years since the seminar happened, I can’t point you to where that is.

  16. mikepowernyc says:

    Funny, I was just posting about James Baldwin today and included this passage, about woodworking, from his novel If Beale Street Could Talk:

    Fonny is working on the wood. It is a soft, brown wood, it stands on his worktable. He has decided to do a bust of me. The wall is covered with sketches. I am not here.

    His tools are on the table. He walks around the wood, terrified. He does not want to touch it. He knows that he must. But does not want to defile the wood. He stares and stares, almost weeping. He wishes that the wood would speak to him; he is waiting for the wood to speak. Until it speaks, he cannot move. I am imprisoned somewhere in the silence of that wood, and so is he.

    He picks up the chisel, he puts it down. He lights a cigarette, sits down on his work stool, stares, picks up the chisel again.

    He puts it down, goes into the kitchen to pour himself a beer, comes back with the beer, sits down on the stool again, stares at the wood. The wood stares back at him.

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