One of the self-indulgent joys of literature is “making a connection”; that is, reading a line in one book that reminds you of a line in another book. Of course this recognition means nothing, and unless one is talking to another bookish fellow, it is probably better the similarity not be mentioned.
This morning, for example, in my rereading of My Antonia, I read the scene about Otto Fuchs, the narrator’s grandfather’s hired hand, making a casket for Mr. Shimerda, an immigrant, who killed himself because of “homesickness.” Fuchs makes the casket in the kitchen of the Burden house (the kitchen is in the basement). After figuring on paper, measuring on the planks and making marks on them, he is finally ready to begin work. “The hardest part of my job’s done,” he says. “It’s the head end of that comes hard with me.” And then the man, almost joyfully, begins his work. He knows what he is to do and he knows how to do it well–and do it well he shall.
Says Jim, “All afternoon, wherever one went in the house, one could hear the panting wheeze of the saw or the pleasant purring of the plane. They were such cheerful noises . . . .”
Immediately when I read the above excellent description of the carpenter at work, the “wheeze of the saw” and the “purring of the plane,” I thought of Whitman’s line:
The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp.
Randall Jarrell says that even though we can dismiss a lot Whitman’s poetry, nobody who has any affection for poetry and language can decry the above line, diminish its beauty, the stunning and apt metaphor.
Once, some years ago, when we were having some work done at the house, I watched with great interest two carpenters work in my backyard, where they measured and marked and cut, both men knowing precisely what they were doing, working easily through the day, talking with each other, both men, so it seemed to me, content, somehow out of time, free of time’s restraint, free of the mind’s obsession with directing the eyes to the clock. Stealing from Robert Frost I can say that the fact was the sweetest dream their labor knew. Becker knows this truth as well. A man preoccupied with what he’s doing relieves himself of brooding on the human predicament.