(from) Moby Dick – The Carpenter

by Herman Melville

Chapter 107

The Carpenter

Like all sea-going ship carpenters, and more especially those belonging to whale vessels, he was, to a certain off-handed, practical extent, alike experienced in numerous trades and callings collateral to his own; the carpenter’s pursuit being the ancient and outbranching trunk of all those numerous handicrafts which more or less have to do with wood as an auxiliary material.  But, besides the application to him of the generic remark above, this carpenter of the Pequod was significantly efficient in those thousand nameless mechanical emergencies continually recurring in a large ship, upon a three or four years’ voyage, in uncivilized and far-distant seas.  For not to speak of his readiness in ordinary duties: – repairing stove boats, sprung spars, reforming shape of clumsy-bladed oars, inserting bull’s eyes in the deck, or new tree-nails in the side planks, and other miscellaneous matters more directly pertaining to his special business; he was moreover unhesitatingly expert in all manner of conflicting aptitudes, both useful and capricious.

The one grand stage where he enacted all his various parts so manifold, was his vice-bench; a long rude ponderous table furnished with several vices, of different sizes, and both of iron and of wood.  At all times except when whales were alongside, this bench was securely lashed athwartship against the rear of the try-works.

A belaying pin is found too large to be easily inserted into its hole:  the carpenter claps it into one of his ever-ready vices, and straightway files it smaller.  A lost landbird of strange plumage strays on board, and it made a captive:  out of clean shaved rods of Right Whale, bone, and cross-beams of Sperm Whale ivory, the carpenter makes a pagoda-looking cage for it.  An oarsman sprains his wrist: the carpenter concocts a soothing lotion.  Stubb longed for vermillion stars to be painted upon the blade of his every oar; screwing each oar in his big vice of wood, the carpenter symmetrically supplies the constellation.  A sailor takes a fancy to wear shark-bone ear-rings: the carpenter drills his ears.  Another has the toothache: the carpenter out pincers, and clapping one hand upon his bench bid him be seated there; but the poor fellow unmanageably winces under the unconcluded operation; whirling round the handle of his wooden vice, the carpenter signs him to clap his jaw in that, if he would have him draw the tooth.

In his numerous trades, he did not seem to work so much by reason or by instinct, or simply because he had been tutored to it, or by any intermixture of all these, even or uneven; but merely by a kind of deaf and dumb, spontaneous literal process.  He was a pure manipulator; his brain, if he had ever had one, must have early oozed along into the muscles of his fingers.  He was like one of those unreasoning but still highly useful, multum in parvo, Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior – though a little swelled – of a common pocket knife; but also screwdrivers, cork-screws, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-filers, countersinkers.  So, if his superiors wanted to use the carpenter for a screw-driver, all they had to do was to open that part of him and the screw was fast: or if for tweezers, take him up by the legs, and there they were…

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851

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