The Vanishing CraftsmanrnA Cultural Barometerrnby Wayne AllensworthrnThe house is barely six months old, but it has already begunrnto settle. I .oose steps ereak, doors hang, and cracks appearrnalong the baseboards. If I were a carpenter, as my father was forrn40 years, or knew enough of such things, I would have built myrnown house, as he did. But I am “educated” and therefore helplessrnby comparison. Though I can barely drive a nail, I am myrnfather’s son and through him have absorbed enough of practicalrnthings to know that though the steps creak and the doorsrnhang on the doorjambs and the baseboards are cracked, it is notrna bad house by today’s standards. Plywood, not particlernboard—which is really not “board” at all, but sawdust andrnwoodchips bonded by glue and pressed into a wafer—make uprnthe floors and roof. Porcelain sinks and bathtubs and a certainrnvault-like firmness attest to the basic integrity of the house.rnStill, as Daddy points out on a visit, corners have been cut.rnThe basement’s copper water lines are merely stapled to therntwo-by-fours bracing the ceiling; the cracking paint on thernporch and the loose stair rail tell the talc: shoddy work, a halfassedrnjob is what he sees, and what seems all too obvious to mernnow. He is a little disgusted—this is an erector-set house, prefabricated,rnand even though it is not too bad as they go nowadays,rna blind man could see in a minute that, to the men whornbuilt it, it was just a job, like digging a ditch or filling one, to bernfinished in a hurry. There is not a scintilla of the craftsmanship,rnthe care, and the rich solidness of Daddy’s work. Thisrnhouse has the ephemeral quality of a paint-by-numbers reproductionrnnext to the master’s original. It is a cheap, shiny EadrnScheib paint-job next to a mint-condition restoration. Daddy’srnV’Jayne Allensworth writes from Purcellville, Virginia.rnhouses, and his winding stair rails and cabinets, were built tornlast, to leave a man’s mark. The men who built this house leftrnno part of themselves in it.rnIf, as standard history textbooks have so often told us, the declinernof a civilization is traceable through the marked declinernin skills and knowledge we associate with master craftsmen (asrnwell as through political demagoguery, social decadence, andrneducational deterioration) and manifests itself in the productionrnof less workmanlike products in the arts and trades, thenrnthe shoddy “housing units” being thrown up nowadays arernbut a piece of a larger picture. The carelessness, the loss of arnsense of accomplishment and permanence, and the generallyrnshoddy work being done on the nation’s building sites arernsymptomatic of a society dominated by a short-sighted, throwawayrnethic that seems incapable of seeing anything lasting orrnworth preserving in the traditional American cultural milieu.rnFlimsy houses, strip malls that are filled today and emptied tomorrow,rn”performance art,” and “educated” people who are eitherrnunable or unwilling to think for themselves (perhaps becausernthey lack training in what was once thought of asrnfundamental knowledge), or even take care of themselves, arernpart and parcel of a larger cultural degradation.rnMy father, like all the skilled workingmen of his and eariierrngenerations, learned his trade through a sort of apprenticeship,rna slow accumulation of experience built on the knowledge ofrnthe craftsmen who came before him. Daddy, and men likernhim, are products of an accrctionary process, a slow building ofrnskills and habits. They are skeptical of slap-dash innovation,rnand they detest sloppiness and shortcuts. They are confidentrnof their skills, but know their own (and have a sense of others’)rn18/CHRONICLESrnrnrn