A Hundred Thousand Straightened Nails

Hall, Donald

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Nov-13-2013
  • Last revised: Nov-11-2013


This essay concerns a very unusual man, Washington Woodward, whom Donald Hall met as a young boy during his summers in New Hampshire and came to know even more from the tales he heard from his grandfather. Abandoned at age 6, Washington grew up on the author’s grandparents’ farm until age 12 when his “lazy and mean” father reclaimed him. Running away 4 years later, Washington began the highly eccentric life limned in this poetic mini-biography.

“Eccentric” probably does not do justice to Washington’s style, habits, skills, and foibles. He was entirely self-sufficient, from his clothes to his food - much of which he hunted or grew - to his handmade machines, including a complicated boulder-moving contraption designed to clear the way for cows, not humans. Washington could repair almost anything, from an outhouse to a baseball bat to a mowing machine.

The range of his skills is impressive by anyone’s standards, not just a 21st century reader: “I knew him to shoe a horse, install plumbing, dig a well, make a gun, build a road, lay a dry stone wall, do the foundation and frame of a house, invent a new kind of trap for beavers, manufacture his own shotgun shells, grind knives, and turn a baseball bat on a lathe” (page 23), reminding this reader of a similar passage about Nate Shaw in Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Dangers. Living the life of a hermit most of the time on Ragged Mountain, New Hampshire, Washington spent a great deal of his life with his beloved animals: Phoebe the pet Holstein and Old Duke the ox, whom he taught to shake hands and roll over.

The nails? Washington would gather stray nails he found in boards or discovered on walks, and take them back to his hut where he would straighten them and store them. Why? “He saved the nails because it was a sin to allow good material to go to waste.” (page 26)

He died in a state nursing home, a month after a visit by the author and his grandfather.


A very famous and much celebrated poet, and a prodigiously accomplished and prolific prose stylist as well, Donald Hall has written a fascinating account of an equally fascinating man. I have read this recollection many times and each time it amazes. Although he prefaces the account of Washington Woodward with a premonitory description of Woodward as an icon of the disease "that afflicted New Hampshire" (page 22), and sums him up, just prior to the long central portion of the essay describing him in detail, as "the ingenious futility of Washington Woodward" (page 22), the reader quickly forgets these shots across the bow when reading about a man who belonged, like Nate Shaw, to a vanishing culture of self-made men and rural story-tellers.  We hear from the amalgamated narrator of Woodward-Donald Hall-grandfather about Woodward’s jogging alongside a car another hundred yards to finish a story; of his washing Phoebe the Holstein daily and inventing a rig to help her stand or lie down, caressing her as she lay dying; of sending Hall’s mother and aunt a nickel when they were in college; and of the only vision he had – the biggest boar and sow he’d ever seen, both white, mating – while incoherent in his hut at 79, reminding this annotator of a similar hallucinatory scene in Laxness’s Independent People. But perhaps as amazing as the man is the author’s accounting of him.

After reading nine pages of idiosyncratic and colorful behavior - told by someone who apparently found this behavior as fascinating as the reader - one gets a knockout left hook. With no warning, Hall finishes off the account, and Woodward as well, with a devastatingly curt analysis of a man who “saved nails and wasted life” (page 32); who might have been a hermit but “was neither religious nor philosophical. … He worked hard all his life at being himself, but there were no principles to examine when his life was over. It was as if there had been a moral skeleton which had lacked the flesh of the intellect and the blood of experience. The life which he could recall totally was not worth recalling.” (page 32)

I think Hall was conflicted about Washington Woodward. The telling evidence is a children’s book he authored entitled The Man Who Lived Alone. In it we have the long central portion of “Nails” but not the indictment at the end.

Hall’s treatment of Woodward raises an interesting question. Must one live a life that is overtly religious or philosophical or intellectual or experiential? Although we usually agree with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living, need it be explicitly and evidently so, and one visible to a young poet growing up in New Hampshire?

This essay will be of interest to gerontologists or those studying comparative cultures in aging.

Primary Source

A Hundred Thousand Straightened Nails, in: String too short to be saved: Recollections of summers on a New England Farm. pp 21-32.


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