John Henry Days: A Novel by Colson Whitehead (New York: Doubleday, 2001. 400 pp)

Colson Whitehead was born in 1969 and raised in Manhattan. He attended Harvard College and afterward he began working as a reviewer for The Village Voice. Out of the gate, Whitehead’s fiction gained acclaim when his first novel, The Intuitionist, won the Quality Paperback Book Club’s New Voices Award. His work has earned him the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the PEN/Oakland Award, and a Whiting Writers Award. Also, Whitehead has received a MacArthur Fellowship and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

The Legend

The legend of John Henry remains resonant after all these years. A man, at the peak of his occupational powers faces the risk and uncertainty of the impending technological future. Back then, the steam drill replacing the manpower of a hammer; today, industrial automation replacing the manual assembly line. Talent and skill only go so far when a machine can do the job more cheaply.

Here in the novel, John Henry Days, Colson Whitehead establishes a narrative juxtaposing the legendary John Henry with a traveling journalist, J. The parallels are myriad, including J.’s assignment for a burgeoning website at the dawn of the Internet age.

“J. hasn’t worked for the web before but knew it was only a matter of time: new media is welfare for the middle class. A year ago the web didn’t exist, and now J. has several hitherto unemployable acquaintances who were now picking up steady paychecks because of it” (19).

In fact, J. is in Talcott, West Virginia to cover the town’s festival, John Henry Days and the commemoration of a Folk Hero postage stamp featuring John Henry.

Covering Stories on the Road

J., like many of his companion journalists, lives through his expense report, traveling from destination to destination covering stories largely to expense every meal, lodging accommodation, and airfare.

J.’s is a lonely life, but he has purpose. J. Is working toward the record of consecutive days on the road, covering these events.

“And J. is here, from all accounts continuing his attempt at the record, poor guy. That way lies madness. Might have to have a talk with the boy at some point if he keeps it up. At least J. followed up on that website lead and is doing some coverage. Two out of five of them down here working. That makes forty percent. Well within the acceptable range” (297).

Challenges in Talcott

Here in Talcott, J. runs into some issues. To begin, he encounters Pamela, a fellow New Yorker visiting Talcott not so much for the festival but to offload her deceased father’s collection of John Henry memorabilia. Striking an instant connection, J. wonders if the record is worth losing this fledgling relationship.

And secondly, the event itself ends in violence. Considering the violent act occurs in the early chapters and the rest of the book leads up to the violence, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler, but I won’t go into too much detail. Here, Whitehead draws parallels with the violence embedded in the creation of the Talcott railroad tunnel and the legend of John Henry himself.

Historical Parallels

And ultimately, the parallels between John Henry the legend, the story as it takes root in folklore, and the current-day plight of J. create the central power of the story.

Literary in nature, John Henry Days is a contemplative read. Aside from the early harbinger of violence that rests over the proceedings as the readers tries to catch up with the doom to come in the final pages. But the most profound sections occur when Whitehead syncs the history around John Henry folklore with J.’s current work. Whitehead writes chapters on the historical John Henry, academic folklorists, and songwriters drafted the “Ballad of John Henry.” Case in point, Whitehead notes the thorough itemization of expenses for an early 20th century academic:

“He maintains meticulous account of his expenditures, ever mindful of leaving an opening one of his more malicious colleagues might exploit. A Negro in the world of academia must be twice the scholar, and twice the tactician, of his white colleagues” (157).

This activity echoes J.’s expense reports on his quest for the record. History repeats itself in major ways, and in minute ways.

John Henry Days won’t be for everyone, but as a Whitehead fan. It’s certainly for me.

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