John Henry Days

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Colson Whitehead’s eagerly awaited and triumphantly acclaimed new novel is on one level a multifaceted retelling of the story of John Henry, the black steel-driver who died outracing a machine designed to replace him. On another level it’s the story of a disaffected, middle-aged black journalist on a mission to set a record for junketeering who attends the annual John Henry Days festival. It is also a high-velocity thrill ride through the tunnel where American legend gives way to American pop culture, replete with p. r. flacks, stamp collectors, blues men , and turn-of-the-century song pluggers. John Henry Days is an acrobatic, intellectually dazzling, and laugh-out-loud funny book that will be read and talked about for years to come.


“A narrative tour de force that astonishes on almost every page.” —Time

“Does what writing should do; it refreshes our sense of the world. . . . An ambitious, finely chiseled work.” --John Updike, The New Yorker

John Henry Days is funny and wise and sumptuously written...compelling.” --Jonathan Franzen, The New York Times Book Review

“[Whitehead] takes on a multitude of issues with a rich and probing imaginationÉ.His reputation is likely to soar.” Ishmael Reed, The Washington Post Book World

“A feast for famished readers.” — Newsweek


About 45 years ago I was in Morgan County, Kentucky. There was a bunch of darkeys came from Miss. to assist in driving a tunnel at the head of Big Caney Creek for the O&K railroad. There is where I first heard this song, as they would sing it to keep time with their hammers.

HAVING SEEN YOUR advertisement in the Chicago Defender, I am answering your request for information, concerning the Old-Time Hero of the Big Bend Tunnel Days—or Mr. John Henry.
I have succeeded in recalling and piecing together 13 verses, dedicated to such a splendid and deserving character of by gone days. It was necessary to interview a number of Old-Timers of the Penitentiary to get some of the missing words and verify my recollections; so I only hope it will please you, and be what you wish.
In regards to the reality of John Henry, I would say he was a real live and powerful man, some 50 years ago, and actually died after beating a steam drill. His wife was a very small woman who loved John Henry with all her heart.

My Grand Father, on my mother's side, was a steel driver, and worked on all them big jobs through out the country in them days, when steam drills were not so popular. He was always boasting about his prowess with a hammer, claiming none could beat him but John Henry. He used to sing of John Henry, and tell of the old days when hammers and hammer men could do the work of the steam drills.

Being pretty young at the time, I can not now recall all the stories I heard, but I know John Henry, died some time in the eighties about 1881 or 1882, I'm sure which was a few years before I was born.
I am setting a price on this information; I am a prisoner here in the Ohio Penitentiary and without funds, so I will be pleased to expect what ever you care to offer.

IN 1890 PEOPLE around town here were singing the song of John Henry, a hammering man. I was working in an oyster house here in Norfolk, Va. for Fenerstein and Company, and I am 66 years old and still working for them people.

JOHN HENRY WAS a steel driver and was famous in the beginning of the building of the C&O Railroad. He was also a steel driver in the extension of the N&W Railroad. It was about 1872 that he was in this section. This was before the day of the steam drills and drill work was done by two powerful men who were special steel drillers. They struck the steel from each side and as they struck the steel they sang a song which they improvised as they worked. John Henry was the most famous steel driver ever known in southern West Virginia. He was a magnificent specimen of genus homo, was reported to be six feet two, and weighed two hundred and twenty-five or thirty pounds, was a straight as an arrow and was one of the handsomest men in the country—and, as one informant told me, was a black as a kittle in hell.

Whenever there was a spectacular performance along the line of drilling, John Henry was put on the job, and it is said he could drill more steel than any two men of his day. He was a great gambler and was notorious all through the country for his luck at gambling. To the dusky sex all through the country he was "the greatest ever," and he was admired and beloved by all the negro women from the southern West Virginia line to the C&O. In addition to this he could drink more whiskey, sit up all night and drive steel all day to a greater extent than any man at that time. A man of kind heart, very strong, pleasant address, yet a gambler, a roue, a drunkard and a fierce fighter.

MY NAME IS Harvey Hicks and I live in Evington, Virginia. I am writing in reference to your ad in the Chicago Defender. John Henry was a white man they say. He was a prisoner when he was driving steel in the Big Ben tunnel at the time, and he said he could beat the steam drill down. They told him if he did they would set him free. It is said he beat the steam drill about two minutes and a half and fell dead. He drove with a hammer in each hand, nine pound sledge.

MY UNCLE GUS (the man who raised my father) worked on the Cursey Mountain Tunnel and knew the man. He said he was Jamaican, yellow-complected, tall, and weighed about 200 pounds.

I AM A steam shovel operator or "runner" and have heard steel drivers sing "John Henry" all my life and there are probably lots of verses I never heard as it used to be that every new steel driving "nigger" had a new verse to "John Henry."

I never personally knew John Henry, but I have talked to many old-timers who did. He actually worked on the Chesapeake & Ohio Ry. for Langhorn & Langhorn and was able to drive 9 feet of steel faster than the steam drill could in Big Bend Tunnel. Then later he was hanged in Welch, Va., for murdering a man. After sifting out the "chaff" I think I can assure you above is correct.

I have heard three versions of the song, mostly in the same section of the country, that is West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, seldom elsewhere except by men from one of the above states. I have worked all over the South, South West, and I have heard the John Henry song almost ever since I could remember, and it is the song I ever first remember of.

I THINK THIS John Henry stuff is just a tale someone started. My father worked for the Burleigh Drill Company and told me for a fact that no steam drill was ever used in the Big Bend Tunnel. He was a salesman for Burleigh.

JOHN HENRY WAS a native of Holly Springs, Mississippi, and was shipped to the Curzee mountain tunnel, Alabama, to work on the AGS Railway in 1880. I have been told that he did indeed beat the steam drill, but did not die that day. He was killed some time later during a cave-in.

HAVING BEEN BORN and raised in the state of Tennessee and, therefore, in sufficiently close contact with the negro element there, it happens I have heard these songs practically all my life, until I left that section of the country six years ago.

I have been informed that John Henry was a true character all right, a nigger whose vocation was driving steel during the construction of a tunnel on one of the Southern railways.

THE BALLAD, by special right, belongs to the railroad builders. John Henry was a railroad builder. It belongs to the pick-and-shovel men—to the skinners—to the steel drivers—to the men of the construction camps. It is sung by Negro laborers everywhere, and none can sing it as they sing it, because none honor and revere the memory of John Henry as much as do they. I have been a "Rambler" all my life—ever since I ran away from the "white folks" when twelve years old—and have worked with my people in railroad grading camps from the Great Lakes to Florida and from the Atlantic to the Missouri River, and wherever I have worked, I have always found someone who could and would sing of John Henry.

JOHN HENRY THE steel driving champion was a native of Alabama and from near Bessemer or Blackton. The steel driver was between the ages of 45 and 50 and weighed about 155 pounds. He was not a real black man, but more of a chocolate color. He was straight and well muscled.

THE LAST TIME I saw John Henry, who was called Big John Henry, was when a blast fell on him and another Negro. They were covered with blankets and carried out of the tunnel. I don't think John Henry was killed in the accident because I didn't hear of him being buried, and the bosses were always careful in looking after the injured and dead. I don't know a thing about John Henry driving steel in a contest with a steam drill, and I don't think I ever saw one at the tunnel. Hand drills were used in the tunnel. They were using an engine at shaft number one to raise the bucket up when we moved to the tunnel, but they didn't have any steam engine or steam drill in the tunnel.

I'VE HEARD THE song in a thousand different places, nigger extra gangs, hoboes of all kinds, coal miners and furnace men, river and wharf rats, beach combers and sailors, harvest hands and timber men. Some of them drunk and some of them sober. It is scattered over all the states and some places on the outside. I have heard any number of verses cribbed bodily from some other song or improvised to suit the occasion.

The opinion among hoboes, section men and others who sing the song is that John Henry was a Negro, "a coal black man" a partly forgotten verse says, "a big fellow," an old hobo once said. He claimed to have known him but he was drunk on Dago Red, so I'm discounting everything he said. I have met very few who claimed to have known him. The negroes of forty years ago regarded him as a hero of their race.

Reader's Guide

1. The novel’s protagonist, J. Sutter, is described as “this inveigler of invites and slayer of crudités, this drink ticket fondler and slim tipper, open bar opportunist, master of vouchers, queue-jumping wrangler of receipts” [p. 56]. Does the reader come to like Sutter and his fellow journalists Tiny, One-Eye, Dave, and Frenchie? What is the basis of their social bond? Is it true, as J. thinks, that “the junketeers are quintessential Americans. . . . They want and want now and someone else is picking up the check” [p. 137]?

2. J. Sutter is alert to the casual racism exhibited by many people he meets on his trip, and he is always conscious of his minority status, as when the taxi driver comments on Sutter as a name that sounds southern and Sutter answers, “Maybe my ancestors were owned down here at some point” [p. 21]. Jonathan Franzen has noted that in John Henry Days, “Whitehead cannily engages the interior crisis of manhood in present-day America ” [“Freeloading Man,” The New York Times Book Review, May 13, 2001]. How does the novel engage, more specifically, the interior crisis of black manhood in the America of the 1990s? Is this a crisis that continues today?

3. We first learn of the shooting very early in the novel, through the eyes of a young journalism intern, Joan Acorn [pp. 24–26]; we hear of it again at the end, through the voices of postal workers [pp. 366–70]. Why does Whitehead structure the novel this way? Do we assume that Sutter will be killed? We are told, “In these first few minutes a thousand different stories collide; this making of truth is violence too, out of which facts are formed” [p. 24]. What is the novel saying about the role of journalism in shaping the perception of events?

4. How does “The List” drive events in the novel? We’re told that Lucien Joyce Associates “would publicize the debut twitch of a bean sprout, an unspectacular bud in a field of identical bean sprouts, if the money was right”
[p. 40]. What sort of a person is Lucien Joyce? Does he truly believe in what he is doing?

5. According to one reviewer, in John Henry Days “there is an insistent parallel between the industrial or machine age to which John Henry was sacrificed and the digital information age to which J. is enslaved, in which information is used not to enlighten but to sell” [Maya Jaggi, “Railroad Blues”, The Guardian (London), June 23, 2001]. In the novel, J.’s profession “usually called for him to justify to the people out there the indispensability of this or that artifact to their lifestyles” [pp. 332–33]. Is Whitehead correct in his assumption that publicity and advertising are a driving force in most people’s lives? Is there any way out of this cultural condition?

6. Among the kitschy items at the fair are statues of John Henry that range in size “from toy soldier to lawn jockey, in a range of poses that produce an animated strip of steeldriving. . . . The air does not circulate, the wares exhale something not quite breathable, a gas more fit for whatever ceramic planets these objects call home” [p. 267]. What is Whitehead saying about the relationship between the myth and the merchandise? Why does J. Sutter buy a large John Henry statue for himself? Why is it significant that this scene is immediately followed by a chapter about J. Sutter’s family background?

7. The key to J. Sutter’s identity comes fairly late in the novel, when we learn that as a girl his mother bought a sheet of music that her own mother disdained as “gutter music” [p. 278]. Does the culture of Harlem’s Striver’s Row aim to mimic the white middle class and therefore to repress the sources of black cultural identity?

8. The characters in John Henry Days suffer from passivity and pointlessness even when they try to focus on a goal. We see this in Pamela’s temporary jobs [see pp. 287–91], Alphonse Miggs’s collection of railroad stamps, and Sutter’s quest for the record. How is John Henry’s approach to his task like or unlike that of the other characters? How do these individual struggles contribute to the theme of frustrated human energies?

9. Several long passages in the novel display Whitehead’s impressive talents for social satire. See, for instance, the description of the literary launch party [p. 323] or the description of Pamela’s temporary jobs [pp. 287–91]. What does Whitehead make a point to emphasize? How does his writing style complement his strength as an observer of physical details and social interactions?

10. Why does J. Sutter respond to being in the tunnel as he does? Of what is he afraid? He thinks to himself, “Step in here and you leave it all behind, the bills, the hustle, the Record, all that is receipts bleaching back there under the sun. What if this were your work? To best the mountain. . . . This place defeats the frequencies that are the currency of his life. Email and pagers, cell phones, step in here and fall away from the information age, into the mountain, breathe in soot” [pp. 321–2]. Is this a turning point for him? Does Sutter’s visit to Talcott change his life?

11. Why is One-Eye ultimately unable to delete himself from The List? What is the meaning of the message he leaves for Lucien on the computer screen? His inability to take himself off puts him in a position where “it will always be the same” [p. 355]. Why is it so difficult for him to imagine an alternative to his current life?

12. How does conversation among postal employees about the shooting exemplify the novel’s comic strain [see pp. 366–70]? What details are particularly funny? Which parts of the novel best display Whitehead’s sense of humor? Is there irony in his use of humor?

13. Is there wisdom in what Pamela’s father has told her about the many versions of the John Henry song, that people fill in the gaps, and that “what you put in those gaps was you” [p. 373]? Is there wisdom also in his insight that the song declared “the power of the legend to draw so much from so many and find in so many souls one name” [p. 382]? Does it matter that no one has ever come to recognize his collection? Was his life a failure? What, in the larger context of the novel, is the meaning of his vision? Does Pamela forgive him, in the end, for sacrificing her childhood to his obsession?

14. While digging a hole for the urn of Pamela’s father, Sutter “was tired out from this one simple task, and in the same dirt he was feebly scratching into lay dead men who did more back-breaking work in a day than he had done in his whole life. And the legendary John Henry, nearby or not nearby in the ground. He tried to think of what the modern equivalent would be for his story, his martyrdom. But he lived in different times and he could not think of it” [pp. 377–78]. Does Whitehead intend readers to see Sutter’s life as a modern-day John Henry story? Is it merely an ironic equivalent, a digital-age comic version? What, if anything, does Sutter’s passivity have to do with the fact that physical labor has been made obsolete in late-twentieth-century life?

15. As Pamela stands looking at the monument, the narrator observes, “Thousands and millions of John Henrys driving steel in folk’s minds. . . . She can’t fix him. He’s open to interpretation” [pp. 262–63]. Whitehead has managed to develop an elaborate novel from the legend of John Henry—a legend whose basis in fact is never substantiated. If the chapters about the songwriter, the bluesman, the crack addict, the motel owners, and others show the indirect influence of John Henry’s myth on many different people, they also make the structure of the novel more sprawling. Does Whitehead’s decision to include so many characters dilute the central story line?

16. Why do Pamela and J. have a far more intimate connection to the John Henry legend than most people? Does this connection tempt the reader to assume that they are fated to be romantically linked as well?

17. Whitehead pointedly juxtaposes the events of the two final chapters: John Henry resolves to go through with the contest that he knows will be the death of him; J. Sutter must decide whether to continue on his quest for the record or to leave town with Pamela. What is the effect of the unresolved ending? We know that two journalists are killed and one is wounded [pp. 367, 370]. When Sutter thinks to himself, “The South will kill you” [p. 50], is it a prophetic statement?

18. What lessons can be gleaned from John Henry’s death? Is it heroic or tragic? Is it better to give in to progress than to fight it? Are human beings at the mercy of machines? How effective is the use of the legend to illuminate the contemporary issues facing someone like J. Sutter? Is the social commentary provided by the novel ultimately hopeful, or not?

Q & A

Q: One of the major themes of JOHN HENRY DAYS is the changing role of pop culture in American society. What about this subject appealed to you? Is a phenomenon like the myth of John Henry still possible today? What are the similarities and distinctions between the folk hero of 100 years ago and contemporary pop icons?

A: I've been interested in John Henry ever since I was a kid, and when I was thinking about what the book would be, I kept thinking about how each generation creates its own interpretation of the John Henry story, and each interpretation is shaped by the form in which it is received. In an intimate saloon, via sheet music, vinyl records then CDs, videotapes. And stamps. So the Rolling Stones appear, as avatars of a perfected mass culture, and simple balladeers appear, as representatives of a time when we shared out stories in the oral tradition. As a creature of the information age, the banality of a John Henry postage stamp struck me as a delightful absurdity. Is this what the great man had been reduced to? Who are the itinerant workers of today, and what kind of shovels do they use? Well, J. and his junketeer pals shovel it on quite well, in ironic counterpoint to John Henry 's railroad companions.

Q: You have worked as a journalist for many years. How did your experiences shape the character of J.? What is your relationship to him? Do you see yourself in J.?

A: Part of the fun of creating characters is trying to figure out where they diverge from you and where they intersect. Finding a way into characters that you have little in common with, like Lucien or Alphonse, is what keeps the job interesting. But then there's also the joy of writing about something you know pretty well--like churning out crappy copy, filing dumb stories, so that you can keep the electricity on. I worked for a couple of years at the Village Voice in New York (or the Downtown News, if you prefer), and I did my time working for shady web sites during the internet gold rush, and a lot of what I saw and experienced is in the book. J. is a bit of a sad case, but some of the dilemmas he faces are ones that I went through during my apprenticeship days. Back to the notion of fun--it's a pleasure to draw from your own life, but then you also get your kicks from making things up. So J. is a speculation, a sometimes ridiculous exaggeration of what might have been.

Q: We live in a media- and image-saturated culture--one the journalists depicted in JOHN HENRY DAYS both create and derive sustenance from (literally and figuratively). Are the lines between journalism, publicity, and advertising becoming blurred beyond recognition? Is J.'s cynicism justified? What media outlets do you turn to for news and entertainment?

A: I think I had my first suspicions about the media one day when I was in junior high, when I was watching "Entertainment Tonight" and I started to see a pattern. They were doing a piece on that night's Very Special Episode of "Diff'rent Strokes" and I went, "Wait a minute, why do they only run features on shows that are going to be aired that very same night"? My little twelve year old self was horrified--why the whole show was one big advertisement, and come to think of it, they never said anything negative about the projects they were covering. So I became a bit jaded a long time ago. There certainly is a lot of great journalism being produced these days, but when it comes to the Entertainment Combine, well, the Woodward and Bernsteins of pop culture are few and far between. And we are complicit as consumers, since we buy the magazines that have our celebrity favorites on the cover. The calculations of the media brokers are based on what the public wants, reads and watched. I'm certainly guilty--I'll watch any crappy television show and buy and insipid magazine if it will take my mind off things for a while.

Q: J's disillusionment and disaffection are clearly a product of our times. Meanwhile, John Henry's commitment to his work and family form a nice juxtaposition. How has the relationship of people to their work changed in the last 100 years, and how does this affect our public and private lives? How does it affect J. and John Henry?

A: Part of what makes the John Henry tale so interesting, is that such a larger-than-life struggle is so alien. It's hard to find the same kind of metaphorical resonance when you are driving a cab, selling mutual funds or writing novels. And yet we all have our own machines we are trying to beat. If we can't find them, we construct them. Part of the work I tried to do in the book was to collapse the distance between 1872 and 1996, to find ways that a modern reader can access the John Henry story, despite the radical social changes of the last 130 years.

Q: Of all the folk heroes represented in commemorative stamps in the novel, John Henry's story is the only one not exaggerated to the point of fantasy. Yet his exploits resonate most in the end. To what extent is his story a quintessentially American one? To what extent was the creation of his legend about race? Is that distinction even possible?

A: Right--is the distinction possible? When the contemporary inhabitants see John Henry, they see an American hero. When I first saw John Henry in a cartoon when I was eight years old, I saw an African-American legend. If you have a tale that means something different to every person that hears it, how can we even approach some kind of unified vision of the man? There are a lot of John Henrys in the book, and a lot of characters engaged in their own distinctive competitions--contests with technology, with obsolescence, with their own natures. The very thing that makes the story so dynamic--its mutability--is what makes it so elusive.

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