Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend

Scott Nelson, an associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary, believes he’s unraveled the story behind one of America’s cultural icons. We all know the story of John Henry; the man who outpaced a steam engine, then died from exhaustion. Historians, both reputable and otherwise, have been looking for the source of this story for years. Now Nelson thinks he’s got it. Frankly, the case he puts forth in this book, that the John Henry buried outside a Virginia prison is in fact the John Henry, isn’t exactly airtight.
But it is an intriguing story. Nelson offers thorough background on the Reconstruction-era South, when the moral boundaries of slavery had yet to catch up to their freshly altered legal counterparts. Black prisoners by the thousands toiled to blast railway tunnels through the Appalachians, in the process dying at an appalling rate. Nelson thinks there was indeed a John Henry, and he did, in fact, beat the steam drill then die.And maybe he’s right.
In the end, what’s more interesting is the road the story has taken over the years. Henry has been adopted by workers of all stripes, and embedded in the American psyche to such a degree that the actual man is merely a footnote to the story.


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