John Henry Days

( 9 )

Overview

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 ...
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Overview

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.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Upon publication of his debut novel, The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead was hailed as one of the most talented young writers of his generation. Whitehead provides further proof of his gifts with this powerful retelling of the legend of John Henry, the mythic 19th-century black laborer who won a contest with a steam drill -- only to drop dead from exhaustion moments later. Running parallel to the legend is the contemporary tale of J. Sutter, a young black journalist stifled by the Digital Age as forcefully as John Henry was beaten down by the Industrial Revolution.
From the Publisher
“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

D. J. Carlile
This powerfully composed novel is likely to have a long and praiseworthy life, not unlike the legend from which it springs. And certainly no single review or reading can reckon its "variety and plenitude."
latimes.com
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Death knells toll alike at the dawn of the machine age and the digital age, proclaiming an exhausted general collapse in this impressive, multilayered second novel by Whitehead (The Intuitionist). Seizing on the story of American folk hero John Henry, the black railroad worker who beat a steam drill in a one-on-one contest and died in the act, Whitehead juxtaposes it with the soulless saga of 21st-century freelance writer J. Sutter, member of a junketeering tribe whose mores and speech are rendered with anthropological enthusiasm. J. and his fellow junketeers notably Dave Brown, a former gonzo Rolling Stone journalist whose best days were in the late '60s, and jittery One Eye, whose paranoia infects J. descend on Talcott, W.Va., John Henry's supposed resting ground, to report on the U.S. Postal Service's release of a commemorative John Henry stamp. They coincide there with Pamela Street, the daughter of a deceased John Henry obsessive who opened a mad private museum in Harlem to celebrate the man, and Alphonse Miggs, a collector specializing in train stamps, whose secret agenda involves his newly purchased pistol. The debased countercultural cynicism of the junketeers, J.'s compulsive collection of factoids and receipts to fuel the print media machine, and the warped nostalgic longings of Pamela and Alphonse are funneled into a tornado-like narrative storm, bits and pieces of the John Henry myth spinning in the updraft. Whitehead (recipient of a 2000 Whiting Writers' Award) has the early DeLillo's sense for the sinister underside of Americana, combined with historical consciousness of the African-American middle-class in the post-civil rights era. Smart, learned and soaringly ambitious, his second novel consolidates his position as one of the leading writers of serious fiction of his generation. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Whitehead's (The Intuitionist) second novel is an introspective character study surrounding the legend of folk hero John Henry. A John Henry festival in a small West Virginia town draws a diverse crowd, including J. Sutter, a freelance writer going from one event to another in search of free food and paid expenses; and Pamela Street, a restless woman grieving for her father. Both are forced to reevaluate their lives, brought together by bonds of race and history. The author has tried to make this novel an epic saga by filling it with cameo characters and vignettes tracing the history of John Henry's legend and the song that sprang from it, but they are too one-dimensional for the reader to care. Too many characters and a forced writing style make this an unremarkable work about wasted lives and superficial people. Recommended for large libraries only, or those who own the author's previous work. Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion Cty. P.L. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385498203
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/14/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 207,943
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, was one of the most highly praised and award-winning first novel of all time. Whitehead lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Biography

Born in 1969 and raised in Manhattan, Colson Whitehead received his undergraduate degree from Harvard. After graduation, he went to work for the Village Voice as a book , television, and music reviewer.

Whitehead's first novel, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway and a winner of the Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voices Award. In 2001, he published John Henry Days, a startlingly original retelling of the famous story from American folklore. The novel received several honors and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 2003, a collection of his essays, The Colossus of New York, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the year.

Whitehead's writing continues to attract awards, rave reviews, and a devoted, avid readership. In between books, he produces reviews, essays, short stories, and cultural commentary for a number of distinguished publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper's, and Granta. He is the recipient of a coveted MacArthur Fellowship (dubbed the "genius grant") , a Whiting Writers Award, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers

Good To Know

In our interview, Colson Whitehead shared some fascinating facts about himself:

"Where do I get my ideas? Usually I come across some strange fact in a book, or article, or tv show and think, That's weird, wouldn't it be kooky if...?"

"I like to write in the nude -- I find the gentle breezes tickle the fine hairs of creativity."

"Here are some of the things I like: staying in the house all day, screening phone calls, keeping the shades drawn. Deglazing. Oh, how I love to deglaze."

"Here's what I dislike: performance art, people who walk slowly in front of me, romantic comedies, panel discussions."

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    1. Hometown:
      Brooklyn, NY
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 6, 1969
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, NY
    1. Education:
      Harvard College, BA in English & American Literature
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Prologue
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.

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Introduction

PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST
NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST
New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice

“Funny and wise and sumptuously written . . . compelling.” —Jonathan Franzen, THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s discussion of Colson Whitehead’s critically acclaimed new novel, John Henry Days.

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Foreword

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 violencetoo, 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?

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Reading Group 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?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 9 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2006

    The Prose that Never Ends

    Although this novel's winding and somewhat entertaining storyline keeps the reader guessing throughout the book, it is of my opinion that a story should never be ended with such a sense of incompleteness. Numerous and meaningless characters parade through the pages, appearing one moment and vanishing forever the next. Recommended to incredibly bored people only.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2002

    Great voice, good storytelling

    Whitehead has a fresh and innovative style. This is a story where it seems nothing substantial happens, plot-wise, so the details of scenery and emotion become more important. A vignettish, pointillist approach. If you're looking for a Grisham-esque page-turner, pass by this one. Read it for the way the author slowly unfolds his scenes and builds to a climax that, ultimately, he denies you.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2001

    VERY INTERESTING

    Loved the John Henry story as a background and good writing and rich character development make a fine novel. Reads well.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2001

    Slow amble to story line

    I admit at this point I'm only half way through the book, so I can't yet comment on it as a whole. I can say that it's been awfully hard to stay interested because the characters are STILL being described and developed. The story line is in no apparent hurry to make itself known. At times the reading is fun, while at other times, boring. I'll finish it and hopefully it'll cause a change in opinion

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 29, 2009

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    Posted March 17, 2009

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    Posted July 4, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2012

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2014

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