Review: John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead

Recommended? Yes. If you put the work into it, it will pay off.

Who might like this? If you’re interested in mythic Americana paired with Black history narrative in a winding, sometimes-experimental writing style, this one might be for you.


I must begin this review by revealing one overarching thought while reading John Henry Days: Colson Whitehead is a true wordsmith. As soon as I started the first chapter, which was a marvellous treatise on the experience of airports, I felt as if I were falling backwards into a warm feather bed of beautiful prose. The first line, “Now he blesses the certainty of airports,” is amazing, and sets the tone. It may vie for my favourite opening line of a novel. You feel comfortable, knowing you are in the hands of a master writer.

The second overarching thought that I had, beginning around the two-thirds mark, was, “Wow, this is a long and wordy novel.” These two thoughts are not mutually exclusive. Every part of this novel was well-written, but the beautiful words and sentences took a long time to read. It required perseverance.

I read Whitehead’s second novel, published in 2001, as a part of my Author In Depth series. Part of my goal is to understand how a writer’s work evolves over time, and this is proving, even after two novels, to be interesting indeed. John Henry Days is a sprawling tale that spans 120 years of American history. The main narrative follows press junketeers covering the first annual John Henry Days in small town America, celebrating folk legend John Henry, a Black steel driver on the railroad in West Virginia in the 1870s. The main character is J. Sutter, who is trying to break the record for most consecutive days on the press-junket circuit even if it drives him into the ground. He lives in a simulacrum of a world of expense accounts and public-relations hacking, where nothing seems quite real, and meaning is hard to find, or, indeed, what you engineer it to be. He has come to town to cover the event, along with an assorted crew of fellow junketeers, philatelists, and John Henry memorabilia collectors. This 1996 present day story happens over the festival weekend. Interspersed throughout are chapters detailing characters’ backstories, and also one-off stories of those whose lives John Henry’s story impacted.

I liked J. as the main character, and his growth arc over one weekend was compelling. Backstory gave me his context, rising from early optimism as a young reporter at a counter-culture newspaper, to gradual disillusionment, to cynical junketeer. The weekend is like a sharp slap that helps him wake up from this societal dreamworld he’s been existing in.

Reality is not pretty, it does not sell, and meaning is created by those both sincere and not. John Henry existed, and we see his story woven throughout, but Whitehead cleverly shows us how, time and again, the folk hero’s truth is lost in myth-making and profiteering. The myth of John Henry is whatever it needs to be to a single American, or to Americans as a whole. The truth of John Henry doesn’t matter in the end.

The most cynical are the public relations hacks who construct myth for profit. The most disturbing is how the legend is used to whitewash history. In one scene, a fifth grade J. (and the only Black kid in the room) watches one of those old school cartoon films about John Henry in class:

“In four-color glory, John Henry worked two-handed, crashing down one hammer on a spike while the other swung up in an ecstatic ark, sparks erupting in blasts and gusts of orange and red; he made fire, he left the other workers in the dust as he moved west, ever west,...John Henry was always smiling. Even though the sparks burst up and dominated the frame, his smile shone through…In the cartoon the other railroad workers were white men who set down their sledges in wondrous admiration as John Henry outpaced them, outraced them, fulfilled their nation’s destiny with what he had in his arms.”

In parenthesis, Whitehead writes: “(In a more monochrome world this freed slave worked for pennies, wandering from job to job in search of circumstances promised in the good Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation…)”

But in the twentieth century cartoon, “John Henry mashed the spikes into the ground, driving a mythology into the ground, as if carving it letter by letter into the earth could make the dreams of men live. All admired this strength and fortitude and if the great man entertained dark thoughts after his fate…who could tell. He smiled and swung.”

The John Henry folk story is basically revisionist history, and Whitehead may be skewering American education here, but also pointing to the historical stories we tell ourselves to assuage guilt, to turn away, to reassure ourselves that we valued the Black hero, when actually this type of storytelling is deliberate forgetting.

The structure of the novel was interesting. The main narrative of the 1996 John Henry days festival weekend provided backbone, but Whitehead jumped through history showing us how the folk tale impacted people over 120 years. Sometimes we visited them only once. Many chapters could stand as a short story on their own, beautifully written. Some were written experimentally: two were written as plays.

One chapter was so inventive that the image stays with me. It chronicles an evening in the life of a younger, less cynical J., at a press event for a hugely self-important writer. The scene has an alcohol fuelled J. eddying in the currents of a culturally barren, garish, vulgar river of excess and self-importance. “J. 's body slipped into another current in the room, he fell into a pattern that nature had imposed on this crowd, and after a time his drink was empty and that very moment he found himself deposited at the bar again.” The images in this scene are at once vacuous and frighteningly nightmarish. The passive tense suggests J. is an observer, but by choosing to swim in that societal river of spectacle, he is implicated in the fraud.

Contrast this to J.’s awakening during the John Henry festival. He has climbed the hill to the original cave where John Henry contested the steam drill 120 years ago, and feels, “so small beneath this grand arching and the infinite tons crouching above him…Step in here and you leave it all behind, the bills, the hustle…What if this was your work? To best the mountain?...This place confounds devices, the steam drill and all that follows. This place defeats the frequencies that are the currency of his life…Unsettling but calming too. The daily battles that have lost meaning are clearly drawn again, the opponents and objectives named and understood.” The tunnel where the legend was born is the point of coalescence, the only real thing: rock, nature, and meaning without a PR buzz.

I found this novel to be an extremely worthwhile read. At times, I felt frustrated with the length and wordiness, yet always wanted to come back to it. I got the sense that Whitehead was playing a bit–with words, language, and structure–and to that end maybe some of my frustration was borne of coming along on that journey with him, and finding that as a reader, some experiments worked better than others. But for all that, this novel had episodes that have stuck with me since I finished, images I revisit, and so many passages that I want to keep and read again. A very interesting second novel.