Acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days
(2001) is a postmodern social satire that weaves together several narrative threads to create a novel “with encyclopedic aspirations akin to Moby Dick or Ulysses,” according to David Foster Wallace. Whitehead bases his novel in part on the real-life printing of the Folk Hero stamp series that included the legendary steel driver John Henry and on the 1996 John Henry Days festival in Talcott, West Virginia, the supposed location of John Henry’s mythic exploits. There, we meet a disparate group of festival attendees, from a journalist whose mission is to junket his way through his life to a series of people obsessed with the story of John Henry in different ways. Overall, Whitehead’s project offers “a critical analysis of capitalism's exploitation of labor from the Gilded Age of the nineteenth century to the fin de siècle of the twentieth century” in the guise of funny and moving vignettes.
The novel comprises a prologue followed by five parts. In turn, the prologue consists of fourteen different versions of the John Henry story: some are more descriptive, demonstrating how widespread songs about this figure have been; others argue for or against John Henry’s historical reality. In the folk tale, the nineteenth-century laborer John Henry was a black steel-driver who spent his life building the railways that crisscrossed America, building it into an economic powerhouse. Eventually, the work of drilling a tunnel through a mountain fell to a newly invented machine: the steam drill. Refusing to believe that a machine could outperform a man, John Henry challenged it to a battle of endurance. However, just after he won the competition, defeating a machine designed to replace him, he died from exhaustion. Now, the town in which this possibly historical event took place is monetizing the phenomenon by holding a celebration in honor of the man and the stamp created to honor him.
Each of the parts that follow this introductory prologue is composed of seemingly disconnected scenes, vignettes, and stories that feature people who have come to the John Henry Days festival. Characters glimpsed in one story sometimes disappear or sometimes are featured more prominently in other stories.
The most visible through-line follows the adventures of J. Sutter, a black freelance journalist who makes his living going from junket to junket (i.e. one PR event to the next). Sutter works for Lucien Joyce Associates, the PR company that hands assignments out to him and his fellow junketeers through “The List,” a collection of publicity stunts. Lucian Joyce controls the media and public opinion by monetizing anything and everything possible for attention: “They’d publicize the debut twitch of a bean sprout….if the money was right.”
Like the other junketeers – Dave Brown, Tiny, Frenchie, and One Eye, all of whom are “mercenaries in the covert war against the literate of America” – Sutter works hard not to care about the events he is covering, instead excelling at padding his expense account with receipts fished out of trash cans. In reality, he is engaged in a competition just like John Henry: he is trying to break the record for nonstop junketing set by legendary freelancer Bobby Figgis. Sutter has been going for three months already, a feat that makes him think he can go on forever, from movie opening to hotel launch, from open bar to free lunch.
However, during the festival, the increasing tension of being in a place where he feels anxious and unsafe because of his skin color, and his growing awareness of the emptiness of his life, make Sutter reconsider his plan. He remembers his idealism and enthusiasm when he was eighteen – he had interned at the “Downtown News,” feeling like a real journalist covering the Reagan-Mondale election. He wonders whether it is too late to become the serious journalist he had wanted to be or to write the book he had always intended to write.
Woven throughout Sutter’s story are others who find themselves at John Henry Days, as well as stories that are only somewhat adjacent to this event.
Out of nowhere, one of the junketeers tells his peers about the murder of the black man at Altamont – a fictional story set during the famous real-life 1969 “summer of love” fiasco where the Rolling Stones hired the biker gang Hell’s Angels to provide security at a concert only to have the bikers murder several audience members.
Another plot thread revolves around Pamela Street, a black journalist – a real one, not a junketeer – who has come to the festival to find a buyer for her late father’s enormous collection of John Henry memorabilia. One prospect is the Mayor, who would love to have the collection to enhance the town’s tourism draw.
Smaller side plots involve Alphonse Miggs, a collector of railroad stamps, who saves Sutter’s life during a vividly described prime-rib choking accident; Josie and Benny, whose small motel finally has a chance at financial recovery during the festival and who hope the event will become an annual tradition; lowly tech workers trying to create early internet content; a blues musician in 1950s Chicago; a young black girl in 1940s Harlem; an author trying to promote a book during a future-dystopia series of PR launch events.
There are many clues that the festival will end badly, echoing what happened to John Henry. However, the novel’s ending is ambiguous and open-ended. Sutter either decides to pursue a serious story, thus missing the main event his junket is supposed to be about – or else he has had a change of heart so complete that he has walked away from his life.