John Henry Days Summary
Loosely based on the printing of the John Henry Folk Hero stamp and the 1996 John Henry Days festival in Talcott, West Virginia, Colson Whitehead’s second novel comprises a prologue and five parts. The prologue consists of fourteen accounts proclaiming the pervasiveness of John Henry work songs and ballads and either claiming or disclaiming the actual existence of John Henry. Narrated in the third person, each of the novel’s five parts is composed of a series of vignettes, several focusing on John Henry himself. The rest focus either on a specific character who has an interest in or passion for the legend of John Henry or on the escapades of J. Sutter and other journalists in search of their next byline. The story line is layered and convoluted, and it unfolds incrementally.
The legend of John Henry is interspersed throughout the novel. The feats of the “steel-drivin’ man,” who was instrumental in building the Big Bend Tunnel in 1872 for the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railroad, are depicted in distinct contrast to “junketeer” journalist J. Sutter’s pursuit of “the Record,” as he attempts to surpass the mark for successive days spent attending publicity events. It is the launching of a Time Warner travel Web site and Sutter’s writing of an online article that brings him to Talcott. In order to piece together the series of vignettes and the novel’s five parts, a reader must determine how the panorama of characters relates to both J. and John Henry.
Inevitably, the novel builds to a climax. True to the legend, John Henry accepts the challenge of racing the Burleigh steam drill, defeats it, and dies. J. helps Pamela Street bury her father’s ashes in an urn at an unkempt and uncared-for site near the tunnel where John Henry purportedly was buried. She has asked J. to return to New York with her before the festival ends. During the final event, Alphonse Miggs opens fire with a handgun he purchased in Maryland. Chaos ensues, and people are wounded, some fatally. While John Henry’s fate has become legend, J. Sutter’s future is unclear.
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(The entire section is 515 words.)