The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The novel’s principal characters show growth and development only as they gain a greater understanding of John Henry. As a pulp journalist of the information age, J. Sutter serves as a modern-day antihero to John Henry, for whom “ballads, railroad hammers, spikes and bits, playbills from the Broadway production, statues of the man and speculative paintings” have been created and preserved. Through conversations with Pamela, who overcomes her hatred of a childhood sacrificed to her father’s obsession with John Henry, J. asks: “How long does it take to forget a hole in your self?” When J. and Pamela begin to recognize each other as more than festival-goers, they start to see beyond their egocentric selves.

Conversely, Alphonse Miggs and Lucien Joyce never overcome their egotism. Miggs sees only an opportunity for his Alphonse Miggs Liberation Front. Joyce views the festival as a “slice of Americana,” worthy only of a public relations boon. Even Josie, whose premonition from the ghost is that some thing tragic will happen during the festival, remains at the hotel throughout, choosing instead to ingest combinations of pills left by her guests. The unnamed postal employees advance the plot, serve as vehicles for Whitehead’s experimental narrative technique, and show how contemporary society has become fearful and disengaged.

Several minor characters are depicted to illustrate the broad historical and contemporary impact of John...

(The entire section is 468 words.)