Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Working in counterpoint, Whitehead structures the novel in such a way that the two main stories parallel each other. The “industrial age-information age” design shows how John Henry, J. Sutter, and other characters all attempt to overcome the challenge of humans against machines, so that this theme is played out in a variety of ways over the course of the novel.

As a flesh-and-blood John Henry, the “steel-drivin’ man” accepts his fate, resigned to live out his destiny. He is both heroic and sacrificial, worthy of the stories, songs, artwork, and scholarship devoted to his existence and achievements, yet a former slave who becomes an “everyman” sacrificed to progress and industrialization. Meanwhile, the up-and-coming junketeer par excellence, J. refers to Lucien Joyce’s List as “a machine to keep the media-saturated society up and running.” As a temp working service-oriented jobs in New York before coming to Talcott, Pamela helped install a “data entry interface . . . called the Tool.” Once the Tool was in place, all the temps were asked to move on to other jobs. Even Moses, the blues musician, “wanted to beat the machine” at Goodman’s Records by singing his version of the “John Henry” ballad better at his next live performance.

By depicting the human cost of the struggle against technology and mechanization, Whitehead exposes individual, racial, and cultural exploitation. Only J. Sutter and Pamela Street exhibit the potential to overcome such exploitation.