John Henry Days

Written by Colson Whitehead
Review by Tess Allegra

July 12, 1996–J. Sutter, New York native and junketeer journalist, is en route to Talcott, West Virginia to cover the launch of a new postage stamp of nineteenth century legend, John Henry, who in 1870, won a race against a railroad steam drill, only to die minutes later with the hammer in his hand.

J. brings with him “the standard amount of black Yankee scorn for the South” along with an appetite for the usual dinner buffet and opportunities to pad his expense account as he races through a nonstop series of junkets. Meeting up with a motley crew of fellow journalists who rehash chronicling the American way of life, J. also meets Pamela Street, whose father hoarded John Henry memorabilia until he died. Talcott wants to buy her stash, but she’s not sure she wants to sell her father’s lifelong quest. A shocking event on the final day gives J. a personal jolt to reconsider his junketeering ways as he bonds with Pamela seeking what matters most.

Although most of the story is modern, the author flashes back to flesh out not only the story of John Henry, but the ongoing black experience in America since then. With a striking parallel of performer Paul Robeson with other newsworthy events through the decades, we learn about the seeming powerlessness that can bring down a man like John Henry.