I just finished Scott Reynolds Nelson’s Steel Driving Man–John Henry: The Untold Story of an American Legend.
It’s good, but in one of those ways that nags at you. He doesn’t address the Alabama evidence. Instead, he just goes to the Big Bend Tunnel, discovers there weren’t men and steam drills working side by side, looks for another tunnel on that same line where the did, and then looks for who was working on that tunnel–prisoners–and finds one named John Henry.
It seems straight enough forward.
So does John Garst’s evidence.
I guess I just wanted to see it addressed, especially because I come to trust Nelson’s take on things and want to believe that his take considers all the evidence. If Garst’s evidence is shoddy, I’d like to know why.
Still, the book does a wonderful job of really getting at how rough digging these railroad tunnels was and how it could be a death sentence.
The other task the book sets out to do is to show how the legend of John Henry (and the song) have been appropriated by different groups for their own purposes.
Some of these assertions need better back up. He comes pretty damn close to saying that Superman is just a white version of John Henry based on the fact that Superman’s creators grew up very near where a famous lithographer who made John Henry lithographs lived, so “Steel Drivin’ Man” of course equals “Man of Steel.”
I wanted him to tease that out a little more.
But his section on Sinclair Lewis (“That’s the America I came home to.”) and Carl Sandburg?
It made me start to wonder about who I consider to be my intellectual family. I think of Walt Whitman like some eccentric uncle who doesn’t love me half as much as I love him. And there’s Stephen King, the older cousin who should not have spent so much time in our grandma’s basement telling me scary stories.
But I wonder about Lewis and Sandburg. Reading about Sandburg’s performances of John Henry… God, these folks are so familiar to me. Sandburg is the kind of Midwesterner I think I was raised to be.
I don’t think I’d ever really understood that before reading this book, as no one articulated that–but there it all is, the great deep love of America, the socialism, the feeling that the kinds of things Americans do are of value and should be shared with other Americans, the love of history and music and folklore and stories, etc.
I need to remember to ask my parents about Sandburg.
We went to his house in Galesburg, once, which I was thrilled about but remember thinking was strange.
I don’t know. The past leaves you bits and pieces of things. It’s hard to tell which are clues and which are not.