colson whitehead’s john henry days: an appreciation -or- why can’t curtis mayfield be the new francis scott key?

I tried to imagine an America with enough of a sense of humor about itself to choose Curtis’ song for an anthem. An America that could take a clearer view of its history, and allow a little honesty to creep into its public life…”


by brendan costello



Late last spring, errands took me to my local bookstore, where I found the paperback edition of Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days prominently displayed. I was happy to see that it had sold enough copies to warrant the paperback release; I remembered being thrilled by the book when I first read it last year, and I thought of how much has changed in our nation since then. And it convinced me that I was right about the national anthem.

Sometime during lunch, I had become fixated on the notion that Curtis Mayfield’s “Don’t Worry (It There’s Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go)” should be the new national anthem. Surely the result of heavy doses of caffeine and news (the latter having become a more nerve-jangling stimulant), the idea hit me with the revelatory urgency of a schizophrenic vision. It colored the rest of the sunny, late May afternoon.

I had been listening to Curtis Mayfield’s Greatest Hits, which opens with “Don’t Worry.” After a short spoken introduction, Curtis calls out everyone in America’s testy, Balkanized, so-called melting pot, running the gamut of ethnic slurs and street nicknames, reassuring us that despite our differences we’re all headed for the same place (or at least, we’re all in the same boat). An urgent, ironic and funky anthem from the tumult of the sixties, with echoes of the Vietnam War and the paranoid madness of the Nixon administration, “Don’t Worry” would need only a few slight revisions to be perfectly relevant to 2002. I fell in love with the idea of Whitney Houston belting “Sisters,/ brothers and the whiteys,/ blacks and the crackers,/ police and their backers” over a polyrhythmic wah-wah background at this year’s World Series.

I tried to imagine an America with enough of a sense of humor about itself to choose Curtis’ song for an anthem. An America that could take a clearer view of its history, and allow a little honesty to creep into its public life.

And then I saw John Henry Days at the bookstore, and for a moment it all seemed possible.

The novel centers around a three-day festival in West Virginia celebrating the issuance of a commemorative postage stamp featuring John Henry. John Henry, “the steel-drivin’ man,” is America’s only black folk hero, and the town of Talcott, West Virginia is the reputed location of his famous duel with a steam drill that cost him his life.

Freelance reporter J. Sutter is a black New Yorker who is covering the event ostensibly for a travel website, but more immediately for the free food and lodging provided by the publicity junket. Turns out that J. is approaching a record, topping three months’ worth of non-stop junketeering, arousing concern and admiration from his fellow journalists. They are all in the same game, maximum food and freebies for minimum output, members of “The List,” a compendium of usual-suspect freelancers who are notified and invited to these press events, and who are expected to file stories covering the featured product/individual/show once in a while.

The novel is fixated on allegory and symbolism; at one point the publicity maven who controls The List muses that the John Henry commemorative stamp is, in some ways, “an exploration of the American psyche.” J. Sutter’s quest to beat the record is a battle with pop culture and the shallow irony that rules over it, the sly aloof posture of sophistication that is so prevalent among the tastemakers and media whores who labor at creating our manufactured media reality.

In fact, a fellow junketeer nicknamed “One Eye” earned his name in a tragic encounter with a particularly vigorous expression of irony — the luckless journalist jumped up for a free drink and got blinded by an air quote. One Eye is trying to delete himself from the List, and engages J. to help him. They debate the significance of the act, and of J.’s quest to break the junketeering record:

“I’m talking symbolism here. Symbolism is important. Many important events in human history have happened because of symbolism. You got your Boston Tea Party, dump the shit in the harbor, love that dirty water, you got all kinds of shit, giving blankets full of smallpox to the Indians. Our country is built on symbolism. Look, answer me a question. Why are you going for the record?”

“How are smallpox blankets symbolic?”

“Of contempt, contempt. We come in peace and we try to kill ’em off with courtesy. ‘Oh, snuggle up in these innocent-looking blankets, Chief, no one’s going to suspect these lovely quilted jobbies.’ Why don’t you just answer the question?”

“To see if I can. To prove I can.”

“Prove what to who?”

“It’s a circular argument, but yeah, to prove I can to myself.”

“It’s a symbol of something to yourself even if you dont know what it is. So who are you to deny me my own private symbolism, no matter how silly it may seem to you when you’re doing the same thing? You’re like the symbolism referee trying to throw me out the game.”

“Delete yourself. But leave me out of it.”

“You have your machine to beat and I have mine.”

They left it at that.

Paralleled with J.’s contest is John Henry’s mythic battle, depicted in vivid scenes from his life, moments like glancing blows leading up to the fateful contest. These scenes, along with a dozen other vignettes, are scattered through the narrative like sparks flying from the legendary hammer, tracing how the story and the ballad of the steel drivin’ man looms into various people’s lives throughout the last century and a half. It could be a blues musician recording the earliest known version of the song, or a railroad baron, high on patent medicine, dreaming of going through the Big Bend tunnel; one chapter follows a black scholar researching John Henry in the 1930s, another depicts Paul Robeson playing John Henry in an ill-fated Broadway run. Other stories bear only symbolic shadows of John Henry, such as a junketeer’s account of the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, or J.’s recollections of a famous Black Panther, recently deceased, who had once lectured at his college. These glimpses into the past begin to resolve into a sketched portrait of our history, peppered with lost, forgotten souls and mysterious corners, while outlining the cultural resonance of a legend.

Jonathan Franzen reviewed John Henry Days for the New York Times Book Review, in a generally positive piece that also pointed out a few structural weaknesses. “Like its great-uncle Ulysses and its great-grandfather Moby Dick, John Henry Days has encyclopedic aspirations,” Franzen wrote. However, he points out that “…in his pursuit of the exhaustive, Whitehead also serves up … interludes that read, at times, like the work of somebody getting $2 a word.” (Two dollars a word is the going rate for J. and his junketeer brethren.) This is a tough but fair criticism — some passages go on too long, others are overwritten and a couple are downright confusing.

I was surprised to learn that Franzen had written the Times review, particularly in light of the media event surrounding his novel The Corrections and his brouhaha with Oprah Winfrey. Perhaps because it was a welcome distraction from the international news that had become suddenly, horrifically local, the Jonathan Franzen-versus-Oprah story garnered a tremendous amount of media attention, far more than is usual for even the most successful new literary fiction release.

Perhaps because of this unprecedented attention (some of which I believe should have been directed to John Henry Days), I was predisposed to dislike The Corrections, even after what I believe were Franzen’s sincere attempts at public contrition. The novel is undeniably excellent; aesthetically and technically, I would even say that it is superior to John Henry Days. Franzen’s novel also depicts the toll that modern life takes on the individual (in this case the members of an upper-middle-class suburban family), showing how each character is tortured and ultimately let down or betrayed by the mythologies they create for themselves. In The Corrections, the mythologies are more varied and far more subtle — Franzen does not foreground them or lean on them as heavily as Whitehead does on the one myth central to his work.

I believe, however, that Whitehead’s book is the more ambitious and experimental of the two, and while it does not always reach the mark it aspires to, it is reaching higher and further than The Corrections. The comparison to the brilliant but uneven masterpieces of Joyce and Melville is an apt one, and though John Henry Days does not succeed on the levels that they do, it is on the right track.

The juxtaposition of the John Henry myth against J. Sutter’s battle with Pop Culture puts the superficial realities of modern life hard against history’s ghosts, both real and imagined. It reveals a poignant irony, because behind the absurdity of comparing driving drill bits into solid rock by hand with writing 1,200-word fluff pieces (producing “content”) about whatever the vagaries of publicists deem “hot,” the novel discovers a very similar price exacted on the soul. The novel also explores the ambituities in the John Henry story, which are mirrored in J. Sutter’s: Did John Henry really exist? Did the contest really happen? If he died after beating the drill, did he really win? There is, throughout, the clash of myth and reality, of the national historical narrative contrasted against modern life.

As the publicist says, John Henry is “an exploration of the American psyche.” And as One Eye says, “Our country is built on symbolism.” The American historical narrative, our national self-image, is the necessary illusion that we, as a nation, create to be able to face ourselves. Slavery and the genocide of indigenous people are conveniently overlooked or downplayed in the generic, ahistorical subconscious, as are modern conditions such as poverty and the widespread corruptive influence of multinational corporations on our government. This mythic national image is necessary to sustain our unquestioning faith in our government, our churches, our markets (under God, of course), our wars.

Poignant irony is the drill that breaks up this dangerous illusion. I hesitate to mention our history’s new Prime Meridian (which, judging by the way it is dropped into almost every news story you read, is fast on its way to overshadowing most of our nation’s mythic past), but it is blindingly obvious that a carefully maintained national self-image is necessary to justify what we are doing in the world since then. In fact, the War on Terrorism (like the War on Drugs), is a profound example of how our official narrative is a distorted fiction that precludes any question about the true nature of the problem. The Bush administration regularly accuses anyone who questions their actions or motives as being “unpatriotic,” as though our nation was founded on blind obedience. It is no accident we have recently gone through phases of prominent flag display and a well-publicized argument over how to pledge allegiance to it.

Which brings me back to the Star Spangled Banner, and the question of our national anthem. The pledge and this song are the two strongest examples of the completely outdated and distorted self-image we have of ourselves as a nation.

And yes, making “Don’t Worry (If There’s Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go)” our new national anthem is a joke, but it’s a serious joke. It’s the type of irony that we desperately need, to remind us that the conventionally-held view of our nation is not necessarily the right one, and that questioning it is necessary, even if it becomes illegal, because it is the only thing that will save us from ourselves.

By comparing J. Sutter’s quest with the mythic steeldriver, John Henry Days raises similar questions about the necessary illusions to which our culture sentimentally clings. It is irony, yes, but it is serious and profound, and I believe necessary. When I think of what would have to change in America in order for the Curtis Mayfield song to be our new national anthem, I don’t have too many specific ideas (at least not that I can elaborate without adding to my FBI file). But having a majority — hell, even a significant minority — of the populace read John Henry Days seems like a step in the right direction.

In the meantime, Don’t Worry….


Originally published:
Issue Twenty-One
August 2002


Brendan Costello is a senior editor and contributing writer to New York’s Lurch Magazine . His work also periodically appears in Smokebox and can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

Comments are closed.