Scott Reynolds Nelson: Book about John Henry ignites debate





The songs sung about John Henry say he knew, when he was a little baby sitting on his mother's knee, that a hammer would be the death of him. They say he grew up strong and drove steel on the railroad. And they agree that one day he took that hammer and raced a steam drill. The drill made it only nine feet into the rock. The man drove in 14 feet and then collapsed, calling for a cool drink of water before he died.

Now a historian believes that he has found the flesh-and-blood man behind that legend. Scott Reynolds Nelson, an associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary, thinks he knows where John Henry fought the machine, won the battle, and died with a hammer in his hand. The historian thinks he also knows where the man lay buried for more than a century, as tales of his heroic feat traveled across the land.

Mr. Nelson lays out his case in Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (Oxford University Press). Aimed at a general readership, the book tells a nifty historical detective story. It begins with the historian and his dog driving west — just as the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway did in the 1870s — toward the hard mountains on the Virginia-West Virginia border, following the tracks of a legend.

Mr. Nelson published some of his findings in a 2005 article in the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas. Now his book takes that scholarship and spins it into a tale that combines highly specialized historical knowledge, needle-in-a-haystack archival work, and a first-person narration that historians rarely dare to use.

Whether or not one accepts his thesis — some rival investigators do not — Mr. Nelson's work demonstrates what can happen when a historian applies the tools of his trade to subject matter traditionally reserved for folklorists and bluesmen. It hammers home the idea that historical detail can be just as compelling as a legend — and, like legends, can still require a leap of faith....

comments powered by Disqus
History News Network