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John Henry Days: A Novel

About the Book

John Henry Days: A Novel

Immortalized in folk ballads, John Henry has long been a favorite American hero. According to legend, he was a black laborer for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, a man of superhuman strength and stamina. He proved his mettle in a contest with a steam drill, only to die of exhaustion moments after his triumph. In John Henry Days, Colson Whitehead builds upon this simple tale to create a contrapuntal masterpiece. The narrative revolves around J. Sutter, a young black journalist. Sutter is a "junketeer," a freeloading hack who roams from one publicity event to the next, abusing his expense account and meeting for biweekly sex with a publicist named Monica. It is 1996, and an assignment for a travel Web site takes Sutter to West Virginia for the first annual John Henry Days festival, a celebration of a new U.S. postage stamp honoring John Henry. And there, in a small rural town, the real story of John Henry emerges in graceful counterpoint to Sutter's thoroughly modern adventure.

As Whitehead explores the parallels between the lives of these two men, and between the Industrial Age, which literally killed John Henry, and the Digital Age, which is destroying J. Sutter's soul, he also adds multiple dimensions to the myth of the steel-driving man. John Henry Days is a novel of extraordinary scope and mythic power that juxtaposes history with popular culture, the blatant bigotry of the past with the more insidious racism of the present, and laugh-out-loud humor with unforgettable poignancy.

John Henry Days: A Novel
by Colson Whitehead

  • Publication Date: May 14, 2002
  • Paperback: 385 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0385498209
  • ISBN-13: 9780385498203