John Henry Days, Colson Whitehead (Anchor Books: 2001)
"Race and Modernity in Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist", Michael Berube, published in The Holodeck in the Garden: Contemporary American Fiction (Dalkey Archive: 2004)
"E Unibus Pluram", David Foster Wallace, published in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Back Bay Books: 1997)
The Soul of Wit
Right about now, irony and sarcasm are pretty hot stocks.
They were the magic at the center of the 1990‚Äôs most popular, and most clever,
sit-com (Seinfeld), they‚Äôre used in
commercials every day to sell products, and, really, they‚Äôre a big part of
everyday humor. If you‚Äôre like most people, you find irony and cynicism funny.
You can enjoy it pretty much everywhere you find it, from the witty guy on ESPN
to that uncle of yours who‚Äôs pretty quick. And you may even think it‚Äôs a good tool
with which to critique modern
But, let‚Äôs go a little bit further. Let‚Äôs not only say that you
enjoy the humorous application of sarcasm and irony, but you decided that
sarcasm and irony were going to be your guiding principles. You were going to
take them as your Gospel. You would fill every day with knowing remarks,
second-guess the agenda behind even the most generous of gestures, laugh at all
the sentimental scenes in movies, rant at how unrealistic TV is. Are you
imagining this? If so, you are beginning to get the tiniest idea of what the
press junketeers in Colson Whitehead‚Äôs John Henry Days are like.
What‚Äôs John Henry Days? John Henry was a railroad man, a
steel-driving ex-slave who bore a hole in a mountain so the train could get
through. He‚Äôs an American myth, a legend who could work harder than any ten men
combined and died moments after beating a steam-driven drill in a race. In
short, John Henry was a man‚Äôs man, a strong sonofagun who never lost a
steel-driving race. he even beat the steam drill. And then he died.
In Whitehead‚Äôs book, this manly American legend becomes a
stamp. The Post Office has created a series of four stamps commemorating
American heroes and John Henry is one of them. In honor of the event,
where Henry is supposed to have made his mark, is hosting John Henry Days, a
festival to coincide with the stamp‚Äôs release.
Whitehead‚Äôs press junketeers (the incredibly cynical folk) have
been sent to Talcott to cover the stamp event, except that only one of them
(J., our main character) is actually writing it up; the rest are just
freeloading on the food, beer, and trinkets. A bunch of cynical middle-aged
writers out in the country pretending to cover a two-bit hick festival,
sponging off the locals and having a grand time with themselves. Yep, John
Henry Days is that kind of book.
Something must be said for John Henry. The man may have been
a veritable He-Man of the steel-driving circuit, but nothing could have
prepared him for the metaphorical burden that Whitehead loads him up with.
We‚Äôre talking quintuple-duty plus here.
First off, you have to know that Whitehead is no stranger to
well-themed literature. His first novel, The Intuitionist, brought
together the Great Northern Migration, African-American integration, race and
disability, and African-American ‚Äúpassing‚Äù into a taut narrative of elevator
inspectors. The main conflict was between inspectors who did things the old
fashioned way, opening up the elevator and looking at its guts, versus the new
intuitionists who could mystically diagnose an elevator just by feeling it.
This central metaphor became the bedrock that supported, and linked with,
everything else Whitehead added in.
In short, the new-old inspector conflict was a clever focal
point that all of The Intuitionist‚Äôs major themes passed through. John
Henry takes over the thematic duties this time, and in John Henry Days Whitehead has greatly expanded his reach, taking on
not only the ongoing debate of African-American integration, but the
commercialization of culture, an exploration of what pop culture is, how it is
transmitted, and what it is for, the search for meaning in our heavily-mediated
world, and a survey of what it is that is distinctly American.
Making John Henry our common point of reference for all this
is wise, as it renders an intricate, sprawling book all the more
comprehensible. Make no mistake, John Henry Days is a huge 400 pages. The book
darts around several narratives across over 100 years, which is a lot to keep
track of, even for John Henry. In fact, if this were Henry‚Äôs burden alone,
Whitehead‚Äôs themes would quickly mix up like a swarm of bees. What keeps
everything orderly and allows Whitehead to plays his themes off one another is
Henry‚Äôs supporting cast, of which the press junket reporters are just one part.
Actually, the junket can be divided into three parts: J.,
One-Eye, and Misc. J. is our anti-hero, a man so tired with his life that he
has decided to go on junket after junket without any break for an entire
year–a Lou Gering-esque feat of junketeer endurance. One-Eye (who lost an eye
in a slapstick accident) has also grown tired of a meaningless junket life, but
his response is the exact opposite: he wants to remove himself from the
mystical List of junket reporters. The rest of the junketeers are the sardonically
black human backdrops against which J. and One-Eye are illuminated.
Whereas the junketeers come off as jerks shielding
themselves with sarcasm, the other characters in John Henry Days feel
more like tortured souls who imbibe sarcasm to help get by but haven‚Äôt quite
become masterful like the junketeers. There‚Äôs
obsessive-compulsive when it came to John Henry. He amassed the largest
collection of John Henry-related memorabilia in the world (in his one-bedroom
apartment), became a horrible parent and real weirdo in the process, and turned
his apartment into a John Henry ‚Äúmuseum‚Äù that no on ever visited. After he
died, Pamela put his stuff into storage and now the city of Talcott,
keen to make John Henry their ticket to rural tourist-flytrap prosperity, wants
to buy the collection and put it in a new
Pamela has some issues about this since she hasn‚Äôt yet figured out how to
grieve for her bad father. Giving the stuff up is the logical fix, but for some
reason she can‚Äôt.
There‚Äôs also the stamp collector, Alphonse Miggs. His life
was so miserable and directionless that he turned to stamp collecting as a way
to fill up all the hours he spent not enjoying time with his wife. He ended up
specializing in railroad stamps and it‚Äôs not giving away too much of the plot
to say that he plans on doing something decidedly bad at the big John Henry
stamp commemoration event at the pinnacle of John Henry Days. He‚Äôs desperately trying
to give his life over to something meaningful, and his wife, his job, and his
stamps aren‚Äôt it.
The character traveling through the mythical John Henry
isn‚Äôt a person at all; it‚Äôs the Ballad of John Henry. In a series of
glimpses and remembrances, Whitehead shows this song‚Äôs century-long gestation.
Throughout the 20th century, a succession of songwriters and poets add verse
after verse to the ballad until it arrives at modern day Talcott, in the form
of an African-American native son who sings it during the event‚Äôs invitation-only
send-off. It is a force that transcends the tacky money-making festival, a
viral bit of culture that managed to preserve itself against the assaults of
commercialization. When the ballad is sung early on, all the junketeers and
weirdoes and eager city planners in attendance for the stamp festival are
momentarily taken by its poignancy.
In a sense, John Henry carries each of these characters
because he is the reason they have all come to Talcott. Similarly, what John
Henry represents–genuine American culture spun into content for purposes of
making money–has brought each to Talcott as well. The junketeers are there
because content-making is how they earn their living. Pamela is there both
because the city wants her father‚Äôs collection of culture/content and because
she needs to come to grips with her fear of letting go of her identity as the
‚Äúdaughter who hated the man who collected John Henry‚Äù in favor of figuring an
identity of her own. Alphonse is there because he‚Äôs addicted to the culture/content,
just like Pamela‚Äôs father was. And lastly, the song is there as some leftover
part of culture that refuses to be assimilated into the capital-cash-nexus, a
fragment of history that‚Äôs become so real that it defies attempts to forge
simulacra of it.
There‚Äôs one last thing that has been brought to Talcott:
John Henry. Actually, Henry was technically not brought to Talcott because he
never left. According to the legend, he died in Talcott right after he finished
off the steam drill. Subsequently, a statue was erected in his honor (now shot
at for fun on Saturday night by wayward local youth), and his body is supposedly
interred at a cemetery on the mountain he was drilling a hole through; however,
the cemetery has long since become overgrown (literally) by weeds and it‚Äôs
virtually impossible to locate anyone‚Äôs grave, including John Henry‚Äôs.
Just as the Talcott locals have made Henry the bearer of
their fortune, so has Whitehead make Henry the bearer of his indictment of
Talcott‚Äôs choice to make Henry the bearer of their fortune. In John Henry
Days, Whitehead is exploiting American culture to attack the exploitation
of American culture.
As far as this concept goes, Whitehead is a little late to
the party. John Henry Days was published
in 2000, roughly 20 years after a school of writing alternatively known as
post-post-modern, hyperreal, or image-fiction began inhabiting the realm of and
using pieces from popular culture in its fiction. Of course, just because
Whitehead wasn‚Äôt around when image-fiction was getting started doesn‚Äôt mean he
can‚Äôt use the style to spectacular effect. But first, some more about
In his essay ‚ÄúE Unibus Pluram,‚Äù David Foster Wallace
describes image-fiction as employing the same vernacular as the postmoderns,
self-conscious irony, and applying it to the realm of pop culture, especially
the culture seen on television.
The new Fiction of Image uses the transient received myths
of popular culture as a world in
which to imagine fiction about ‚Äúreal,‚Äù albeit pop-mediated, characters. (emphasis in original)
By this definition, Whitehead‚Äôs fiction, especially John
Henry Days fits in pretty well with the school of image-fiction. In
particular, Whitehead exemplifies image-fiction in his language. He has an
exceptional ability to write in the style of self-conscious irony, consistently
describing everything from decrepit office anonymity to a folksy county fair in
The results are breathtaking: Whitehead‚Äôs book feels about
as stark and dry as a book can be without inducing suicide. To get a true feel for the irony and cynicism
that infuse this vernacular, you‚Äôd have to read John Henry Days for about 50 pages, or to the point that things
like this sound normal: ‚ÄúSet above the cutting plate like a divine
illumination, the red heating lamps warm the sweet meat. The red light is a
beacon to the lost wayfarer, it is a tavern lamp after hours of wilderness
black.‚Äù That‚Äôs dry, and Whitehead keeps it that way throughout. At one point, he
even describes a city fair entirely in declarative statements.
Abstract horror for the fast walkers when they fall behind
the dawdlers. Invective, calumny.
Finally maneuvering around to find the agent of delay is infirm, disabled,
acquitted. They split up. They are left waiting at the meeting place and
despise their companions. Excuses are tendered up and down the rows.
This goes on for pages and it works because it‚Äôs all in a
wry, eye-winking tone. The book is telling saying, ‚ÄúLook at the hicks enjoying
their festival. How very rural of them,‚Äù and is sarcastically pleasant to the
reader, who probably isn‚Äôt a hick. But it also hits home in the reader because
Whitehead captures common experiences. We‚Äôve all been behind annoying people
who walk slow, so even as we laugh at Whitehead‚Äôs send-up of the fair, we also
know that we partially laughing at ourselves. The book enmeshes the reader in
the very irony that it‚Äôs made its lingua
This is all very nice, but Wallace goes on to say that much
of image-fiction fails because it doesn‚Äôt transcend its material. Sure, savvy
writers can ridicule the contemporary world to death (and in very creative
ways), but according to Wallace that‚Äôs all part of the joke: the contemporary
system has co-opted self-conscious irony for its own use and, from a standpoint
of critiquing the system, much image-fiction fails because it simply reinforces
a vernacular that the system itself exploits to great effect. In other words,
this kind of image-fiction isn‚Äôt any more creative or subversive than a
low-rated sit-com, which uses the same methods and subjects to garner its cheap
John Henry Days
walks right up to that boundary of co-option but doesn‚Äôt pass over. To be sure,
it‚Äôs a very dark book filled with sad, pathetic people and Whitehead plays them
for all they‚Äôre worth. We do laugh at these people‚Äôs expense. We‚Äôre made to
mock their ways, to find pleasure in the pathetic things they do to make their
lives a little less miserable. But we also identify with them and their
sarcastic ways so our laughter is uneasy. Is he making fun of them or us?
It’s an unsettling kind of sarcasm, something that a sit-com, which wants to make the watcher feel special and superior, never would dare.
Further, Whitehead hasn‚Äôt written a book wholly devoid of
hope. Although the majority of the people in John Henry Days are happily co-opted cynics, One-Eye, J., and
Pamela each rebel in their own ways and succeed to various degrees. It‚Äôs here
that Whitehead finds his hope. Earlier on I said that John Henry was made to do
some heavy lifting. Well here‚Äôs a little
Before [the song of John Henry] came into ballad form, the
men used to sing it as a work song, to keep the rhythm of their strokes. . . .
They sang it like a song of resistance. They wouldn‚Äôt go out like John Henry.
But maybe were condemning him instead of lamenting him. His fight was foolish
because the cost was too high. . . . You could look at it and think the fight
continued, that you could resist and fight the forces and you could win and it
would not cost you your life because he had given his life for you. His
sacrifice enables you to endure without having to give your life to your
The image of the railroad workers singing the song of John
Henry to keep time and as a cautionary tale strikes me as rather much like the function of irony. Both irony and the ballad are
tools to make the everyday struggle easier. However, just as the ballad keeps
the railroad workers from stepping out of line, irony is also cautionary in
that it keeps you from going and doing anything crazy, anything that might seem
too sincere. After all, that would be uncool and you‚Äôd be exposed to the jokes
of your ironic friends.
But the ballad, the entire John Henry myth, can also be seen
as giving hope. It can be seen as an inspirational tale, that one railroad
worker chose to do things his way, and even if he died in the struggle you,
knowing what he discovered, might live. That you, who can look back on the
ironic exuberance of the 60s, the decline of the 70s, and the decadence of the
80s, can know where that rebellion went wrong, that even though it eventually
was turned into commercials and dated rock stars hawking corporate wares, you could
see how their culture died (or ‚Äúwas co-opted‚Äù) and not do that yourself.
While reading John Henry Days, a book that often came
to my mind was Don DeLillo‚Äôs Underworld. There‚Äôs good reason for this.
DeLillo‚Äôs earlier White Noise and Underworld are both somber,
urban tales that fit into the image-fiction camp by virtue of their obsession
with pop culture and the way it is exploited in interwoven webs of people
watching people. Underworld had a
couple central metaphors that did the heavy lifting I‚Äôve ascribed to John Henry and both DeLillo‚Äôs and Whitehead‚Äôs
books wove these metaphors into very personal struggles, making them meaningful
on several levels.
I bring DeLillo up because Underworld is a gigantic meandering book and in a lot of ways John Henry Days is like its little
brother. This book sprawls far beyond its 400 pages, as Whitehead fits in bits
and pieces dating from the 19th century right up to the year 2000. One section
of the book, perhaps a quarter of it, is composed entirely of scenes with no
logical chronological relationship from one to another. Each is wonderfully
done, describing J.‚Äôs narrative, a 30s musician adding to the John Henry‚Äôs ballad, a little girl discovering
said ballad, random children from Talcott that we never hear from again, and a
turn of the century professor researching the John Henry legend. It‚Äôs a strange
m√©lange that reminded me of nothing more than the seemingly-jumbled feel of Underworld.
not only is Whitehead carrying the torch for the likes of DeLillo, but he‚Äôs
doing it in admirable fashion. Given the substantial success of Whitehead‚Äôs
debut novel and the caliber of this follow-up, which is a great leap forward, I
have extremely high expectations for whatever novel Whitehead writes next. If
it‚Äôs as much of a leap as John Henry Days
was, then it might just be an Underworld
improved and updated in form and content for a post-9/11 world and written from
an African-American perspective.
More from Conversational Reading:
- Current Reading I’m currently reading Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days, a book which I’m gratified to learn is a marked improvement over The Intuitionist. Now it’s time...
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