Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Pg. 69: "Steel Drivin' Man"

Scott Reynolds Nelson is Associate Professor of History at the College of William and Mary. The author of Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction, he has served as a consultant on a PBS documentary on John Henry.

His latest book is Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend. He put the book to the "page 69 test" and came up with the following:
The word on Marshall McLuhan was this: incredibly smart and incredibly lazy. He strolled around his office narrating books to his secretary, who wrote down every word. Then if he had the time, he would edit the page proofs. This style of writing made him eminently quotable but often repetitive, contradictory, and occasionally incoherent. I can see how McLuhan, brilliant but impatient, would be inclined to come up with a “page 69” system for reading books. Read page 69 carefully, and then you can talk about the style of exposition, the author’s tone, etc. etc. without actually having to read the darn thing. Then off to the next book. Cocktails. Repeat.

It would take McLuhan a bit more time to listen to the ballad of John Henry. But if he could hear the tragedy in the song, then he wouldn’t have to read a single word. The book lets you hear about the tragedy in the ballad, and it tells you where the bodies are buried.

A page 69 analysis of Steel Drivin’ Man lets you go to the heart of the book. On that page I describe how Virginia’s penitentiary shipped John Henry to the Chesapeake & Ohio railway tunnel in 1869. I then describe how decades later the prison warden regretted having sent so many convicts to die there. The rest of the page is background, explaining how Reconstruction in Virginia allowed railway baron C.P. Huntington to seize the C&O without spending a nickel, and why a bargain he struck then compelled him to drill railway tunnels with convicts, steam drills, and dynamite even if it killed everyone involved. Within a dozen years, it did kill nearly everyone involved. John Henry and two hundred other men died fighting a steam drill in a race to the bottom.

But page 69 will not tell you why I puzzled over the man behind the legend, how I found out who he really was, or why a song about the death of a railroad convict became America’s most famous folk song. That page won’t tell you why the song was beloved by black workers, miners, Communists, Klansmen, cartoonists, and Carl Sandburg. If McLuhan were alive today I would tell him to read the more lyrical pages, say 46, 95-96, 142, or the last two pages. Then, off to cocktails.
Thanks to Scott for the input.

Read an excerpt from Steel Drivin' Man.

Among the praise for Steel Drivin’ Man:
"What Mr. Nelson proves is the undying power of the John Henry myth, which reduces almost to a pinpoint the historical figure he resurrects from the archives.... He is a fascinating guide to the world of Southern railroads and the grim landscape of Reconstruction."
--William Grimes, New York Times

"Over the last century, the legend of macho steelworker John Henry with his ''two twenty pound hammers'' has been appropriated by chain gangs, Communist radicals, and Johnny Cash. The real Henry, usually envisioned as a bulky strongman, was in fact a 5' 1'' convict from Elizabeth, N.J., as Scott Reynolds Nelson shows in his slim, meticulously researched [book]. He sifts through prison records, railroad progress reports, and census data--as well as songs and art--to create a multilayered portrait of a poor teen, his tragic run-ins with racist Black Codes laws (and his likely wrongful conviction), and his unexpected journey to iconhood."
--Michelle Kung, Entertainment Weekly

"A remarkable work of scholarship and a riveting story.... It's the story of fatal racism in the postbellum South. And it's the story of work songs, songs that not only turned Henry into a folk hero but, in reminding workers to slow down or die, were a tool of resistance and protest."
-- Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Written at the crossroads where American myth and reality intersect, Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend is a tribute and requiem to the real steel drivin' men who built this country."
--Bruce Springsteen

"Nelson is a magnificent writer, and he tells a story as great and terrible as any.... Steel Drivin' Man is a rarity among history books in that it is a concise one. It's like John Henry: It's short, and it does its job well."
--Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Read a Q & A with Scott Nelson.

Previous "page 69 tests:"
Richard Aleas, Little Girl Lost
Paul Collins, The Trouble With Tom
John McFetridge, Dirty Sweet
Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero
Bill Crider, Murder Among the OWLS
Zachary Shore, Breeding Bin Ladens
Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
Matt Haig, The Dead Fathers Club
Lawrence Light, Fear & Greed
Simon Read, In The Dark
Sandra Ruttan, Suspicious Circumstances
Henry Ansgar Kelly, Satan: A Biography
Alison Gaylin, You Kill Me
Gayle Lynds, The Last Spymaster
Jim Lehrer, The Phony Marine
Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.
Debra Ginsberg, Blind Submission
Sarah Katherine Lewis, Indecent
Peter Orner, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo
William Easterly, The White Man's Burden
Danielle Trussoni, Falling Through the Earth
Andrew Blechman, Pigeons
Anne Perry, A Christmas Secret
Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers
Kat Richardson, Greywalker
Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire
Masha Hamilton, The Camel Bookmobile
Alex Beam, Gracefully Insane
Nicholas Lemann, Redemption
Jason Sokol, There Goes My Everything
Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile
Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few
Anne Frasier, Pale Immortal
Michael Lewis, The Blind Side
David A. Bell, The First Total War
Brett Ellen Block, The Lightning Rule
Rosanna Hertz, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice
Jason Starr, Lights Out
Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom
Stephen Elliott, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies
Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind
Stanley Fish, How Milton Works
James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, Season of Betrayal
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue