The infant Hercules strangled two poisonous snakes while in the cradle. Baby John Henry, not to be outdone, hefted a hammer and proclaimed “Hammer’s gonna be the death of me,” or so one version of the ballad “John Henry” says.
The history behind that ballad is the subject of a fascinating 2006 book, Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend by history professor Scott Reynolds Nelson. Dr. Nelson first recounts his efforts to find the historic John Henry and then traces how the story of this obscure railroad worker mutated over time and spread across the country. Eventually, John Henry (after undergoing a race change) became the inspiration for Superman and Captain America, and the legend of how this colossus beat the steam drill is known by nearly every American.
But it didn’t happen quite the way you think. Here, according to Dr. Nelson, is the story of John Henry.
John Henry was 5 feet, 1.25 inches tall at age 19, when he was arrested for taking something from a store in 1866—not the muscleman of legend at all. Justice for black people was harsh in post-war Virginia, and his small crime earned him a big sentence, 10 years in the Virginia Penitentiary. The penitentiary sent him and other prisoners to work on the railroad. John Henry met his death tunneling through Lewis Mountain in Virginia for the Chesapeake and Ohio line, probably about 1873. If his contest with the steam drill hadn’t killed him, the dust from the excavation would have, for the silica in the rock scoured and scarred lungs. John Henry’s body was returned to the penitentiary for burial beside a large white building.
Gilgamesh and John Henry seem an unlikely pair—the king of the largest city in the world and a petty thief. Yet both became legends, and storytellers can benefit by thinking about the common elements of their stories. (Blog readers unfamiliar with the epic poem Gilgamesh might wish to read my blog entries of 6 July and 12 July before continuing.)
- Both men lived in a culture with an oral (rather than written) tradition. As in the children’s game of telephone, each retelling had the potential to change the story. No wonder multiple versions exist of both legends.
- The stories weren’t created, but accreted. Gilgamesh is a pastiche of several older stories about Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim; phrases in and the structure of some versions of “John Henry” come from old British ballads.
- Both are suprahuman in their legends. Gilgamesh reportedly stood nine feet tall and never needed sleep, whereas John Henry prognosticated as a baby and was remembered as a huge, muscled man.
- Their stories don’t just entertain. They contain important lessons. Gilgamesh is about the abuse of power, what it means to be civilized, and how to live a meaningful life. “John Henry” was originally, according to Dr. Nelson, a cautionary story repeated to remind railroad workers to pace themselves. Later it became a story of the power of perseverance.
- The lessons are relevant to their culture. The first civilization in Sumer had no predecessors to learn from. Leaders and citizens were making it up as they went along. Gilgamesh preserves what they learned for later civilizations, which clearly valued the lessons. “John Henry” spoke not only to black prisoners working on the railroad but also to their free white counterparts, later to the black and white coal miners in the Appalachians who ruined their health to feed the insatiable maws of train engines, and later yet to all oppressed workers and those who saw the Machine Age change their world into something unrecognizable and frightening.
- Both were men who believed in themselves and did the impossible. Gilgamesh killed various supernatural creatures and traveled to places no normal human had ever gone. John Henry sunk a fourteen-foot pilot hole for blasting while the steam drill went a pitiful nine feet.
Are any of my characters worthy of such immortality? Too few, I fear.
How about yours? It’s a question worth asking. If ancient Sumer and chain gangs seem far removed from your characters, think about the stories that have been passed down in your family. Ordinary people did something extraordinary—perhaps something as simple as performing a deed of great kindness or making a particularly cruel joke—and the tales live on, even after their deaths.
I suggest we as writers can make our characters more compelling by subjecting them to the John Henry test: Will anyone remember them after they are gone?
I like the idea of the "John Henry" test. I remember this story as a lad and it seemed to me that it was a story of humanity against machinery. There's been a few of those since, but this one is one of the best.
Thanks for yet another excellent essay on the heroic character. I like that you show how a modern hero exhibits the same characteristics as a hero of an ancient civilization. The late Joseph Campbell (THE POWER OF MYTH) would applaud you, as would Christopher Vogler (THE HERO'S JOURNEY). And it's a good checklist for fiction writers in designing a hero (or heroine).
CHARLES, that was how I remembered the story too. But according to Nelson, it became a humanity vs. machinery story later, when people began losing their jobs to machines at a faster rate and when the American Communist Party needed a symbol for the struggle for workers' rights.
Have you heard the folk song parody in which John Henry the accountant battles a calculator to add up figures?
SPHINX INK, I'm glad you got something out of my post. I found it useful too--isn't it odd how once one gets the words down right, one can learn something from oneself?
Shauna, this complements so well the week of education I've just had. In general fiction particularly, we have a tendency to overlook the importance from the outset of making our lead characters stand out in some way. Even an "everyman" needs some detail to make readers feel empathy or sympathy or at the very least, that makes them memorable. I like Charles's concept of the John Henry test.
Very great thoughts. I'm always intrigued by the universality of stories and the lessons at the heart of legends.
LISA, I had to do multiple rewrites of the beginning of my first novel before I could find an agent. The problem was that my main character was not sympathetic enough. I wrote him that way on purpose because his character arc was to become a better man with better priorities. But because he turned agents off in the brief sample they got, I had to rewrite him to be more likeable from the outset.
SIDNEY, What fascinates me even more than the universality of the stories is that legends are based on real people and that their stories become distorted over time to serve various purposes.
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