Colson Whitehead
photo of Colson Whitehead   john henry days  

  Blind Man's Bluff

In the summer of 1997, I found myself with a day job after a long time of not having a day job. I had just finished writing The Intuitionist, and to support myself I had been freelance writing. The debts had piled up, though, and to make things worse, my wife and I moved from Brooklyn to San Francisco, and well, moving costs money, so I needed some cash. Within two weeks of our arrival, I had a gig working for an internet company. It was the start of the web gold rush, and when you booked a flight out to Frisco, as the locals call it, the airlines inquired whether or not you needed employment. They had an arrangement.

I worked there for six months, and it was a typical web job, with a job description that changed every week according to the latest industry buzzword. My particular thing was writing forty word blurbs for upcoming web-chats, TV Guide-style. "Cuckoo for your cockatoo? Crazy for your crayfish? Come on down to Frida's Pet Chat every Thursday at 8 P.M. EST! Only on MyPet.Com!" That kind of stuff. It paid the bills. There was only about an hour of work to do everyday, so I spent the rest of the time web-surfing.

After a few months I started to think about what to do next. I knew vaguely I wanted to do a modern update of the John Henry story. But I didn't know much about him except for half-remembered details from the legend. So one day after overdosing on news about Mike Tyson eating Evander Holyfield's ear, I plugged the man's name into a search engine.

Well, there are a lot of John Henrys, a lot of Johns, and a lot of Henrys. So I added various keywords such as hammer, steel-driving, etc., and narrowed it down. I didn't find that much. Put such a search into Google these days, and you'll get almost six thousand hits. But these were the early days of the web.

The first interesting hit was a piece on Deep Blue's defeat of Garry Kasparov. If you remember, Deep Blue was IBM's superpowerful chess computer, Kasparov was the big cheese in the world of chess, and it was the first time a player of his caliber had been checkmated by a machine. Quite the scandal in that circle. So here you had a nice example of an information age man vs. machine contest, but without the heroic angle of the original story. I doubt Kasparov is hurting for cash. A bit embarrassing sure, but it's not like he keeled over in the attempt. The problem was that it was too literal. Man vs. machine: that plays out every Sunday night when I want to tape The X-Files while watching The Sopranos. Even that early on, I knew I wanted a more metaphorical analogue to John Henry's battle. Merely modern didn't suffice.

The next thing I found was a big help. Remember, these were the toddler days of the web, and a lot of companies were throwing up websites without any idea of why they were doing it. The U.S. Postal Service was no different. On their site, they had every press release and picture of every stamp they had issued over the last couple of years. To what purpose, I don't know, but I thank them very much for hipping me to their John Henry stamp, which had been released the previous year as part of a "Folk Heroes" series. Now this was a nice modern hook -- a real live contemporary event that I could pin a story to. What kind of monument was a postage stamp? It was so banal that it addressed something about our debased age. And the fact that there was an actual press release for it resonated with me, after years of reading press releases for this or that album, book or TV how. The USPS, of course, has kept up the changes in internet culture and now uses their site to sell stamps. Doing the e-commerce thing. They've taken down the original stuff I found. But the web works in mysterious ways. Last week, I found a copy of the press release on this random site (discerning readers may find striking similarities to chapter two of John Henry Days) and a copy of the stamp on this philately site.

Probably I took a break from web searching and tried to look busy for a few minutes. We were all big on looking busy in that office, as we e-mailed our friends and surfed our daily bookmarks. I was always partial to entertainment gossip myself. Anywho, the next thing I found was a web page for Ginna Allison's radio documentary "Steel Drivin' Man," broadcast on NPR in 1995. Well, this was news. Until then I had no idea that there was an historical basis to the story. I had thought it was just a legend. Ambiguity! Conflicting stories! Now I was cooking with gas, or at least getting my grocery list together. I'm glad this page is still on the web, and hasn't gone on to that Big Link in The Sky.

Now that I had a name of a town, Talcott, West Virginia, I started noodling around with that. And I hit the motherlode when I found a notice for the town's annual John Henry Days festival. The first one coincided with the release of the Folk Heroes stamp. The significance to my project, I think, speaks for itself. Now I really had my ingredients together. Except for characters, plot and sentences, but who cares about that? Nervously, I printed out the stuff on the company LaserJets. They were really cracking down on misuse of company supplies.

We launched the site that September. No one came. It seemed they had misjudged the amount of people interested in a daily guide to web-chats. I quit about a month later, debts paid, and started writing the book that winter. I made it to the library eventually and started doing real research, now that I had a few signposts to guide me. (You should check out Brett Williams's John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography. It's really good.) I even made it to Talcott. Nice place. If you visit, tell 'em Colson sent ya, and you will want for nothing. As for the website I worked for, it was bought for a lot of money by a larger media concern. It was finally shut down a few months ago.

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Photo credit: Natasha Stovall

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