Michelle Kung
September 22, 2006 AT 04:00 AM EDT

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, but often dry Steel Drivin’ Man. 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.

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