Steel Drivin' Man 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,… 2006-09-28 History Nonfiction Oxford University Press
Book Review

Steel Drivin' Man (2006)

Details Release Date: Sep 28, 2006; Writer: Scott Reynolds Nelson; Genres: History, Nonfiction; Publisher: Oxford University Press

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.

Originally posted Sep 22, 2006 Published in issue #899 Sep 29, 2006 Order article reprints