I’ve been doing Worldbuilding Wednesday for 13 weeks now (I’m pretty impressed, myself). It’s time to change things up just a bit. Instead of talking about building our fictional worlds, I’m going to talk about building our world. The real one in which we live right here and now.
Anyone who’s ever written a letter knows that words can change the world. I’ve been reading a little light American history, and through the whole pilgrims-to-Justin-Bieber timeline, the biggest changes have been heralded through the written word.
No school kid would ever deny that documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, all made a massive difference in our US history (and indeed, did directly affect the rest of the world in many ways). But other words–stories and fiction, are just as much drivers of change as the nonfiction documents that codified our country’s ideological focus.
Folk stories–legends of Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, Davey Jones (and his locker), John Henry – all embody not only a decent tall tale of an amazing person that took on a relevant challenge of the time and region, they also embody the greater conflicts in all of society of the day. John Henry took on a steam drill to lay railroad tracks faster and better than the machine. The story isn’t just about a powerful man who could drive steel like nobody’s business versus a machine that was the wave of the future. John Henry was the American laborer of the time, up against the wall in the face of automation as machines replaced manual labor and jobs consolidated in the name of the Gilded-Age version of efficiency. The legendary John Henry’s status as an African-American man added a layer of racial commentary to the folktale that illustrated both the hardworking nature of black laborers, and the futility of them being able to keep the manual labor jobs in the face of both automation and post-Civil War racial tensions in the south.
In addition to the automation and the race relations, skilled labor is another layer of the folktale. The advent of industrialization brought to light the need for people to identify and express a sense of value to the work that men did. John Henry, then, is also the embodiment of a sense of an irreplaceable human element that will always be necessary at some point in the labor process. Both a despair at the first death pangs of a fading way of life and the reassurance that the march of the machines will never fully replace the people somewhere down the line. John Henry’s death at the end of the tale (whether the version has him beating, or losing to, the steam driver), also serves as a cautionary tale, a reminder to everyone that killing yourself over a job still ends up with you dead at the end of the day.
Like most of the oral history of the time, no single author can claim credit for the John Henry story’s origin. Several historians have cobbled together possible nonfiction origins, including one that identifies John Henry as a freed slave, and another that identifies him as a prisoner on a chain gang, on loan to the railroad company (adding another layer of social commentary to the story surrounding race, incarceration, and the use of prison labor in both the 19th century and times more recent). Talcott, WV and Leeds, AL both claim ties to the John Henry story through oral history and railroad and municipal records.
John Henry’s story and legend far outshine any of the potential candidates of his real-life inspiration. Like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan, he’s larger-than-life, and so is his story. John Henry the man–even in the story–died at the end, but the story is an indelibly-inked part of our history, and in some small way, has gone on to shape our feelings and thoughts about labor, and labor relations, even today.