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John Henry Days

3.65  ·  Rating details ·  2,551 ratings  ·  267 reviews
Colson Whitehead’s eagerly awaited and triumphantly acclaimed new novel is on one level a multifaceted retelling of the story of John Henry, the black steel-driver who died outracing a machine designed to replace him. On another level it’s the story of a disaffected, middle-aged black journalist on a mission to set a record for junketeering who attends the annual John Henr ...more
Paperback, 400 pages
Published May 14th 2002 by Anchor (first published 2001)
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Average rating 3.65  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,551 ratings  ·  267 reviews

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Apr 13, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, favorites
I am befuddled by these reviews. I have tried to read The Intuitionist 4 times; APEX is a riff on all the good in John Henry Days; Sag Harbor worked better as a short story. But John Henry Days? This is about my 11th time reading it, this time in prep for teaching it again for the first time in almost 10 years. I'm basing the star rating (really a 3 1/2) on this read of it, which for me has lost a little of the magic since a) I know what's going to happen and b) I've poured over every line a 100 ...more
Wes Freeman
Dec 08, 2008 rated it really liked it
Some shit to make you quit your job. Every possible look at John Henry's race against a steam drill as model for modern work ethic (modern, at least, circa-late 1990s, early 2000s, before economy receded). For those out there who aren't happy to have a job, who are still asking why am I doing this pointless thing every day just for $, step between these pages and take a load off. Author feels you. He feels heaps other stuff, too; book is chock full of Eustachian tube-clearing funny jokes and spo ...more
Jan 24, 2019 rated it liked it
Whitehead is without a doubt one of the most skilled writers in American literature. His sentences are dense and filled with meaning, but also beautiful, vivid, and expressive. He shines here, in his take of the John Henry story, exploring its origins, its interpretations, and how it has penetrated deep into the canon of American mythology, culminating at a festival commemorating Henry's fatal attempt to defeat a steam powered machine aiming to displace human steel drivers.

All that said, the st
robin friedman
Mar 18, 2019 rated it liked it
It Didn't Start With President Trump

The divisiveness, polarization, and anger in American society did not start with the current president and shouldn't be fully laid at his door. For many years, Americans have been unmercifully criticizing their country and one another. Literary examples are many, including Colson Whitehead's novel "John Henry Days". This book is long and broad-themed in the tradition of the Great American Novel. The book is overwritten and mannered. Characters and story are le
John Henry Days is written in an interesting narrative style. It shows us events through the lens of multiple characters, some repeatedly visited, others glimpsed just once or twice. A man named J. Sutter is the one most frequently observed, so I suppose he is technically the main character. But the true MC is a particular weekend in a particular town where an event possibly took place many years earlier, featuring a person who possibly existed. The event was a man defeating a machine at the fea ...more
Gregg Wingo
Jun 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
What a wonderful find and a generally unknown mystery for most West Virginians. In "John Henry Days" we have a local story (Talcott is just 20 miles down river from me), a WV tale, and one of the finest and most accessible Postmodernist novels ever written. I have been reading and rereading the novel for a while now and it has been an immense pleasure each time. It is a work of tremendous detail on human existence.

Like all great Postmodernist novels it is an unrepentant criticism of Late Capita
Deb Oestreicher
Jul 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I confess to being awed by Colson Whitehead. This novel is just astonishing. I am pretty sure my mouth dropped open at several points. A sort of fantasia around the fictional release of a commemorative stamp honoring the folk hero John Henry, the book convincingly imagines a wide range of American lives--all the people associated with the festivities planned to launch the new stamp, including journalists, publicists, a small town's officials and citizens, assorted guests (such as a stamp collect ...more
Apr 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It is pretty clear to me from this book that Whitehead is a versatile and ambitious writer. I really liked the Delillo-like riffs on simulacra and modern malaise, the Doctorow-like ability to time travel to a historical era and the Kunzru-like (only Whitehead did it here first) dive in to African American cultural appropriation.

The book uses the fictional launch of a John Henry commemorative stamp (to be part of a set that will include other American folkloric heroes Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and
Mar 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Damn, to've read this in 2001 when it was fresh, when Colson Whitehead was just the weird dude who wrote about the elevator inspectors. We've all experienced the greatness of his work since then, all the way to the culmination of everything that came before in The Underground Railroad, and so it's a little obvious to say that this book is, like pretty much all of his work, astounding. But this book is dense, it is confounding, it leads you down paths that it doesn't explain. And the ending, of c ...more
Sentimental Surrealist
May 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Whitehead’s first three novels, of which this is the second, strike me as different than his recent work; they’re more elaborate in their construction (especially this one) and more allegorical in their nature. Whereas Whitehead from Sag Harbor onward strikes me as more direct, more character-driven; just as focused on the impact of systems like racism and capitalism on his characters as on analysis of the systems themselves. Which is not to say that early Whitehead is dry - he was always wicked ...more
Feb 27, 2009 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book, though it is definitely the weakest of Whitehead's three novels. Of course, "The Intuitionist" and "Apex Hides the Hurt" were so brilliant that most novels are weaker than them. "John Henry" also suffers from sophomore over-reaching; Whitehead is clever to the point of genius. but that is actually the books failing, as it is often clever without restraint. The lines "So much depends upon a red pickup truck, filled with crackers," and "a runway model dares to eat a pea ...more
First Second Books

This one has been on my shelf for a few years--I read Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist, Apex Hides the Hurt, and Zone One multiple times so obviously I'm a huge Whitehead fan, but for some reason John Henry Days slipped through the cracks. I'm glad it did, because it gave me a new Whitehead book to read while I waited for The Underground Railroad to come out. It didn't disappoint. I usually have extremely limited tolerance for books that jump POV as much as this one does -- they more often than not
Nov 04, 2009 rated it really liked it
Although I'd rate Whitehead's more recent Sag Harbor higher for pure enjoyment, this one places near the top on the admiration scale. With its multiple narrative perspectives on the John Henry legend, it's an ingenious tour de force of folklore and pop culture. The writer loves words and their use in the service of cleverness and wit. I may have missed some of the allusions, but I did get a major guffaw out of --I think my memory serves here--"Everything depends on the red pick-up truck filled w ...more
Dec 07, 2007 rated it did not like it
Shelves: gave-up
Irritatingly overwritten.
Sep 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
A really impressive and fascinating novel in many ways. The story of John Henry as song, as legend, as tourist attraction is the narrative thread. The focus is on John Henry Days, a festival in West Virginia that has been created to celebrate John Henry and the issuing of a stamp of him, but more importantly to bring tourists to two small and economically struggling towns. Much of the story is through the eyes of J. Sutter, a black journalist and junketeer, whose visit to the festival has been p ...more
Dec 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Before this I'd only read The Underground Railroad, but Whitehead's reputation preceded him: he's versatile and has a permanently active, connection-making mind that's on full show in John Henry Days. John Henry is an American folk hero, although he probably did really live, in some form or another, a steeldriver on the C&O railroad. Faced with the prospect of losing his job to an automated steam drill, he's said to have challenged the drill to a contest, and won, before dropping dead of exhaust ...more
I DNF at 21 percent. I tried to finish this book, but honestly nothing was grabbing me at all. Initially, I was intrigued about how Whitehead would weave in John Henry into the story, but instead we seem to be flip flopping between different narrative styles. I really loved "Underground Railroad" and was hoping for more of the same here, but this book really needed some magical realism or something like the former book to really make it stand out.

"John Henry Days" takes a look at folk hero John
This novel is about people who come together to celebrate figure of folklore John Henry, when he is commemorated by a stamp in his hometown of Talcott, WV. The primary narrator of this novel is junketeer J. Sutter, a man we readers know almost as little as we know about John Henry, another sometimes narrator. Other narrators include the daughter of a John Henry memorabilia collector, a railroad stamp collector.
Here is a black anthropologist/ ethnographer: “… John Henry has become a byword, a sy
Jul 01, 2020 rated it liked it
Tough to rate. Whitehead’s writing is 5-star superb; his sentences cut you like glass. But the story never fully developed for me. He fell short of his own ambition in that respect.
I did not enjoy nor finish this book.
Daniel Petersen
Apr 05, 2013 rated it liked it
This is my first Colson Whitehead book and I liked it quite a bit. It is a patchwork novel, narrating characters and events from a range of times and places in American history: late 19th century as well as early, mid, and late 20th century - not in that order! These narratives loop backward and forward round one another, but not to the point of incoherence. Several of the set pieces are just exquisite, some of the best stuff I've ever read. By far the most gripping for me was a (fictional) eyew ...more
Chris Chester
Oct 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
By some strange chance, I happened to pick this book up when I came upon it in a used bookstore in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. I had never been to West Virginia before, nor can I recall having read a book set there (Deliverance was further south, right?), so it seemed serendipitous perhaps to purchase a book set in the state while briefly setting foot there.

But I digress.

John Henry Days is not at all what I thought it would be, but is actually not too out there, once I really think about it.
Feb 03, 2008 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: people who've read very other book on the planet
Shelves: novel, mythology
I read this book mostly because it had the words "John Henry" in the title. Hopefully I've learned my lesson, as this was honestly one of the hardest-to-finish books I've ever read - unlikeable characters (especially the main character), plenty of mock-literary contrivances, and little in the ways of discernable plot. It seems to be trying to compare the rigors of a greedy, soul-sucking white-collar life with the backbreaking work of an underpaid railroad worker, but The Onion does a much better ...more
Aug 06, 2010 rated it did not like it
Yuck. For the first few pages I was really into it, but it only got worse: Such sophomoric writing, such smarminess, such creakily obvious narrative set-up, such transparent literary tricks to glorify a bunch of soulless characters about whom I couldn't give less of a damn. It read like a second-rate indie movie and made me hate the author behind that awful voice, and I gave up after seventy pages.

Is the rest of this book like this? Is most of Whitehead's work? I haven't read anything else of hi
Chris O'Brien
May 21, 2007 rated it liked it
As a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer, this book excels as a series of wonderfully crafted vignettes that are sprinkled through the main narrative. Taken as a whole, however, Whitehead seemed to lose his way. The man can write some serious sentences, I'll give him that. ...more
Apr 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Really good stuff. Brilliant. One the best writers in the last twenty years. Just consistently profound and funny work. Mixes the historical with the contemporary very well. I don't know what other cliche I can add to this. It might end up turning into a diary entry about my reading of the book. It wasn't always easy for me. The structure is applied freely and without limitation. What else, what else. Does a great job of satirizing the boys club of magazine culture. Reading this book is like hav ...more
Nov 17, 2020 rated it it was ok
I feel like I might have enjoyed this book more had I read it at the time of its release in 2001. Nearly 20 years after the fact, I didn't find the book to meet the expectations I had based on its early reviews, nor rise up to the level of Whitehead's later work. The writing is without question solid, but the side trips to various events and times often come across as the result of writing exercises -- write a chapter that uses only one (lengthy) paragraph, write a chapter in the form of a scrip ...more
Oct 31, 2020 rated it really liked it
It has been difficult for me to rate this book. Whitehead sure can write and is blessed with keen intelligence and wit. The story is about so much more than John Henry Days, meandering in several directions, addressing a multitude of issues. And this started to irritate me during the second-half of the novel, and I found my interest waning and at times I would lose the direction of the book. However, it would not take me long to get back on track. I feel it was the writing itself, rather than th ...more
May 24, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2021-read
This is Whitehead's 2nd novel, 15 years before his Pulitzer winning Underground Railroad. John Henry is a legendary figure in American folklore. A small down in WV is having a festival to celebrate him and the release of a postage stamp with his image. A free lance journalist is sent to cover the event. To me, the book is a little disjointed, as it jumps between the journalist and different characters and stories in the past that all have some sort of connection to the Henry story, no matter how ...more
Mar 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
We’ll call it 3.5 stars. Not my favorite of whitehead’s but not bad either. It just seemed to ramble on at times, or run on odd tangents that didn’t seem to add much. Over all the story was interesting but I never feel like we are in anyone’s head but J’s, though it tries to take us into the shooter and other characters. The bits on John Henry were interesting and honestly I wish there had been more of that and less odd vignettes.
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I'm the author of the novels Zone One; Sag Harbor; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award. I've also written a book of essays about my home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non-fiction ac ...more

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