- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Faster than a speeding drill. More powerful than a steam hammer. Able to leap generations in a single bound. It’s a man — it’s a legend — it’s John Henry, a railroad worker whose race against his technological successor ended in both his death and his everlasting myth.

For decades, American schoolchildren have sung the old folk tune about the mighty railroad worker who, with a 14-pound sledgehammer, was able to defeat a newfangled steam-powered drilling machine in a contest staged by the “captain” of the work crew, then “laid down his hammer and died.”

For the past eight years, Scott Nelson, a history professor at the College of William & Mary at Williamsburg and author of “Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend,” has researched the John Henry myth. Among his findings:

• Henry was a real person, a Virginia convict who died in the 1870s while working on the C&O; Railroad’s Lewis Tunnel through the Appalachian Mountains.

• The Communist Party was instrumental in promoting Henry’s legend.

• The Henry legend helped inspire 20th-century comic-book superheroes, including Superman.

Mr. Nelson said he discovered Henry’s burial site by focusing on the last verse of the folk song: “They took John Henry to the White House, and they buried him in the sand, and every locomotive comes roarin’ by says, ‘There lies a steel drivin’ man.’”

Though some had thought the lyric referred to the White House in the capital, Mr. Nelson discovered that it actually referred to a penitentiary in Virginia.

“It was one of those goose-pimply kind of moments there,” Mr. Nelson recalled. “I thought of it as a song, as a legend. I hadn’t thought of it as actually meaning something, as an event.”

In “Steel Drivin’ Man,” Mr. Nelson not only tells of his discovery of Henry’s grave, but also explores the history of the man, and the rise of his myth in both story and song. In his book, Mr. Nelson, a former comic-book fan, says Superman and several other all-American sequential-art heroes were influenced by the exaggerated images of Henry used by the Communist Party.

Hugo and Lawrence Gellert, two radical dissidents from Hungary who traveled to the South in the 1920s, used the story of Henry in the 1920s for its socioeconomic undertones.

“The two of them saw the story of John Henry as the epitome of the worker’s struggle; the sort of struggle against the machine that ultimately kills you,” Mr. Nelson said. “They’re very attracted to a song that is sung by the workers about the plight of the black workers.”

Hugo Gellert, a deco artist, used Henry as visual propaganda. “He used this method of rendering pictures with something called a lithogram,” Mr. Nelson said. “He rendered these kind of crazy, enlarged muscles. The characters looked like they were smuggling balloons under their shirts.”

Mr. Nelson added that the image of Henry was prevalent in liberal communities throughout the country in the late 1930s: “The idea of the Communist Party was to distribute these images all across the world,” he said.

Furthermore, he added, the message of the image — used “for anti-war rallies, for rallies in support of U.S. intervention [in World War II],” Mr. Nelson said — held special resonance for some Americans struggling against isolationism.

“In 1938, 1939, a lot of young Jewish men were interested in following the news, in the U.S.’s being involved in World War II,” Mr. Nelson said. “If we set the clock back to 1936, to 1938, that’s a time where the Communist Party is a real champion for the fight against the Nazis. … At this point, the U.S. was not interested in fighting a war against Germany, but a lot of Jewish men and Communists wanted them to fight.”

Among these Jewish onlookers were Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and Captain America co-creator Jacob Kurtzberg, also known as Jack “The King” Kirby.

“Siegel and Shuster and Kirby were radicals of their time — they saw themselves as very radical, very left wing,” Mr. Nelson said. “Siegel and Shuster grew up in that environment in Cleveland, and that’s where the party really had its strength around the mid-1930s: around the Jewish population and the Lower East Side of New York.”

Mr. Nelson said the power and righteousness of the Henry image influenced these sequential artists’ creations.

“If you think about Jack Kirby, he was a really small guy, [but] he was a street fighter nonetheless. For men of a certain age, these impossibly strong men in the Communist Party magazines, that’s an attractive image,” Mr. Nelson said. “That appeals to their sense of the growing muscles of puberty, and that somebody has to do something with what’s going on in Europe.”

Thus, Mr. Nelson said, sequential art appropriated Gellert’s exaggerated musculature to create all-American heroes: “People like Siegel and Shuster, and people like [Kirby] were clearly influenced by this style, this sort of muscular visual vocabulary, and pressed it into red-white-and-blue suits,” he said.

Henry influenced characters such as Superman, Captain America and Captain Marvel philosophically, Mr. Nelson said. “If you look at the first few years of Superman, Captain America and Captain Marvel, he’s kind of different from the character we’re used to,” he said. “These characters fight building owners who refuse to renovate the buildings they own, capitalists who send minors to their deaths, and fascists, [in] kind of the mold of the Communist Party magazines.”

Mr. Nelson said these characters were “not destined for greatness: Superman is an orphan, Captain America is injected with a serum, and Captain Marvel is hit with a thunderbolt from Zeus.” He added, “They come from relatively humble circumstances and do great things.”

Since the 1940s, the legend of Superman has given back to its Civil War predecessor. In 1993, during DC Comics’ “Reign of the Supermen” story line, four superheroic figures vied for the right to wear the S-Shield and defend Metropolis after the Man of Steel died in battle. One of those heroes — the armored, hammer-wielding Steel, who waged war against weapons manufacturers — also was known as John Henry Irons.

“This is sort of John Henry, post-black power. He’s a scientist who’s fighting against a corporation in a very different kind of way, and not an unskilled worker or a convict,” Mr. Nelson said. “It’s the sort of homage to the characters that really go into Superman. It’s kind of a clever way of linking those legends back again.”

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide