My drinking habits are practically confined to drip coffee, Mint Juleps, and the ‘John Henry.’
1 RAW EGG (whole and unbeaten)
1 JIGGER GOOD CORN WHISKY
Drink in One Single Gulp
-From So Red the Nose
How was this drink, you ask? Um. It has raw egg in it. It was…not really that bad actually. Apparently raw egg has very little flavor. And corn whisky may be a hard liquor, but it is, surprisingly, a little on the sweet side.
Speaking of corn whisky, sometime in the 81 years since Prohibition ended, moonshine has gone from being made in an old bathtub in the woods to being sold in kitschy little mason jars at Walgreens. Every moonshine brand is labeled “authentic,” but I’m guessing that a shelf full of factory-sealed, blueberry– and lemonade-flavored corn whisky is a far-cry from the stuff John Henry was drinking.
Still, as long as I’m drinking whisky made of corn, I think I’m obeying the letter of the law on this recipe. When we get to some of the actual “moonshine” drinks, I promise to get my hands on the bathtub stuff.
Downing a raw egg in one chug actually took some practice. I made a little video so you can share the joy of my accomplishment with me:
Ok, I guess I’m not really selling the “not that bad” claim.
I’m a man and I don’t know my strenk. I’m a fool and I don’t know my name. But I’m stout like a mule and my name is John Henry, and I laid my shovel down!
– from John Henry
Sigh. You couldn’t make it easy for me, could you Mr. Bradford? A book with a person of color main character/hero, set in the 1870’s, can go either inspiringly right or spectacularly wrong. It would be so much easier to analyze John Henry if its (white, Southern) author was either a crusader of racial justice or a straight up white supremacist. Instead, he had to go and exist in this fuzzy, in-between space called “problematic.” After reading, my head was spinning with way too many different, contradictory thoughts, so I neatly divided them all into two piles for your reading convenience:
The Good: Without this book, the legend of John Henry would have been lost to history. Henry’s supposed feats were mainly only known in mining and railroad communities until Roark Bradford popularized them through his bestselling 1931 novel and, eight years later, embarrassing flop of a musical play.
For my non-American readers (and if you’re American and don’t know John Henry, for shame), Henry was a black railroad worker who allegedly stuck a blow (see what I did there?) for the working man by winning a race against the steam-powered hammer. Though John Henry was the strongest, most manliest man to ever man, the contest was too much for him, and he died as it ended.
What I love about the John Henry story is he’s not (just) a “black” hero; he’s an American hero. His story is about standing up for the working man and about how heartless progress can often be indifferent to human suffering. At the same time, John Henry could only be a black hero, in that he is representative of the African-American laborers who built the Southern railroads.
Before he began his career novelizing black-American folklore à la Uncle Remus, Roark Bradford apparently cared deeply about connecting with African Americans in his actual, nonfictional life, even in the racial dark ages of the 1920’s and 30’s. As a college football player, he was named a “Negro baiter” by his white teammates for acting friendly toward their one black member. After Bradford tried to reverse a hazing incident gone wrong against said teammate, in which they were both shot at, his black friend carried the injured Bradford to safety. Apocryphal, maybe, but a pretty amazing story if true. Later in life, he also donated to the cause of the Scottsboro Boys, albeit not in a very timely fashion.
The Bad: The n-word appears on 55 pages of this (225 page) book.
And not just in dialogue. The third person narration uses it, without the excuse of any kind of affected dialect.
And as for the dialogue itself, oh boy. Here is a sample of how John Henry speaks: “‘Don’t let me git mad on de day I’m bawn, ’cause I’m skeered of my ownse’f when I gits mad.”
But, you say, isn’t that just to add realism for the time period? Why is it any different from Huckleberry Finn? Well, remember that this book was written when minstrel shows were all the rage, and contemporary reviews show that 1930’s readers assumed that much of this book was supposed to be played for laughs. Also, all the white characters speak in standard English, even though the book takes place in the deep South.
In addition, Bradford changes the traditional Henry story in ways that are less than flattering. The most obvious case of this is the character treatment of John Henry’s “woman,” Julie Ann (called Polly Ann in some songs). In the ballads, she is faithful, loyal to the point of death, and can drive steel as well as any man. In the book, her main quality is sleeping with another man every minute that John’s back is turned.
On the one hand, I can think of non-racist reasons Bradford wanted to change Julie Ann’s personality; it’s hard to create conflict or a story arch around perfect characters. That’s probably why tall tales don’t often get extended into full novels or movies.
On the other hand, this was time when racists accused black workers of being promiscuous and shiftless. It seems pretty…problematic for Bradford to give those very qualities to a beloved folk character from a culture he is not a part of, even if he does redeem her by the end.
But perhaps contemporary reviewer Sterling Brown captured it best: “Roark Bradford…will probably stir controversy among the folk-lorists, and dismay at some tea parties…but where, o where is the negro author?”
Come to think of it, where are the black authors in So Red the Nose? It was written ten years into the Harlem freaking Renaissance. Where is my Zora Neal Hurston cocktail? Why isn’t a martini glass full of The Weary Blues in my hand right now? Why would this book publish forgettable pulp authors like S.S. Van Dine and ignore giants like W.E.B Du Bois?
Yet another travesty wrought by racism. Weep with me, readers. Weep for the reviews that could have been.
Forgotten classic or better left in the past?
Now that you’re just as confused as I am as to whether you’re even allowed to like this book, let me throw some more ambivalence your way by talking about the story itself.
There are some weird, dated aspects to this book that make it hard to read. Besides the racism, I mean. And the dialect, which gave me a headache.
The characters have this strange tendency to answer direct questions in song lyric form. It’s great that Bradford wanted to
cash in on a Broadway adaptation, incorporate actual folksongs into his novel, but the concept…doesn’t really translate so well to the printed word.
Also, these characters do a lot of cocaine. Doesn’t make it any harder to read, just thought I’d throw it out there.
Also also, “put my shoes under the bed” is my new favorite sex euphemism.
Setting those serious and sundry issues aside, honestly, …I loved this book. I don’t know if credit should go to Bradford or the original oral storytellers (probably a little of both), but it is a truly compelling tale.
The crux of John Henry’s character arch is trying to flesh out what it means to be a “real man.” He brags constantly about his external trappings of manliness — height, strong muscles, women fawning over him — but he is plagued by the thought that there must be more to it than that.
An implied part of this conflict, one I’m not sure that Bradford was even aware of, is what it meant to be a black man. Society shuts him out of the things that white men consider “masculine:” money, power, prestige. He even tries to fake the wealth part with fancy clothes, but realizes that that is just as empty as any other external sign of masculinity.
John Henry’s struggle comes to a head with what he sees as his greatest weakness: his hopeless passion for the woman who continually emasculates him. Society tells him that a real man can keep his woman in line, or just forget her and move on to the next, but his heart is going all Brokeback Mountain on him. In one of the many poignant Julie Ann/John Henry scenes in the novels, he slaps her, but, with tears running down his cheeks, admits, “I’d druther lose my big right arm den to hurt you jest a little.”
It’s not the (cotton-bailing, in this version) machine that beats him in the end. Rather, he goes into the contest because he both has something to prove yet nothing left to lose. He is finally able to “lay down his burden” — the burdens of painful love and of endless toil without purpose — through death.
Final verdict: To this day, this is the only fleshed-out John Henry story written for an adult audience. So, I guess that makes Roark Bradford’s the world’s best John Henry novel,* but damn if it couldn’t have been so much better. Check back in five years when I have written an awesome racism- and music interlude- free version.
John Henry — including novel, play script, and a fabulously well-researched introduction — can be bought here.
Next Time: A book that brags of being “the best foxhunting story ever written.” Not sure if “foxhunting fiction” is an actual genre, so specific that Netflix would roll its eyes, or if someone gave The Voice of Bugle Ann a backhanded compliment like… well, like the one I just gave John Henry,* Either way: OMG PUPPY!!