Tale of Folk Hero Wins New Award For Arts Writing

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2007

When Scott Reynolds Nelson set out to write "Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend," he couldn't have dreamed his book would win the National Award for Arts Writing.

For one thing, the award hadn't been invented yet.

For another, "arts writer" is not the category into which Nelson would most naturally seem to fall. He's a professor of history at Virginia's College of William & Mary whose last book was "Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction."

That didn't stop him from being delighted to win the $15,000 award, which is designed to encourage writing unburdened by academic jargon.

"I came into this profession wanting to write," Nelson said in a telephone interview. "I've been writing bad poetry since I was 15."

The National Award for Arts Writing is the newly hatched brainchild of the Arts Club of Washington, which will present it to Nelson at a dinner next month. In addition, the club will host a reading on May 22 that will be open to the public.

Club members saw a shortage of "good, accessible writing about the arts," said award administrator Sarah Browning, and they decided to use a bequest by longtime member Jeannie S. Marfield to do something about this.

It is still something of a work in progress. This year, Browning said, she compiled a list of 27 eligible books by reading reviews, putting the word out to knowledgeable people and "haunting bookstores." A club committee helped her narrow the choice and eventually three finalists were selected. Next year, she said, the process will likely be more formal and involve nominations from publishers.

The two other finalists were Ross King for "The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism" and Julie Phillips for "James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon," a biography of the pseudonymous science fiction pioneer. The judges were poet Rita Dove and novelists Joyce Carol Oates and Alan Cheuse.

The club's definition of arts writing was "very broad," Cheuse said. "Steel Drivin' Man," he added, combines personal, cultural and social history and "is one of those quirky books where someone manages to turn his obsession into something we're all interested in."

Oates said she particularly liked the way Nelson used the first person to narrate his search for John Henry. She also noted that of the finalists, "this was the one that seemed the most compact and economical in its presentation of its material."

Nelson described his book as "kind of cut in half." In the first part, he tells of tracking down the real man he believes was behind the legend.

While researching his previous book he stumbled onto reports from the board of the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond that told, he writes, "a terrible story about railroad work." In the early 1870s, black convicts were leased to the C&O Railroad, which was running a line across the Alleghenies. Many died doing tunneling and other work for the C&O.

Later, Nelson got interested in African American work songs and was drawn to the ballad of John Henry and his fatal contest with a steam drill. One day he ran across an old photograph of the Richmond penitentiary that showed "a large white building in the center." He found himself suddenly putting two disparate bits of information together: a conversation he'd had with an archivist about nearly 300 skeletons discovered near the penitentiary buildings, and a stanza from one version of the song:

They took John Henry to the white house,

And buried him in the san'

And every locomotive come roarin' by,

Says there lays that steel drivin' man . . .

Hypothesizing that the building in the photograph was the "white house" in question, Nelson checked penitentiary records and found a "John Wm. Henry" who'd been sent to work on the C&O. More research supported -- though it cannot prove -- his belief that he'd found a legend's origin.

In the second part of his book, Nelson said, he addresses the question: "How does this become a song?" It's this question that makes it possible to categorize "Steel Drivin' Man" as arts writing.

"There are almost 200 recorded versions of the ballad of John Henry," he writes at one point. "It was among the first of the songs that came to be called 'the blues' and it was one of the first recorded 'country' songs."

This varied musical legacy gave Oates an idea for improving on Nelson's hardback text.

"I think it would be ideal if this came back in paperback with a CD of the songs," she said.

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