John Henry

Mike Mulligan:

Here's a bit of a departure for you.

While visiting family over the weekend, my mother -- my son's grandmother, that is -- produced a copy of what she says was my favorite book as a boy. This was Mike and Mary Anne - Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, originally published in 1939. It is apparently eternally popular, and has never been out of print since that date.

It is the story of Mike and his steam shovel, Mary Anne, who worked on the Panama Canal together. As gasoline and diesel powered excavators come into the fore, Mike tries to find a place for himself and Mary Anne. He finally enters into a competition in which they dig out the basement for a City Hall, only they dig so fast that Mary Anne can't get back out again. So, a smart fellow turns her into the furnace for the new City Hall, and Mike gets a decent gov't job maintaining her. It is, in that way, the classic New Deal story.

But that isn't all it is.

I haven't thought of that book even once in my adult life. But sitting there, listening to my mother read it, I realized what it was: it's the legend of John Henry, with the steam engine as the hero.

John Henry said to his captain, "A man ain't nothin' but a man.
"But if you'll bring that steam drill round,
"I'll beat it fair and honest, I'll die with my hammer in my hand
" -- but I'll be laughing --
"'Cuz you can't replace a steel driv'n man."
Now ain't that something?

1 comment:

Neil Sinhababu said...

This just occurred to me, and I looked to see if the point had been made before. Hello, friend.