American Literature: “The Steel Drivin’ Man” (Rewritten from Captain Walters’ point of view)


Anita Mancheva, a third-year English Language and Literature student in the Faculty of Philology at Ss Cyril and Methodius University of Skopje, was given the task of rewriting “The Steel Drivin’ Man” (as retold by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen) from Captain Walters’ point of view. In the Randolph and Owen version, the captain is described as a railroad contractor who oversees both slaves and Black free men and is “…a southerner of the old school who [loves] his ‘niggahs’ as he [calls] them, and they [love] him.”

This is a first-draft class exercise (with significant direct quoting) written by a non-native speaker of English; thus, I was more interested in the writer’s understanding of the original text than in a perfect retelling of the story. Mancheva’s omission of certain details is important—in particular, Walters makes no mention of Lucy, John Henry’s love, who is the force behind his obsessive hard work. Also, Mancheva shifts the ending, revealing much about the attitude of Captain Walters toward the men he employed.
There was a Negro, John Henry, who worked for me as a steel driver. He was a “free man” who earned his freedom by saving “his master from a watery grave.” John Henry was a pure Negro, he was a mighty man over six foot tall and weighed more than two hundred and fifty pounds. He was the best steel driver I’ve ever seen in my life. He worked harder than anyone else, maybe because he was a “free man” and was receiving into his own hand three silver dollars per week. One day, while we were working in [the] Virginia mountains, a Yankee drummer, an agent for [the] so-called “steam-drill,” arrived at the camp. He wanted to sell one of those machines to me. I didn’t want to buy it because I "did not believe in the much-advertised scientific improvements." Besides,” Why pay for the use of brains when the use of muscle was so cheap?” Anyway, this Yankee was so persistent in persuading me to buy a steam-drill that to rid myself of him, I made a proposition to him that “I had a niggah who could take his hammer and steel and beat that three-legged steam contraption to a frazzle.” So I bet with him [in] five [hundred] dollars that he could do that on the spot. The Yankee agreed and said that if he won, I’ll have to give him an order. Thus, everything was settled. I wasn’t afraid I’ll lose my money, John Henry was a strong and fervent steel driver and I knew he would win the bet for me.

So the next day, I called John aside and told him about the bet. I told him that if he and his hammer can beat the steel contraption, I’ll give him $50. He readily agreed and was very happy.

The next day the race began. It was a hot day in July and there it was--the race between the brain and the muscle. John drove more fervently than ever. “With every stroke [I] could almost see the drill go down and though the Yankee used much steam, the mark on [John’s] steel was approaching the surface of the stone faster than the mark of his own.” But then, just as he became invisible, entering the aperture, the sledge struck and a strong noise was heard.

Everyone gathered around John. He was laying full length on the rocks. I went to him and told him the great news that he had beat the steam contraption. He was happy for a moment, smiled and then died.

That day I proved to the Yankee that I was right. I didn’t need a steel-drill because I already got cheap muscle force that could beat even a machine. However, it was such a pity John died. I lost such a cheap force.


Reference: Randolph, A. Philip and Chandler Owen. "The Steel Drivin' Man" (The Messenger, 1925). Rpt in Worley, Demetrice A. and Jesse Perry, Jr. African-American Literature: An Anthology. Lincolnwood (Illinois): lNTC Publishing Group, 1998. 15-18.

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