Nelson, Scott Reynolds 1964-

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Nelson, Scott Reynolds 1964-


March 28, 1964, in Nyack, NY; son of John Reynolds and Carole Brown Nelson; married Cindy Hahamovitch, December 28, 1985; children: Reynolds Nelson Hahamovitch, Anne Isabel Hahamovitch Nelson. Education: Attended Rollins College; University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, B.A. (with highest honors), 1987, M.A. and Ph.D., 1995.


Office—Department of History, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA 23187. E-mail—[email protected].


College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, Department of History, summer research program director, 1994, assistant professor, 1994-2001, associate professor, 2001-2007, Leslie and Naomi Legum Professor, 2007—.


Phi Beta Kappa.


C. Ballard Breaux Visiting Fellowship, Filson Historical Society, 2003; Anisfield-Wolf Literary Prize for Nonfiction, National Award for Fine Arts, and Merle Curti Prize for Best Book in U.S. Social and Cultural History, Organization of American Historians, all 2007, all for Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend.



Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1999.

Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2006.

(With Carol Sheriff) A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America's Civil War, 1854-1877, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2007.

(With Marc Aronson) Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry, National Geographic (Washington, DC), 2008.

Contributor to books, including Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History, edited by Martha Hodes, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1999; and Many Middle Passages, edited by Cassandra Pybus, Emma Christopher, and Marcus Rediker, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2007. Contributor of articles and reviews to journals, including Reviews in American History and Civil War History. Electronic communications chair, Labor and Working Class History Association, 1998-2001. Associate editor, Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 2003—. Member of editorial board, Society for the History of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 1998-2001, Virginia Magazine of History & Biography, 2007—, and Labor: Studies of Working Class History of the Americas, 2007—.


Story and song have mythologized John Henry, a supposedly superstrong nineteenth-century railroad worker who was able to outpace machinery in driving through rock but died in the process. Some historians believe John Henry was based on a real person, but Scott Reynolds Nelson believes he has found that real person and profiles him in Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend. Nelson, a historian with interests that include labor, race, and the American South, makes the case that he was John William Henry, an African American from New Jersey who had served with the Union Army and began working in railroad construction as a convict laborer after having been imprisoned (perhaps wrongly) for theft in Virginia shortly after the Civil War. He and many other workers used hammers and spikes to make holes in mountains in which dynamite could be placed to blast space for a tunnel; steam-powered drills did this work at the same time, while managers tried to determine which process was faster. Nelson concludes that John Henry indeed died on the job, probably not from the exhausting race with the drill but from silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling rock particles, which killed hundreds of railroad workers. In telling John Henry's story, Nelson also tells of the racism that outlasted slavery, of the laborers' harsh conditions, how the legend of John Henry developed, and what it came to mean to various groups of Americans.

Several critics deemed Nelson's work a powerful evocation of John Henry's world and a testament to railroad workers, even though some were not convinced he had discovered the true John Henry. "Whether or not one accepts his thesis—some rival investigators do not—Mr. Nelson's work demonstrates what can happen when a historian applies the tools of his trade to subject matter traditionally reserved for folklorists and bluesmen," reported Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "It hammers home the idea that historical detail can be just as compelling as a legend." William Grimes, reviewing for the New York Times, thought Nelson offered "plausible" evidence for his thesis, but added: "Whether or not John William Henry is the man seems almost irrelevant. He is a fascinating guide to the world of the Southern railroads and the grim landscape of Reconstruction." In the Houston Chronicle, Alex Lichtenstein remarked that Nelson's "sources cannot provide definitive evidence about John Henry's life, death and rebirth as an icon. But I believe most readers will find in his imaginative reconstruction of the John Henry story a profound and welcome acknowledgment of the unrecognized labors that went into building this country." A Publishers Weekly commentator pronounced the book "a remarkable work of scholarship and a riveting story," while Howard summed it up by saying: "Nelson's findings humanize the legend; they do not diminish its pathos and its power."

Nelson told CA: "My father was a raconteur, and my mother was an English teacher. I also had a spectacular English teacher in high school—Ms. Davenport—who let me write short stories instead of papers. I came to college not knowing how to write an essay, but I could write dialogue and tell a good story. Finally, my wife taught me how to write history."

When asked who influences his work, he said, "In no particular order: Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Gibson, Marcel Proust, Ursula LeGuin, and Emily Dickinson. I try to read a lot of poetry from the 1860s to the 1930s because it helps me understand how people use (and used) language."

When asked to describe his writing process, Nelson said: "Frantic. I have a tendency to root around in primary sources, and am often uncomfortable and impatient with secondary material. I write more like a journalist: I read lots of primary sources, then write a story, then go back and fact-check. I revise endlessly.

"There are a number of talismanic words which people accept and use but which none of us really understand. Some of these words are industrialization, urbanization, economic growth, and economic development. The words have become very powerful but are almost meaningless. Writers of nonfiction have a way of treating these words as if they directly affected events, though they are not really actors at all. Using these terms not only deadens prose, it dulls meaning. As a social historian I tended at first to dismiss the actions of individuals, but I have become more interested in how individuals made sense of the world around them, exerted power over others, and then created patterns of behavior that future generations accepted as natural. There are a number of institutions—the plantation, the corporation, the commodity exchange—which have a history that defines the way that millions of people act. Yet we scarcely understand where they came from. Understanding how individuals created them will help us destroy them, or at least alter them. Yet to understand these institutions largely requires careful biographical research."

When asked about his favorite books, he said: "Nature's Metropolis by Bill Cronon. It's a little too long, but it's imaginative and daring. Who'd have thought that reading about wheat, wood, and cattle would make you sit at the edge of your seat?

"I'm a historian. Most people think (from high school days) that history is about names and dates. It's actually about discovering how and why the world changed. I want other people to understand the excitement of historical discovery. For that reason I write in a conversational tone, but I don't try to disguise or bury the investigative process: How do we historians learn about the past? How do we put it together? Why are some stories more convincing than others? In fact, I want to demonstrate to folks that anyone can do primary research into the past. I try to show the way."



American Historical Review, October, 2000, Kenneth W. Noe, review of Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction, p. 1313.

Chronicle of Higher Education, February 9, 2007, Jennifer Howard, "Digging Deep for the Real John Henry."

Entertainment Weekly, September 29, 2006, Michelle Kung, review of Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, p. 87.

Federal Lawyer, March-April, 2007, Jon M. Sands, review of Steel Drivin' Man, p. 63.

Houston Chronicle, October 20, 2006, Alex Lichtenstein, "Folklore Made Flesh: Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson Resurrects Real-life Progenitor of Legendary Steel-Drivin' Man," Zest section, p. 21.

Journal of American History, June, 2000, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, review of Iron Confederacies, p. 235.

Journal of Economic Literature, December, 1999, review of Iron Confederacies, p. 1819.

Journal of Southern History, November, 2000, review of Iron Confederacies, p. 891.

Library Journal, October 1, 2006, Lawrence R. Maxted, review of Steel Drivin' Man, p. 90; April 1, 2007, Randall M. Miller, review of A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America's Civil War, 1854-1877, p. 102.

New York Times, October 18, 2006, William Grimes, "Taking Swings at a Myth, with John Henry the Man," p. E3.

Publishers Weekly, August 14, 2006, review of Steel Drivin' Man, p. 192.

Technology and Culture, April, 2001, Sarah Gordon, review of Iron Confederacies, p. 366.

Times Literary Supplement, March 23, 2007, Michael Anderson, "Hammered Home," p. 34.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), November 12, 2006, Eric Arnesen, "Tracking Down the Man behind a Railroad Legend," p. 9.

Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, spring, 2000, Peter Rachleff, review of Iron Confederacies.


College of William and Mary Web site, (July 13, 2006), "Q&A with Nelson: Beyond the Myth of John Henry."

BlogCritics, (December 3, 2006), Jon Sobel, review of Steel Drivin' Man.

World Socialist Web site, (May 15, 2007), Jonathan Keane, "John Henry: From Folk Legend to Communist Superhero."