Friday, April 20, 2007


Steel Drivin' Man Wins National Award for Arts Writing

The Arts Club of Washington is proud to announce that Scott Reynolds Nelson, author of Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend , has won the inaugural National Award for Arts Writing. The Award of $15,000, the only one of its kind the country, is given annually in recognition of excellence in writing about the arts for a broad audience.

The distinguished judges for the 2006 Award were novelist and NPR book critic Alan Cheuse, former Poet Laureate Rita Dove, and novelist Joyce Carol Oates. The judges’ decision was announced at an April 19 reception.

The winning author will give a reading, with music, at the Club on Tuesday, May 22 at 7:00 pm. The reading is free and open to the public.

The National Award in Arts Writing was established by long-time Arts Club member Jeannie S. Marfield in honor of Florence Berryman and Helen Wharton.

Describing Nelson as “a master storyteller,” the judges call the book, “engaging and utterly charming.” “Too much writing about the arts is academic or filled with jargon,” says Sarah Browning, administrator of the prize. “But we believe the arts are for everyone. We want to recognize writing that creates a strong connection with arts and artists.” The Award celebrates prose that is “lucid, luminous, clear, and inspiring.”

Committee members selected three finalists from an extensive list of books published in 2006. The other two finalists were Julie Phillips for James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography), and Ross King for Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism (winner of the 2006 Governor General’s Literary Award of Canada).

Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend, published by Oxford University Press, recounts the true story of the life behind the iconic American hero, telling the poignant tale of a young Virginia convict who died working on the first rail route through the Appalachian Mountains. The book masterfully captures the life of the ballad of John Henry, tracing the song’s evolution – and thus the evolution of American music – from work song through the blues and early country music, to its central place in the American Folksong Movement. Steel Drivin’ Man also received a 2007 Merle Curti Prize from the Organization of American Historians.

Scott Reynolds Nelson is an Associate Professor of History at The College of William & Mary. The author of Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction and coauthor, with Carol Sheriff, of A People At War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil War, he served as a consultant on the forthcoming PBS documentary on John Henry.

For more information, or contact Award Administrator Sarah Browning,, 202-331-7282 x 15.

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