Mullane Literary Associates

A Nation of Deadbeats by Scott Reynolds Nelson

A Nation of DeadbeatsScott Reynolds Nelson

Praise for A Nation of Deadbeats by Scott Reynolds Nelson

“This astute account of economic disruption and disaster through the Great Depression is a useful and engaging perspective on our propensity for repeating our financial mistakes.”

Publishers Weekly

“This revisionist account is eminently readable, in large part because Nelson offers flesh-and-blood examples rather than relying on abstractions.”


“History focusing on the losers instead of the winners is especially effective....This might not qualify as 100% pure revisionist history, but it is certainly unconventional history, and hooray for that.”

USA Today

“Puts today’s troubles in better perspective...[and] fun to read.”


“[Nelson] has painstakingly extracted the sensational details from the mucky ore of the history of financial crises in the U.S....larded with entertaining characters and powerful citations.... Exceptionally readable.”

New York Journal of Books

A Nation of Deadbeats is Copernican history, restoring America to its global context and revealing the surprising positive consequences of our frequent panics as well as their crushing costs....a brilliantly original reconsideration not just of economic upheavals but of the American civilization they did so much to shape.”

Edward Tenner, author of Our Own Devices

Praise for Scott Reynolds Nelson's previous books

Steel Drivin’ Man
  • Winner of the Merle Curti Award for Best Book in American Social History
  • Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award
  • Winner of the National Award for Arts Writing
  • Winner of the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Nonfiction

Written at the crossroad where American myth and reality intersect...a tribute and requiem to the real steel drivin’ men who built this country.”

Bruce Springsteen

A fascinating guide to...the grim landscape of Reconstruction.”

William Grimes, The New York Times

A remarkable work of scholarship and a riveting story.... It’s Nelson’s story of piecing together the biography of the real John Henry, and rarely is the tale of hours logged in archives so interesting. It’s the story of fatal racism in the postbellum South. And it’s the story of work songs that not only turned Henry into a folk hero but, in reminding workers to slow down or die, were a tool of resistance and protest.”

Publishers Weekly, starred review

Meticulously researched....[Nelson] sifts through prison records, railroad progress reports, and census data—as well as songs and art—to create a multilayered portrait of a poor teen, his tragic run-ins with racist Black Codes, and his unexpected journey to iconhood.”

Entertainment Weekly

Nelson is a magnificent writer, and he tells a story as great and terrible as any….Steel Drivin’ Man is a rarity among history books....It’s like John Henry: It’s short, and it does its job well.”

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Fascinating, a remarkable feat of historical sleuthing.”

Henry Louis Gates

This superb, informative and delightfully personable book...investigates the powerful durability of a cultural mythos that extends from the horrendous working conditions surrounding the construction of a railway tunnel in western Virginia to today’s modern recording studios....a strong and readable case for the American folk son’s role in creating a myth of one individuals’ raw strength and confidence.”

Dallas Morning News

An original, compelling, sometimes speculative but always fascinating biography of the mythic figure....Nelson’s accomplishment lies in eloquently breathing life into an iconic figure and elegantly re-creating his lost world in a mode that is respectful, moving and entertaining.”

Chicago Tribune

[Nelson’s] deft detective work serves as a search warrant, authorizing him, as he traces the evolution of the song, to drill deep down into the scorched earth of the South....Along with Scott Nelson, we can imagine that this John Henry, short and slight, ornery and proud, with a premonition of his early death...chose as his last words a simple plea for justice and common decency.”

Philadelphia Inquirer

[T]his imaginative reconstruction of the John Henry story [is] a profound and welcome acknowledgement of unrecognized labors that went into building this country.”

Houston Chronicle

Nelson writes in rich, engrossing detail... both a wonderful bit of sleuthing and a fascinating tour of life on the lower fringes of the post-bellum South.... A fine historical detective story.”

Elliott West, History Book Club News

Incandescent....Nelson started out chasing a legend and struck history, whether his John Henry is the ‘steel drivin’ man’ who, in a celebrated contest, beat steam drill with his hammer and died, or one of hundreds of unsung black chain-gang laborers who worked alongside steam drills in the Appalachian Mountains and died to make the railroads run.”

The Progressive

Reads like something between autobiography and a murder mystery....a superb book.”

Sing Out magazine

Cultural history at its best, Steel Drivin’ Man sings like John Henry’s Hammer. What rings in these pages is the big-hearted, broken-hearted America of Walt Whitman, Maya Angelou, Woody Guthrie—and the real John Henry. Scott Nelson has busted a mystery and banged out a landmark.”

Tim Tyson, author of Blood Done Sign My Name

An engaging book....a fascinating view of an historical detective at work.”

Nick Salvatore, Cornell University

“Who really was John Henry? Scott Nelson, astonishingly, thinks he’s figured it out, and he makes powerful sense, not just in bringing a musical legend to life but in re-counting a hard journey through some of the darker scenes of American history, from the sweltering Southern town of the Reconstruction era to the railroad convict labor camps of the Gilded Age.”

Sean Wilentz

A nifty historical detective story ....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. It hammers home the idea that historical detail can be just as compelling as legend.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education

[A] fascinating assemblage of research and folklore....Nelson is an able storyteller, and the finding of John Henry opens up any number of tales to the telling.”

No Depression

A skillful and captivating work ....a book that takes hold of you page after page.”

Martha Hodes, author of A Sea Captain’s Wife

A beautifully written, unique essay in social and cultural history.... An eloquent story about injustice, race, and most important of all, why we study history and how those in the present become engaged with the past... Elegant, accessible, and engaging.”

Merle Curti Prize citation

Steel Drivin’
  • Starred Review, Booklist
  • Starred Review, Publishers Weekly
  • Starred Review, School Library Journal
  • American Library Association Notable Book
  • American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults
  • Booklist Editors' Choice 2008
  • Booklist's Top 10 Black History Books for Youth
  • Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year
  • Chicago Public Library's “Best of the Best”
  • Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, National Council for the Social Studies/Children's Book Council
  • Aesop Prize, Folklore Society of America

About the Author

Scott Reynolds Nelson is a Guggenheim fellow and the author of, among other works, Nation of Deadbeats, Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, which received the Merle Curti Social History Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction, and the National Award for Arts Writing, as well as the related multi-prize winning book for young adults, Ain’t Nothin’ But a Man (coauthored with Marc Aronson). He is the UGA Athletics Association professor of the humanities at the University of Georgia in Athens.

» See also

Oceans of Grain