The form and formlessness of histories, regions, races, ballads, fictions, lists, characters, and mountains are among the topics of concern in Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days, and they pose a real challenge to conveying what this novel is like. Caroline Levine's Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network advocates considering forms in terms of their affordances, “the potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs” (6). This depends, however, on the reliable identification of forms in a particular text, activity, or material; and the critical response to John Henry Days gives us evidence that, while we can analyze forms the novel deploys and contains, it remains a challenge to identify the novel's form as a whole. In a different vein, Heather Love's work on description is explicitly concerned with “forms of analysis,” but not with the analysis of form per se. The present examination of John Henry Days attempts to bridge such valuable conversations about form and description. This article argues that as John Henry Days grapples with describing forms that constantly remake themselves, it takes a position akin to science and technology studies scholar Michael Lynch's theoretical agnosticism with respect to capital-O Ontology. Refusing anything like a full-blown theory of form, John Henry Days both practices and advocates provisional taxonomy—touching and moving on—as a way of knowing its ever-changing material. This article's analysis of the describer's nightmare is thus a case study for Lynch's claim that “particular descriptions—including descriptions of ontologies—can make sense, apparently even to others who do not share our grand theories.”

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