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Unearthing Woody Guthrie’s Lost Novel

Scott Borchert (scott [at] monthlyreview.org) works at Monthly Review Press and is studying cultural reporting and criticism at New York University.
Woody Guthrie (author), Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp (editors), House of Earth (New York: Harper Perennial, 2013), 288 pages, $15.99, paperback.

In 1937 Woody Guthrie wrote a letter to his friend, the actor Eddie Albert, asking for a loan. He needed cash for a special project—around $300 for building materials. Guthrie had lately become fixated on the idea of building an adobe house. He had just read U.S. Department of Agriculture Bulletin No. 1720, The Use of Adobe or Sun-Dried Brick for Farm Building, by T.A.H. Miller, and he was inspired. This pamphlet, a classic New Deal artifact, provided detailed instructions on how to build a sturdy, well-insulated adobe house of your very own. It cost Guthrie five cents. “They wrote that Adobe Brick book so dadgum interesting that you got to slack up every couple of pages to pull the mud and hay out from between your toes,” he raved (xxv).

The pamphlet was designed for people just like him—the rural poor whose flimsy wood shacks offered little protection from the vast dust storms then suffocating the Great Plains. Guthrie lived in Pampa, Texas, an oil boom town on the panhandle that saw the worst of the dust storms and was struck by a terrible blizzard of frozen mud that same year. It seemed as though an adobe house—relatively cheap, strong, warm in the winter and cool in the summer—was just the thing he needed.

It is not clear if Albert ever came through with the loan, but Guthrie never built the house. Instead, like so many others, he headed west for California and left the dust bowl behind him. The rest of Guthrie’s story is well-known: how he became a rambling folk balladeer, an outspoken socialist and anti-fascist, and the inventor of his own legend.

Less known is the fact that Guthrie never got over those adobe houses. A decade after leaving Pampa he completed House of Earth, a novel that celebrates adobe and relates it to a broader vision of solidarity and struggle. The novel zeros in on a young married couple, Tike and Ella May Hamlin, who—although reduced from tenant farmers to sharecroppers—find hope in the same USDA pamphlet that Guthrie treasured ten years earlier.

But like the adobe house that was never built, House of Earth was never published. In their introduction, Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp (who previously worked together on a Hunter S. Thompson project) offer some suggestions why. Guthrie mailed the manuscript to the filmmaker Irving Lerner, hoping he might turn House of Earth into a movie; they corresponded but nothing came of it. The manuscript slipped into obscurity and Guthrie was slowly overtaken by the Huntington’s disease that confined him to hospitals and ultimately killed him.

Getting House of Earth published in the late 1940s would have been difficult or even impossible. The book begins with an extended, explicit sex scene and is imbued throughout with emphatically radical politics. (The two even combine, weirdly, in a few instances—the Hamlins’s foreplay includes dialog about the need to fight landlords and is interrupted by the narrator denouncing “the system of slavery known as sharecropping” [30]). It is hard to imagine a book less suited to the repressed, McCarthyite decade ahead.

While the manuscript sat unnoticed in Lerner’s archive, Guthrie’s legend grew, and disciples like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan became legends themselves. Only recently was the manuscript discovered and sent to the Guthrie collection at the University of Tulsa, eventually landing in the hands of Brinkley and Depp. They conclude that “the novel’s intensity guarantees it a place in the ever-growing field of Guthrieana,” indeed that it “reinforces Guthrie’s place among the immortal figures of American letters.” They even roll out Dylan himself, who “said he was ‘surprised by the genius’ of the engaging prose” (xliii).

Bold claims, all—and largely right. House of Earth is a showcase for Guthrie’s absorbing prose style, an idiosyncratic blend of humor, sorrow, and righteous anger. There is little plot to speak of: Tike and Ella May talk, do chores, have sex once, Ella May has a baby, and that is pretty much it. So Guthrie’s prose must carry the novel, and in moments when it falters—bogged down in abstraction or the rambling thoughts of a character—the thinness of the plot becomes apparent and the otherwise irresistible power of the novel wanes. But such moments are rare, and usually Guthrie creates a mesmerizing portrait of the land and this couple striving to live upon it, propelled by the dream that their rotting wood shack might be replaced by a sturdy house built up from the land itself—except that someone else owns the land, and “by the law of the land they could not lift a hand to build the place into that nicer one because the man that owned it did not care about all of this” (44).

Guthrie sets up this contradiction early and lets it fester; Tike and Ella May turn the thought over and over in their minds like the arid land they try to farm. Brinkley and Depp, though, steer us toward a clumsier reading of the novel: “wood is a metaphor for capitalist plunderers while adobe represents a socialist utopia where tenant farmers own land” (xv). It is likely that Guthrie would have agreed with some aspect of this—maybe that adobe represents the security, material comfort, and ecological harmony that only socialism can deliver, that cheap wood shacks are all capitalism has to offer its wage slaves.

But House of Earth does not dwell on such an ungraceful metaphor. Instead, it contrasts the fact of Tike and Ella May’s alienated labor with their deep feelings of interconnectedness with each other, the land, and the social totality. While in labor Ella May has a vision showing her that “the people are all born from one and they are really all one” (152); once the baby is born Tike hears “in his soul a hundred hammers ring” and “his own hammer ring on every other anvil in the whole world” (197). This is a kind of spiritual communism that Guthrie upholds against the “few people that work to hurt, to hold down, to deny, to take from, to cheat, the rest of us,” the ones who profit from rented wooden shacks and enforce the social alienation necessary to the accumulation of capital, who deny the Hamlins their adobe house (152).

House of Earth meditates on alienation and unity; by the end it resembles something like a prose poem meandering through this theme. The voices in the novel vary but they are all Guthrie’s, from the Steinbeckian narrator to the wise-cracking, nonsense-talking (and singing) Tike, to the more eloquent and philosophical Ella May. Every page, every sentence hums with Guthrie’s presence—but this, the ubiquitous mark of its creator, is also the novel’s strength. House of Earth is best appreciated as an expression of Guthrie’s overall artistic vision, a new point in the constellation of his work that is now, suddenly and belatedly, illuminated. Along with his songs, poems, sketches, articles, and memoirs, House of Earth shares an aesthetic sensibility and a political impulse—the hillbilly poetics of an artist whose relentless opposition to capitalism was matched by his relentless optimism that it could be overcome, that his people would someday find a shelter from the storm. House of Earth puts us a little bit closer to that goal, perhaps, while revealing one more installment in a remarkable body of work that requires still more excavation.

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