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Ron Briley: Review of Woody Guthrie's "House of Earth: A Novel" (Infinitum, 2013)

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

House of Earth is a novel written in 1947 by folksinger and political activist Woody Guthrie.  Although Guthrie wrote what many scholars describe as two autobiographical novels, Bound for Glory (1943) and Seeds of Man (published in 1972 five years after Guthrie’s death), House of Earth remained unpublished until the seemingly ubiquitous Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley discovered the manuscript and arranged for its publication under actor Johnny Depp's new Infinitum label with HarperCollins.

Thus, House of Earth is edited by the unlikely duo of Brinkley and Depp, who also provide an insightful introductory essay for the novel. The editors insist that they made few changes with the original manuscript, and for those who have enjoyed the pleasure of listening to and reading Woody’s songs, letters, and voluminous journals and notebooks, the published novel remains true to the voice of Guthrie, who consistently championed the cause of the common people against the entrenched interests of privilege and wealth. House of Earth tells the story of Tike and Ella May Hamlin, a young farming couple in the Texas Panhandle, who decide to battle the Dust Bowl and predatory interests by staying on the land and not undertaking the exodus to the promised land of California. While John Steinbeck chronicled the ordeal of Dust Bowl refugees in California, Depp and Brinkley write, “Guthrie’s own heart was with those stubborn dirt farmers who remained behind in the Great Plains to stand up to the bankers, lumber barons, and agribusiness that had desecrated beautiful wild Texas with overgrazing, clear-cutting, strip-mining, and reckless farming practices.” (xxix)

Of course, Guthrie was not one of those farmers who stubbornly stayed on the land.  He was born July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. After the family suffered financial setbacks, the tragic death of his older sister in a fire, and the hospitalization of his mother diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, Woody joined relatives in the Texas Panhandle community of Pampa. Woody married and began a family, but it was difficult to make ends meet as Pampa was engulfed by dust. Accordingly, Guthrie, unlike his fictional protagonist Tike Hamlin, abandoned the Panhandle to see what was happening to his people in California. While residing in California, Guthrie began a career in music and political activism that would take him to New York City and a second marriage.

Tike refuses to leave the Texas soil, but he and his wife live in a ramshackle wooden house on land which they are renting. The farmer believes that salvation for the family could be provided through the construction of a house of earth or adobe. Such a house would include thick earth walls which could withstand the West Texas wind and dust. This house would be cool in summer and warm in winter. The panacea of this natural building material occurred to Guthrie during a 1937 visit to New Mexico. The construction of such a house would not require a skilled craftsman, and Guthrie believed that a U. S. Department of Agriculture pamphlet entitled The Use of Adobe or Sun-Dried Brick for Farm Building made the art of adobe construction accessible to Panhandle farmers. Tike purchased this government publication for a nickel and was convinced that a house of earth would allow his family to remain in his beloved West Texas.

A major obstacle to the building of an earthen home was the fact that Tike did not own the land which he was farming. He could not simply tear down the deteriorating wooden structure in which he and Ella May lived and replace it with a house of earth. In fact, the owner of their land would not renew their lease and planned on demolishing their house and expanding his farm land. Ella May came from a wealthy family who disinherited her for marrying such a poor farmer. Both Tike and Ella May have too much pride to ask her father for money, but Ella May has managed to put away nearly two hundred dollars with which she hopes to purchase an acre of land on which Tike might construct his dream house of earth. At the end of the novel, it is unclear whether Tike, Ella May, and their newborn son will be able to escape their economic plight. But Guthrie clearly celebrates their love and struggle to survive.

Guthrie wrote House of Earth during a troubled time in both his personal and political life. Guthrie welcomed the Second World War as a conflict which would destroy international fascism and its domestic equivalents such as Jim Crow. After the United States entered the war, Woody rushed around New York City with the slogan “this machine kills fascists” scrawled on his guitar. Serving with the Merchant Marine, Guthrie wrote passionate letters to his soon-to-be second wife Marjorie Greenblatt, who was pregnant with the couple’s first child. Guthrie asserted that the sacrifices of common people in the global conflict would usher in a postwar world of freedom and economic opportunity for all. Guthrie, however, was disillusioned with the emerging Cold War and Second Red Scare which allowed entrenched economic interests to associate political reform, racial integration, and the union movement with the scourge of communism. His new marriage was also encountering some rocky moments, and in February 1947 Woody and Marjorie’s four-year-old daughter Cathy (whom Woody insisted upon calling Stackabones) perished in an apartment fire. This was the milieu in which Guthrie completed his House of Earth manuscript.

Thus, it is not surprising to find a strong element of political discontent and protest in the novel. Tike has little faith in the American dream of social mobility through hard work when the land and means of production are controlled by the banks and big business. He lamented that the land belongs to absentee landlords who do not care about the labor and travails of the common people. The land “belonged to somebody who does not know how quick we can get together and just how fast we can fight. Belongs to a man or woman somewhere that don’t even know that we’re down here alive. It belongs to a disease that is the worst cancer on the face of this country, and that cancer goes hand in hand with Ku Klux, Jim Crow, and the doctrine and gospel of race hate, and that disease is the system of slavery known as sharecropping” (80) Tike perceives that the government may aid the people through such activities as encouraging the construction of earth houses. He concludes that the people might be able to unite and elect a government that would redistribute land, but the banks would figure out a way to get the land back within a couple of months. The problem for Guthrie seemed to be greed, and the novel implies that the only way to solve the inequality in wealth and power would be through the destruction of the capitalist system. It was almost impossible for such heretical thoughts to be published in post-World War II America. 

Depp and Brinkley also maintain that the graphic sexuality of the novel would have prevented its publication in 1947. The sex between Tike and Ella May is described in graphic detail, and to some extent this treatment of sexuality, just like a house made of earth, was natural, and Woody believed that it should be celebrated rather than censored. Although sexuality is not a topic on which most Guthrie biographers tend to focus, the folksinger may be perceived as a sexual libertine. Or perhaps a preoccupation with sex, which led to a conviction for sending pornographic material through the mail and leaving Marjorie for a younger woman whom Guthrie made his third wife in 1953, was a reflection of the obsessive behavior often associated with onset of Huntington’s disease. 

While some may try to dismiss the publication of House of Earth as an effort to cash in on the 2012 Guthrie centennial, the novel is a good initiation to the folksinger’s politics and appreciation of the earth. His evoking of the West Texas drawl and vernacular gives authenticity to the voices of the common people. For readers seeking to learn more about Guthrie, editors Brinkley and Depp provide a selected Guthrie bibliography and discography to go along with a biographical time line. Guthrie really only presents three characters in the novel -- Tike, Ella May, and Blanche (the nurse who helps with delivery of their baby) -- and the novel could easily be adapted as a play. While the novel is not fully developed, House of Earth is an excellent introduction to Guthrie’s life, thought, and music; encouraging readers to delve further into Guthrie’s legacy which continues to resonate with a political system in which banks are too big to fail and the economic gap between rich and poor continues to grow.