arts / writing

House of Earth: A Novel by Woody Guthrie


Browse Inside House of Earth: A Novel by Woody Guthrie. This reader displays the introduction and end pages (bibliography, acknowledgements, etc), but none of Woody’s actual text.

The following is my review for the Morning Star:

Woody Guthrie: House of Earth (Infinitum Nihil, £14.99)

WoodyGuthrie-HouseOfEarthCover

Woody’s own painting is used for the book cover. There are also drawings throughout the text (he was a professional signwriter, after all.)

Woody Guthrie was in love with words. Obsessed by them. They poured from his pen and his typewriter into scraps of paper and pages and notebooks that have filled hundreds and thousands of boxes and filing cabinets that are still being mined for evidence that he was and is one of the great stylists of the American language, possibly the greatest since Whitman.

And this book, as far as we know – and who knows what riches still lie, still undiscovered in those scattered archives? – is his first and only novel. Though there were fictional elements in his two previous books, they were basically first-person memoirs, enriched but not belied by the extravagances of his imagination.

They were also edited and tidied up before publication, by publishing people who felt they knew what made a good book better. But though this book is said to have been edited and introduced by actor Johnny Depp and the historian, Douglas Brinkley, we get a stronger feeling for the unfettered richness of his creativity.

Basically, it’s the story of the struggle for survival of two dirt-poor sharecroppers in the Texas panhandle, Tike and Ella May Hamlin, who are inspired by a five cent pamphlet distributed by Roosevelt’s New Deal government, with instructions on how to build an adobe home, the “house of earth” in the book’s title, that will withstand the dust bowl winds better than their flimsy and ramshackle shanty.

But this is not just a practical solution to their residence on earth; it’s a way to tame the winds that are driving them from the land.

Ella May tells Tike how to do it, by running out into the dust storm and catching the dust in his hat:

“Then you run over to the iron water tank, and you stick the hat and all, dust storm and all, down under the water, and you hold it down there till it tames down, and all of the wind and air goes out of it, and it just turns into soil, dirt again. Then you go and you lay it down somewhere, anywhere you want to, and it will be your land. Your farm. Your ranch.”

Tike replies:

“By grabs an’ by grasshoppers, I’m a-gonna do that. That very thing. I swear by twenty rows of burnt corn, I’ll do it. I’ll do it just as sure as I’m a layin’ here.”

She responds:

“Will you, ohhh, will you really? Really? Will yooo? Ohhh. Deah. My deah. You don’t know, you just don’t know, you never will know, how it would thrill me, and fill me, and chill me and frill me and dill me and spill me and drill me and lil me and hill me and till. me and bill me and jack me and jill me. You just don’t have any idea, any ideeeaa, my dyeahhh, to see you really do something, anything, anything, just so it was something, anything. Ohh. Ahhmm. Tikus. My little Mikus.”

Much has been made by some of the more lubricious critics of the steamy sex, and it’s true that it’s much more graphic than Lady Chatterley. In fact, the sex provides some of the more poetic stretches, but the odd quoted paragraph couldn’t give more than a taste of the glorious writing, which goes on literally for page after page.

Reading this book is hard work, because you’ve just got to let its cadences wash over and through you. (There’s an audio version, downloadable from Audible.com, in  which Will Patton’s voice does it rather well.) Here’s a sample:

This is far from the sparse, laconic style of Woody’s singing balladry. But the book ends with a song (which could sing well to the tune of John  Henry, the black steel-driving man) in which Ella May’s new-born child, whom she nicknames Grasshopper, triumphs over all adversity:

Well the Grasshopper says to that landlord
You can drive your tractor all around
You can plow, you can plant, you can take in your crop,
But you cain’t run my earth house down, down, down!
No! You cain’t run my earth house down!

Though it’s not really a political work, like the Woody Sez columns he wrote for the New York Daily Worker, the struggle for better things is always there, always implicit:

“I wonder if it will ever come to an out-and-out fight,” says one character. “I sometimes hope so. I wish that the families of people that live in debt all of their lives in their trash-can houses would all get together and fight to get out of the miserable stink and mess. I wish they could know as I know that they work and pay out their good money just for the privilege of living in a coffin.”

Ella May replies:

“A good coffin would cost more than a dozen of these shacks. A graveyard spot would cost more. Oh, it is just so expensive to die these days. This is the reason why I want to keep on staying alive. And I want to show just a few people around here that there is a way to come out of this mess, to build a better house, and not pick up and run away down the highway.”

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