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Woody Guthrie's "House of Earth"

This Land Was His Land (Originally published in the New York Times, July 9 2012)


The legend of Woody Guthrie as folk singer is firmly etched in America’s collective consciousness. Compositions like “Deportee,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “Pretty Boy Floyd” have become national treasures akin to Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack” and Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” But Guthrie, who would have been 100 years old on July 14, was also a brilliant and distinctive prose stylist, whose writing is distinguished by a homespun authenticity, deep-seated purpose and remarkable ear for dialect. These attributes are on vivid display in Guthrie’s long-lost “House of Earth,” his only fully realized, but yet unpublished, novel. (His other books, “Bound for Glory” and “Seeds of Man,” are quasi-fictional memoirs.)

“House of Earth” was written as a direct response to the Dust Bowl. In December 1936 the rambling troubadour had an epiphany while busking for tips in New Mexico. He’d traveled there after a treacherous duster whacked the Texas Panhandle town of Pampa, where he’d been living in poverty. While in New Mexico, Guthrie became transfixed by an adobe hacienda’s sturdy rain spouts and soil-straw bricks, a simple yet solid weatherproof structure unlike most of his Texan friends’ homes, which were poorly constructed with flimsy wooden boards and cheap nails.

An immediate convert, Guthrie purchased a nickel pamphlet, “Adobe or Sun-Dried Brick for Farm Buildings,” from the United States Department of Agriculture. The manual instructed poor rural folk on building adobe homes from the cellar up. All an amateur needed was a home-brew of clay loam, straw and water. Guthrie promoted this U.S.D.A. guide with wild-eyed zeal. Adobes, he boasted, would endure the Dust Bowl better than wooden aboveground structures that were vulnerable to wind, snow, dust and termites. If sharecroppers and tenant farmers could only own a piece of land — even the uncultivable territory of arroyos and red rocks — they could build a “house of earth” that would protect them from dirt blowing in through cracks in the walls.

In the late 1930s, a winter sleet crippled the Dust Bowl region; The New York Times called it “a blizzard of frozen mud,” the color of “cocoa.” Visibility was often less than 200 feet. “Well Howdy,” Guthrie wrote to his actor friend Eddie Albert in Hollywood in a letter from Pampa written during that period. “We didn’t have no trouble finding the dust bowl, and are about as covered up as one family can get. Only trouble is the dust is so froze up it cain’t blow, so it just scrapes around.” Stuck in his Pampa shack, trying to protect his baby girl from a fever, Guthrie dreamed about insulating his family from the cold. “You dig you a cellar and mix the mud and straw right in there, sorta with your feet, you know, and you get the mud just the right thickness, and you put in a mould, and you mould out around 20 bricks a day,” Guthrie wrote, “and in a reasonable length of time you have got enough to build your house.”

Guthrie’s Dust Bowl experiences, along with his reading “Grapes of Wrath” and the writing of “This Land Is Your Land,” formed the roots of what would become “House of Earth.” Guthrie conceived of “This Land Is Your Land” while hitchhiking to New York. When he heard Irving Berlin’s sentimental “God Bless America” performed ad nauseam on radio stations, he decided to write a rebuttal. On Feb. 23, 1940, holed up in a low-rent Times Square hotel, he wrote the now iconic song, including radical verses, later changed, like the one below:By the relief office I saw my people.As they stood hungry,I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.Endemic poverty is a theme that Guthrie would turn to full-bore in “House of Earth.”

The narrative follows the lives of two hardscrabble farmers, Tike and Ella May Hamlin, living in the cap rock country of West Texas, “that big high, crooked cliff of limestone, sandrock, marble and flint, that runs between and is the line that divides the lower west Texas plains from the upper north Panhandle plains.” The impoverished couple, it seems, live in biological harmony with the land. A scorching lovemaking scene on a hay bale viscerally represents the fertility ritual. Yet they can’t keep the bizarre weather out of their shabby home, and Tike — Guthrie’s alter ego — starts espousing the gospel of adobe.The deck is stacked against them. Their home is owned by a bank in cahoots with a big lumber company; adobe houses are deemed verboten. In Guthrie’s fierce proletarian worldview, the rural poor are thereby shafted by the iron boot heel of capitalist greed merchants, and he finger-points everyone from bankers to lumbermen to termite-like real estate brokers, enemies of the little guy. At a key juncture, Tike rails against the sheep mentality of honest folks in Texas and Oklahoma who let the capitalist vultures steal from them.

Pitched somewhere between rural realism and proletarian protest, somewhat static in terms of narrative drive, “House of Earth” nonetheless offers a searing portrait of the Panhandle and its marginalized Great Depression residents. Guthrie successfully mixes Steinbeck’s narrative verve with D. H. Lawrence’s openness to erotic exploration. When the Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax read the first chapter he was profoundly impressed. For months Lomax encouraged Guthrie to finish the book, saying he’d “considered dropping everything I was doing” just to get the novel published. “It was quite simply the best material I’d ever seen written about that section of the country,” he wrote.But after finishing the novel in 1947, Guthrie put the manuscript away and concentrated on songwriting. He may have sensed the novel could be considered both passé (post-New Deal writing was frowned upon by cold-war-era critics) and ahead of its time (graphic sex). His fertility cycle prose was so edgy that publication was unlikely. And his use of an overdrawn hillbilly dialogue would have found little embrace in New York literary circles. Apparently, Guthrie never showed anyone other than the filmmaker Irving Lerner the remaining sections of the novel. (He hoped Lerner would use the book as the basis for a movie.)Yet the book’s architectural intensity makes it a minor masterpiece. When we shared the finished novel with Bob Dylan, he was blown away, “surprised by the genius,” he said, of the prose.

At heart, “House of Earth” is a meditation about how poor people search for love and meaning in a corrupt world, one in which the rich have lost their moral compasses. Even though the backdrop is the washed-out agricultural fields of Texas, the novel could just as easily be set in a refugee camp in Sudan or a shantytown in Haiti.In the late 1940s, after “House of Earth” was finished, Guthrie’s health started to deteriorate from complications of Huntington’s disease. While disciples like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Pete Seeger popularized his folk repertory, “House of Earth” languished in a Coney Island closet. But, as Guthrie might say, “All good things in due time.” We recently tracked down a typescript, now held at the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa, and the book will be published next year.Today, Texas is in the midst of a prolonged drought; global warming is a scientific fact; and wildfires, blizzards and tornadoes increasingly ravage the American landscape. The unerring rightness of adobe living is now more apparent than ever. It’s almost as if Guthrie had prophetically written “House of Earth” with the summer of 2012 in mind.

Douglas Brinkley is the author of “Cronkite”; Johnny Depp recently starred in the film “Dark Shadows.” They are editing “House of Earth” for publication next year.

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