Monday, February 18, 2013

House of Earth by Woody Guthrie: review

Martin Chilton examines Woody Guthrie’s heartfelt, sex-packed novel House Of Earth, which has an introduction by Johnny Depp.

Woody Guthrie plays guitar in New York in 1943 as a man shines his shoes
Woody Guthrie plays guitar in New York in 1943 as a man shines his shoes Photo: Eric Schaal/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Some of the 3,000 songs Woody Guthrie composed – classics such as This Land Is Your Land, Deportee and Do-Re-Mi – are etched into America’s collective consciousness. But Guthrie, who died in 1967 at the age of 55, was also an illustrator and, as it turns out, a novelist.
House of Earth is a previously unpublished novel from 1947. Guthrie wrote it originally by hand and then typed it up while he was living near the Chisos Mountains, Texas. It drew praise from the musicologist Alan Lomax, so Guthrie mailed it to the Hollywood documentary film-maker Irving Lerner, hoping it would be made into a movie. Lerner was not interested, and the manuscript languished for more than 60 years, until a typescript was found when the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa began assembling a Woody Guthrie collection.
In an engrossing introduction, written by the actor Johnny Depp and historian Douglas Brinkley, Guthrie’s novel is described as “an artefact from another era”. After the novel was uncovered, Depp showed it to Bob Dylan, a fan of Guthrie’s music since his teenage years. Dylan said he was “surprised by the genius” of the prose.
Guthrie would go on to write a quasi-fictional memoir called Bound for Glory, but House of Earth is a heartfelt story about grinding poverty. And it’s a rallying cry for building better homes. While in New Mexico, Guthrie had been transfixed by houses built with soil-straw bricks, and a pamphlet called Adobe or Sun-Dried Brick for Farm Buildings almost became his bible. He drew on memories of cheap wooden shacks beset by windblown topsoil, tumbleweed, rain and snow and plagues of termites for vivid descriptions of the houses he wanted replaced. 

Where the novel dwells on his visions of adobe houses it feels dated and slow, but it has more to it than this. Guthrie was a great observer and his time in the Thirties roaming through the Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma and Texas (as John Steinbeck did) enabled him to write with a homespun authenticity, and a fine ear for dialect. His two main characters – hardscrabble farmers Tike and Ella May Hamlin – use the language of the time, and colloquialisms such as “don’t git hurried”, "shore cain't" and "goshamighty" abound. 

Full review

House of Earth by Woody Guthrie (234pp, Fourth Estate)

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