— Nora Guthrie had put off reading her late father
Woody Guthrie’s recently unearthed novel, "House
of Earth," even after she’d agreed for it to be
published. Having devoted much of 2012 to preparing
events and projects surrounding the centennial of the
singer-songwriter-artist’s birth, she said, she wanted
to read the book at her leisure, when it wouldn’t feel
it wasn’t until last fall that she started in on the
manuscript’s pages and soon reached the lengthy,
graphic sex scene in a cowshed during which the husband
and wife discuss the benefits of adobe homes.
went, ‘Dad! Whoa!’" Nora Guthrie, 63, recalled
on the phone from the New York-based Woody Guthrie
Foundation & Archives, of which she is the director.
was encountering what she calls the "slightly
undomesticated animal side of him" — Woody
Guthrie writing about the time before he moved to New
York City and became a famous folk singer and got into
the habit of wearing clean clothes. This was Dust Bowl
Woody, a man earthy not only in sensibility and humor
but also in philosophy. Everything in "House of
Earth" — life, sex, nature, shelter — is
intended to spring from the earth.
a book that could have been written only by someone with
talent: a keen ear for dialogue, a deep sense of
empathy, sharp powers of observation and a lyrical way
with words. Paragraph after paragraph could have been
recast in the kind of epic ballads that made Guthrie
instance, there’s this description of the elements’
toll on the protagonists’ wooden house in the Texas
the long keen rays of the late spring sun would come.
They would shine down against the house for several
hours out of every day. They sucked. They bit. They
scratched. They clawed and they chewed at the boards.
And they sipped the wild saps, gums, rosins, juices, and
waters out again with sunrays, winds, the dry tongue and
lips of the weather that sings, then whispers, then
sucks, and kisses all of the little houses until they
are dry again and brittle. And this was the dryness of
the heat against the house."
of Earth" also is — let’s be honest — a
misfit of a novel, taking its place in a long tradition
of idiosyncratic fiction authored by accomplished
musicians (among them Bob Dylan’s
"Tarantula," John Lennon’s "In His Own
Write" and "A Spaniard in the Works," and
assorted works by Nick Cave). It dates from 1946 to
1947, which places it after he moved to New York, wrote
"This Land Is Your Land" and saw the
publication of his memoir "Bound for Glory," a
book filled with incident and drama. More happens on the
train in the first chapter of "Bound for
Glory" than in all of "House of Earth."
no doubt, is by design. Guthrie’s interest here lies
less in constructing a dramatic arc than drilling deep
into the lives of an isolated married couple, Tike and
Ella May Hamlin, as they subsist in a rickety wooden
house on desolate land that they will never own.
never shy about sharing his leftist views, fills his
novel with speeches and platform statements, such as
this exchange between Tike and Ella May:
wish you’d think up some kind of a way to get us a
piece of nice good farmin’ land, with an adobe house
on it, an’ a big adobe fence all around it."
not but one way. And that is to just keep on working and
fighting and fighting and working, and then to work and
to save and to save and to fight some more," she
you, this dialogue comes in the middle of the sex scene.
only characters in the novel are Tike — whose crude
humor, plain-spoken yearnings and fighting spirit remind
Nora Guthrie of her father — the spirited,
long-suffering Ella May, and a young woman, Blanche, who
arrives to help with a baby delivery. Nature and that
old not-adobe house, with its gaps and cracks for
letting in the dust and wind and snow, occupy the rest
of the author’s attention.
Guthrie acknowledged the novel’s lack of plot or
is like a lot of nothing — a lot of nothing
happening," she said. "I think what kind of
got to me is it pulled me as a human being down to that
same place, the repetition of it and the unrelenting
quality of it day after day after day: nature, people,
farm, shelter, sex. It’s just this repetitive,
of Earth" came out Feb. 5 from Infinitum Nihil,
actor Johnny Depp’s new HarperCollins imprint. Depp
and historian/ author Douglas Brinkley ("Cronkite,"
"The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans,
and the Mississippi Gulf Coast") are credited with
editing the novel and writing its lengthy introduction,
though Guthrie said she dealt only with Brinkley in the
their introduction Brinkley and Depp, who received a
Grammy nomination for their liner notes to the 2008
documentary "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter
S. Thompson" (Brinkley is Thompson’s literary
executor), speculate on why "House of Earth"
went unpublished following its completion in 1947:
Perhaps Guthrie "sensed that some of the content
was passe," or maybe the graphic sex was too much
in a climate in which Henry Miller’s "Tropic of
Cancer" had been banned in the U.S.
Tiffany Colannino, archivist at the Woody Guthrie
Archives in New York’s Westchester County, said there’s
no way to know what Guthrie actually was thinking on
don’t have him writing about ‘House of Earth’ at
all," Colannino said. "We don’t have him
making any comment on it."
is relatively certain that Woody Guthrie, who died in
1967 at age 55, sent a complete version of the
manuscript to filmmaker Irving Lerner, who had worked on
some socially conscious documentaries — though how the
author imagined that a late-’40s feature film might be
crafted from a story in which the characters do little
other than argue, have sex, contemplate their struggles
and rhapsodize about adobe houses is anyone’s guess.
At any rate the film never got made, but Lerner’s copy
of the novel was donated to the University of Tulsa’s
and Depp write that they "stumbled on"
"House of Earth" there while researching
material about Bob Dylan for a separate project.
Colannino said the archive had a photocopy of the Lerner
manuscript as well, and when Brinkley called for
permission to edit and publish it, she and Nora Guthrie
gave the OK.
said, ‘OK, you’re a smart guy. If you think it’s
good enough to publish, I’ll trust you on this,’"
Nora Guthrie recalled.
and Depp, who call the novel "a significant
cultural event and a major installment in the corpus of
his published work," note that editing was minor,
with two paragraphs restructured and some spellings
tweaked and "cosmetic changes" made. Colannino
said Guthrie liked to elongate some vowel sounds, and
some of those were edited for comprehension’s sake
while maintaining the spirit of the language.
STORY CAN END HERE)
novel’s publication is in line with Nora Guthrie’s
general attitude about her populist father’s works:
They were intended to be shared. The highest-profile
Guthrie excavation project has been Billy Bragg and
Wilco’s acclaimed "Mermaid Avenue" albums,
for which they wrote and recorded new music to go with
the songwriter’s unpublished lyrics. But the Woody
Guthrie Archives is packed with lyrics, manuscripts,
artwork, notebooks, scrapbooks, correspondences and
other creations that have never been made public or even
inspected by his daughter.
bulk of his creativity was never published or
sung," Nora Guthrie said. "I have 3,000 lyrics
in the archives. He only recorded 250 in his
those unrecorded songs, she noted, was one called
"House of Earth," but it addresses a different
subject from the novel: The lyric is about a prostitute
who, among other things, promises to teach her johns
things that they can take home to their wives.
is writing sex therapy songs pre-Dr. Ruth," Nora
Guthrie said with a laugh, noting that she sent the
lyrics to Lucinda Williams, who recorded a version of
the song for the "House of Earth" audio book.
"She sings it in her gravelly house-of-earth
for the "House of Earth" book, Nora Guthrie
said there are no other remaining Guthrie novels left to
publish — at least as far as she knows.
have to sit and look through everything," she said.
"There’s so much in there."
of Earth" by Woody Guthrie; Infinitum Nihil (288
face was sad for a second, but before she turned her
eyes toward him, he slapped himself in the face with the
back of his hand, in a way that always made him smile,
glad or sad. "Let it be rotten, Lady." He put
his hands on his hips and took a step backward, and
stood looking the whole house over. "Guess it’s
got a right to be rotten if it wants to be rotten, Lady.
Goldern whizzers an’ little jackrabbits! Look how many
families of kids that little ole shack has suckled up
from pups. I’d be all rickety an’ bowlegged, an’
bent over, an’ sagged down, an’ petered out, an’
swayed in my middle, too, if I’d stood in one spot
like this little ole shack has, an’ stood there for
fifty-two years. Let it rot. Rot! Rot down! Fall down!
Sway in! Keel over! You little ole rotten piss soaked
bastard, you! Fall!" His voice changed from one of
good fun into words of raging terror. "Die! Fall!