Scoop Review of Books

Earth, Air and Song in Woody Guthrie’s Lost Novel

House of Earth by Woody Guthrie (HarperCollins/infinitum nihil, 2013) Introduction by Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp
Reviewed by Mark P. Williams

Woody Guthrie’s novel House of Earth is a fiction out of time which comes to us as a kind of haunting.

Written in the 1940s and lost amongst a collection of papers and letters for many years, House of Earth is a novel of specific time and place which, although speaking in the voices of a wholly different generation, forms an apposite assemblage with our own time and place.

Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp’s introduction to House of Earth gives an informed overview of Guthrie’s life, his work as a folk singer, archivist of folk songs and storyteller contextualising House of Earth as Guthrie’s meditation on life in impoverished conditions. They compare the text respectfully to those of John Steinbeck and D.H. Lawrence for its blend of ‘earthiness’, in the linked senses of authenticity and sexual frankness, and broad social vision.

House of Earth is small in the scale of its story but in its language sweeps freely across wide open spaces, making domesticity feel massive in scope. The thoughts of the lead characters, Tike and Ella May Hamlin wander more freely than their material circumstances allow, giving a sense of openness to every page. As a realist novel, the text exceeds the strict environs of naturalism in invoking lines of association and process, linking people and place across vast geographical distances to embed its social relations within a particular perceptual environment. Nowhere is this clearer than in the lengthy scene of flirtation and lovemaking between Tike and Ella May in the first part of the book. Guthrie seems at pains to link sex to every possible form of reproductive quality necessary to support life from the erotic to the economic and the geographic and geologic. And well it might, since the birth of the new life conceived in that scene will be the central struggle of the final chapter of the book.

I would argue that the text is essentially modernist in its attempt to create a new idiom to express the concrete social experiences of Tike and Ella May. In its focus on the subjective experience of work it explores the relationship of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ life, revealing them as aspects of the same fabric, enfolded. The impact of alienation from even their own activity is palpable in the passages detailing their desire to live in a better house, a house of their own, on their own land. Instead, they are forced to acknowledge again and again that the terms of their day to day existence are dictated by the proprietary rights of land owners, or curtailed by banks and the pressure of financial debts. The drive to self-sufficiency in Tike, symbolised by the adobe house he wants to build to withstand the elements, is sparked by a Federal Government pamphlet providing instructions for how to build a home from the clay of the land. The novel’s central metaphor rests on a social contract which is being undermined by financial pressure.

The political orientation of House of Earth is implicit on every page—it is for the working people, the ordinary labourers, those who are prevented from becoming owners. The lead characters muse on the nature of their relationship to the owning classes throughout the text, which is rendered as a clearly political equation in Tike’s thought when he considers the celebration of proprietary rights over the rights of working people:

It all belonged to a man that had never set foot on it. Belonged to someone that didn’t care about the feelings of their cowshed. Somebody somewhere that did not know the fiery seeds of words and of tears and of passions, hopes, split here on this one spot of earth. Belonged to somebody who did not think that these people were able to think. [….] 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 Klan, Jim Crow, and the doctrine of the gospel of race hate, and that disease is the system of slavery known as sharecropping.

This broader social sweep is in every scene firmly anchored in a simple story of 1930s American social relationships as seen through the microcosm of Tike, Ella May, and the midwife, Blanche, delivering their child.

Tike and Ella May, and Blanche all have very detailed and specific perspectives from which they speak about the world to each other, and they all have clear senses of how their lives fit into and intersect with one another’s. The small scenes of life inside are surrounded by and drawn into a web of other processual relationships, one after another, tumbling out in long, often beautiful paragraphs full of wonderfully detail. Everything in this book is about living processes. When Tike and Ella May talk the ‘noise of things moving in the wind came to their ears like the flapping of wings’; as they make love in the cowshed, the world outside complements their rhythms: ‘All of the face of nature crept, crawled, wiggled, shook, watched its chance, and then howled away over the grass roots’ (77).

The effect has analogues in more experimental work and it sets in place a system of aesthetic principle where social actors are joined over distance to the consequences of their actions, and the people who are affected by those consequences can reflect upon the actors. Nature doesn’t act as a barrier, putting distance between people, but as a medium of communication; it joins labourers together in their different forms of labour, just as it brings Blanche to Tike and Ella May when they need her to deliver their baby. The specific aesthetic vision the novel develops has a clear philosophy: Guthrie’s House of Earth presents the reader with a synoptic vision. It’s a particularly interesting text for addressing and comparing contemporary alienation, and current discourse makes it impossible not to read this novel from the perspective of globalisation and the financial crisis, but it draws out its own distinctive set of historical perspectives which are fascinating in their own right.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the novel: every page of its poetic prose cries out for careful reading, expressing themes of social deprivation, and the alienation between labour and ownership, through often stunning sweeps of language. House of Earth makes every domestic drama as wide as the constantly invoked vistas of land, linking them concretely to concepts of justice and fairness, debt and poverty, gender and health.

Woody Guthrie Foundation:

infinitum nihil:

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Mark P. Williams
Political reporter and independent academic researcher