Woody Guthrie’s first book, the autobiographical Bound for Glory, was originally published in 1943. Like any hot-blooded writer, Woody nervously watched for the reviews to come in.
Most were middling, leaning toward positive. Reviewers praised his authentic use of language, his rip-roarin’ pace, his dramatic and detailed characters. He was hailed as a “born artist” and a “natural born poet.” Some found the book anticlimactic, others a bit corny. The New York Times Book Review at least managed a firm and simple statement: “Woody writes well.”
Woody’s chief concern, though, was how it was playing on Peoria. “I hear the good old Oklahoma papers are standing on their ears,” he wrote in a March 29, 1943, letter to his wife Marjorie. “ They put out a 3 column spread about it, saying it was another ‘Literary Black Eye For Oklahoma.’ I guess I’ll be getting lots of letters from all of my old friends down in there. Hope so. But the clippings from other states are going to be just as good and bad. If none of the papers panned it I’d be feeling awful guilty.”
But Bound for Glory was successful enough that Woody nearly swapped his Martin for an Underwood. As Joe Klein reported in his biography Woody Guthrie: A Life, Woody’s publisher planned to work with him on “several more books.” He quickly was awarded a contract for a second, tentatively titled I Want to Be Right, with a $500 advance and a planned publication date of October 1, 1943. By May, according to another biographer, Ed Cray (Ramblin’ Man), Woody had landed an $1,800 fellowship to allow him to “write books, ballads, songs, and novels that will help people to know each other’s work better.”
If you’ve read this far, you likely know something of Woody’s meandering history—so you know things didn’t quite go as planned.
Woody wouldn’t see another of his books published, and it’s a minor miracle we’re seeing House of Earth, Woody’s long-lost third manuscript, finally published last month in a nifty edition from (say wha?) Johnny Depp. As is usual when it comes to Guthrie, there’s a detective story involved.
THE BIRTH OF EARTH
The second book dogged Woody the rest of his days. This one is an exaggerated story about a hunt for a silver mine in the wastes of southwest Texas, and it’s based, very loosely, on just such a trip Woody took with some family members in 1931. The trip was difficult, boring, and unsuccessful. The book, frankly, does little to counter those same adjectives. But Woody labored over the manuscript for years, rewriting frequently and desperately trying—like some of the hungry Okies in his songs—to make a tasty meal from bare cupboards. When he checked himself into the Brooklyn State Hospital in 1954, his e ects included a paper bag containing a shirt, some writing paper, and the latest draft of what eventually was published by Dutton in 1976 as Seeds of Man: An Experience Lived and Dreamed.
In 1947, the third book sprouted from an idea Woody had kept simmering for a decade. Cray mentions Woody started writing a draft that he called “another lifebound novel real and unreal.” The new
story was, for a change, not first-person reverie, but a simple character study of a struggling couple on a dusty farm in the Texas panhandle. He knocked out 160 pages, which knocked out his mentor, folklorist Alan Lomax. “There was a moment in my life,” Lomax later recalled to Klein, “when I considered dropping everything I was doing, and just helping Woody get published. It was, quite simply, the best material I’d ever seen written about that section of the country.” Both biographers, however, report that Woody quickly became distracted and abandoned the manuscript after two chapters.
Not so, it turns out.
In fact, Woody completed four chapters of House of Earth—a complete story, though more of a novella than a full novel—and apparently had his sights set on Hollywood. There had been some talk of turning Seeds of Man into a movie, and Woody sent the four finished chapters of House of Earth to Irving Lerner, a filmmaker who’d caught Woody’s eye with his documentaries (socially conscious films like Valley Town in 1940 and The Land in 1942, but also perhaps 1943’s Oscar-nominated short Swedes in America, featuring one of Woody’s amorous lyrical fixations, Ingrid Bergman).
But the film project never materialized, and the single draft of House of Earth languished amid Lerner’s possessions. Later, when his estate reorganized Lerner’s papers, the manuscript was discovered and, before the Woody Guthrie Archives was established, sent to the University of Tulsa’s McFarlin Library for permanent safekeeping.
There it sat until Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley picked up the trail a few years ago. Brinkley had interviewed Bob Dylan for a Rolling Stone article, and Dylan had talked at length about Woody and Lomax. A curious Brinkley dug into Lomax’s writings and found mention of House of Earth along with his effusive praise of the manuscript. But the chapters were not among the collection at the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York. So Brinkley managed to track it down and sought to realize Lomax’s original desire to get it published.
Enter actor Johnny Depp. Brinkley is the literary executor for the works of Hunter S. Thompson. He edited the three-volume collection of Thompson’s letters. Depp was also an admirer and friend of the late gonzo journalist, starring in two film adaptations of his books (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary) and narrating an acclaimed documentary, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. In 2008, a ve-CD box set was issued as an audio companion to the film, for which Depp and Brinkley collaborated on the liner notes and earned a Grammy nomination for their efforts.
Brinkley’s unearthing of House of Earth also coincided with a new project of Depp’s. He’d set up his own imprint with Brinkley’s longtime publisher, HarperCollins, and he was looking for manuscripts that resonated with this aesthetic—that of a bold actor who, you know, hung out with Hunter S. Thompson, formed his own band (with members of the Butthole Surfers, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Sex Pistols), and in an interview once courted some manufactured controversy by referring to the United States of America as a “dumb puppy.” So House of Earth is the inaugural title for Depp’s publishing arm, Infinitum Nihil.
HOUSE OF THE RISING SON
House of Earth is the ultimate Red Dirt tale. Like so much of Woody’s work, the narrative is deeply didactic. While scratching out a living in Pampa, Texas, in the 1930s, Woody—ever the astute observer of his fellow folks—recognized many of the woes suffered by those eking out some semblance of subsidence from the region’s dry, dusty land. Hand-in-hand with the good ol’ government, Woody thought he had a solution to at least one of them. House of Earth developed into a rather clever sermon about a little bit of salvation from the ground right under our feet.
In 1936, Woody had visited a pueblo outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The adobe construction fascinated him. The bricks, made from sun-dried earth and clay, had lasted generations. They kept their interiors cool in the blazing Southwest heat and insulated them from frigid winter blasts. He went back home to Pampa and couldn’t help notice that everyone, himself included, was huddled within houses made instead from timber. Wood, besides being a scarce resource on the Southern Great Plains, often warped, didn’t seal well between boards, and was a banquet for the plentiful termites. Why, Woody wondered, weren’t we learning lessons from the Native Americans and living in dwellings made of and in harmony with the land?
He began preaching this gospel in letters in 1937. The book’s introduction, co-written by Brinkley and Depp, quotes one such missive to the actor Eddie Albert (yep, the Green Acres guy, whom Woody had met and befriended the previous year while in Los Angeles), in which Woody mentions sending away for a government pamphlet—a manual with instructions for any unskilled laborer on the building of an adobe house. “You dig you a cellar and mix the mud and straw right in there,” Woody wrote, “sorta with your feet, you know, and you get the mud just the right thickness and you put it in a mould, and you mould out around 20 bricks a day, and in a reasonable length of time you have got enough to build your house.”
The idea came back to him a decade later while traveling back through the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. In an April 1947 letter to Marjorie (among others in the Archives), Woody mentions hitchhiking through Pampa, Amarillo, and Dalhart on his way toward Denver and points northwest. Along the way, he heard many tales of the April 9, 1947, tornado—one of the deadliest in the region’s history—slashing a 221-mile gash across Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas and killing nearly 200 people. In the letter, Woody connected his own memories of life on these plains to his age-old adoration of adobe: “I was the folks that are so poor that got killed in these shack buildings and shack houses. We need to build sodwall, thicker brick, tile and steel houses. A good dugout adobe cellar type house with walls 24 inches thick would have saved 90% of the lost lives in the wind.”
Shortly thereafter, the House of Earth draft emerged as a thinly veiled bit of proselytizing, a grown-up take on the ultimate moral of the ree Little Pigs: Build a house out of bricks, and the wolf won’t stay at your door. Tike Hamlin is a poor dirt farmer who’s had the same epiphany. In the opening of House of Earth, Tike is giddy over a pamphlet that arrived in the mail: government instructions on building adobe houses. He spends the next nine months and 211 pages trying to convince his wife, the restless and intelligent Ella May, that they should get to building.
Nine months is not a coincidental timeline. “Dry Rosin,” the rst chapter of House of Earth, is dominated by some serious sex. In typical Woody fashion, he manages to mix Tike’s lofty ideals with low-down sweet talk. As they complete the deed, Tike’s mind is already drifting, conflating his desires:
Ohh. Yes. That Department of Agriculture book was an awful mighty good thing, laying there at her elbow on the hay. But it made their biggest misery even bigger, and their biggest dream even plainer, and their biggest craving ten times more to be craved. A reproof, windproof, dirtproof, bugproof, thiefproof house of earth. His penis had become limber, and her moving had forced it out of her hole.
It’s a pretty graphic 20 pages—not dirty, just full of unflinching detail—a literal roll in the hay written by someone who clearly was familiar with the details of making love in a barn (“Tike said curse words about the splinters of hay and straw that had dried and stuck on the hairs and skin of his stomach, crotch, and legs”). By the end of the book, a midwife is trying to keep the filthy wood shack clean enough to deliver Ella May’s baby—another biological event Woody describes in further, fluid-filled detail. In the end, the newest Hamlin only underscores the couple’s need
for a solid home. Until the recent bursting of America’s real estate bubble, the desire to own one’s home had been a cornerstone of the American Dream. “This, Elly, ah, this is, I guess,” Tike manages, “what you can call our first stepstone to something real.”
“LITTLE SEXY PLEASURES”
Woody fans might blush at his frankness in the boudoir/barn—even I chuckled a bit upon encountering the f-word in prose from lil’ ol’ Woody—but Woody was never particularly delicate about natural
processes. His notebooks in the Archives include numerous considerations of the sex act, from some lengthy prose about sex after marriage called “Human Engineering” to a few pages in September 1952 on which he mulls “the various lines of homosexualities we hear about and see every minute around us” and concludes that “what little sexy pleasures I’ve still got left in me surely won’t ever ever be wasted on any other man. You can rest your little heart on that. (In case you ever wondered…..)”
Still, it’s interesting that this overt display of sexual detail shows up in a manuscript penned in 1947. In my own research at the Archives into the progression of Woody’s Huntington’s disease and the effect it had on his creative output, it was clear that around 1948 was when friends and family began noticing the more overt physical and mental changes in Woody, which they initially attributed to his increasing drunkenness. That was also the year Woody wrote a series of letters to a family friend that were so graphically sexual they resulted in a 1949 federal court case on charges of mailing “an obscene, lewd, and lascivious letter.”
Sex aside, though, not much happens in House of Earth. The remaining chapters—“Termites,” “Auction Block,” and “Hammer Ring”—are humdrum reside chats (with lots of interior monologue) compared to the rollicking, visceral adventures of Bound for Glory. They’re also written by, literarily speaking, a more mature author. Bound for Glory was autobiography with a novelistic wink, and Seeds of Man labored over construction of the bridge between those experiences lived and dreamed, with laborious results. House of Earth hits the Goldilocks zone. Woody’s real-world concerns are clear enough, but Tike and Ella May might be the most fully realized and engaging characters Woody created, in song or story. The knack for sensory detail that brings a taste of grit to readers’ mouths and the feel of biting wind through a poorly papered crack in the wall also rounds out a relationship full of love, sorrow, and desperate hopes—complete with a clever, “Gift of the Magi” twist to the couple’s dreams midway through. The praise heaped on Bound for Glory for its mastery of dialogue and dialect still applies here. Like James Joyce, a writer Woody was often compared to, Woody manages to capture the sound of regional speech without miring readers in another language altogether.
Their well-drawn humanity transcends the story’s underlying didacticism so that House of Earth stands much more as a compelling and immersive tale than a merely dressed-up pamphlet on the virtues of adobe construction. As such, its universal message ends up aligning with contemporary environmentalism quaintly but squarely. Emotionally involved with these two characters, it’s a bit easier to endure the occasional lectures Tike and Ella May seem to give each other about the brutal tactics of banks, the socialist ideals of land ownership and how much sharecropping has in common with slavery.
If these are, indeed, people of the land, then the policies of capitalist government and business are metaphorically the wind and drought making it so hard for crops to grow. Though the text itself is a tad antediluvian and, like so much of Woody’s work, requires framing and context in order to really lift out its modern applications (tip: don’t skip the introduction), those applications are still present, and bold.
“It’s almost as if Guthrie had written House of Earth prophetically,” Brinkley and Depp write in the intro, “with global warming in mind.”
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 5. March 1, 2013.