House of Earth is a previously unpublished novel by the prolific musician and artist, Woody Guthrie, most famous for the American ballad, “This Land is Your Land.” Guthrie apparently wrote over three thousand songs but this is his only novel and unfortunately I must say that the freshman novelist’s unpublished work should have stayed the way Guthrie left it, unpublished. The short 200 page work took me over a week and a half to finish, which is far too long for a reader like me who has so many other interests to pursue.
Guthrie’s song-writing clearly represents the soul of a man that was interested in supporting the poor and common man during difficult times. Guthrie was a man of the depression era who disapproved of the corruption and the cycle of poverty that was inherent in capitalism. He sang the songs of the common man who lost out to corporate farming, sharecropping, and the environmental devastation of the dust bowl. House of Earth is the flushed out story of a common man living in the Texas/Oklahoma panhandle who, unlike the characters of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, was determined to stay rooted in the dust worn country and weather through the difficult winters of the lower plains. The two primary characters of House of Earth are Tike Hamlin and his wife Ella May: hard working and determined people that struggle to get by on their rented land. They live in a rented wooden house that is termite eaten, suspect to the wind, and hardly keeps them warm from the bitter winters. Tike and Ella May don’t want to seek out the milk and honey in the promised land of California, they hope to build an adobe home that will withstand the weather and be a home they can truly own, a home made of the land and part of the land that they live and work.
There are some good moments in House of Earth that captures the hard-souled determination of the poor plains folk such as the following passage:
“The walls measured eighteen feet…yet eighteen feet is eighteen feet, or as long as six wide steps of a short-legged man when he’s walking fairly beeline and comparatively sober. This was the vast and undying beauty, the dynamic and eternal attraction, the lure, the bait, the magnetic pull that, in addition to their blood kin and salty love for the wide open spaces and their lifetime bond to and worship of the land, caused not Ella May and Tike Hamlin, but hundreds of thousands and millions of other folks just about like them to scatter their seeds, their words, and their loves so freely here.” (90)
However, as I noted in my introduction above, this novel has plenty of problems. First is the dialogue. Now, I’m not saying that the Guthrie’s use of dialect is a bother, the trouble is the nature of the situations that prompt the dialogue. For instance, within the first few pages of the novel we read a lengthy and graphic erotic scene between Tike and Ell May where they break off into what could be a dinner table conversation about building a house of earth all while sharing the pleasures of coitus. I didn’t really have any problem with the graphic nature of the love making – the problem is that tone of the dialogue didn’t match the passion of the action taking place. This tonal problem appears again late in the novel after Ella May gives birth: rather than celebrating the joys (or suffering the pains) of child birth, Ella May goes into a long rant with her nurse about her family’s goals to build a house of earth. In addition to these unbalanced dialogue sequences, there are several tangential moments that are part rant and part dream sequence where it seems that Guthrie was lost in his role as narrator. These are the negative effects of posthumous editing where the editor must guess at what the deceased author was trying to get at in his novel’s draft. Unfortunately, there isn’t a large body of Guthrie novels for the editor to reflect style, however after reading this novel I can tell why there isn’t such a body of work in existence. I think that Guthrie had hopes to express his art through novelistic form but thought better of it otherwise.