Woody Guthrie has been dead for nearly 46 years, yet in February he published his first novel, House of Earth. Well, to be specific, Johnny Depp published it for him as the debut novel on Depp’s new imprint at Harper. Nonetheless, Guthrie is officially an author, complete with a back-cover photo. He’s probably singing “Dust Can’t Kill Me” in his grave right now.
The novel follows a hard-up farming couple, Tike and Ella Hamlin, struggling to survive the Dust Bowl of the 1930s on the plains of West Texas. The time and place render the Hamlins as much exposed to the hands of greedy landowners as to the brutal elements that continually plague their ramshackle home.
A burningly impassioned lovemaking scene opens the novel, immediately revealing the depth of Tike and Ella’s connection to each other as well as their ardent ties to the land. (If only its fertility mirrored theirs.) For Tike, who transparently serves as Guthrie’s mouthpiece, only one thing seems available of protecting them from both the forces of Mother Nature and capitalism:
Adobe structures, Tike convinces us, would be cheap to build, weatherproof, forever repairable with dirt and water, and—most importantly—100 percent owned by their tenants. Gone would be the terrifying threat of losing home.
When Guthrie finished writing his book in 1947, he only showed the full manuscript to one person, a filmmaker named Irving Lerner. Guthrie hoped that Lerner would make it into a feature film that showed Americans how they could counter the impoverishing woes of the Dust Bowl by building adobes. Lerner never made the film … and House of Earth eventually faded into obscurity.
Last July archivists dug a typescript of the novel, like a jug from Pompeii, out of the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa. If this makes House of Earth sound anything like an artifact, well, that’s because it is.
The word artifact comes from two Latin words: arte (ars), “skill,” and factum (facere), “to make.” The term conjures tools, urns, jewelry, gifts for the afterlife, hair combs. With the rare exceptions (think China’s Terracotta Warriors), artifacts generally come small in size and low in level of importance, nifty though they may appear. Their real magnitude can be measured in glimpses, the small insights they give into the lives of their makers and users. Think of artifacts as diaries you read piecemeal until the full set of entries forms a narrative.
After reading a government pamphlet about how adobe structures could be built for nothing and weather anything, Guthrie religiously adopted the mud-and-straw structures as a path not only to survival but to prosperity. Circa the Dust Bowl, an owner could obtain a plot of land for about $300. Considering the construction materials needed for adobe buildings, that would be about the only cost. No more rent. No more money spent on wood to repair walls that would eventually rot or fall to termites. No more faceless landlords fattening on the struggles of the poor.
A blue-collar man himself, Guthrie operated drilling rigs in the oil town of Okemah, Oklahoma, and ran tractors and plows on farms in West Texas like the one where the Hamlins live. His most powerful tool—his guitar—sported a sticker that infamously read, This machine kills Fascists.
By the time he completed House of Earth in 1947, he already had decades of songwriting to his name, much of it poetically preaching socialist change on behalf of the working class. The book added another tool—a heavier, more vociferous cousin of the sticker—specifically to popularize the adobe, largely unknown outside of New Mexico.
But fair warning, Guthrie fans: The book is no “This Land is Your Land,” or any kind of masterpiece. Don’t expect a bestseller or an Oprah’s Book Club sellout. Guthrie does write artfully, but the book honestly does not aspire to art. It attempts instead to document the Dust Bowl’s devastating power over land and people … in prose rather than song, and with a purpose. Unlike, say, Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, which stood alone in its artistic realm and opened new channels for what literature could be, House of Earth takes aim at a single concrete … or hardened-mud … goal.
Archaeologists rarely scavenge artifacts in hopes of quaking the art world. Mostly, they simply hope to fill in missing punctuation in the sentences of history.
House of Earth proves no exception. In the decades following Guthrie’s death in 1967, few halls of fame didn’t induct Guthrie, and few lifetime achievement awards exist that he hasn’t won. House of Earth simply brings Guthrie back on stage for a small encore to his enduring and renowned musical work.
When it eventually became clear Lerner would never translate the book to the big screen, Guthrie didn’t push hard for publication. By the late 1940s, the novel’s lean to the left put it at odds with the approaching McCarthy-era terror of all things Communist, and the explicit sex scene risked public censure in the conservative times. As the Great Depression receded into the nation’s rear-view mirror, happily forgotten, the novel’s opportunity to do its job passed quietly by.
Had Guthrie published House of Earth earlier, might it have proven controversial, fresh enough to stake out its own plot in the artistic landscape? Maybe. Today, with the likes of Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Jay-Z penning books, House of Earth certainly supports the notion that if you can write good lyrics, you might write decent prose too.
Andy Warhol once said, “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have.” This may sum up best why House of Earth ends up relegated to the status of not much more than a literary artifact. After all, the premise of the book meant to convince people to have a thing they needed to have.
Guthrie’s magnum opus remains his body of music. His novel just gives further information about the life and times of its maker. Think of it as an author’s note— an artifact, a long-lost pawn now returned to the game at the end of Guthrie’s life of achievements.
Gabrielle Lipton is a freelance writer and graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Born and raised in Atlanta, she now lives in Manhattan.