Of course we all know Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) as the Depression-era singer-songwriter, brought back to public notice by his daughter Nora in 1998 when she got Billy Bragg and Wilco to put to music and record previously unheard Guthrie material in the albumn Mermaid Avenue (listen here). But he was also a prolific and talented painter and, (until recently, unpublished) writer.
Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp say in their extensive Introduction that House of Earth was “first conceived in the late 1930s but not fully composed until 1947”. It apparently is Guthrie’s only “accomplished novel” and lay amongst his extensive papers until rediscovered and published in 2013 as part of the celebration of the centenary of his birth. It however is much more than a curiosity, but a virtuoso stream of consciousness in the style of Ulysses, a hymn to the dustbowl country of the Texas panhandle high plains Guthrie called home.
The Texas panhandle is more or less next door to the Oklahoma country of the Joads, of The Grapes of Wrath, and the period is the same, and therefore the conditions, drought and scouring winds carrying away the topsoil. The Joads and their neighbours were farming cotton on 40 acre blocks. The panhandle is more like Australia’s mallee, divided into square mile/640 acre blocks for mixed farming, wheat and cattle, though much higher, they get sleet and snow.
But still the big landowners have the upper hand, using debt to force small farmers to become renters and renters to become share-croppers. The Joads were forced off their land when the banks wanted to consolidate the small holdings to facilitate mechanization. There doesn’t seem to have been the same pressure in Texas, in this part anyway.
House of Earth is in four parts, covering two days,i less than a year apart, in the life of ‘Tike’ Hamlin, son of poor dirt farmers and his wife Ella May, estranged from her substantial landowner father. They’re in their early thirties, renting 640 acres and living in a falling down timber shack, 18 ft square. Their dream is to build a house of adobe that won’t be eaten by termites and fall down in the driving winds, but their landlord won’t let them build on productive farming land.
Guthrie writes in streams of speech and consciousness – reminiscent of Christina Stead, who was in America and writing at the same time, as much as James Joyce – for both his protagonists and later for Blanche, the nurse-midwife.
During the first day Tike persuades a not unwilling Ella May to come into the barn and have sex with him and during the second Ella May gives birth, supervised by Blanche, a trained nurse who lives with farmers in the last week or two of pregnancy for whatever they can afford to pay. After a hundred pages of trying to get Ella May to settle down on the bed, to get Tike from stop being underfoot …
A noise came. A noise in the whole room. A noise from under the bed, in the closet, up the stairs, even down from the roost, from out of the cans of cream, the disks of the separator, the tablecloth, out of the globe of the lamp, the sound came on into the air, through the sounds of the night winds outside, the creaking of the snow and ice, the scrunch of crusted sleets, hard froze snow, a cry. It was a scattered and a broken, windblown, rattling yell. It was a woman drowned in water, a man drowned in hot oil. A dog that fell from a landslide down the Cap Rock. A mama turkey shrieking at three of her babies caught in the mud ruts under truck wheels. The last death hiss, the only live sound of the leather lizard under a fallen rock. Noise of dry locusts on stems of bushes. High rattle of clouds of grasshoppers peeling off across the ranch. A yelping dog. Hungry coyote. The croak of a carp feeding with fins out of the water, the gasp of the buzzard shot through the head. A sound of new green things crashing up out of the spring ground. A dry wagon wheel, a barn door, the jingle of rusty spurs hung on the windmill post. The sound was a cry and the cry had all these sounds and more and other sounds, all of the sounds, all of the hisses, barks, yelps, whoops, croaks, peeps, chirps, screams, whistles, moans, yells and groans, all of these were mixed up in Tike’s head as he listened to the skreak of the bones of his temple and saw Blanche shake his baby there above that slick wall canyon. And out of the walls of the canyon the cry got itself together, and it got better organized and unionized and turned into something so wide, so high, so big, so loud, that it strained the boards of the shack.
And so Tike realizes that this noise is the first cry of his newborn baby son. And he can’t wait to get out in the fields with his son and start putting in another crop. Because for all the dust, for all the poverty, for all the falling-down old shack Tike and Ella May must pay rent on to be able to stay one more year on the land, this is a novel of hope.
“… I want to show just a few people round here that there is a way to come out of this mess, to build a better house, and not pick up and run down the highway. I’ll be one that’ll never take that road that goes nowhere.” (Ella May)
This is Woody Guthrie’s answer to John Steinbeck. Stick it out. Pay the rent, crop for shares, whatever it takes. Scrimp and scrape and get a block of waste land and build with your own hands a house that will last. Raise another generation.
Woodie Guthrie, House of Earth, Fourth Estate, London, 2013. Jacket painting In El Rancho Grande, Woodie Guthrie, 1936