Nora Guthrie had put off reading her late father
So it wasn't until last fall that she started in on the manuscript's pages and soon reached the lengthy, graphic sex scene in a cowshed during which the husband and wife discuss the benefits of adobe homes.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
"I went, 'Dad! Whoa!'" Nora Guthrie, 63, recalled on the phone from the New York-based Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archives, of which she is the director.
She was encountering what she calls the "slightly undomesticated animal side of him" — Woody Guthrie writing about the time before he moved to
It's a book that could have been written only by someone with talent: a keen ear for dialogue, a deep sense of empathy, sharp powers of observation and a lyrical way with words. Paragraph after paragraph could have been recast in the kind of epic ballads that made Guthrie famous.
For instance, there's this description of the elements' toll on the protagonists' wooden house in the Texas upper plains:
Then the long keen rays of the late spring sun would come. They would shine down against the house for several hours out of every day. They sucked. They bit. They scratched. They clawed and they chewed at the boards. And they sipped the wild saps, gums, rosins, juices, and waters out again with sunrays, winds, the dry tongue and lips of the weather that sings, then whispers, then sucks, and kisses all of the little houses until they are dry again and brittle. And this was the dryness of the heat against the house.
"House of Earth" also is — let's be honest — a misfit of a novel, taking its place in a long tradition of idiosyncratic fiction authored by accomplished musicians (among them
This, no doubt, is by design. Guthrie's interest here lies less in constructing a dramatic arc than drilling deep into the lives of an isolated married couple, Tike and Ella May Hamlin, as they subsist in a rickety wooden house on desolate land that they will never own.
Guthrie, never shy about sharing his leftist views, fills his novel with speeches and platform statements, such as this exchange between Tike and Ella May:
"I wish you'd think up some kind of a way to get us a piece of nice good farmin' land, with an adobe house on it, an' a big adobe fence all around it."
"There's not but one way. And that is to just keep on working and fighting and fighting and working, and then to work and to save and to save and to fight some more," she said.
Mind you, this dialogue comes in the middle of the sex scene.
The only characters in the novel are Tike — whose crude humor, plain-spoken yearnings and fighting spirit remind Nora Guthrie of her father — the spirited, long-suffering Ella May, and a young woman, Blanche, who arrives to help with a baby delivery. Nature and that old not-adobe house, with its gaps and cracks for letting in the dust and wind and snow, occupy the rest of the author's attention.
Nora Guthrie acknowledged the novel's lack of plot or narrative momentum.
"This is like a lot of nothing — a lot of nothing happening," she said. "I think what kind of got to me is it pulled me as a human being down to that same place, the repetition of it and the unrelenting quality of it day after day after day: nature, people, farm, shelter, sex. It's just this repetitive, unrelenting existence."
"House of Earth" comes out Tuesday from Infinitum Nihil, actor
In their introduction Brinkley and Depp, who received a Grammy nomination for their liner notes to the 2008 documentary "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" (Brinkley is Thompson's literary executor), speculate on why "House of Earth" went unpublished following its completion in 1947: Perhaps Guthrie "sensed that some of the content was passe," or maybe the graphic sex was too much in a climate in which Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" had been banned in the U.S.
But Tiffany Colannino, archivist at the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York's Westchester County, said there's no way to know what Guthrie actually was thinking on this matter.
"We don't have him writing about 'House of Earth' at all," Colannino said. "We don't have him making any comment on it."
She is relatively certain that Woody Guthrie, who died in 1967 at age 55, sent a complete version of the manuscript to filmmaker Irving Lerner, who had worked on some socially conscious documentaries — though how the author imagined that a late-'40s feature film might be crafted from a story in which the characters do little other than argue, have sex, contemplate their struggles and rhapsodize about adobe houses is anyone's guess. At any rate the film never got made, but Lerner's copy of the novel was donated to the University of Tulsa's Guthrie collection.
Brinkley and Depp write that they "stumbled on" "House of Earth" there while researching material about Bob Dylan for a separate project. Colannino said the archive had a photocopy of the Lerner manuscript as well, and when Brinkley called for permission to edit and publish it, she and Nora Guthrie gave the OK.
"I said, 'OK, you're a smart guy. If you think it's good enough to publish, I'll trust you on this,'" Nora Guthrie recalled.
Brinkley and Depp, who call the novel "a significant cultural event and a major installment in the corpus of his published work," note that editing was minor, with two paragraphs restructured and some spellings tweaked and "cosmetic changes" made. Colannino said Guthrie liked to elongate some vowel sounds, and some of those were edited for comprehension's sake while maintaining the spirit of the language.
The novel's publication is in line with Nora Guthrie's general attitude about her populist father's works: They were intended to be shared. The highest-profile Guthrie excavation project has been
"The bulk of his creativity was never published or sung," Nora Guthrie said. "I have 3,000 lyrics in the archives. He only recorded 250 in his lifetime."
Among those unrecorded songs, she noted, was one called "House of Earth," but it addresses a different subject from the novel: The lyric is about a prostitute who, among other things, promises to teach her johns things that they can take home to their wives.
"Woody is writing sex therapy songs pre-Dr. Ruth," Nora Guthrie said with a laugh, noting that she sent the lyrics to
As for the "House of Earth" book, Nora Guthrie said there are no other remaining Guthrie novels left to publish — at least as far as she knows.
"I'll have to sit and look through everything," she said. "There's so much in there."
Mark Caro writes about entertainment, the arts and culture for the
"House of Earth"
By Woody Guthrie, Infinitum Nihil, 288 pages, $25.99