January 30, 2013

A place of their own

By Woody Guthrie
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On July 14, 1912, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, the third child of Charley and Nora Belle Guthrie. The Guthries eked out a hardscrabble existence. When Woody was 15, his mother was committed to Central State Hospital for the Insane in Norman, Oklahoma (where she died three years later), and Charley packed up and moved to the Texas Panhandle. Woody eventually joined his father in Pampa, in the arid and treeless Texas country, where he experienced a devastating dust storm in 1935.

Woody started playing the guitar and harmonica to earn a living and married Mary Jennings, the sister of his musician friend, Matt Jennings. An inveterate reader and writer and advocate for the downtrodden, Guthrie used his guitar—on which he famously wrote the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists"—his pen and his voice to give voice to those who could not speak for themselves. In 1940, he wrote "This Land is Your Land" as a rebuttal to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," made famous by Kate Smith. In the final verse, seldom ever sung by schoolchildren, the singer points out that "in the shadow of a steeple/by the relief office, I'd seen my people/as they stood there hungry."

During his life, Guthrie wrote more than 3,000 song lyrics, in addition to scores of letters, journals and diaries. Themes of land, social justice and hope permeate his work. In 1947, he completed this novel, House of Earth, which crystallized many of his persistent concerns for the plight of the marginalized, the threat of big government and the hope for the future of humanity expressed in the ownership of a good piece of fertile land on which a person can build a sustainable shelter.

Guthrie first conceived the novel in the 1930s—likely not long after the apocalyptic dust storm of 1935 that blackened Pampa and shook the thin walls of the Guthrie house—but he did not write it until 1947. The story is simple, but just as each verse of Guthrie's songs build one upon the other, the drama builds with each chapter, so that we feel more and more compassion for the characters as they struggle to build a life for themselves in a harsh environment.

Tike and Ella May Hamlin are tenant farmers eking out a meager existence in the Texas Panhandle. In the treeless country, the couple dreams of owning their own plot of land where they can construct a house that will endure the harsh environment. "Wood rots. Wood decays. This ain't th' country of trees," Grandma Hamlin tells them. One day, Tike carries home an envelope containing a booklet from the government about constructing adobe houses, which will endure dust storms, provide warmth in the winter and remain cool in the summer. But this dream eludes the couple, however, when they realize that they don't own the land on which they want to build. Nevertheless, the birth of their child renews the hope that a new generation will own the land where no one can run the Hamlin's earth house down.

The novel echoes the naturalism of Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, as well as the sexual frankness and paean to fertility of D.H. Lawrence. Guthrie captures the voice of the farmers of the Texas Panhandle, and even though the novel is a protest novel, its lyrical beauty brings Tike and Ella May to life, refusing to let them to be one-dimensional characters standing for ideas.

Brinkley and Depp stumbled upon this novel while doing research for a Rolling Stone project on Bob Dylan. In their insightful introduction to the novel, they chronicle the history of the novel—it languished in obscurity in the archives at the University of Tulsa for more than 50 years—and we can be grateful to them for bringing it out into the light of day to celebrate Guthrie's centennial.

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House of Earth

House of Earth

By Woody Guthrie
ISBN 9780062248398

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