To many in our cultural elite, Woody Guthrie is an American saint. The legendary songwriter from Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, is introduced to every American child by way of his folk anthem “This Land Is Your Land.” But for gatekeepers of the arts, Guthrie is much more: All of his work—every song, every article, every poem—is good and honest and true, the gospel according to Woody. What other justification is there for the release of this deservedly long-lost novel? Completed in 1947 but only recently “rediscovered,” House of Earth is an incoherent polemic interspersed with erotic scenes and rambling descriptions of life in the Dust Bowl-stricken plains.
Its major themes, such as they can be discerned, are Guthrie’s brand of rustic left-wing politics and his obsession with replacing America’s wooden farmhouses with ones made of adobe. The characters are flat and uninteresting; the narrative plods along; the language is often indecipherable. Here’s how Guthrie describes Ella May, the wife of the novel’s hero, Tike Hamlin: “She seemed to be made out of the same stuff that movement itself is made of.”
The editors of House of Earth, historian Douglas Brinkley and actor Johnny Depp, say they found the manuscript in the archives of the University of Tulsa while working on an unrelated project for Rolling Stone.As they write in their lengthy introduction, Brinkley and Depp “grew determined to have House of Earth published properly by a New York house, as Guthrie surely would have wanted.” No doubt Guthrie, a lifelong left-wing/Communist agitator, would have liked to see his book described as a “direct appeal for world governments to help the hardest-hit victims of natural disasters create new and better lives for themselves.” And the focus of the main characters on building an adobe house to weather the harsh climate of the Dust Bowl seems, to Brinkley and Depp, to presage our contemporary infatuation with environmentally sustainable living: “It’s almost as if Guthrie had written House of Earth prophetically, with global warming in mind,” they write. Almost.
But why didn’t Guthrie publish House of Earth after finishing it? Brinkley and Depp provide some possible answers:
Perhaps Guthrie sensed that some of the content was passé (the fertility cycle trope, for example, was frowned on by critics) or that the sexually provocative language was ahead of its time (graphic sex of the “stiff penis” variety was not yet acceptable in literature during the 1940s). The lovemaking between Tike and Ella May is a brave bit of emotive writing and an able exploration of the psychological dynamics of intercourse. But it’s a scene that, in the age when Tropic of Cancer was banned, would have been misconstrued as pornographic. Another impediment to publication may have been Guthrie’s employment of hillbilly dialect. This perhaps made it difficult for New York literary circles to embrace House of Earth as high art in the 1940s, though the dialect comes across as noble in our own period of linguistic archaeology. Also, left-leaning originality was hard to mass-market in the Truman era, when Soviet communism was public enemy number one. And critics at the time were bound to dismiss the novel’s enthusiasm for southwestern adobe as fetishistic.
None of these impediments persists, of course—which probably says less about Guthrie’s misunderstood genius than it does about the trajectory of American literature since the era of William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and Saul Bellow.
Woody Guthrie’s canonization began in 1944 when he recorded “This Land Is Your Land,” which helped establish him as America’s preeminent folk voice, even if folk music lacked mass appeal in the swing/big band era. Nor did it help that Guthrie’s song was written in direct response to Irving Berlin’s popular “God Bless America,” which Guthrie condemned as patriotic schmaltz. Woody Guthrie’s America was a collectivist utopia, where “this land is made for you and me.” There are even a few (rarely sung) verses attacking the concept of private property and turning the tune’s repeated phrase on its head: “Is this land made for you and me?”
A decade-and-a-half later, when young musicians in Greenwich Village began popularizing folk music as a form of social protest, Guthrie became the movement’s muse. And no one venerated the man from Okfuskee more than Bob Dylan, who brought Guthrie into the mainstream. One of Dylan’s earliest songs, “Song to Woody,” emulated the Guthrie style: acoustic guitar, alternatively picked and strummed; out-of-tune vocals; lyrics about a “funny old world” that “seems sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn.” “Song to Woody” was written in 1962, and by the time Guthrie died in 1967, at 55 after a long battle with Huntington’s disease, he had long since become the elder statesman of folk-protest music.
Guthrie’s legend, and the tributes to that legend, have only grown. Three months after his death, Guthrie was celebrated with a memorial concert in Carnegie Hall. Hal Ashby’s film Bound for Glory (1976) features David Carradine as a highly romanticized Guthrie. Rock musicians from Bruce Springsteen to Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine cite him as an influence. In the late 1990s, the left-wing British folk singer Billy Bragg and the American alternative rock band Wilco teamed up to release two albums of songs featuring unpublished Guthrie lyrics set to original music. In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service put Woody Guthrie on a 32-cent stamp.
Of course, Guthrie has also inspired academic research, including the life’s work of Will Kaufman, professor of American literature and culture at the University of Central Lancashire. Kaufman has written several books on his hero and even performs Guthrie songs as part of a traveling lecture series. In 2011, with a grant from the Woody Guthrie Foundation, Kaufman published Woody Guthrie, American Radical, which sought to “reclaim” Guthrie from his image as a folk figure in the American tradition to the political radical he really was. Kaufman wrote that he had taken “pleasure in imagining how many right-wing hawks might have licked [Guthrie’s] backside on a U.S. postage stamp.”
It’s a funny notion, given that most Americans likely think of Woody Guthrie as an “aw-shucks” Okie who sang folk tunes in a Norman Rockwell tableau. They can, perhaps, be forgiven for not realizing that Woody Guthrie was an avowed Communist who dreamed of the end of a capitalist system that had dealt his fellow plainsmen a bad hand. They can be forgiven their ignorance of his admiration for Stalin. They can even forgive Woody Guthrie lyrics such as these:
If I was President Roosevelt
I’d make groceries free—
I’d give away new Stetson hats,
And let the whiskey be.
I’d pass out suits of clothing
At least three times a week—
And shoot the first big oil man
That killed the fishing creek.
Less forgivable is Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp’s deceptive praise of Guthrie as a “fulfiller of dreams,” who deserves a “place among the immortal figures of American letters.”
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.