- House of Earth by Woody Guthrie
“Our big ole fight against the world”: Woody Guthrie’s House of Earth
The introduction to Woody Guthrie’s recently discovered novel notes reveals his desire to write the great Okie story had John Steinbeck not beaten him to it. The Grapes of Wrath, however, quickly became the definitive story detailing the hardships facing the families whose land was being over-farmed, repossessed, and repurposed. Guthrie acknowledged the novel’s importance at the time by writing two ballads retelling the Joad’s story: “Tom Joad Part One” and “Tom Joad Part Two.” But the success of Steinbeck’s novel did not stop Guthrie from writing his own version of the “Okie” story: House of Earth, which was finished in 1947 but never published. According to the editors, Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp, Guthrie’s intention was to see the story become a movie. When it became clear that this was not likely to happen, Guthrie set his novel aside. It stayed ‘lost’ until scholars at the University of Tulsa unearthed the manuscript while accessioning a Woody Guthrie Collection.
House of Earth is divided into four parts, and the text is followed by the editors’ acknowledgements, a selected bibliography containing works about and by Guthrie, a selected discography of Guthrie’s music and that of other important folk singers, and a biographical timeline of Guthrie’s life. Notably, the editors chose to include important Guthrie-Steinbeck connections—for example, the March 1939 publication of The Grapes of Wrath and the March 3, 1940, benefit concert hosted by the John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Agriculteral [sic] Organization. Guthrie’s connection to Steinbeck also includes the name of his son, Joady Ben Guthrie born in 1948.
The novel tells an important story of the fortitude of two poor tenant farmers facing hard times. The first section, “Dry Rosin,” opens with the story of Tike and Ella May Hamlin, revealing from the outset how much the two love each other, despite their hardships. The story quickly focuses on a pamphlet of instructions they have received in the mail—“Farmer’s Bulletin number seventeen hundred and twenty. The use of adobe or sun-dried brick for farm building…. it is fireproof. It is sweatproof. It does not take skilled labor. It is windproof. It can’t be eaten up by termites…. It is warn in cold weather. It is cool in hot weather. It is easy to keep fresh and clean” (13–14).
Ella May is the voice of reason in the Hamlins’ relationship. She explains the facts of things to her husband, the dreamer, informing him that, while it might be a great idea to build a house made of earth, they do not actually own the land on which they are living. Tike, frustrated and upset, exclaims—“a house of earth [End Page 171] and not an inch of land to build it on” (14). Their discussion leads them into the barn for a love tryst. Guthrie leaves nothing out in what ends up being a very explicit thirty-page account. While sexually graphic, the scene shows the love as well as the passion between the couple, with their intimate words interspersed with talk about their future and the house of earth.
In section two, “Termites,” they learn that the land on which they are living is no longer available to rent and that they must become sharecroppers if they want to stay there—an idea that sickens Tike Hamlin. In section three, “Auction Block,” cold weather is setting in and Ella May is pregnant and in pain. A third character, the midwife Blanche, comes to stay with Ella May until the baby comes. Blanche’s character is important because she acts as a liaison between Ella May and the man who owns the land they live on. When Ella May tries to purchase a plot of good land so that Tike can build their house of earth, the man refuses, offering only to sell the Hamlins land not suitable for farming.
In the fourth and final section of House of...