Monday, March 25, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“HOUSE OF EARTH – A NOVEL” by Woody Guthrie (Harper-Collins / Fourth Estate, $NZ34:99)

This week’s “Something New” is new in the sense only of being newly published. It was written by Woody Guthrie (1912-67) 66 years ago, in 1947, but remained in manuscript, archived among his papers, until it was turned up and dusted off in 2012, the centenary of Guthrie’s birth.

It now appears prefaced with a 33-page introduction by Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp – one being a media-friendly History Professor from Rice University; the other being the millionaire film actor (apparently he is now listed as Hollywood’s highest-paid performer) who likes to espouse liberal-left causes. I do always wonder how the very rich contrive to see themselves as identifying with the wretched of the Earth, but it’s not my purpose to focus on Johnny Depp. I’m more interested in Woody Guthrie, the rambling Oklahoma-born, Texas Panhandle-raised folk-singer and protest-singer of the 1930s and 1940s who used to perform with the rather hubristic sign “This Machine Kills Fascists” pasted to his guitar.

Woody, so the hype goes, was the voice of poor white tenant farmers and sharecroppers wiped out by the Depression and the dust storms that made the Dustbowl. Woody was also easily annexed by the Far Left folks of Greenwich Village, to spout the Party Line when necessary. And Woody’s career was cut short by Huntingdon’s disease, which left him in a hospital for the last 15 or so years of his life.

Whether you like his music or not, Woody Guthrie is a sort of American legend now – the kingpin of the Almanac Singers, the comrade of Pete Seeger and the Weavers, the man who inspired the “folk revival” and (for better or probably worse) the man who taught Bob Dylan a thing or two.

So we come to the Big Question at last. Woody Guthrie did have a way with words and did write a heavily-fictionalised memoir called Bound for Glory. Sure, the man who wrote “This Land is Your Land” (and literally hundreds of other songs) knew how to use popular language.

But would this item from the archives have been published on its own merits, and if it were not related to such a celebrity name?

Its interest as an historical document is beyond question. Brinkley and Depp’s introduction says House of Earth was based on Guthrie’s experience of the dustbowl in 1934-35 and his growing sense that Big Business and Big Lumber (who sold the wood of which creaky shacks were made) were destroying plain hardscrabble folks. Hence, says the introduction (p. xix), in the novel “wood is a metaphor for capitalist plunderers while adobe represents a socialist utopia where tenant farmers own land.” The novel reflects Woody’s own campaign, fired by a government pamphlet, to get folks in the Texas Panhandle to build durable adobe houses rather than highly perishable wooden ones.

Guthrie was impressed by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, (and by John Ford’s movie version of it, which led him to write his song “Tom Joad”). But, unlike Steinbeck, he wanted to write about the people who stayed behind in the dustlands rather than the ones who fled to California like the Joads. The introduction spends much time telling us the legend of Woody Guthrie the folk-singer and, while noting that this novel is “a not-so-subtle paean to the plight of Everyman” (p.xxxix), goes on to claim that Guthrie has an authenticity that other writers don’t have. Say Brinkley and Depp:

Guthrie gets to the essence of poor folks without looking down on them from a higher perch like James Agee or Jacob Riis. His gritty realism is communal, expressing oneness with the subjects.” (p.xli)

There you have the 33 pages of background and advance word.

But what of the novel itself?

House of Earth consists of four long chapters, which are like static scenes rather than a developing plot, and which are heavy on lyrical description. We are plunged into the arid and impoverished landscape at once, and a bitter sense of class distinction:

There were more of the shaggy, rotting shack houses than of the nicer wood houses, and the shack houses all look to the larger houses and curse out at them, howl, cry and ask questions about the rot, the filth, the hurt, the misery, the decay of land and families. All kinds of fights break out between the smaller houses, the shacks, and the larger houses….” (Pg.4)

Chapter One tells us that Grandma and Grandpa built their home of clay and adobe and it sure does hurt them to see the young folks building their homes of wood that rots and decays. Tike Hamlin is “a wiry, hard-hitting, hard-working sort of man” (Pg.7) aged 33 and married to Ella May whose pappy owned a whole passel of land. So she’s come down in the world in marrying Tike, the dirt-poor tenant farmer. As soon as the mail comes with a government pamphlet saying how it’s possible to build an adobe house (mud-bricks covered in stucco) rather than living in a rotting, leaking, dust-filled wooden shack, Tike is enthused and launches into a dithyramb on how great it would be to build their own home without working up a debt to some lyin’ cheatin’ timber-merchant and with their only cost being the sweat of their brows. But Ella May reminds Tike that they don’t own the land they’re living on – they’re only tenants – so they don’t own the dirt of which an adobe dwelling could be made. In turn, this leads Tike into a long harangue against private property and the landlords who cheat poor folks. Thus the action for thirty or so pages.

An optimistic radical, however, Woody Guthrie is not the man to leave his characters in the emotional doldrums for long. So we are treated to a ten-page-long vigorous jumping, bumping, thumping, humping sex scene between Tike and Ella in the barn, which has specific and repeated images of seeds and planting and a woman’s body being like Mother Earth and the lustiness of the adventurous erect penis of the working man and the natural lubrication of the woman and her earthiness and the people being at one with the land and unified by its colossal forces.

In other words, we have a scene somewhere between D.H.Lawrence and Cold Comfort Farm.

No. I will not summarise this whole novel. Each of its four chapters is a prolonged scene, symbolically taking us through the four seasons and charting the growth of the new life in Ella May’s belly. The sexual images come thick and fast. When, in Chapter Two, Tike reveals to Ella May the awful truth that he hasn’t been able to renew their lease on the farm, there’s a long, long extended metaphor about the bosses and capitalists and landowners being the termites that eat away at poor folks’ lives. But again, this is subsumed in the earthy, life-affirming sexual play between Tike and Ella May as, this time, they paper the inside of their wooden shack with recent newspapers and Tike tries all his best uxorious tricks to seduce Ella into bed.

And in the Third Chapter the baby is growing in Ella May’s body and Ella May is thinking of how she will best use the money her daddy left her to cover their debts and maybe buy an acre of land outright. And they have a radio. And there is more evidence of injustice in the government’s plan to subsidise farmers not to grow crops in order to keep markets prices up rather than sharing these surplus crops with those who really need them.

Repeatedly, Guthrie forgets his characters to give a panorama of the land, as in:

Just a little thin boxboard shack in the land of grazing cattle, oil fields, carbon black plants, sheep herds, chicken farms, highways as straight as a string and as deadly flat as a frontline trench. A world of flat lands mainly. Flat, crusty, hard lands mainly. Some washed-out ditches deep enough to be young canyons and some gullies and some canyons big enough to swallow several of your big towns, cliff and mesas, gorges and hollers, dry-bedded rivers, sand-bottom creeks, eggless hens, running ducks, stewball nags, hypocrite kilcustards, sons of virgin, hopping hare, buffalo bear, woolly sheep, tedious toddy drinkers, open mothers, deep thinkers, beer makers, slop inhalers, dust and dirt eaters and sandrock sleepers. Crawlers of the night soils, diggers under the sunny sod, hole feelers, hole diggers, hole makers and hole ticklers. Easy gravel walkers and long-tail talkers. The soul, the mind, the winds of heavens unrolling, unfolding, and the listeners down below listening in two or three low brick buildings, wheeling chuck-a-luck….” (pg.93)

And so it goes on, an extended prose poem on the land and its sparse flora and its ornery fauna and its human inhabitants, peppered with dialect words, but too often suggesting that Guthrie is overwhelmed by his own verbal exuberance and losing whatever focus he originally had.

When Tike’s and Ella May’s baby is on the way, Guthrie outdoes himself in an attempt to create some sort of universal statement from the domestic scene:

And the claws of the night demons reached to steal the flame of the fire because they thought that it was the soul of all life, the warmer of all bodies, the strength in all action. The fire in the lamp globe had higher ideas and craved to light the way for the baby to be born, craved, too, just the right instant, to melt out into the air of the room at the moment that the baby took its first breath, and to be inhaled, sucked in, drawn into the lungs and the blood, the brain and the eyes, the soul of the lamp fire fought the unborn blizzard spirits because if they devoured its flame before it could be breathed into the nose of the baby, then it would take several million years again to get to get to be a flame of fire again, a flame struck and placed there by the hand of a woman with a baby in her stomach. The room shook, trembled, splashed and foamed, rolled and tossed, pitched and squirmed, with the shadows of the battled that was going on between the flame or fire and the outer windows down inside the lamp globe. The winds howled into all of the private corners of the room, sniffed, smelled, prodded, felt with their deathly fingers, and danced with such a wild passion that they nearly succeeded in stealing the lamplight. The things about the room flashed light and dark like the gunfire from the muzzles of a million freedom cannons.” (Pg.156)

Many passages like this attempt to combine description of a fire-lit and lamp-lit room with thoughts on the coming baby; but Guthrie is seduced into such excessive statements that, like so much in this book, it tips over into purple prose.

The reproving part of me wants to get censorious about the novel’s inconsistent vision of the good life. Repeatedly, Guthrie promotes a neighbourly, populist-socialist camaraderie as the cure for the world’s ills. But the economic basis for this isn’t always clear. When his Ella May challenges Tike about their decrepit shack, Tike says “You mean that me, my greed caused this farm to be filthy? I didn’t make it filthy. If it was mine, I’d clean th’ damn thing up slicker’n a new hat.” (pp.19-20) Which sounds to me, contrary to Guthrie’s intentions, awfully like an argument for private property.

I could add a few more words about the general naivete of Woody Guthrie’s politics and economic vision (the poor chap was one of those who spent some years doing propaganda work for the Communist Party). But that would take me beyond a consideration of this particular novel.

At the risk of sounding condescending, I will answer my own earlier question by saying that House of Earth is much better than I feared it would be. Unpublished manuscripts turned up from archives tend to be curiosities at best. House of Earth shows some real literary skill on Woody Guthrie’s part (helped, as an after-word informs us, by the editors’ judicious amendments), but he was not cut out to be a novelist. The novel’s situations are feeble threads on which to hang general observations, it is clearly unfinished, and the overblown descriptions are itching to be turned into songs. Fittingly, it concludes with Tike singing a rousing anthem on how the landlords can’t take away his house of earth. The words would go best if delivered by Woody Guthrie and his guitar to a workers’ smoker.

Semi-relevant footnote: The introduction makes a number of references to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which clearly was a big influence on Woody Guthrie, especially in its film version. But the images of House of Earth, with its hard-working tenant farmers just holding on to their unforgiving land, reminded me much more of another film that was released only a year or two before Guthrie wrote House of Earth. This was Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945), which I feel sure Guthrie must have seen. The (Texas Panhandle) landscape of House of Earth is arid and dusty. The (central Texas) landscape of The Southerner has the opposite problem. Tenant farmers are trying to farm land that keeps getting swamped by an unruly river. Even so, both House of Earth and The Southerner have the same sympathy for the struggling family unit, and both make class-based comments on the people who control the capital. I’m sure a bit more archival digging would show that Guthrie had seen Renoir’s movie.

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