House of Earth

A representative sampling from Woody Guthrie’s only novel, House of Earth:

“And still it was harder than this to see through. The ways and the laws that people used to judge one another did not lie in any one certain mold. The people knew the other people. They knew all the good, the half good, the three-fourths good, and the nine-tenths good. One would have six faults and no good. Another had three good habits and four bad ones. Another had eleven sins and twelve virtues. This one, two vices and one streak of honesty. The next one, fair in some things and no-account in others. The next one, all right when the wind is in the east. The next one was a good man while his wife done his thinking. Another was a hard worker but trailed loose women. And others had their own mixtures of the good and the bad and their makeup was as well known to the others as the times to plow and to plant and to cut and to gather. There were a few people around who fought, drank, gambled, fornicated, trifled, told lies, and cheated but were so outright and so honest about it that Tike and Ella Mae either one would lend them their last coin or feed them or shelter them at any time, because they paid them back sooner than lots of the ones that claimed to be so holy.”

(I am by no means a saint, but I hope I’m not guilty of trifling!)

There are passages like this on every page of this novel, so many, in fact, that sometimes there is barely even any narrative development. I don’t mind. In a way it’s like poetry I think. And I’m glad that Guthrie found an outlet for his creative way of looking at things through songwriting. (The novel ends with the central character singing a song he’s making up as he goes.)

It does read to me as a one-note novel though. Set during the Dust Bowl in the Texas Panhandle, it tells a bit of the story of a young married couple whose great dream is to build a house made of earth — much like adobe — that will withstand both the ravages of nature and the rapaciousness of landlords, big banks, big agriculture, and the like. There are three characters, and each is prone to speechifying in much the same way as the narrator does in the excerpt above. (There is also a baby who makes an appearance at the last minute, but he isn’t given a speech to deliver.) The speeches are about the desire to overcome or the inability to overcome the forces arrayed against the couple (and all proletarians to Guthrie’s point of view). All exemplified by the house made of earth.

There is some speculation about why the novel was never published in Guthrie’s lifetime, the most prominent view being that he had finished it just as the Red Scare was rising in the country and no publisher wanted to handle such a hot item in that environment. (Big publishing?) When the novel was finally published several years ago, it became a New York Times bestseller, with all of the proceeds going to charity.

I’m not sure it’s a great novel, though it should probably stand in the same part of the Pantheon as The Grapes of Wrath, as a companion read.

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One Comment on “House of Earth

  1. pete29anderson Says:

    I suspected it was more of a political tract than a novel, which is one reason I still haven’t read it. Still, it’s impossible not to love terrific lines like this:

    “There were a few people around who fought, drank, gambled, fornicated, trifled, told lies, and cheated but were so outright and so honest about it that Tike and Ella Mae either one would lend them their last coin or feed them or shelter them at any time, because they paid them back sooner than lots of the ones that claimed to be so holy.”

    I can easily hear Nelson Algren (my favorite writer) expressing the same sentiment, although more lyrically.


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