On July 9th, five days before the late Woody Guthrie would have turned 100, Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp published some surprising news about the folk singer in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Brinkley and Depp have discovered an unpublished and basically unknown novel that Guthrie wrote in the mid-1940s entitled House of Earth. Inspired by his time spent in the Dust Bowl, the novel is an anti-capitalist ode to rural folks of modest means. The novel’s title comes from the partially underground, sun-dried brick dwellings constructed by poor tenant farmers in New Mexico during the Great Depression.
Woody Guthrie in 1943
Photo credit: New York World-Telegram and the Sun / Library of Congress
Guthrie was one of the better-known personages to receive a Rosenwald Fund grant. In 1943, the New York Times reported that he was given a fellowship from the Rosenwald Fund for “folklore” (Rosenwald archives list it under “Language & Literature”) a financial award that would enable him to “write books, ballads, songs and novels that will help people know each other’s work better” (The New York Times, May 10, 1943). Until now it’s been unclear what use Guthrie put this award to: unlike many arts fellowships, the Rosenwald Fund did not require benchmarks and updates from its awardees. Guthrie likely received the award on the strength of his 1943-published and critically acclaimed autobiography Bound for Glory and with this news, it seems entirely possible that he used it to write House of Earth.
The mid to late 1940s were Guthrie’s last productive years (after 1950, Huntington’s disease began to take its toll) and the freedom provided by his Rosenwald grant allowed him to craft the stories, drawings, poems and songs he produced during this period. Depp and Brinkley’s report hints that House of Earth may be the most significant piece of art Guthrie produced after Bound for Glory. In their article, they call it a “minor masterpiece,” saying that it “successfully mixes Steinbeck’s narrative verve with D. H. Lawrence’s openness to erotic exploration.”
It’s unclear why the novel was never published. Alan Lomax, Guthrie’s friend and supporter at the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress (who also encouraged him to apply to the Rosenwald Fund) was enthusiastic about getting it published after reading the first chapter. Depp and Brinkley are currently co-editing the manuscript and looking for a publisher. If it’s published this year (65 years after Guthrie completed it in 1947) it will be a fitting tribute to the great folk singer on this centennial of his birth. Celebrations of his work including concerts and panel discussions will take place nationwide through the end of the year.
By Michael Rose