House of Earth was completed in 1947 but discovered only recently. It is a novel about farming; there aren’t many such. The one great one, Edith Summers Kelley’s Weeds, was reprinted not long ago by the persistent professor Matthew J. Bruccoli, who was given it by an astute bookseller. It’s a great book, and House of Earth isn’t, though it is powerful. It’s a serious effort to dramatize the struggles of a young couple, Tike and Ella May Hamlin, who try to make a living as farm laborers in the most unforgiving years of an equally unforgiving place: the Texas Panhandle in the 1930s.
His conclusion? Stick with Guthrie’s songs:
Woody Guthrie wrote a fair amount, in letters, diaries, in journals, and on random pieces of paper. But it is not as a writer that we revere him, or that so many of his contemporaries and peers beat a path to his door or to his hospital bed—Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen—and my own son and grandson now. His genius was song, and House of Earth is a bit of an oddity, though certainly a readable one. It is the apprentice work of a man who became great in his real calling, his craft, his sullen art, as the poet Dylan Thomas would say. Are we glad to have it? Sure. Would we trade any of the best songs for it? No way.
(Photo: Woody Guthrie in 1943, via Wikimedia Commons)