Johnny Depp publishes lost Woody Guthrie novel

Woody Guthrie at his Mermaid Avenue home in Woody Guthrie at his Mermaid Avenue home in Coney Island, 1950. His novel, "House of Earth," never published in his lifetime has been released by Johnny Depp's Infinitum Nihil imprint of HarperCollins (Feb. 2013). Photo Credit: Courtesy of Nora Guthrie

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REVIEW

Nora Guthrie had put off reading her late father Woody Guthrie's recently unearthed novel, even after she'd agreed for it to be published. Having devoted much of 2012 to preparing events for the centennial of the singer-songwriter-artist's birth, she said, she wanted to read the book at her leisure, when it wouldn't feel like "work."

So it wasn't until last fall that she started in on the manuscript and soon reached the lengthy, graphic sex scene in a cowshed during which a husband and wife discuss the benefits of adobe homes.

"I went, 'Dad! Whoa!' " Nora Guthrie, 63, recalled on the phone from the New York-based Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archives, of which she is the director.

She was encountering what she calls the "slightly undomesticated animal side of him" -- Woody Guthrie writing about the time before he moved to New York City and became a famous folk singer. This was Dust Bowl Woody, a man earthy not only in sensibility and humor but also in philosophy. Everything in the novel -- life, sex, nature, shelter -- is intended to spring from the earth.

Misfit of a novel

"House of Earth" (Infinitum Nihil/Harper, $25.99) is a book that could have been written only by someone with talent: a keen ear for dialogue, a deep sense of empathy, sharp powers of observation and a lyrical way with words. Paragraph after paragraph could have been recast in the kind of epic ballads that made Guthrie famous.

It's also a misfit of a novel, taking its place in a long tradition of idiosyncratic fiction authored by accomplished musicians (among them Bob Dylan's "Tarantula"). It dates from 1946 to 1947, after Guthrie moved to New York, wrote "This Land Is Your Land" and saw the publication of his memoir, "Bound for Glory," a book filled with incident and drama. More happens on the train in the first chapter of "Bound for Glory" than in all of "House of Earth."

This, no doubt, is by design. Guthrie's interest here lies less in constructing a dramatic arc than drilling deep into the lives of an isolated married couple, Tike and Ella May Hamlin, as they subsist in a rickety wooden house on desolate land that they will never own.

Guthrie, never shy about sharing his leftist views, fills the novel with speeches and platform statements, such as this exchange between Tike and Ella May:

"I wish you'd think up some kind of a way to get us a piece of nice good farmin' land, with an adobe house on it, an' a big adobe fence all around it."

"There's not but one way. And that is to just keep on working and fighting and fighting and working, and then to work and to save and to save and to fight some more," she said.

Mind you, this dialogue comes in the middle of the sex scene.

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Johnny Depp Edited

"House of Earth" is published by actor Johnny Depp, who has his own line of books at HarperCollins. Depp and historian-author Douglas Brinkley are credited with editing the novel and writing the lengthy introduction, in which they speculate on why "House of Earth" went unpublished: Perhaps Guthrie "sensed that some of the content was passé," or maybe the graphic sex was too much in a climate in which Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" had been banned in the United States.

But Tiffany Colannino, archivist at the Woody Guthrie Archives in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., said there's no way to know what Guthrie actually was thinking on this matter. "We don't have him writing about 'House of Earth' at all," Colannino said.

She is relatively certain Guthrie, who died in 1967 at age 55, sent a complete version of the manuscript to filmmaker Irving Lerner, who had worked on some documentaries. A film never got made, but Lerner's copy of the novel was donated to the University of Tulsa's Guthrie collection.

Brinkley and Depp write that they "stumbled on" "House of Earth" there while researching a project on Bob Dylan. When Brinkley called for permission to edit and publish it, Colannino and Nora Guthrie gave the OK.

"I said, 'OK, you're a smart guy. If you think it's good enough to publish, I'll trust you on this,' " Nora Guthrie recalled.

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