Donald Brinkley couldn’t believe it.
The Rice University professor of history was sifting through the massive archives of folklorist Alan Lomax, held at the American Folklife Center in Washington. Rice was trying to find some background information on singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie for an upcoming book, and Lomax had collected all kinds of historic information on Guthrie before his death in 1967.
And then he saw it.
In fact he almost missed it. As he skimmed through Lomax’s papers on Guthrie, he found a brief reference to a novel called ‘House of Earth.’ Lomax wrote he had become extremely excited after reading the first chapter, and offered to do anything he could to help Guthrie publish it. This letter was dated 1947.
As far as Brinkley knew, Guthrie had never written a novel. But apparently he had, and for whatever reason, it had never been published. What happened to it?
Brinkley stopped his research and immediately placed a call to the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York, and was patched in to Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter. No, she had never heard of her father writing a novel, but she would gladly search for it.
Regrettably, Nora was unable to find a copy of her father’s novel. She was about to break the news to Brinkley when he contacted her. He had found a copy of the novel tucked away in a library at the University of Tulsa. It appeared Guthrie had sent a copy of ‘House of Earth’ to filmmaker Irving Lerner, in hopes Lerner would turn it into a film. The film was never made, and Lerner’s papers were sent to Tulsa after his death in 1976.
As Brinkley was arranging to have this copy sent to Nora, she called him to say she had finally found the original book amongst her father’s papers. She also wanted to know if Brinkley knew of an appropriate publisher for the book — one which would be respectful of her father’s work.
In a moment of great synchronicity, Johnny Depp was forming his own publishing imprint with Harper Collins, and he was searching for a novel which would perfectly reflect his philosophy of esthetics and literature. ‘House of Earth’ appeared to be written exactly to launch Depp’s publishing house.
‘House of Earth’ — Woody Guthrie’s long lost novel — hits the shelves next week. It tells the story of a husband and wife struggling to survive the dust storms and unrelenting poverty of Texas in the 1930s. An original painting by Guthrie adorns the book’s dust jacket.
It should be noted that before he became a famed actor, Depp was an aspiring guitar player, and Guthrie was one of his inspirations.
“In a way,” Nora Guthrie said, extremely pleased with the care Depp took with her father’s novel, “he’s just like my dad.” (This one’s for Karin).
Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library