What do Woody Guthrie, Johnny Depp, and historian Douglas Brinkley all have in common? Guthrie’s only known novel, House of Earth. Brinkley, in one of those moments of discovery that scholars live for, stumbled across a reference to the work while doing some research. He, along with Guthrie’s daughter Nora, were the first to read the unpublished novel. The manuscript was taken to Brinkley’s friend and publishing partner, the actor Johnny Depp, who has created the new imprint “Infinitum Nihil” at HarperCollins.
Guthrie wrote the the novel in 1947, when he was very well known, so it may seem surprising that his novel remained tucked away for 66 years. There are probably a couple reasons the book was never published. First, as his daughter Nora was surprised to find, there is some sexually explicit material, quite racy for its day, as Nora remembered to Lynn Neary on NPR’s Morning Edition. “The opening chapter was so sexy,” she said, laughing. “I just went, whoa, Dad, where are you going with this?”
The other reason Guthrie likely could not find a publisher is because of the political climate of the time. The “Red Scare” was in full force and the book, “both a love story and a polemic against the bankers and businessmen [whom] Guthrie blamed for keeping the poor, poor” was not a message that would find a buyer.
These themes appear in some fashion in all of Guthrie’s vast repertoire of songs, including the much-beloved, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.” While many people happily sing along with its patriotic message, many express surprise when they truly read the lyrics and understand some of its subversive content:
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
“Woody believed that the people that lived on the land should own the land,” says Brinkley. “So he was outraged at what bankers were doing, and when people were struggling and they couldn’t pay rents and were being forced off the land. And so ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and House of Earth are both aimed at people being able to say if you grew up on a property it should be yours, and you should be able to live on it.”