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Johnny Depp’s New Imprint Publishes Long-Lost Woody Guthrie Novel

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Article by Derek Flynn © 21 February 2013 Derek Flynn .
Posted in the Magazine ( · News for Writers ).

Johnny Depp is a man with many strings to his bow: award-winning actor, musician, producer. And now he’s added one more: publisher. Depp recently announced that his production company, Infinitum Nihil, would be moving into the book publishing business, and the first novel to emerge is quite the coup: a long-lost novel by legendary folk singer, Woody Guthrie. The press release says:

“Infinitum Nihil is Johnny Depp’s production company formed in 2004 to develop projects for which he is expected to serve as actor and/or producer. In October 2012 it was announced that Infinitum Nihil will also become involved in book publishing. Infinitum Nihil is working in conjunction with HarperCollins to release a new imprint. Johnny Depp said in a press release the new imprint would “deliver publications worthy of people’s time, of people’s concern. Publications that might ordinarily never have breached the parapet.” Titles include The Unraveled Tales of Bob Dylan (2015) by author Douglas Brinkley, and folk singer Woody Guthrie’s novel House of Earth (2013).”

The lost Guthrie novel came to light purely by chance. Depp was working with his friend and historian, Douglas Brinkley, on the aforementioned Dylan book when Brinkley saw a mention of the novel House of Earth in the papers of folklorist Alan Lomax, who recorded Guthrie singing many of his most famous songs. Following the lead, Brinkley discovered that the novel had eventually ended up in a box at the University of Tulsa library. House of Earth tells the story of an atypical family trying to get by during the Great Depression:

Tike and Ella May Hamlin struggle to plant roots in the arid land of the Texas Panhandle. The husband and wife live in a precarious wooden farm shack, but Tike yearns for a sturdy house that will protect them from the treacherous elements. Thanks to a five-cent government pamphlet, Tike has the know-how to build a simple adobe dwelling, a structure made from the land itself – fireproof, windproof, Dust Bowl-proof. A house of earth.

Though they are one with the farm and with each other, the land on which Tike and Ella May live and work is not theirs. Due to larger forces beyond their control – including ranching conglomerates and banks – their adobe house remains painfully out of reach.

Woodie GuthrieGuthrie’s daughter, Nora, explains: “He was fascinated with this whole idea of people being able to cheaply create homes that were stronger than the wooden homes that were being devastated during the dust bowl,” she says. “So he had this long-term fascination, and when he had fascinations, he turned them into everything he turned it into art, he turned it into letters, he turned it into lyrics.”

In his song “Bling Blang” Guthrie wrote about the adobe houses mentioned in House of Earth:

“I’ll grab some mud and you grab some clay

So when it rains it won’t wash away.

We’ll build a house that’ll be so strong,

The winds will sing my baby a song.”

Similar themes are evident in Guthrie’s most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” especially in verses, which are not usually heard in most popular versions of the song:

“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;

Sign was painted, it said private property;

But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;

This land was made for you and me.”

 

In an introduction to the novel, Brinkley and Depp explain the genesis of the novel:

“In Santa Fe he visited a Nambe Pueblo on the outskirts of town. The mud-daubed adobe walls fascinated him … These New Mexico Adobe homes, Guthrie understood, were built to last the ages. If the people in towns like Pampa were going to survive dust storms and snow blizzards, Guthrie decided, they would have to build Nambe style homes …

When the folklorist Alan Lomax read the first chapter of House of Earth, he was bowled over, amazed at how Guthrie expressed the emotions of the downtrodden with such realism and dignity. For months Lomax encouraged Guthrie to finish the book, saying that he’d “considered dropping everything I was doing” just to sell the novel. “It was quite simply,” Lomax wrote, “the best material I’d seen written about that section of the country.”

Guthrie apparently never showed Lomax the other three chapters of the novel. His hopes for House of Earth lay in Hollywood. He mailed the finished manuscript to the filmmaker Irving Lerner. Guthrie hoped that Lerner would make the novel into a low-budget feature film.”

This never came to pass and it languished in Lerner’s estate until the University of Tulsa came across it while assembling a Woody Guthrie collection.

Depp has called the novel “a lost treasure of 20th-century American literature,” and said that, “should the possibility of a film be discussed, it would be an honour to play any part in it.”

The next release from Depp’s new imprint will be The Unraveled Tales Of Bob Dylan, a new look at the folk singer’s life, based on his interviews with historian Douglas Brinkley. It’s set for a 2015 release.

(c) Derek Flynn
(c) Derek Flynn

Derek Flynn is an Irish writer and musician. He has an Honours Degree in English Literature and Philosophy. He’s been published in a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and was First Runner-Up in the 2011 J. G. Farrell Award for Best Novel-In-Progress. His writing/music blog – ‘Rant, with Occasional Music’ – can be found here:http://derekflynn.wordpress.com and on Twitter, he can be found here:http://twitter.com/derekf03