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Hardscrabble: A Different Woody Guthrie by Megan Pugh

In criticism, fiction, history, literature, music, North America on January 11, 2015 at 05:29

From: Hardscrabble: A Different Woody Guthrie by Megan Pugh, Boston Review, http://www.bostonreview.net

According to his biographer Joe Klein, in 1934, at the Pampa, Texas public library, Guthrie read a Department of Agriculture pamphlet on adobe houses. He was captivated by the idea of building one. The rickety wooden buildings dotting the Texas Panhandle didn’t offer much shelter from the increasingly frequent dust storms. Dust would blow into the cracks, cover everything inside, and find its way into ears and mouths and lungs. Adobe seemed like a powerful alternative. It was solid, thick, and built to last. To Guthrie, recently enamored with Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, there was something mystical about adobe, too. “Man is himself a adobe house,” Guthrie wrote to a friend in 1937, “some sort of a streamlined old temple.” When Guthrie gave a different friend a painting he’d done of adobe buildings in Santa Fe, he scrawled the same comparison on the back.

Adobe had another crucial advantage over wood: it was cheap. If you owned land, you should have been able to saw up bricks of it yourself. Never mind that Guthrie couldn’t quite manage to do that, though he tried, on more than one occasion, to follow the government pamphlet’s instructions. Adobe, Guthrie hoped, would be the solution to rural poverty, a way for people to carve out their own, meaningful existence from the very land on which they lived.

That’s the dream Guthrie gives to his characters in House of Earth. Tike and Ella May Hamlin, tenant farmers in the Texas Panhandle, receive a copy of the same pamphlet that Guthrie had read. They long to tear up their flimsy shack and build an adobe house of their own, but, as renters, they can’t. That’s pretty much the entire plot of the book, if you can even call it a plot. It’s more like one perpetual conflict. The Hamlins’ thoughts on the matter remain unchanged, but they restate them, again and again. They dream of an adobe house while making love, while taking shelter from a dust storm, and while having a child. Toward the end of the book, we learn that Ella May hopes to buy them some property with money she’s secretly saved, but things don’t look too hopeful: their landlord is unwilling to sell her anything of agricultural value.

Read the essay

Reposted with permission from: Boston Review

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