Reasonable Words: Guthrie and other Writing Machines

Among many great things in the 9 May London Review of Books was a review of Woody Guthrie’s novel House of Earth by Ian Sansom. I don’t think of Guthrie as a novelist, but he was one, and intermittently at least, a good one. Sansom gives this passage from the novel, introducing Tike Hamlin, the main character, with much in common with Woody (although he’s made himself a little taller, a move I sympathize with!)

Five feet and eight inches tall, square built, but slouchy in his actions, hard of muscle, solid of bone and lungs, but with a good wide streak of laziness somewhere in him … a medium man, medium wise and medium ignorant, wise in the lessons taught by fighting the weather and working the land, wise in the tricks of the men, women, animals, and all of the other things of nature, wise to guess a blizzard, a rainstorm, dry spell, the quick change of the hard wind, wise as to how to make friends, and how to fight enemies. Ignorant as to the things of school.

Of its era, the 1930’s and 40s, certainly, but a good rhythm, nice staircases of lists.

Having not known he even wrote a novel, I now want to read it, and Sansom also has some interesting comparisons to other writers while discussing another of Guthrie’s books, Seeds of Man,

a novel clearly enhanced with large doses of autobiographical fact, but also the thousands of songs, song fragments, gobbets of verse and prose, and the cartoons, journals, diaries, letters and endless observations banged out on a typewriter, or scribbled on a steno pad, and often carelessly discarded. Guthrie, like, say, Balzac, Simenon, Joyce Carol Oates, Bob Dylan, Richmal Crompton and Stephen King, was basically a writing machine, someone constantly in the process of noting, notating and composing.

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 10.13.38 AM
This machine writes novels: the IBM Selectric of my youth…a lot less fun than WordPress, and the kind of typewriter I wrote many truly terrible high school and college papers.

I love this image of “a writing machine,” the opposite of how most people view (or experience) writing. (“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” -–Thomas Mann ) The trope on writing is that it is such a heroic struggle–be it a 500 word theme for a high school English class, or The Magic Mountain. The notion of getting up and just writing every day because you need to, because you are a writing machine, is a neat counterpoint to this, a story worth telling in its own right.

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