Earl Guy

Radio essay: 

The most sensible assessment of Earl Guy’s life is buried in an oral history interview with two of his fellow Minnesota Communist Party members: “He was a very interesting fellow and a good writer,” one of them says, “but he kept getting in trouble.”[1] It’s tempting to hypothesize that the man who spent the peak years of his life in prison would have been an even better—and certainly more productive—writer if he had indeed stayed out of trouble. But it’s also the case that trouble was integral to both Guy’s literary career and his larger sense of self.

Born in 1904 in Macomb, Illinois, Guy made his way independently in the world from a young age, working odd jobs across the country, starting but not finishing a degree at the University of Minnesota and then returning to a hobo life.  Like many restless, able-bodied young men of the time, he did farm chores for families across the Midwest, the Plains and the South, moving on when he grew impatient or when the farm owners didn’t need him anymore. Eventually he capitalized on the arborist skills he’d gleaned from years of outdoor labor, peddling a tree surgery business from Texas to Canada.[2] His skills weren’t merely agricultural, however; according to a 1940 Prairie Schooner bio note, Guy at one point owned a restaurant in Hastings, Nebraska.

(Top) Commercial West, August 24, 1929 account of a bank robbery Guy was involved in; (bottom) Stillwater Penitentiary

It’s not known how many crimes Guy was involved in. A writer like Guy with a flair for the dramatic, however, might have found wry consolation that his first publicized robbery was so memorable. “The State Bank of St. Michael was held up by bandits recently,” reads a 1929 issue of a Midwest banking newsletter otherwise occupied by more prosaic news of office promotions, asset sales and committee meetings. The account outlines the method by which Guy and another man divested the bank of more than three thousand dollars in cash.

Entering the bank, one man asked the clerk for directions to a nearby town, while another (it’s not clear whether the gunman was Guy himself or his fellow robber, Joe Hendricks) drew a gun. The pair locked the cashier in the vault and collected their spoils, but they didn’t leave impolitely. First they asked the cashier whether he wanted to stay locked up or would rather leave with them in the car. The befuddled bank employee opted for the former, though he requested that “the screws which secure the door be not turned all the way in so that he could get a little air.” Always the gentlemen, the two robbers loosened the door before departing, accidentally trailing four hundred dollars in their wake.

Guy was given a life sentence, but good behavior reduced it to just seven years. Life in Minnesota’s Stillwater Penitentiary was brutal and tedious, and Guy turned to reading and writing for emotional survival.[3] He found ample story material in his fellow inmates. He befriended the outlaw Lawrence DeVol, whose life story he would publish years later in Prairie Schooner. He transcribed the testimony of Leonard Hankins, who was falsely accused of participating in the same robbery DeVol actually carried out. Nineteen Years Not Guilty: The Leonard Hankins Story in His Own Words (as told to Earl Guy) was later published by Exposition Press.

Hankins’ story, as well as the powerlessness Guy felt at the hands of legal and prison authorities, solidified his political leanings. Guy’s epilogue to Hankins’ story is full of bitterness for the American judicial system: “[The] law is now and has always been the instrument of special groups…it is used to insure their power…it is not for the protection of the individual but for his subjection.” By the time Guy’s sentence was commuted in 1936, he was a card-carrying member of the Minnesota Communist Party.

Earl Guy, "Our Minnesota," Convention of the Communist Party of Minnesota, May 14-15, 1938, Minneapolis.

Guy’s relationship with the Communist Party was fraught. The Party gave him valuable connections, such as with the proletarian writer Meridel Le Sueur (author of the populist Minnesota history book North Star Country). Le Sueur connected Guy with a position as an editor at the Minnesota Federal Writer’s Project, where he collected submissions detailing the state’s folklore, revising them to smooth out unevenness in voice.[4] Le Sueur’s stepfather, the Socialist editor and lawyer Arthur Le Sueur, would later serve as Guy’s attorney.

Guy’s criminal record did not endear him to Party officials, however. As Joe Swan recounts, Minnesota party members were instructed to say, if questioned by outsiders, that they’d never heard of Guy.[5] And Guy continued to cause trouble for his political associates. While the Federal Writer’s Project provided a path to stable employment for many writers of the 1930s, Guy didn’t settle down to a middle class job. By 1940 he was back at Stillwater for robbing a Minneapolis garage; a policeman had been killed in the scuffle. Denied an appeal on habeas corpus and increasingly depressed, literature and writing again proved more than just intellectually sustaining. If his first prison stint had been devoted to learning how to write, Guy used his second prison session to shape himself into a published author.

It was during this time that Guy wrote his first novel, Heaven is a Sunswept Hill. He finished the novel in just one year, writing longhand in a chair leaned against his cell wall, sending the manuscript to his mother to type and distribute to potential publishers.[6] Macmillan picked up the book in 1943, and soon the formally untrained, still imprisoned writer was being hailed as a promising new literary voice by several mainstream news outlets. The Saturday Review called the book an “honest, four-square, well-done novel, with an important and consistent thesis, considerable drama, characters clearly outlined, and much good writing.”[7]

Heaven established Guy as a populist lyricist in the vein of John Steinbeck, whose Grapes of Wrath had been published four years before. As in Steinbeck’s writing, the American landscape in Heaven is a dynamic character. Guy’s novel focuses on the ravages the flooding Mississippi River exacts on the Drindles, a family facing the destruction of their farms and possibly even their lives. Unassisted by a negligent government, the Drindles must band together with their neighbors to build a levee. Heaven is a Sunswept Hill is a paean to collective action and the resilience of the American workingman.

Brief biography of Guy appearing in a 1940 issue of the Prairie Schooner.

Guy’s short fiction reflects similar themes. Several of his Prairie Schooner stories are told from the point of view of someone returning home, either from a hobo life or from a stay in prison. When Clay in Guy’s 1940 story “Homecoming” returns from riding the rails, it’s to find his family on the brink of dissolution from years of economic hardship. Guy is a musical, impressionistic writer, mostly eschewing plot in favor of evocations of external and internal landscapes. His characters often make melancholic pronouncements, as when Clay reflects that, “there was no certainty, that no wanderings ended.”

This could be the epigraph to Guy’s own life story. He spoke once in an interview of wanting to find his own sunswept hill, but evidence suggests Guy never attained such peace. 1960 court records show him on trial for forgery. Though Guy had several manuscripts in process at various stages of his later life, his legal difficulties kept him from completing a second book. He had always been torn between allegiances: to writing one the one hand and trouble on the other. Luckily, the former won out long enough for readers to have something to remember him by.



[1] “Interview with Joe Swan and Bunny Fossum,” (1988), Twentieth Century Radicalism in Minnesota Oral History Project, Minnesota Historical Society.

[2] Charles Lowry Wimberly, “Oxcart,” Prairie Schooner 14.1 (Spring 1940) 72-78; 75.

[3] For the history of the prison, see James Taylor Dunn, "The Minnesota State Prison during the Stillwater Era, 1853-1914," Minnesota History (December 1960) 137-151. Earl Guy, Nineteen Years Not Guilty: The Leonard Hankins Story in His Own Words (New York: Exposition Press, 1956).

[4] The WPA Guide to Minnesota (1938; St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, reprint 1985): Introduction.

[5] “It would have reflected badly had it come out,” Swan said of Guy’s jail time. “They didn't want to have that tarring of the name against the Party.” Interview with Joe Swan and Bunny Fossum.

[6] Milwaukee Journal, April 10, 1944.

[7] Struthers Burt, “Heaven is a Sunswept Hill, by Earl Guy,” Saturday Review, July 17, 1943, 18-19. http:www.unz.org