Malabar Farm drew a large crowd the summer day I was there, mostly busloads of the elderly on excursion from the “senior centers” of Ohio. They came to see Louis Bromfield’s legacy—the once famous agricultural experiment that is now a state park. Most of their interest centered on the tour of Bromfield’s “Big House,” his attempt to integrate all of Ohio’s historic architectural styles into a single statement of man’s attachment to the land. On the tour, we saw the grand study and desk where Bromfield wrote the essays that were collected in Pleasant Valley, Malabar Farm, and Out of the Earth. We viewed the great hall where Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Bromfield’s closest Hollywood friends, exchanged their wedding vows, and we stood in the very room where the couple spent their wedding night (on twin beds).
A favorite of book clubs, publishers, newsreels, and the reading public until his death in 1956, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize 30 years earlier for his novel Early Autumn, Bromfield is nearly unknown among Americans below the age of 50. None of his novels has been elevated to the canon taught in American literature classes. While a half-dozen of his books are still in print in the Czech Republic and India, a would-be American reader must prowl the used book stalls to find a comparable selection. Despite a fascinating life spanning the interwar American expatriate community, Europe’s smart set, Hollywood in its Golden Age, and the early environmental movement, not a single serious biography of Bromfield has been written.
This fate is even more curious, considering the unanimous critical praise he received in the 1920’s, a golden age of American letters. Bromfield’s career itself reads like a fashionable novel of the time. A veteran of World War I who had observed the carnage on the Western Front, he returned in 1924 to live in France, where he was befriended by Gertrude Stein. His early books—The Green Bay Tree, Possession, Early Autumn, and A Good Woman—exhibited a deep contempt for the values and hypocrisy of Puritan morality and seemed to celebrate extramarital sexuality. Indeed, he opened The Green Bay Tree with an illicit tryst between his heroine, Lily Shane, and Ohio’s governor, a thinly disguised Warren G. Harding. Bromfield relished naturalistic and primitive locales, setting A Good Woman partly in the pagan backcountry of East Africa. In all of Bromfield’s fiction, the men are weak and ill-formed, while his female characters are full-blooded and dominant. Possession, as example, chronicles the ruthless rise of a small-town girl, Ellen Tolliver, to international fame as a pianist. A Good Woman reaches cynical, even nihilistic conclusions about the futility of human effort.
Even more to the critics’ taste, young Bromfield was a strident anticapitalist. He decried the transformation of the Town (a fictionalized Mansfield, Ohio) into an iron-and-steel center with evocative language: “In the fading twilight that now surrounded them the Mill yard became a fantastic world inhabited by monsters of iron and steel. . . . High in the air, lights, red and green, or cold piercing blue-white, like eyes appeared one by one peering down at them wickedly. . . . Dancing malignant shadows assailed them on every side.” Bromfield saw the factory system and modern war as a common assault on human dignity. The novelist rose to the defense of immigrant workers condemned by the greedy industrialists to squalid, pathetic lives. He blasted Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, and faith in “progress” as corrupt and dehumanizing, hi both The Green Bay Tree and A Good Woman, he portrayed the fictional Marxist labor leader Krylenko as a tragic hero. lie even indulged in a bit of fashionable leftist anti-Semitism, casting the fleshy, sweaty Judge Weissman as the most ruthless of the Mill promoters.
Critics at the Nation and the New Republic also nodded approvingly at his skeptical treatment of Protestant Christianity, weak or hypocritical clergymen, and cynical, self-interested missionaries. Later in his career, Bromfield took other steps that should have secured his position as a great American novelist. He was an enthusiastic early advocate of the New Deal and wrote a novel—Mrs. Parkington—portraying Roosevelt’s work in glowing terms. In 1958, he became president of the Emergency Committee for the American Wounded in Spain. And in 1942 he published Until the Day Break, a stridently anti- German book, described by a critic as “one of the most outspoken condemnations of an entire people that has ever been produced by a prominent American writer.”
As early as 1930, however, Bromfield was already falling out of favor at the Nation, criticized for his growing focus on human personality and moral responsibility to the detriment of social and economic forces. Then, in his 1933 novel, The Farm, Bromfield cast aside all pretense and stood revealed as a sentimental romantic, the last Jeffersonian, defender of an aristocracy rooted in the land. Reading backwards into his previous novels, one could find these themes already there, beneath the proletarian veneer. His treatment of sexuality was, in fact, ruthlessly moralistic. The extramarital frolicking he cites with approval was confined exclusively to the servants and the lower classes, where it was related to an earthy, animal-like fertility. As for characters of prominence, infidelity or fornication invariably condemned them to incomplete or tragic lives. The central theme of Early Autumn was the choice faced by Olivia Pentland between fidelity to an empty marriage to the withered scion of a dying New England family and adultery with a vigorous, attractive, wealthy, and worshipful suitor. She chooses, in the end, fidelity, with the author’s full approval.
Indeed, Olivia responds here to the call of duty, another latent theme in Bromfield’s fiction. The author’s vision of democracy rested on a natural aristocracy, the few endowed by nature’s God with the ability to lead. As the aging John Pentland—”the last Puritan”—tells his Irish-born daughter-in-law: “You see, Olivia, there are people . . . people like you . . . who have to be strong enough to look out for the others. It’s a hard task . . . and sometimes a cruel one. If it weren’t for such people the world would fall apart and we’d see it for the cruel, unbearable place it is.”
Bromfield’s strong women, moreover, were not drawn from the feminist prototypes of the 1920’s. Rather, they were throwbacks to an earlier era, where tough pioneer women bonded with virile men to settle a frontier. Of Ellen Tolliver, Bromfield wrote: “When she found that the Town was unendurable she had reversed the plan of her pioneer ancestors and turned east instead of west, to seek a new world. . . . [S]he moved about restlessly. . . . exploring, conquering, exhausting now this city, now that one.” His strongest praise went to women happy in their domestic life, such as Hattie Tolliver, who was, “like most good mothers and housewives, a pure realist who dealt in terms of the material.” The author also believed that a world dominated by women was a sign of decay, matriarchy being “the last refuge of a family whose strength was gone.”
Bromfield’s anticapitalism, moreover, drew no sustenance from socialist theory, but was wholly agrarian in origin. Liberty and democracy could rest only on families rooted in farms, bound to the soil and living in harmony with the rhythm of nature. In its mad quest for profit and progress, the town had sold its soul to a devil, made incarnate in the unnatural furnaces of the Mills.
In addition, the author’s apparent defense of the new immigrants was strained, the artifact of a desperate situation in which remnants of the agrarian order sought any alliance, however unlikely, with other enemies of the machines. Just below the surface of The Green Bay Tree and Ear/y Autumn can be found a hostility toward the Greek shopkeepers on Main Street, “a new element in the growing alien population of the Town,” and toward the residents of the Flats, who refuse to learn English. Later, Bromfield would write of the new immigrants: “none of them could have [fitted] into the dream of an agricultural democracy.”
In The Green Bay Tree, Bromfield also struggled with and defeated the dark side of his anti-industrialism, rejecting both the nihilism and the protofascism that might have followed from it. In a fascinating exchange between Lily Shane, now an emigre-resident of France caught in the Battle of the Marne, and a German officer who has occupied her villa, the latter explains the cause of the war:
[T]he monkeys . . . the fools have civilized all the world, so that they might sell their cheap cotton and tin trays. They have created a monster which is destroying them. There is no longer any peace . . . any solitude. They have even wrenched the peasant from his plow . . . the shepherd from his hillside. . . . They have driven them out upon the plains where the cauldrons have overflowed across all Europe.
The German concludes that he “must kill as many men as possible,” because “if we destroy enough the monster will have nothing to feed upon.” But Lily, still tied in a distant way to the earth, turns her thoughts solely to her son and her lover, both called to service in the French cavalry. She understands that they might be counted among the men that the German will indiscriminately destroy. In response, she kills the officer with his own pistol, on the slight chance that it will improve the odds of their survival. Bromfield’s moral universe reached its bedrock in this primal loyalty to ties of blood.
Publication of The Farm also made explicit Bromfield’s rich interpretation of American history. Heavily autobiographical, and bearing similarities to the best of Sherwood Anderson’s work, The Farm traces the course of a family’s settlement in Ohio’s “Western Reserve.” Carved out of a wilderness by ideal-driven men and their strong-willed wives, the farm reaches its apogee under the care of Old Jamie, Bromfield’s grandfather, the quintessential Jeffersonian Democrat. In the two decades before the Civil War, the machines were still far from the Midwest, and agrarian democracy thrived: “There were no great ‘industrial kings’ or any ‘high-pressure salesmen’ or bankers who were ‘omnipotent.’ There was no over production. There was no lack of market. There was no unemployment. There was no starvation.” Old Jamie’s wife, Maria, managed the garden and the preservation of food, for she “would have considered it a disgrace to have bought food of any sort.” The farm was a world apart, independent and complete, and it supported a vast household from its bounty.
But in the decades after the war, the new commercial order began to crowd in. Shopkeepers, formally on the margins of Ohio life, came to prominence, and salesmen were everywhere. Farmers no longer dominated the Town Square, being replaced by “the dark people,” strangers who “spoke an alien tongue.” The first of the Mills sprang up, and soon the Town knew an incessant pounding and a perpetual orange glow in the night sky. Farmers of the old stock began to fail financially, a change ably captured in a paragraph about the wagon journey of a small boy, circa 1900:
He did not know, like his grandfather, Old Jamie, that not one of the farms along the way . . . was what it had been during his youth and middle-age. Johnny never saw that some of the houses were in need of paint and that here and there a fence had been patched once too often. Nor did he notice that there were almost no young people and that as soon as the children grew up they disappeared. . . . And as he could not see inside the farmhouses, he knew nothing of the mortgages made again and again in the hope that next year they would be paid off, nor of the falling prices of cattle and grain and the rising prices of clothing and farm machinery and furniture and all the things manufactured and marketed by business men.
Nonconformity, once an American trait, came to be regarded as a dangerous thing. Christianity became Americanized: “Christ was the first business man and God must be a banker or broker.” The presidential campaigns of Bryan raised the spirits of the family for a time, only to let them fall again as the American people entered “into a wild career of imperialism.” Pressed to the limit, farmers mined rather than cultivated the land, leaving ruined soil and feeble, degenerate children. Only new immigrant German families, like the neighboring Schintzes, seemed able to hold onto their land and their children. They were the “eternal peasants” who distrusted middlemen with a cold cynicism and who kept to themselves and survived. But they were not the stuff out of which Jeffersonian Democrats could be made, and the countryside surrendered to the city, and to progress.
Old Jamie’s grandson, Johnny (the fictionalized Louis Bromfield), tried to carry the farm on for a short while, but he too failed: “And presently Johnny understood that it was other countries which kept generation after generation living upon the same land. And he understood, too, that such a continuity was impossible m the country in which he had been born.”
Bromfield traced the restlessness and chaos of post-1920 America to this loss of land and purpose. As the aging Julia Shane explains it to Hattie Tolliver in The Green Bay Tree:
Life is hard for our children. It isn’t as simple as it was for us. Their grandfathers were pioneers and the same blood runs in their veins, only they haven’t a frontier any longer. They stand . . . these children of ours . . . with their backs toward this rough-hewn middlewest and their faces set toward Europe and the East and they belong to neither. They are lost somewhere between.
By 1933, Bromfield could be counted among the lost.
But just as he gave up hope for America, Bromfield also saw his adopted Europe coming apart, falling prey again to the allure of militarism. As his writing began to show thematic confusion, he searched for a way out of his philosophical cul-de-sac. That quest, oddly enough, led to India. Visits there in 1932-33 and 1935 culminated in his novel The Rains Came. Brilliantly conceived in structure and characterization, it stands with The Farm as Bromfield’s best work. While set wholly in the mythical Indian state of Ranchipur, it is as much a novel about America, and about the path to renewal. The central event of the book is the collapse of the Ranchipur Dam and the destruction of the city. By the example of others, and through the discovery of his own place in the natural aristocracy, the hero—a dissolute English veteran of World War I—realizes that life is made meaningful by service to others and by living “close to the earth.”
These conclusions, and the mounting crisis in Europe, brought Bromfield back to Ohio in 1939. He purchased 720 acres of worn-out farmland close to the family homestead and resolved to build “Malabar Farm” into a modern Jeffersonian domain. He would restore the soil to fertility through the application of modern science. He would achieve the self-sufficiency in food and shelter known to his grandfather. He would build a community of like-minded persons, to serve as an example for other Americans striving to reunite with the land. And he would pass on this estate and way of life to his three daughters and their descendants.
In his fiction, Bromfield also felt compelled to come to terms with the defining moment of American history, the Civil War. In The Farm, his family members were abolitionists, several of the stronger ones serving on the underground railroad, at war with the planter South. His next, Wild Is the River, with its confused plot and undeveloped characters, failed as literature, but it marked Bromfield’s unqualified embrace of Southern agrarianism, including a spirited defense of the Confederate cause. For Bromfield now, the war was not over slavery; it was a conflict “between the land owners of the South and the factory owners of the North,… between two kinds of civilization.” In this Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian quarrel writ large, Bromfield left no doubt as to where he stood. In a highly implausible scene, he has Agnes Wickes, the fictionalized niece of the Union General ruling occupied New Orleans, shout from a careening mule cart to Yankee troops: “Long Live Secession! Hurrah for the Confederacy!” Bromfield’s other hero, Louisiana planter Hector MacTavish, serves the Confederate army and leads the guerrilla opposition, until it is clear that the war is decided. He falls in love with Agnes, and eventually leads her, his loyal ex-slave Cesar, and various Catholic Creoles, with families in tow, to a new place out West: “It’s a wide green valley between high mountains and not a settler in the place. It’s all ours for the taking . . . a whole bright new world.” The future, in 1940 as in 1865, belonged to those natural aristocrats who would act and build a new community.
With ample funds from his books and occasional Hollywood work, Bromfield succeeded for a time. Several carefully chosen farmers and their families joined the Malabar experiment, creating the community life for which he longed. Bromfield’s clearest achievement came in renewing the soil of his farm, and his experience led to the founding of Friends of the Land. His nonfiction accounts of farm life and the care of the soil found a large following, and thousands of pilgrims came to Malabar Farm. All visitors were treated to lavish meals, cooked entirely from products grown on his land.
In the year before his death, however, “market forces” had their revenge. Farm income fell, while off-farm costs mounted. Medical bills skyrocketed, too, as Bromfield—a heavy smoker—was diagnosed with lung cancer. Eventually, he was forced to sell part of the farm—a cherished wooded tract—to pay his debts. Financial difficulties after his death also prevented a clean transfer of the farm to his daughters, and his dream of a familial restoration on the land came to naught. Friends of the Land took over the property, running it as a model farm, until this group, too, succumbed to bankruptcy. The farm then passed to the state. The Age of Eisenhower proved no more hospitable to the Jeffersonian dream than had the Age of McKinley.
That afternoon, driving East from Malabar Farm on State Route 39,1 passed through Ohio Amish territory. The green hills between Loudonville and Berlin were teeming with country people. Horse-drawn cultivators worked the brown earth, while tow-headed children, by the hundreds, filled the yards and buggies. Small cottage industries, attached to ancestral homesteads, did a booming business. Old women sat on the porches of their daughter-in-laws’ homes, sewing, snapping beans, and exchanging gossip in German. The “eternal peasant,” whom Bromfield both admired and feared, survives near the place where the nobler dream of a natural aristocracy on the land was again ground into the dust.
Two years before his death, Bromfield published a work of political theory—A New Pattern for a Tired World. Written in response to the Korean imbroglio, the book was anti-interventionist, anti-imperialist, antimilitarist, and antistatist. But after 15 years of personal struggle against federal agricultural bureaucrats, Bromfield had good words to say about entrepreneurial capitalism. While celebrated by the fledgling individualist right, the book drew the scorn of a new generation of Eastern critics, who dismissed it as the work of a crank, a once-promising novelist who had betrayed his gifts and succumbed to rural fantasies and petty fascism.
Indeed, Bromfield was a voice of the Old America, a nation shaped by the legacy of Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. His novels spoke to the ideals, dreams, fears, and frustrations of the inhabitants of that nation in crisis and decline. Citizens of the “New America”—shaped by Ellis Island, the Democratic Empire, and Image Metaphysicians such as Henry Luce—could scarcely comprehend Bromfield’s message. This, more than any other factor, accounts for the near-oblivion into which his reputation as a fiction writer would fall. But this New America now gives way to a still “newer” version, as fresh tidal waves of “international market forces” and Third World immigration crash onto the American landscape. In this unsettled time, perhaps Louis Bromfield will again find an audience.
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