The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution

The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution
Stephen Heyman
US, 2020

I imagine someone has already done this, perhaps as a personal reading challenge or a college literature course, but you could make a decent reading project of expat-writers living in Interwar France, the “Lost Generation” writers. Fitzgerald. Hemingway. Stein. Ford. A 1920s-30s project.

For most today that list wouldn’t include a writer then among the most famous but largely forgotten today, his early writing deemed too old fashioned, his later novels derivative. Look Louis Bromfield up on JSTOR and the most current references are to agricultural or environmental articles. Indeed, unless you are from a particular area of north-east-central Ohio, are reading your way through the Pulitzer winners, or have an interest in the history of small scale and organic farming, you’ve probably never had reason to hear the name Louis Bromfield. A far cry from his lifetime: best-selling novelist, friend of celebrities, political activist. To quote Deirdre Bair’s cover blurb, “If Stephen Heyman had written Louis Bromfield’s life as a novel, readers would have found the tale too tall to believe.”

And it’s true. I found Heyman’s biography fascinating, unputdownable, almost novelistic in structure. Although the overall arc is chronological, a strict chronology is forsaken in favor of theming each chapter: “Foreign Soil” about the expats in Paris; “Hothouse,” about Bromfield’s Senlis garden, or “Germination” about the early years for Bromfield’s farm. I found it fitting to the telling. Bromfield’s persona and the times in which he lived also made for a memorable slice of literary and agricultural history. He may have gained fame as a novelist, but it is his passion for the land, and his early activity in soil conservation and sustainable farming that continues to resonate today.

An Ohio native son, Bromfield’s early life was unremarkable: born in Mansfield in 1896, he fell in love with farming from an early age, in spite of his mother’s dreams of his becoming a great writer. He chose instead to attend Cornell to study agriculture–though only for one semester–, before attempting unsuccessfully to save the family farm. A stint at Columbia (studying journalism) followed before he enlisted in the army during World War I. So far, so normal. But his mother’s dreams were kept alive: he moved to New York, worked as a journalist, married, and started writing novels. The novel writing funded he next ventures: a move to Paris, then later the countryside in Senlis, where he created his gardens, which would become famed across France, as were his Sunday parties. The gardens even drew the attention of Edith Wharton, who would become friends with Bromfield, as they bonded over their roses. However, she avoided the garden-parties of the younger generation. The Senlis garden also provided Bromfield an opportunity to learn from and observe the local gardeners, tilling the same soil that had been used and reused over the centuries to grow their own little crop of vegetables. Bromfield was  only too aware of the ways in which many American farmers had failed their own soil, turning it from fertile to barren through poor practices, as was at that very moment becoming clear with the appearance of the Midwestern Dust Bowl.

The idyllic interwar period could not last and Bromfield saw the clouds gathering. In contrast with many Americans of his time, he knew that isolationism was untenable; war was inevitable. At the same time, he was anxious to try out his new ideas, to return to the farms of his youth. The family made their return to Ohio, eventually buying a farm south of Mansfield, that Bromfield would christen “Malabar,” a farm that would become well-known through his books and as the wedding-site for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, both friends of Bromfield’s. It was at Malabar that he would live out the remainder of his years, tilling the Ohio soil and experimenting, always experimenting with ways to improve the soil, improve yields, while at the same time avoiding potential pitfalls: seventeen years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Bromfield was speaking out against DDT. He knew the importance of yield to a farmer’s livelihood, but he could also see the dangers of monoculture and unvetted chemical solutions. His writing at the time largely turned to memoirs and meditations on farming, and in them, as well as at speaking engagements, Bromfield preached conservation and stewardship.

After his death in 1956, Bromfield’s farm was turned over to a conservation organization and eventually turned into a State Park. His literary reputation already in decline among critics,  eventually his books would be largely forgotten by the reading public as well, outside of the “farm books” which remain influential among farming-environmentalists such as Wendell Berry.

He seems to have been a complex man. Passionate about his farm, yet short-sighted and controlling enough that he drove his younger daughters away: they and their husbands would found their own farms elsewhere. His very liberal politics of the 1920s and 30s would give way to conservative politics during the Second World War when he grew angry over the Roosevelt administration’s failures (in his eyes) to account for farmers in their war policies–he wanted draft exemptions for farmers and for the factories to continue to turn out at least a moderate amount of farm equipment and parts, concerned that to do otherwise would threaten the food resources of a country at war. He was a conservationist and environmentalist who loved the soil, but was not a pure “organic” farmer in today’s sense, choosing a more moderate path that would ensure both yields and soil health.

Having read The Planter of Modern Life, I’m more determined than ever to read some of Bromfield’s novels (and maybe some of his agricultural work). Although it appears that they are largely out of print in paper editions, I was fortunate to be able to pick up copies of two of his better known novels The Farm (a favorite of the last President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush, apparently) and The Rains Came several years back at a regional bookstore. The biography focuses more on the gardens and farming than the novels, but what little it says of the novels intrigues me, The Farm as a semi-autobiographical story, and The Rains Came as a novel set in India about which at least some Indians spoke approvingly: Indian poet Krishnalal Shridharani is quoted, “You know how sensitive we Indians are to all forms of ‘imperialism,’ literary or otherwise,” he said, calling the book “the first ‘real’ novel on India by a non-Indian.” Yet another layer to the story of a life most interesting.

5 thoughts on “The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution

  1. Interesting man. I’ve never heard of him but I’m not American. I’ve been making an effort to include more nonfiction reading this year. It’s always slow going for me compared to reading novels but I’m reading a couple of really interesting titles that is helping.

    1. I wouldn’t expect too many Americans to have heard of Bromfield, much less non-Americans! The only reason I was familiar already is because we’re from the same region. I’m all over the place with non-fiction. This one read really fast, but some books seem to drag out. Just a matter of the topic, how in-depth it goes, whether it’s more technical book or not. I hope you find some non-fiction you enjoy.

    1. Yes, I understand Bromfield was an influence on Berry, so that makes sense. I don’t know how available the book is, generally, as Bromfield is so long forgotten, but on the other hand, I had to wait on the holds list at my local library–so somebody’s interested!

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