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.

A New Year

In some ways I can’t believe it’s a new year already. Then in other moments, I look back at what I read or did in 2020 and the beginning of the year feels so far away–was it really just a year (or less) ago that….?

I suppose a lot of us are feeling that way this year. 2020 was a strange year, with much sadness or anxiety or anger. It seems odd to me that the pandemic turned it into a year in which such a large portion of the planet felt that the next year couldn’t come soon enough. And yet, I was thinking about it–there are probably people for whom 2020 was a good year, or at least had some really good moments–new family, new jobs, new experiences. And for other people, their situations were probably already so bad, that 2020 was nothing different, other than in the specifics.

One thing that was not really changed for me by 2020 was my reading. Although I did have slump towards the beginning of the pandemic when everything was much more uncertain, and a family friend was very, very ill, as spring turned to summer I found my way back, and ended the year with an average of over 5.6 hours of reading per week, better than my goal from the start of the year to read an average of 5 hours each week. This 5.6 hours translated into a total of 35 books plus the Sherlock Holmes short story “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” which is the best I’ve done since I started keeping track eleven years ago.

It was good reading, too. I started the year with Agatha Christie (of course!) and Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. This second book really set the tone for the year–not only was it an excellent read, but I set out to read it in a specific time frame, and when I actually met my weekly goals, it was the spark that really allowed me to aim high with long or difficult books this year: just keep reading. It’s hard to pick highlights this year; I enjoyed so many of them and I don’t think there was a book I disliked this year. However, ranked from favorite to most favorite (ha):

10. Rereads (The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) – it almost doesn’t seem fair to include these, as if your rereading something, it’s a safe assumption that you probably liked it. But all are loved, and sometimes you just need something “comfortable.”

9. Agatha Christie (The Secret Adversary through The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) – So much fun. The perfect light reading in between heavier or more serious novels. I also generally thought Roger Ackroyd (post forthcoming) very good.

8. Piranesi (Susanna Clarke) – the newest book I read in 2020 (published in September), but I was completely immersed in the fantasy world.

7. The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio) – inspired by a postponed readalong, I finally read the entire collection, and while I sometimes found it a bit redundant (and some stories are just problematic by 21st century standards, but that’s a different issue), it felt a real accomplishment to finish. And it was fun!

6. Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy) – although Hardy is not known for “happy” stories, this is not as dark as some, and I loved following the changing seasons over the course of the novel. And the sheep.

5. Readalongs. The books I read this year for readalongs (The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe and Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara) weren’t my favorite in and of themselves, but the camaraderie of reading with others, and the benefit of reading others takes/points of view, means readalongs are always a highlight.

4. Cranford (Elizabeth Gaskell) – Gaskell is one of my favorite authors, and while the episodic format and small-town charm of Cranford is quite unlike the others of hers I’ve read, it is an absolute delight.

3. The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame) – Another episodic novel, and one that also has a strong connection to the seasons. It’s a book I’d consider a seasonal read for any season and full of charm and adventure and nature.

2. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain) – I can’t believe I’d never read this before, but it was an absolute delight.

1. Ficciones (Jorge Luis Borges) – so glad I finally read this! A collection of short stories that are not quite fantasy, but definitely fantastic. On the reread list, as well as further Borges and the Argentine epic Martin Fierro.

As far as general statistics, it looks like I read books or stories by 24 different authors (lots of repeat authors this year!), of which 11 were/are women and 17 men, with one unknown but likely male (the author of The Nibelungenlied). Most of these were, as usual for me, originally written in English, but five were translated from Spanish, Italian, French, and German. Seven different countries are represented. (I think–some of these may depend on how you count, as borders do like to change…) Seven were rereads and eight were non-fiction. The age of the books ranged from really old (c. 1200) to new (2020), with most of the books published prior to 1970, but 14 since 2000. So an interesting mix.

As I’m looking forward to my 2021 reading, I’m hoping for more of the same, generally. Maybe some more translations, likely some more contemporary commercial fiction (I have some books that I just need to read already…). More Agatha Christie, more from my Classics Club list (I did poorly here in 2020–I read lots of classics, just not from my actual list). Generally…more. After the success of last year, I’m aiming a bit higher: can I make 40 books? I’d like to average 6 hours of reading a week, ideally more consistently than last year. It should be doable, I just have to act on it. Always pushing myself to do a little better, read a little deeper, think a little more clearly. It’s had to know for sure–as 2020 showed us only too clearly–what a new year will hold in store, but I always look forward to the open possibilities.

Back to the Classics 2021

Button: Back to the Classics Challenge 2021

Although I have some semi-ambitious goals for how much I will read in 2021, I don’t feel compelled to attach myself to any particular challenges–except for Karen’s Back to the Classics challenge! This one is always fun, and after finally reading all 12 categories last year, I want to see if I can do it again. I’m also hoping to improve on 2020 in one way: reading more books that are actually on my Classics Club list. Of course, the way these things go, some shiny classic will probably pop onto my radar and distract me from my good intentions, but as long as I’m reading, it’s good!

This year’s categories:

  1. A 19th century classic.
  2. A 20th century classic. and posthumously published.
  3. A classic by a woman author.
  4. A classic in translation.
  5. A classic by BIPOC author; that is, a non-white author.
  6. A classic by a new-to-you author, i.e., an author whose work you have never read.
  7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author — a new book by an author whose works you have already read.
  8. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title.
  9. A children’s classic.
  10. A humorous or satirical classic.
  11. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction).
  12. A classic play.

I don’t have any specific plans at this point – there’s so many possibilities!

If I’m to stick to my Classics Club list, the play would likely be from Anne Carson’s translation An Oresteia, which I was supposed to read for a Classics Club spin in September, but didn’t get to. I don’t think I have anything humorous or satirical on my list, but I do have several P.G. Wodehouse on my shelves, so that’s a good possibility. Several people have listed The Leopard as their likely classic about an animal or with an animal in the title, and it’s on my Club list, so possible.

The category that’s a new-to-you classic by a favorite author is interesting. I still have several unread Elizabeth Gaskell I could read, or, there’s The Sound and the Fury, which I think I’ve pledged to read the last two years. Maybe this will be the year?

More likely than not, the 2021 challenge reading will be like 2020: I’ll end up reading books that strike my interest and slotting them in where they fit. And hopefully that only means one or two books to deliberately seek out at the end of the year.

Looking forward to a new year of classic reading!

Back to the Classics 2020, Wrapped

There’s nothing like pushing it to the last minute, but I did it! For the first time, I’ve managed to read books for all 12 categories in the Back to the Classics Challenge AND write about them (for 3 entries in the challenge).

I actually read more than 12 classics in 2020, but that ones listed below are the books I felt best fit Karen’s categories. Other than #5, I didn’t have to make a deliberate plan for any of these categories, in fact, for some of them I had finished the book before I realized that it was a perfect fit (such as The Wind in the Willows).

It feels like it’s been a long time since I read some of these: did I really read The Nibelungenlied this year?

As far as the books, I enjoyed most of them. (I don’t think “enjoyed” really applies to a book like Native Son, but I’m happy I read it.) I can’t believe it took me until this year to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Jane Austen is always a treat, and Cranford was a wonderful treat. But if I had to pick a top read, it would probably be the short story collection Ficciones. There’s no good reason it had been previously abandoned; sometimes I just do that.

My biggest disappointment with this list? Most of them aren’t on my Classics Club list – something to work on for next year!

  1. 19th Century Classic. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen (1811)
  2. 20th Century Classic. Appointment in Samarra – John O’Hara (1934)
  3. Classic by a Woman Author. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe (1794)
  4. Classic in Translation. The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio (Italian, 1350-53)
  5. Classic by a Person of Color. Native Son – Richard Wright (1940)
  6. A Genre Classic. The Secret Adversary – Agatha Christie (1922)
  7. Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain (1876)
  8. Classic with a Place in the Title. Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell (1851-53)
  9. Classic with Nature in the Title. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame (1908)
  10. Classic About a Family. The Nibelungenlied – Anonymous (c 1200)
  11. Abandoned Classic. Ficciones – Jorge Luis Borges (1956)
  12. Classic Adaptation. Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy (1874)

(simplerpastimes [at] gmail [dot] com)

Native Son by Richard Wright

Native Son
Richard Wright
US, 1940

He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fulness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. So he held toward them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them, but behind a wall, a curtain. And toward himself he was even more exacting. He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself and acted tough.

Book 1: Fear

Richard Wright’s Native Son is not a seasonal read. It is brutal, in violence and emotion. It is the story of–part of the story of–Bigger Thomas, a young Black man in 1930s Chicago: fearful, angry, and without hope. The relief agency finds him a job as a chauffer for a rich white family, the Daltons, whose wealth comes from real estate, including controlling shares in the company that owns the rat-infested apartment building in which the Thomas family lives. Throw the Daltons’ daughter, Mary, a beautiful, rebellious wild-child flirting with Communism (or more than flirting) into the mix and there is a recipe for disaster. The disaster comes quickly, with an act of (accidental, though predictable) violence at the end of the first part of the novel, followed by ever-more panicked and foolish decisions on the part of Bigger and the inevitable consequences.

The novel, in three parts–Fear, Flight, Fate–is seen entirely through Bigger’s eyes. Although narrated in the third person, we are privy to Bigger’s thoughts, his feelings, his fears, his angers. And it is not a pleasant place to dwell. Bigger is angry. He is afraid. He hates all white people, doesn’t understand them. He sees no real hope, has no happiness, embraces violence. He never seems to empathize, rarely seems to care about anything beyond himself. And yet, it is a tribute to Wright’s bravery and ability as a writer, that this distasteful character is given a measure of humanity–by exposing all of Bigger’s thoughts and feelings to the reader–such that I found myself actually concerned with his fate (though to be honest, I would likely be less emphatic with a real-life Bigger).

Wright does this in part by making Bigger’s motivations and feelings understandable. Not only has Bigger lacked for opportunity in life–in the last section of the novel we learn that he had dreams as a kid, which he knew were impossible merely because of the color of his skin–but he has also had very little interaction with white people, and none of it positive. He can see the white world only as oppressive. It is no wonder he reacts with confusion to the attempts of kindness on the parts of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton and by Mary. But this kindness is also a problem. It’s not just that it’s new to Bigger, it comes across to me as, if not condescending, at least misguided. The elder Daltons’ seek to help “the Negros” philanthropically, but without an understanding of what is really needed and without an acknowledgement of their complicity in the system (specifically in this novel, of redlining and segregation) that makes this very philanthropy necessary. Mary’s motivations may be more genuine–she speaks of equal humanity of the races–, but she often uses phrasing such as “those people,” which feels separating. Mary expresses concerns for the lives of Black people, but there’s still a slight edge of exoticism or condescension to her words, even while you see her trying to learn, saying “[w]e know so little about each other.” Bigger may not be able to put into words precisely his discomfort, but Mary has identified a root of the problem.

A running theme throughout the novel is blindness. It is explicit in the person of Mrs. Dalton, who is physically blind. Bigger uses the term after his crime, thinking that his eyes have been opened (by his actions and how he feels about them after) and that those around him–his family, his friends, his girlfriend Bessie–remain blind.  Jan, Mary’s communist boyfriend, doesn’t use the actual word, but he tells Bigger late in the novel that now he “sees.” Wright is not subtle here; this is his purpose for his novel. He is attempting to open his readers’ eyes, to remove their blindness to the ways of the world, to open their understanding.

In some ways I’m surprised that Native Son was selected by the Book of the Month Club in 1940. He did have to edit out a more sexually explicit passage, but even at that, it is still a dark, violent book, and one with positive portrayals of communists and their messaging. It must have been a shock for many of its readers! It is sad that in some ways it remains relevant today–we still are too often blind to the true natures and needs of those unlike us, too many young people still live in fear and anger. I am reminded of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me; he describes the young men of his childhood neighborhood as living in fear and putting on a swaggering persona to mask this fear. It is somewhat concerning to me that it seems possible Bigger may serve to act as a reinforcement of a negative stereotype about young Black men, but Wright’s decision to center such an unappealing character in a novel about revealing the inequities and evils of racism and some of the inevitable consequences makes the book all the more powerful. Native Son is not uplifting, not comforting, not reassuring, but an important read in the pantheon of American 20th century literature.

I read Native Son as part of my Classics Club list and for the “Classic by a Person of Color” category in the Back to the Classics challenge.