Book Reviews

Farm to Fable

How a now-forgotten writer changed American agriculture

By Tim Carman | May 11, 2020
Louis Bromfield's house at Malabar Farm (Chris Palmer, Flickr/ginsnob)
Louis Bromfield's house at Malabar Farm (Chris Palmer, Flickr/ginsnob)

The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution by Stephen Heyman; Norton, 352 pp., $26.95

History has not been kind to Louis Bromfield: more than 60 years after his death, his name is rarely mentioned among the Lost Generation’s great writers. Such a ghosting would have been unthinkable in Bromfield’s time, when he sold millions of books, won a Pulitzer Prize, wrote Hollywood screenplays, hobnobbed with the rich and famous, and later, influenced countless farmers with his soil conservation and agricultural practices that would predict the modern sustainable and organic movements.

With The Planter of Modern Life, journalist Stephen Heyman promises to unearth “a lost icon of American culture,” and in a sense, he does, with a biography that’s something of a contradiction, an engrossing and well-researched work that frequently treats its subject as a punching bag. Too often, the book reads as if Heyman has resurrected an erased character from the early 20th century just to explain why he was rightly forgotten, not why he should be remembered.

Heyman takes us through the many phases of Bromfield’s pinball career: his time as an ambulance driver in World War I (like Ernest Hemingway, another charter member of the Lost Generation); his undistinguished work as a journalist; his turn as director of publicity at G. P. Putnam’s Sons (where, Heyman says, Bromfield was a “notorious paper shuffler”); his meteoric rise as a novelist (in 1927, The New York Times called Bromfield “the most promising of all the young American authors writing today”); his Pulitzer Prize that same year for the novel Early Autumn (which further alienated Hemingway, who already viewed Bromfield as a trifle); and his retreat to the ramshackle Presbytère St-Etienne, a renovated rectory in Senlis, just north of Paris, where Bromfield threw elaborate garden parties that attracted movie stars, fashion designers, and writers like Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Rebecca West.

Bromfield’s time at Presbytère brought about a change in him. He sank his money into rehabbing the rental property, transforming it into a horticultural paradise along the Nonette River, with gardens so lush and beautiful that one artist compared them to a Monet painting. Bromfield’s affinity for gardening surprised his peers and drew him close to Edith Wharton, another American expatriate writer living in France. Wharton and Bromfield were “so obsessed by gardening,” Heyman writes, “that their other shared occupation—literature—seemed almost incidental to their friendship.”

Heyman suggests that Bromfield was, to borrow a phrase from his rural upbringing in Ohio, a bit teched (an idiomatic rendering of “touched,” or slightly deranged), which might suggest the writer-turned-gardener had some mild developmental defects. But, as Heyman writes, to Bromfield “being teched was something beautiful if strange, an uncanny ability to blend into the pattern of life—to connect in some profound yet humbling way with the natural world.”

Whether he was teched, or just called back to the Pleasant Valley of his Midwestern youth, Bromfield left France as war appeared imminent in Europe. With his best writing behind him—as Heyman characterizes it—Bromfield set out to build a farm that would demonstrate how far America had fallen from its Jeffersonian agrarian ideals. Bromfield wanted to prove that commercial farms didn’t have to rely on single crops or kowtow to the agricultural-industrial complex that had taken over the job of feeding the country. He promoted soil conservation, crop rotation, no-till agriculture, and other practices that would later become common among sustainable and organic advocates.

He called the place Malabar Farm, named after a region in India that served as the setting for his novel (and later movie), The Rains Came, the proceeds of which helped finance the 600-acre spread. Malabar became a working farm; fodder for his influential writings on agriculture; and, like Presbytère in France before it, a magnet for celebrities. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall would wed there in 1945. It’s now an Ohio State Park.

“He would make agriculture into literature in a way that none of his forebears or contemporaries had,” Heyman writes. “He was the first major writer to give himself over completely to the problems and possibilities of agriculture, to get down into the dirt of it, to become a modern farmer.”

Heyman’s historical accounting of Bromfield might have been easier to digest if he didn’t seem to view his subject through such jaundiced eyes. Whether in the name of journalistic balance or complexity, Heyman laces his narrative with anecdotes that help undermine his attempts to give Bromfield a legitimate place in the history of the sustainable food movement. Heyman, for example, gives New Yorker humorist James Thurber a platform to deliver this slap: “I’ve met Louis in London, Paris, New York, Hollywood—and every time I see him he says: Have you heard? I’m living on a farm in Ohio.” Thurber excepted, Heyman writes, many people “fell for the act,” suggesting that Bromfield was more fraud than farmer. Heyman also quotes George Hawkins, Bromfield’s longtime secretary and de facto editor at Malabar Farm, who “hated seeing how, in the presence of farmers and agricultural bureaucrats, Bromfield turned from a sophisticated writer into a ‘dreadful, hogwash-preaching old bore.’”

The author’s critical voice becomes so off-putting over the course of the biography that I sometimes wondered why Heyman bothered to write it. Was the world begging for a quasi-exposé of a neglected novelist/farmer/activist? A random sampling of Heyman’s cutting words: “The threat of war did not spoil Bromfield’s appetite for parties and high society.” “Crow’s feet spread from the corners of his eyes—the result of days spent digging in the sun and nights spent at the bottom of the bottle.” “By then, Bromfield smugly thought of himself as above all petty squabbles related to race and creed.” Even the compliments are backhanded: “Those who saw Bromfield speak could never quite understand why he was so good at it.”

Another peeve: Heyman sometimes composes sentences as if he were writing for the Zagat Survey, pulling random quotations from sources that he identifies only in the book’s index. For example, he relates notes from a dinner with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at their rented house in Versailles. (The duke was known as David.) “The food was ‘delicious’ but the dinner went on too long,” Heyman writes, “and David spoke ‘peevishly’ to the powered lackeys in ‘abominable’ French, confiding in Mary that French servants were all ‘badly trained.’”

The book’s greatest fault, however, is Heyman’s inability to pull back the lens and tell Bromfield’s story from people outside of his immediate circle. The farmers who were fully aware of Bromfield’s eccentricities—his penchant for romanticism, exaggeration, and arrogance—but still trusted his counsel on sustainable agriculture. Where are the visits to farms, started in the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond, by young idealists who savored Bromfield’s books and found a way, unlike the man who wrote those words, to make small-scale agriculture profitable? These are the people who can tell you about Bromfield’s legacy—because they are still living it.

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