Categories

Categories

writers

writers

An American Original: Louis Bromfield

Louis Bromfield and Roswell Garst, Malabar Farm, 1954, courtesy of {link:http://www.ohiohistory.org/resource/audiovis/munroe/}The Ohio Historical Society{/link}, the Joe Munroe Archives

In 1786 homesick Thomas Jefferson, in Paris, wrote a letter glorifying his Virginia farm:  “And our own dear Monticello…with what majesty do we ride above the storm!”  Political tempests would come and go.  The one thing that tormented him unto death in 1826, however, was the ever-rising river of debt issuing from “dear Monticello.”

In 1932 homesick novelist Louis Bromfield, close by Paris, wrote a note, singing of his youth on an Ohio farm.  “It was a good way of life” he recalled, having “in it two fundamental things which were once and may be again intensely American…integrity and idealism.  Jefferson has been dead more than a hundred years but (these) things are immortal.”  Seven years later, he moved back to Ohio and built America’s most famous farm, vowing to create “a world of my own or die trying.”  As it turned out, he did help usher in a new world of sustainable farming.  But his farm’s rising river of debt lead to his early death.

While it’s unfair to compare even an imposing figure with Jefferson, one of America’s highest-flying polymaths, Bromfield was an amazing man, best-selling novelist, author of 31 books, Pulitzer prize winner, succesful screenwriter, crusading activist for Jeffersonian populist agrarianism, national weekly radio show host and, of course, founder of the 1000-acre Malabar Farm, so splendid that THE NEW YORKER’s E.B. White wrote a poem about it and Bogie and Bacall just had to be married there.

Tall and rugged, dubbed the “Sinatra of the soil,” on the surface Bromfield appeared to have it all, like Jefferson.  Indeed, public television once called a documentary on him by the catchy but misleading title, “The Man Who Had It All.” (YouTube has a segment from it.)

An optimist like Jefferson, Bromfield tackled an audacious project:  to take over three depleted farms–during the Great Depression!–and consolidate them while restoring the soil, conserving water, improving nutrients in livestock food, reducing contamination by pesticides and fertilizers; in short, making Malabar biologically stable for future generations.  Bromfield devised “The Plan” to effect this while making the farm self-sufficient in addition to growing diverse cash-crops.

According to “The Plan,” the farm would produce a net profit by using the latest scientific know-how in an environmental fashion.  Malabar had a political dimension.  It was a continuation of the Jeffersonian project as interpreted by Thirties populists.  Bromfield aspired to create a model experimental farm, in harmony with nature, standing on its own, requiring no off-farm income or subsidy.  In 1940, almost one-fourth of Americans lived on 6.1 million farms.  More than another fourth lived in small towns dependent on agricultural income.  Malabar would show how the country’s agrarian base could be maintained and even expanded. Cities were decaying.  With modern transportation and power sources, industry could be decentralized, located in small towns. Suburbs would become greenbelts where residents lived with “one foot on the soil,” tending gardens and orchards up to one acre per home.

The animating spirit was Jeffersonian.  Jefferson fought for a  limited central government and a strong, vibrant local democracy “by citizens in mass, acting directly and personally,” which would not “be practicable beyond the extent of a New England township.” This radical republican tradition/guiding myth  actually precedes Jefferson.  The historian Catherine McNicol Stock writes it’s “older than the Nation itself.” Common folk who “traveled to British and North America…carried with them memories of extralegal crowd actions and peasant uprisings from early modern Europe.” In England and then 18th century America, decentralist populists were called “The Country” as they challenged centralized government, called “The Court.”    This “civil republican” tradition lies at the heart of American public life. It vibrates whenever institutional power and democratic values conflict.  For centuries up to today, it’s the rhetoric of populist struggles, the lens through which battles are seen.  Even as the specific historical contexts and deployment of political platoons change.

Bromfield and the agrarian populist movement misread their epoch. They thought history was going their way. Lewis Mumford was one of many who swore they glimpsed a rising star, declaring in 1940 that “this is one of those times in human history when the dreamers turn out to be the practical men….laying down the foundations  of a new stage in human culture.”  Try to put yourself in their farm boots. Dustbowl. Depression. Financial Collapse. Bankruptcy. Mass Unemployment. “No nation in history has ever presented a picture of greater folly and confusion,” Bromfield wrote. “In cities like Omaha and Kansas City people stood in soup lines or occasionally died of starvation while farmers a mile or two beyond the city limits killed and burned pigs and used corn and wheat as fuel in their stoves!” For those living through a deep-rooted social crisis it’s a breathless moment, things seem up in air, directions appear fluid. Too fluid.  Some people are intoxicated, others are scared or enraged.  In hindsight, it’s so easy to minimize the fluidity, no longer be alive just to how electric the tensions were, and downplay the significance of those advocating alternatives.  Thus the past is flattened out as constraints and “lawful” patterns are stressed, endowing the outcome with an illusory inevitability. Especially if triumphalist historians are representing our messy lives as a “story,” the whiggish march toward an all-inclusive Administrative State.

While Bromfield and his movement were defeated–industrialized farming/agribusiness won– their importance isn’t just as a legacy. Scholars Randall Beeman and James Pritchard describe that movement as the first wave (1920-50) of ecological farming advocacy, one which inspired a second wave in the 1970’s known as “sustainable agriculture.” They make the claim, possibly inflated, that these waves had a major role in stimulating the modern environmental movement. The “success” of the industrial model of farming might prove short-lived, a historical detour.  After saving lives a generation ago with chemicals, the “Green Revolution” is now threatening the food supply of the Third World.  Just a couple years of bad luck with the harvest cycle could result in panic, depopulation and security issues. The U.S. and Canada are the world’s only two major exporters of grain. By 2025, the U.S. will no longer have a surplus.  Bad news for the U.S. economy and for a growing world population that will be undersupplied.  Presently  resource depletion is increasing to the extent of making it difficult to produce enough simply for maintenance.

Secondly, the post-World War II societies didn’t decentralize.  They evolved toward modern bureaucratic, administrative states.  It’s now a question in the mainstream  whether this kind of model can be sustained.  The intellectual, financial and political elites are widely thought to have failed their citizens, resulting in a “legitimacy crisis” for authority that could greatly open up decision-making processes if the crisis deepens.  Decentralization may be more practical if the latest information technology can be harnessed.  The agrarian-populist movement in Bromfield’s heyday was a diverse, many-splintered thing.  It included communitarians/individualists, devout religious believers/ atheists, left/right/proto-libertarians.  A hothouse milieu, its cracks  ruptured into chasms over the issue of centralization for World War II. Still, the attempt to build a diverse, grassroots movement may have lessons for today or tomorrow’s systemic crisis.  Its depleted soil may yet yield nourishing fruit.

But back to Bromfield, a story that begins as a gifted, poor boy grows up with wonderlust and a chip on his shoulder while living on a ramshackle farm in Ohio.

A PLACE ON EARTH

A car came out of the chilly northern Ohio hills near Mansfield in January 1939. It turned off Pinhook Road.  Below lay a snowy valley, set-off between high sandstone ridges and sliced by an ice-blue creek.  Louis Bromfield, age 42, uprooted in France as war threatened, drove the car.  Bromfield recalled in PLEASANT VALLEY, “And suddenly I knew where I was.  I had come home.”  Home for good. He had found the area near the family homestead where he grew up.  Flush with royalties from hot-selling novels, Bromfield bought three, rundown adjoining farms.  Later purchases brought the total acreage up to 1000. This became the celebrated Malabar Farm of Pleasant Valley, which still exists.

Bromfield grew up in Mansfield.  During high school, he moved with his family to his grandpa’s farm and discovered he was “out of the earth.” His life would be influenced by the legend of a local resident, Johhny Appleseed.  As a boy, Louis thrilled to stories of Appleseed as spun by his Great-Aunt Mattie.  She claimed to have known John Chapman, aka Appleseed, and it’s not unlikely, since she would have been about 20 when he died.  Johnny wasn’t the pot-for-hat wearing holy goof of folklore. While a bit odd and a wanderer-preacher, he was also a professional orchardist who built fences and made regular rounds to tend the apple orchards he planted. He made a nice living, he owned properties. The image of Johnny making a go of it on his earth-replenishing project deeply affected Bromfield. “And in our Valley, Johnny Appleseed is certainly not dead,” he wrote as a middle-aged man. “The spirit of Johnny rides the breeze.”

Doris Duke, the heiress, became Louis’s lover the last ten years of his life. “His early years were a study in rejection,” writes her godson,Pony Duke, in TOO RICH.  “Entranced by the wealthy families of his affluent hometown…he was rejected as a bumpkin. He developed a kind of disdain….Too many people in Mansfield laughed at his announcements he would be a great writer. he was a hick.  His family had no money.”

Briefly attending Cornell in 1914, he studied “scientific farming.”  While there he met the legendary professor Liberty Hyde Bailey, a founder of the new agrarianist Country Life Movement.  With his family facing a financial pinch, Bromfield returned to Ohio.  He toiled the soil until 1917 when he enlisted in the U.S. Ambulance Service.  Attached to the French Army as a driver and translator, he thrived under battle conditions, sidestepping incoming shells during seven engagements and earning the Croix de Guerre.

After the war, he settled in New York City for six years, working as a drama and music critic while becoming a novelist.  His debut novel, the first of a quartet, THE GREEN BAY TREE, was mildly-praised by critics and sold well in 1924. The novel depicted his youth where just such a tree stood outside his small house. He married the socialite Mary Appleton Wood.  The pairing lasted until she died in 1952.  His quartet featured sensuous protagonists, especially strong women, and extolled the virtues of a land-based life locked in a tragic struggle with a machine-propelled materialist culture.  EARLY AUTUMN, another best-seller in 1926, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927.  Bromfield was just 30.

He took his family to France in 1925 on vacation.  The stay lasted 13 years as the family settled in Senlis, 40 miles north of Paris, acquiring a 200-year-old stone house with a 3-acre plot.  When not writing, Bromfield, always the green thumb, daily tended what became a spectacular garden, even winning a French medal. In this he resembled his idol, Jefferson, the master gardener, who carefully kept a “Garden Book” for 58 years and wrote, after two terms as president, “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth and of the garden.”

Neighbor Edith Wharton often stopped by to swap gardening tips. Wharton, whose first book was on interior design, belonged to the cultural tradition that revered large-scale gardening as an artform featuring arrangement of space, color and texture. Famed designer  Russell Page wrote that, thanks to Wharton’s advice, Bromfield showcased the only garden in France “where the hybrid musk roses…were allowed to grow into large, loosely trimmed bushes hanging over the river, loveliest with their clusters of cream and white and rose-pink flowers just as the light began to fade.”

Gertrude Stein also admired the garden.  The two attended Natalie Barney’s salon and gabbed at Shakespeare and Company bookstore with the Lost Generation expatriates. Stein’s ALICE B. TOKLAS says of Bromfield, “He does know all about gardens and all about flowers and all about soils.  Gertrude Stein and he liked each other as americans and they they liked each other as writers….(he is) as american as a doughboy, but not as solemn.”

Bromfield sometimes hit the Paris bars with Ernest Hemingway.  Almost a decade later, when Stein published TOKLAS, she settled old scores with Hemingway, her one time pupil. She asserted he was too “yellow” to write honestly of his life.  Her praise of Bromfield irked Hemingway, who was modestly indebted to Louis for his efforts to help Hemingway switch publishers for his satire of Sherwood Anderson. Hemingway tended to repay personal debts with unkindness.   In a letter to Maxwell Perkins, he sourly noted, “She’s finally found a writer she can love and not be jealous of–the real american writer–Bromfield….She lost all sense of taste.”  Also a notorious egotist, Stein felt the same way toward Hemingway:  “A man who marries three women from St. Louis evidently didn’t learn much.”

He harvested one book a year including his best novel, THE FARM (1933), which used his own family history as basis for a sad saga of the decline of the heroic agrarian era. Shortly after finishing THE FARM, Louis went to India’s beautiful Malabar hills, which overlook Bombay harbor. He felt inspired.  Maybe there was one last place where small-scale farming could be saved.  His novel THE RAINS CAME (1937)had that as its theme.  It resulted in two fairly good movies: “The Rains Came” (1939), with Myrna Loy, George Brent and Tyrone Power; “The Rains of Ranchipur” (1955), with Lana Turner, Fred MacMurry and Richard Burton.

As Nazi storm clouds darkened over Europe, Bromfield saw firsthand that France was finished. He realized “the dreadful thing  was at hand and now nothing could stop it.”  For several years, with the lights out he despaired that doom lay ahead.” More and more “Pleasant Valley, fertile, remote and secure” appeared as a haven.  But this was not to be simply a retreat.  He sought a place where he could help rebuild civilization.  Having already sent his wife and three daughters ahead, Bromfield left France as the last Autumn leaves fell, following a destiny that was found when he turned the corner at Pinhook Road and came back to Pleasant Valley.

A PLAN FOR A NEW WAY OF LIFE

The establishment of Malibar was “Bromfield’s most creative act–more creative than all his novels, plays and films put together,” contends Charles E. Little in his introduction to BROMFIELD AT MALABAR, an excellent selection of chapters from the writer’s five non-fiction books about the farm.  Since Bromfield wrote 31 books, seven of which were made into films, that’s a bold, if plausible, claim. Malabar lives on.  Eventually taken over by the state of Ohio, it’s a thriving national tourist attraction and, secondarily, still an experimental farm.

The Bromfields moved onto their land in early spring, 1939.  Having acquired the properties, Louis spent the first year “getting as much into the ground as possible,” thrashing out “The Plan” with his doubting farm manager, Max Drake, and fleshing out designs for what ended up as a 32-room “Big House.”  Louis wasn’t boasting when he wrote, “It’s a big plan requiring money, energy, faith, knowledge and enthusiasm.”  The Bromfields liked a busy home.  The “Big House” was built to accomodate more than friends and relatives.  It was to be a kind of hotel with rooms  for “business agents, for political and literary  people, for actors and actresses, for visiting foreigners, for farmers and professors and just plain friends.”  It would also be an arena for sharing Malabar’s bounty with neighbors and for dancing, feasting and meeting.  There was grandeur,  a red-carpeted sweeping double stairway.  And there was the grubby: Bromfield trudging through the place with muddy boots and laying  down a carpet over stains made by puppies. In the mornings, Bromfield, now known as The Boss, would do his paperwork at the dining room table amidst the bustle of children and five or six dogs rather than isolate himself in a study.

During marathon discussions, with plenty of beer, coffee and cigarettes, Bromfield and Drake would argue. Max heatedly disagreed with “The Plan’s” aim of making Malabar self-sufficient.  Louis’s daughter, Ellen Bromfield Geld wrote of tussles between the two in THE HERITAGE.  Max would say, correctly as it turned out, “Why, more than half those things you can buy cheaper than you can raise them yourself.”  He realized that self-sufficiency would be inefficient, raise expenses and only make it harder for the farm to realize the Jeffersonian ideal of being self-reliant. So wary of falling into the credit trap, of buying what could be grown, Louis, for years, couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge the benefits of the division of labor.  He did have a point as far as it went.  One of farming’s historic problems has been the so-called parity question–the prices of non-farm commodities tend to rise faster than prices for farm goods.

Bromfield would reply, as he later wrote, he “meant to have as nearly everything as possible.  Not merely chickens and eggs and butter and milk and vegetables and fruit” but “guinea fowl and ducks and geese and turkeys….(also) grapes in abundance and plums and peaches, currants, gooseberries, asparagus….”

Since Bromfield was opposed on principle to the displacement of farmers, he made room in “The Plan” for anyone who had worked on the farms he absorbed.  Malabar was to be a market version of a Soviet collective. Charles Little writes, “Bromfield was ‘the state,’ supplying the capital and taking a modest profit if there was one.”  Families working there would stay in houses rent-free, be allowed to eat at no cost food grown on the farm, receive a salary, plus a share in any profits after “the state” took his five percent. At its highpoint, 35  workers and their family members lived on the farm. Although Malabar doubled or better the crop yield, debts increased and eventually “The Plan” had to be modified. Subsistence farming was scaled back and seasonal labor replaced “collective” workers. The multitude of livestock was reduced solely to cattle. War scarcities took a toll on Malabar.  C.C.C. workers were a big help until the program was abolished during the war. Boys of fifteen and sixteen from Ohio cities were hired over summers.

Bromfield always called himself “just another dirt farmer,” and one foundational tenet of Malabar was its self-reliance, its self-financing.  As Malabar became nationally famous, Louis lectured and wrote as if the ideal were fact.  He did once write candidly, “I earned much money by writing and in the background there was always Hollywood when the money ran short. As George (his agent) once suggested, there should be plaques placed on each of the farm buildings announcing that ‘Twentieth Century Fox is responsible for the building of this sheep barn,’ or ‘Metro Goldwyn Mayer provided the money for remodeling this cattle-feeding barn.’ ‘United Artists, in payment for a short story, built this cottage’.”  As Bromfield got older, started ailing,and saw his book sales fall, off-farm income was no longer a viable option.

On the eve of the war, around 1940, Bromfield was a leftist Jeffersonian, practical-minded about the New Deal’s haphazzard grab bag of programs, supporting those that materially aided small farmers and educated them about soil conservation.  Had he come back to the country earlier, he would have fought The New Deal’s compromise with Southern politicos and big planters, which massively displaced tenant farmers and devastated Black rural communities. Contrary to many agrarian populists who were anti-war, he was a militant interventionist, favoring early on U.S. entry into World War II.  With the realities of his farm troubles forcing adjustments to “The Plan,” Bromfield kept one foot in the populist agrarian camp and began planting the other in the top-down agrarian reform camp.  What exactly was the agrarian populist movement?

A PLAN FOR SMALL-SCALE LIVING

It’s remarkable that so few contemporaries know of “Free America,” the monthly journal that, from 1937-47, served as the intellectual hub of the dizzily-diverse agrarian populist coalition.  Alongside some of the finest writers and poets of the first-half century, Bromfield wrote for and was interviewed by it.  One lone historian, Alan Carlson, covers it. His NEW AGRARIAN MIND has a splendid chapter on the review’s circle and its editor, Herbert Agar.  Carlson cites a list of the loose coalition’s major components, some with small, rarified followings, others with a mass national membership: The Homestead Movement, The Southern Agrarians, distributist groups in the U.S. and England, The Consumer Cooperative Movement, The Catholic Rural Life Conference, various Protestant rural organizations and The Single Tax Movement.

To make the coalition more scrambled, members were political leftists, rightists and classical liberals who defy easy labelling.  In America all these forces claimed a piece of Thomas Jefferson and his agrarian sympathies, his aversion to Alexander Hamilton-style (leftist and rightist forms) Big Government/Big Business/ Banking Cartel model of elite governance, countering it with small-scale participatory decision-making.  Even as his politics changed contours, Bromfield always regarded Jefferson as his northern star.

Although “Free America” lasted ten years, it aged prematurely, losing its zip by late 1940.  Given the differences among the sections of the movement it rallied and the combustible issues it addressed, the review never reached the synthesis necessary for political fusion.  For almost four years, however, the review “did convey a real energy, occasionally bordering on giddiness,” observes Carlson. During its “golden” period, “FA” contributors sought a common ground which might lead to unity on tasks for action.

As an example of the range of views, readers might find, in one issue, Dorothy Day writing about a new Catholic Worker farm, in another Agar relying on socialist agrarian R.H. Tawney, and in still another Old Rightist John P. Chamberlain etolling the benefits of local markets.

Trying to keep all factions inside the tent, the magazine hued to broad points of unity.  Among them: (1) wide distribution of land; (2) recognition of importance of agriculture; (3) recognition of labor unions in non-monopoly industry; (4) opposition to monopoly or state capitalism, fascism, state socialism or communism; (5) decentraliztion of production; (6) support for consumer co-ops; and (7) denial of “artificial persons” protection (limited liability) to corporations.

Bromfield wrote for “FA” during its bright years.  At that time he was still advocating self-sufficient farming, social organization from below and maintenance of farmers on the land.  He was also reconsidering his views.  And there was fresh opportunity.  He hitched up with a new elitist organization, Friends of The Land, becoming a national figure with public lectures and a network radio show. Somehow he found time to make 100 lectures a year.  “I like making political speeches,” he wrote. “I get paid little or nothing for all this and turn over the proceeds to the Friends of the Land. Usually I pay my own expenses.  Happily I can afford to talk when and where I please and about what I please…I could make more by staying at home….”

“FA” was just one more casualty of the war.  Mass mobilization for total war isn’t decentralizing.  Feelings inevitably ran strong.  It wasn’t possible for anti-interventionists to stay in a coalition with interventionists like Bromfield. The “FA” coalition hadn’t time to reach a level of cohesion and trust that could withstand the jolt of war. “Farming is never easy,” Bromfield quipped. “Neither is working in social movements.” As the coalition found itself on a moving stage heading toward the wings, he summed up his feelings, “The longer I live, the more it seems to me that most people never get on as far as they should because they never make up their minds what they want to do and stick to it.”  In MALABAR FARM (1948), he grumbles, “Anything is better than standing still.  The conservatism of the farmer is sometimes his worst handicap.”

A DIFFERENT MAN

Bromfield started Malibar with “The Plan” to create an exemplary self-sufficient, conservationist agrarian community, a beacon for masses who would be so impressed by such examples that they would resettle on the land.  As Carlson observes, “A ‘Big House’ would be built  as well, in the ‘pure Jefferson Greek revival style’….But while the house was built, the rest of the agrarian dream did not survive.”  Even as Malabar ran increasingly in the red, Louis’ reverence toward the soil took on a mystical quality.  But now he believed the land was just for a specially-trained, noble elite strata, “responsibly” applying suitable technology and science.  He grew closer to the elitist Friends of the Land.

Founded in 1939-40 by prominent New Dealers, large farm leaders and big businessmen–nary an agrarian populist–Friends at its zenith enlisted 10,000 members before expiring in the next decade. To give Bromfield his due, perhaps he was fed up after working with feckless radicals and hoped he could hook up with powerful leaders who could get a few good things done.  Friends, Carlson writes, focused on “defaced landscapes,” “depleted water supplies,” and “degraded soil.”  He notes its agenda “became one primarily of getting people off the land and outside of farming….As a subsequent article (of its journal) would emphasize, ‘Friends of the Land is NOT a decentralist organization’.” (Italics in the original)

Even amidst a global war, Friends generated a lot of publicity, sending celebrities like Bromfield on tour and putting them in movie newsreels. NBC carried Bromfield’s radio show,”Voice From The Valley,” every Saturday morning. In RETURN TO PLEASANT VALLEY, George DeVault records that Malabar became a national attraction: “On a single Saturday in the early Fifties, some 8000 farmers and their families from 27 states turned Malibar…into a mini-Woodstock.”

Dressed in old work clothes, Louis opened up Malabar for free tours on Sundays. Exuding a natural charm, “he would sit down among the people on the broad sandstone steps,” Ellen Geld remembers in THE HERITAGE.  “Sometimes, if the crowd was large, he would come around with the jeep and, leaning against it with a microphone in his hand, talk in a gentle, friendly voice which put everyone at ease.” The Boss and Doris Duke differed over this.  Pony Duke quotes Doris saying Bromfield would bark at her, “I like people….I want to look out my window and see new people coming up the driveway.  I’m not going to live in any goddamn cage.” Ellen says if there were any skeptics in the crowds, her father would flash a deceptive grin and offer them a quick look around:  “The ‘quick look around’ required two things: undying enthusiasm and a staunch heart, for even in the punishing heat of mid-summer it lasted the entire afternoon.”

With his Hollywood ties, the farm pulled in the glitter set.  DeVault chronicles Jimmy Cagney working a vegetable stand, Kay Francis stirring apple butter, Joan Fontaine dashing to the barn in a negilee and Errol Flynn, Shirley Temple, Tyrone Power, Dorothy Lamour, Myrna Loy and Fay Wray attending the ballyhooed Bogart-Bacall wedding.

The Boss sometimes brought tourists to a hill overlooking Malabar.  It was named Mount Jeez, a moniker derived from Bromfield frequently exclaiming, “Jesus, what a view!” His daughter Ellen Geld says that his children and friends used to joke that the name stood for the messianic Bromfield’s self-image. Her father had a bawdy sense of humor, a penchant for profanity, a placid demeanor that occasionally showed only two emotions, Ellen says, “rage and amusement.” These two qualities were never displayed if tourists were around.  She reflects that she and her siblings grew up like their dad, not bothering to control their tempers, but always ready to forgive.  “Two or three minutes after any deadly row, we were all laughing and talking gaily”–just like dad.

Bromfield kept himself and Malabar in the public eye until he died of bone cancer in 1956, at 59, shortly after his best-friend, Humphrey Bogart. Pony Duke writes Louis “knew that liquor was shortening his life but he kept drinking.  Each day, another bottle of scotch would challenge his swollen liver.”  At the end Malabar was bankrupt.  “He had one last bit of revenge, “Duke relates.  He left his farm to an ecology foundation run by the wealthy families that had snubbed him as a boy and they felt obligated to dig down deep to save the farm.  After his wife, Mary, died in 1952, Louis kept his longterm romance going with Doris Duke, America’s richest woman.  He wouldn’t let her cover his mortgage.  She said, “Louis wasn’t a user.”

During the Korean War, especially after the North Koreans had been pushed back to their borders, a public discussion, called “The Great Debate,” raised the question of what constitutes a sensible defense and security policy for the U.S., of what requires first-line defense and what is peripheral, not meriting significant commitment of blood and treasury. Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch and father of a future president, wanted Bromfield to enlist in his coalition which was challenging the formation of the National Security State.  No longer a Democrat, Louis declined but began writing on the subject, swimming one last time against a too strong current.  Given his experiences in India, he deplored the U.S. rush to replace European rule in the colonial world, suppressing national revolutions and seeking militaristic solutions.  He foresaw the inherent weakness of command economies and emphasized increased trade with Russia and China.  He wrote critically of growing government secrecy, the maintenance of the military draft and in 1954 warned of disaster if the U.S. sent troops into Indochina.  For those transgressions, dissenters like him were accused of “objectively” serving as Communist agents by both liberals and conservatives, by THE NEW REPUBLIC as well as NATIONAL REVIEW.

What happened to the 1930-50 wave of agrarian populists, Randall Beeman and James Pritchard conclude, that there was a sea-change in public attitudes with the ending of the Depression. World War II brought about social mutations:  Americans had scant time for visionaries like Bromfield and no time for Jeffersonian decentralists: “The communitarian interdependent, reformist universe of interwar years shifted to the postwar age of atomization…and ‘bigger is better’ mentality.”

They add that the “‘get big or get out’ mentality triumphed over the desire for a nation of self-reliant farmers who supported small towns and industry.   fewer and larger farms were the trend…with farmers expanding horizontally via mechanization, debt expansion, hybridized seeds, and chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.” The first eco-agrarian wave  largely failed, the second and a weak third have receded, yet as the dominance of agribusiness/industrialized farming shows structural flaws, a new generation discovers lessons and possibilities in the struggles of the past.

In one of his last essays, “Fifteen Years After,” Bromfield laments, “When I look back now, the vague and visionary idea I had in returning home seems ludicrous and a little pathetic.” He goes on to say “perhaps” he was leaving behind “some” contributions to the science of agriculture and soil conservation.  He felt a more fulfilled man for having muddied his boots , strained his back and calloused his hands as he labored to harvest his dream. He wouldn’t have been content to stay confined to his writing desk, realizing too late the “illusion and the futility of fancy words.”

Ellen Gelb, in THE HERITAGE, wrote her father, with “the determined jaw” and crow’s feet around the eyes from laughing and looking into the sun, looked the way he lived. He had an aura of “weariness and dissipation, which gave him the look of a man who had lived a great deal both by day and by night.”  It was the look of a man who had “fished and swum and walked along country roads” and then “relished perhaps more than his share of good food and drink and satisfying talk.”  Charles Little, in LOUIS BROMFIELD AT MALABAR, writes of Bromfield’s “Fifteen Years After,” that “it is poignant to see how Bromfield misunderstood his work as writer, his role as experimental farmer and his effort to expand the Jeffersonian lessons of Malabar onto the larger canvas of American political life.” Little believes The Boss’s books about Malabar were his finest achievement and it was the energy behind the “ludicrous” vision  that made Malabar possible “even if the idea did not work out in all particulars.” Further, though he couldn’t affect Big Events, “his political support of soil and water conservation programs…may well have been decisive in the effort to rebuild the natural resource base after the Dust Bowl and the hard-farming of wartime had taken their toll.” Bromfield suffered from hubris but his personal failings and political defeats but he got “one big thing” right: “His work at Malabar gave him a sense of belongiing to something larger than himself, ‘to something vast, but infinitely friendly.’ That was the gift of Malabar Farm to him; and that is his gift to us as well,” not fifteen years after but more than 70.

E.B. White wrote a humerous but perceptive poem, “Malabar Farm” which appeared in THE NEW YORKER and then in his collection THE SECOND TREE FROM THE CORNER.  Here’s a sample: “We’ve robbed and plundered this lovely earth/Of elements of immeasurable worth/ And darned few men have applied their talents/Harder than Louis to restore the balance;/ And though his husbandry’s far from quiet,/Bromfield had the guts to try it.”

Bill Nygren lives, writes and gardens near Salem, Oregon, not far from the big river of his childhood, the Willamette. Visit his other articles at WxNW.org:

Nov 20, 2008
Memory Project: Rose Wilder Lane, Ghostwriter in the Sky
Making and Breaking the Myths of the Prairie Madonna and the New Woman

Spring, 2000
Life in the Jaws of the Crocodile: Walter Benjamin’s Last Project
Have You Read Any Good Books Lately?

2 comments to An American Original: Louis Bromfield

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>