Review: The Planter of Modern Life

The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution, Stephen Heyman. New York: W.W. Norton, 2020.

Summary: A biography of novelist, screenwriter, and sustainable farming pioneer Louis Bromfield.

This happened to be a serendipitous find as I was shopping at an online book site. I was unaware of this recently released biography of Louis Bromfield. I will forgive you if you are wondering Louis who? Stephen Heyman, his biographer, acknowledges that this is not an uncommon reaction:

If Bromfield ever appears in a book today, he is shoved into parentheses or buried without ceremony in a footnote. If we remember him at all, it is only as a character in somebody else’s story. As Humphrey Bogart’s best man, say, or Doris Duke’s lover. As Gertrude Stein’s protege or Edith Wharton’s gardening guru. As Ernest Hemingway’s enemy or Eleanor Roosevelt’s pain in the ass. What is surprising is not that he has his own story to tell, but that, six decades after his death, that story suddenly feels important (pp. 2-3).

Louis Bromfield’s life began and ended in the Mansfield, Ohio area, and so he is well-familiar to this lover of all things Ohio. I’ve toured Malabar Farm and the Big House where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married. I’ve learned about his farming ideas and even camped at the farm with my son’s Boy Scout troop (a story in itself!). I’ve read some of his farm writings, Pleasant Valley and Malabar Farm. Much of what Heyman mentions in the quote above had nothing or little to do with this part of Bromfield’s life.

It turns out that this part of the story of Bromfield is what Heyman believes to be important in our day. He does not rush to make this point but sets what he thinks Bromfield’s most significant contribution in the context of his whole life. He renders the story in two parts. The first centered around Paris, his very successful novels, the Lost Generation set of which he was part, and his gardens at Senlis. The second focused around his childhood home of Mansfield, and Malabar Farm in Pleasant Valley, where his work and revolutionary thinking about the soil and farming practices began a movement that continues to this day.

The first part picks up with his ambulance corps work during World War I where his love of France was born. After a few years back in New York working in the publishing trade, he published his own first works, to immediate success. Both The Green Bay Tree and Possession featured strong, modern, American women. And he married Mary, the antithesis of these women. Heyman traces his longing to return to France, realized in 1925. He fell in with the literary set, befriended by Gertrude Stein while Hemingway resented his success, including his Pulitzer Prize. Even amid the success, the glitter, and the parties, Bromfield loved the soil, creating a beautiful garden home along a stream in Senlis, which became a gathering place for his friends, including Edith Wharton, a fellow gardener. We also learn about the beginnings of his association with George Hawkins, his personal secretary, discretely gay, and responsible for at least some of his success in Hollywood.

With the rise of Nazism, the response of appeasement, and increasing longings for home, Bromfield organized a rescue and repatriation effort for the American Lincoln Brigade, fighting in Spain. Through his connections, he mobilized the means to get over one thousand sent home, winning the French Legion of Honor. But Munich closed the door on Europe, and in 1938, he moved back to the States.

The second half of the book describes his purchase of a worn out farm in the Pleasant Valley area outside Mansfield, and his work with agricultural efforts to restore the farm through green crops, contour plowing, and limited use of fertilizers and chemical interventions, crop rotation, and shunning the monocultural farming of so much of Ohio. I learned that he was one of the first to sound the alarm as to the dangers of DDT. Heyman captures the sheer joy Bromfield derived from this work in his chapter “Four Seasons at Malabar.” He offers a nuanced treatment of these years, highlighting the reality that Bromfield’s Hollywood earnings sustained the farm–and really didn’t do that, especially after Hawkins death. He was controlling and didn’t let his two daughters, who loved farming, take a share in the work. They and their husbands went elsewhere, Ellen to Brazil, where she and her husband far more successfully realized Bromfield’s vision.

While Bromfield’s own careless business practices, mistaken ideas, and endless experiments led to mounting debts, his books and lecturing inspired future generations of agricultural writers, and the organic food movement, all of which have challenged America’s business-agricultural complex. Heyman traces the lineage of writers and activists influenced by him including Wendell Berry and Robert Rodale, founder of Organic Gardening magazine and the organic food movement.

Heyman captures Bromfield’s essential message, that ‘{m}ost of our citizens do not realize what is going on under their very feet.’ Bromfield recognized the danger of not caring for the top soil, one of America’s great assets and that chemical fertilizers could never substitute for good soil management. Perhaps the time in France and seeing farms that had been owned for generations had something to do with it.

I welcome this work. Perhaps it is just Ohio pride, but I do believe Bromfield deserves to be better known as an important influence on our contemporary movement for sustainable agriculture and healthy food. His other writing work is another matter and I suspect the author’s inferences to its lack of enduring value are on the mark, though I still want to read more Bromfield. Bromfield was one of the first to practice and preach good soil management, testify before Congress on the dangers of pesticides, and attempt to return to sustainable practices. He also left a tangible monument to his work in Malabar Farm, a working farm where people can learn about his ideas and tour the Big House. The farm doesn’t fully realize his dream of a research center nor display all his farming practices, given its tourism focus as a state park, but one can learn about his life, and see the land he saw, and perhaps something of his vision, which Heyman captures in his biography.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Planter of Modern Life

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: August 2021 | Bob on Books

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