Highlights of a Life
Louis Bromfield’s rural roots go back to 1815, when his great-grandparents established their farm on Ohio soil. Two generations later in 1896, Bromfield was born on an Ohio farm to Charles and Mary Bromfield. Mary encouraged young Louis to become a writer mainly because of her husband’s hard work and unsuccessful experience as a farmer.
Despite his mother’s encouragement, Bromfield left Ohio to study agriculture at Cornell University. The following year, however, he abandoned agriculture to study journalism at Columbia University. But by 1916, the growing threat of World War I interrupted Bromfield’s studies. That year, he left for France to serve as a driver in the American Ambulance Corps with the Army’s 34th and 168th divisions; he took part in seven battles before the war ended in 1918. In 1919, the 22-year-old returned to the U.S. to pursue a career in journalism, and in 1920, he received an honorary war degree from Columbia.
Between 1920 and 1925, Bromfield worked as: a writer and journalist for City News Service and Associated Press in New York City, a magazine editor and critic, an assistant to a theatrical producer and as an advertising manager for book publisher Putnam. When he wasn’t writing on the job, Bromfield was writing creatively. In 1924, he published his first novel, The Green Bay Tree, which critics hailed as excellent. It was the first of a four-novel “Escape” series, and the first of many books Bromfield would write during the next 30 years.
When Bromfield received 1927’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction for the novel Early Autumn, he was still viewed by critics as a writer of great promise. Critics praised each of the four novels that formed the “Escape” series: The Green Bay Tree, Possession, Early Autumn, and A Good Woman. Bromfield intended the books to be read as a unified patchwork of perspectives on family life in the early twentieth century.
In 1925, after the publication of Possession, the Bromfield family traveled to France. What had begun as a family vacation became a thirteen-year stay in the town of Senlis. Bromfield had fallen in love with the country while serving in the French Army during World War I. The author became involved with the many expatriate writers and artists who resided in and around Paris such as Edith Wharton, Pablo Picasso, Natalie Barney, Sinclair Lewis and Gertrude Stein. All the while, he continued to live a busy lifestyle, publishing almost a book a year, contributing short stories to literary magazines, writing screenplays and traveling the world. Remembering his boyhood passion for working the earth, Bromfield relaxed by maintaining a one-acre garden where he grew vegetables and more than 350 varieties of flowers.
Negative critical reaction to Bromfield’s work increased after 1930 for two reasons: because of his reliance on predictable plots developed for adaptation to film, and because of his outspoken support of individualism, anti-materialism and a return to rural values. Bromfield’s reputation as a fiction writer was also diluted among literary critics by the writing of other pastoral-minded contemporaries such as Sinclair Lewis, Booth Tarkington and Robert Penn Warren. Despite this competition and the author’s trend toward formulated plots, his novels of 1933, The Farm and The Rains Came are considered to be Bromfield’s best fictional works.
The Rains Came, published in 1937, was inspired by two trips to Baroda, India. Bromfield saw many parallels between the destruction of rural values in the United States and the threat to India’s traditional way of life at the hands of its British colonial caretakers.
In 1938, with the outbreak of World War II in Europe looming, Bromfield and his family returned to the United States. With money earned from his Hollywood screenplays, he purchased one thousand acres of haggard farmland in Ohio and immersed himself in the study of agriculture, especially in revitalizing worn-out farmland and improving farming methods through science.
There, Bromfield established Malabar Farm, a research and development site for scientific farming. He was the father of what he called “New Agriculture,” where the best farmers not only conserve but also improve topsoil and groundwater resources and produce more abundant, nutritionally balanced crops that are pesticide-free. His studies focused on the link between deficient soils and human disease, birth defects and poor livestock nutrition, and advocating preventive medicine and health care.
Bromfield succeeded in restoring the farm’s rich fertility and preserving the beauty of the surrounding woodlands. He built a 32-room country home, where his family, friends and neighbors could experience the pleasures of rural living. In Pleasant Valley, Bromfield wrote, “Every inch of (the house) has been in hard use since it was built and will, I hope go on being used in the same fashion so long as it stands.”
Following this mantra, Bromfield wrote by day and led an active social life by night, making friends with some of the best-known people of his generation. Entertaining, witty, and never afraid to speak his mind, Bromfield was recognized, celebrated and sometimes reviled for his powerful ego, explosive temper and forceful personality. Yet the wealthy and talented clamored to be at his side. Malabar Farm was visited by personalities such as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who were married there in 1945.
“His was a vital character, energetic, ambitious, insatiably curious about every human being, every manner of living. To be surrounded constantly by an assortment of human samples from as many walks of life as possible was, indeed, an obsession with him,” says daughter Ellen Bromfield Geld in her memoirs.
Despite Bromfield’s continued popularity among celebrities and as a fiction writer, his reputation and influence as a conservationist and farmer continued to expand. His later years were increasingly devoted to farming and lecturing on conservation around the country. His efforts were recognized in 1952 with an Audubon medal for conservation.
With his farm and family in unstable financial condition, Bromfield died on Malabar Farm in 1958.
Today, the innovative and visionary work of Louis Bromfield continues to influence agricultural methodologies around the world. Malabar Brazil, under the direction of Ellen Bromfield Geld, has expanded the horizons of her father’s principles and pursuits