Have You Forgotten About Louis Bromfield?

Richland County’s picturesque Pleasant Valley is a welcome destination for a Sunday drive any time of year, but yesterday was an especially fine day to visit one of my favorite haunts: Louis Bromfield’s Malabar Farm.

Photograph of Louis Bromfield in his study, Malabar Farm

Louis Bromfield’s study at Malabar Farm

Soaking up the charming atmosphere of the farm’s Big House for decades has helped me memorize historical trivia like who made the marks on the kitchen door and the exact spot where Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart’s May 21, 1945 wedding took place, but my knowledge of its famous owner’s writing style is a little lacking. So, when I heard that Tom Bachelder, naturalist at Malabar and my favorite Big House tour guide, was offering an afternoon program called “The Forgotten Author: A Book Lover’s Guide to Louis Bromfield,” I made plans to attend.

Dozens of people apparently had the same idea. In the standing-room-only library of the farm’s visitor center, Mr. Bachelder shared details about why Bromfield was famous, where he got his inspiration, which books were his best efforts, and why he was forgotten so quickly.

Oak Hill Cottage, the Gothic Revival home in Mansfield that was the focal point of Bromfield's first novel, The Green Bay Tree

Oak Hill Cottage, the Gothic Revival home in Mansfield that was the focal point of Bromfield’s first novel, The Green Bay Tree

We began by brushing up on the facts of Bromfield’s early life, including his family roots in Mansfield, his college studies of agriculture and journalism, and his service in the Great War, which led to a fascination with France that culminated in a 13-year stint as an expatriate author.  No wonder Bromfield enjoyed wearing those iconic striped French sailor’s shirts as much as I do.

Then, Mr. Bachelder delved into Bromfield’s books. Bromfield’s first four books — The Green Bay Tree, Possession, Early Autumn and A Good Woman, published between 1924 and 1927 — established his reputation. They also shared settings, characters and themes illustrating Bromfield’s desire to escape a society that he thought was marked by materialism, conformity and narrow-mindedness, Mr. Bachelder said.

WLouis Bromfield's The Farm, from the Malabar Farm collectionshen Bromfield returned to Richland County in 1939 and purchased the farms that became Malabar, his interests turned from writing novels to practicing farmland conservation. As he pioneered innovative scientific farming techniques on his land, Bromfield wrote about his experiences, publishing four nonfiction books and over 100 articles in farm journals about how to apply crop rotation, no-till plowing and contour plowing to farming worn-out land.  As he lectured internationally about his farming practices, he encouraged his audiences to think differently about the land and how to work with it.  Malabar became as famous as its owner.

During his career, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bromfield wrote 19 novels, seven short story collections, and two politically themed books. Twelve Hollywood films were based on Bromfield’s novels and short stories. His wife, Mary, wrote magazine articles about their life, while his youngest daughter, Ellen Bromfield Geld, wrote 10 books of her own, including The Heritage: A Daughter’s Memories of Louis Bromfield. In it, she observed that her father lived, worked and did exactly what he liked, Mr. Bachelder told us.

Malabar Farm's parrotYou can still walk many of the same paths that Bromfield did at Malabar, so the afternoon concluded with the option to go on a hike.  One of the highlights was seeing the stone steps of the homestead that Bromfield recreated in “Up Ferguson Way,” a short story included in The World We Live In. I stayed behind to catch up with a very talkative friend in the gift shop.

Mr. Bachelder said this was a test drive for a similar presentation he’s giving for The Learning Enrichment Institute at The Ohio State University’s Marion campus on May 15. For more information on the program, called “Malabar Farm, Then and Now,” followed by a tour of Malabar Farm the next day, click here.

Let’s end with a trivia questioLouis Bromfield's Mrs. Parkington, from the Malan.  Bromfield’s novel, Mrs. Parkington, was made into a movie in 1944.  Which two actresses who starred in the movie were nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, and who won a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe award, for their performances in this film?  

Leave me a comment and let me know!

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