Book: Pleasant Valley (1945) by Louis Bromfield
Louis Bromfield definitely got me thinking. About the complex man who won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and made waves along with contemporaries Sinclair Lewis and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and why Bromfield has sunk out of view. About why he left his global meanderings to return to a farm in Ohio where he grew up. And about the quiet beauty of the countryside near where I grew up.
[amazon_link id="1888683562" target="_blank" ]Pleasant Valley[/amazon_link] tells how he bought and revived three pathetically depleted farms into one glorious agricultural experiment called Malabar Farm. Once he returned to Ohio in 1938, he turned from fiction to writing and preaching about sustainable agriculture. Well, perhaps he did not really turn from fiction. In his introduction, he warns readers with this statement:
It is, frankly, a romantic book, written in the profound belief that farming is the most honorable of professions and unquestionably a romantic and inspiring one.
I read an old hard-back edition of the book and was thoroughly enjoying the first half, as he related history and legends of the Ohio area. He told stories of the good (and some not so good) people who farmed the area from pioneer days to his time. One of those interesting character sketches introduces a man who referred to his farm as “My Ninety Acres”. Bromfield particularly liked this little farm “over the hill in Possum Run Valley.” If Walter Oakes, who frequently quoted his deceased wife Nellie’s words of wisdom about farming, could apply good farming practices to a smaller piece of land, it showed you did not have to have the 1000-acre Malabar Farm to practice sustainable farming.
Walter’s story is expanded into a novelette ,adding two sons, who are described in great detail. It is a lovely story. It is so well-told that I was entirely enchanted. However, when I read a newer edition*, published at Wooster Press by the Ohio State Parks Department, I must have audibly gasped. This comes in the introduction:
The chapter called “My Ninety Acres” is so good, so genuine, so perfect that for many years I believed it was true, not fictional. In a higher sense, it was true, truer than any non-fiction I’ve ever read. And because it was so true, it led me to establish a “my ninety acres” of my own.
Gene Logsdon, a farmer and prolific writer on agrarian issues, goes on to explain his view on the reason and propriety of Bromfield’s “exaggerations.”
Sometimes in articulating the foundations of conservation farming that were being laid down at that time, largely through his writing, Bromfield got carried away a little as any enthusiastic writer will do. He should be read as one reads about an explorer or researcher. Not even Columbus was one hundred percent right, nor for that matter Darwin.
When I visited Malabar Farm State Park on a recent press trip (sponsored by the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau of Mansfield, Ohio) I asked Sybil Burskey, our guide, “If ‘My Ninety Acres’ is fiction, how do I know which parts of Pleasant Valley are true and which are fiction?”
“It’s all fiction,” said my hostess.
Undoubtedly Bromfield had met similar people and undoubtedly he related some historically based stories in Pleasant Valley, like the spooky murder of the entire family by Ceely at the Miller’s house. But he wrote this “memoir” to make a point–or several points–about Bromfield’s dearest beliefs about the proper care of the earth, wildlife, domestic animals, and family and friends.
[If this discussion is giving you a sense of déjà vu, it might be because of the Pet Travel Book Club discussion last week about the recent attack on the veracity of John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley.]
When Bromfield dropped the story telling and went into environmentalist evangelist mode, I became tempted to drop the book. But just as I started to lose interest, as he instructed me for the umpteenth time that I should use contour plowing, he would he would devote a chapter to the architecture of the “Big House”–a much modified house originally built in the 19th century. Or he would spend a chapter talking about the animals he loved, like his herd of Boxers, the goats that sat on the porch swing, and the duck that did not relate to the wild ducks that visited the farm pond.
He does not talk much about his glamorous friends from Hollywood, although they were a constant part of the farm. All visitors were welcome in the 9-bedroom,10-bathroom house, but all were assigned farm chores. You could have dropped by there in the 40′s and bought apples or maple syrup from Edgar G. Robinson down at the roadside stand. And if you were lucky, maybe you’d be invited to the wedding of Bromfield’s long-time friend Humphrey Bogart to Lauren Bacall.
I read Pleasant Valley as background for my visit to Malabar Farm and am glad that I did. But I must say it is one of those insidious reads that merely whets my appetite for more. I want to read Bromfield’s prize-winning [amazon_link id="1888683317" target="_blank" ]Early Autumn[/amazon_link]. I want to see some of the movies made from his other novels, like [amazon_link id="1931541116" target="_blank" ]The Rains Came[/amazon_link] (remade as The Rains Of Ranchipur). His love of animals prompts me to want to read[amazon_link id="1590981065" target="_blank" ] Animals and Other People[/amazon_link].
It surprises me that only one biography seems to surface–that by his daughter. Ellen Bromfield Geld,[amazon_link id="0821412884" target="_blank" ] The Heritage: A Daughter’s Memories Of Louis Bromfield[/amazon_link]. After all, he packed enough living in his life to make anyone wonder about the man.
If you would like to read an in-depth review of his work, see this page at the Ohioana site.
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Had you ever heard of Louis Bromfield? Are you curious to learn more about his fiction writing? his agricultural principles? his life of glamour? his Ohio farm? I’ll try to answer questions, or refer you to other sources if you join the conversation at A Traveler’s Library.