The Planter of Modern Life

Planter of Modern Life coverThe Planter of Modern Life: How an Ohio Farm Boy Conquered Literary Paris, Fed the Lost Generation, and Sowed the Seeds of the Organic Food Movement
Stephen Heyman
W. W. Norton & Company (April 14, 2020), 350 pages
Kindle edition $9.97, Amazon paperback $12.78

Louis Bromfield was once an influential individual in the United States, both as an author and as an advocate for agriculture. Yet until I came across this book I had never heard of him.

Bromfield grew up in rural Ohio. His father was a not-very-capable businessman who tried to pull off various agriculture-related deals. When World War I broke out Bromfield went to Europe and worked as an ambulance driver. In letters home he claimed to have mingled with the elite in his off-duty hours, but the author says that there is no evidence that he actually did so.

One might call Bromfield a member of the Lost Generation, though he never received that label as did the likes of Gertrude Stein and Hemingway. After the war he stayed in France and decided he wanted to farm. He found an old farm outside Paris owned by some elderly sisters. He could not convince them to sell but entered into a complicated lease arrangement. Bromfield spent a lot of money on improvements and created a productive working farm. He held regular Sunday gatherings there and the likes of Stein and Edith Wharton would show up.

Bromfield was able to finance all this because of his success as an author. Author Stephen Heyman quotes The New York Times as saying that Bromfield was “the most promising of all the young American authors writing today.” According to the New York Post, “We have added a new fixed star to the American literary firmament.” And yet we hardly know Bromfield’s name today.

In the thirties Bromfield could see what was happening in Europe and sent his family home for safety. He followed shortly thereafter.

Back in the United States Bromfield bought a farm in Ohio near his childhood home. He bought it in winter and when the snow melted in the spring he discovered the land was hardly arable. Fortunately, he found a farm manager who knew how to make farmland productive. The farmhouse was dilapidated but Bromfield wanted to preserve it while at the same time add on to and enhance the house. This made his architect crazy, but everyone was happy with the house as it was eventually built.

Bromfield’s politics were left of center and he made friends with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt. However, during World War II he saw the demands that the government was making for the war effort were hurting American agriculture and he spoke out about it. This alienated Mrs. Roosevelt and others in that camp. But contemporaries also noted he possibly helped the country avoid food shortages during the war.

Bromfield did a lot of work in the area of sustainability and spent a lot of time on the road speaking about agriculture. He was one of the first to warn of the dangers of DDT.

Late in his life he became more dogmatic and set in his views. His health also began to fail. By the time of his death he had lost much of his popularity and credibility.

Stephen Heyman’s biography is a fascinating and revealing look at an important American figure about whom we rarely hear these days.



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