Louis Bromfield and The Farm: A Portrait of Mansfield

Throughout Mansfield’s long history there have been a great many artists whose works have focused on the city in one way or another.

This series of articles collects portraits of our town created in different decades by painters, novelists, playwrights, composers, poets and filmmakers.

This chapter examines a popular 20th century novel that tells the story of Mansfield’s history through the eyes of a local boy who was also an internationally recognized author.

Louis Bromfield (1896-1956) grew up in Mansfield, and the best introduction to the man and his work is this short 2-part documentary.

The Landmark

Most of our lives we spend getting from here to there, and most of the world around us is seen only in passing.  But there are moments along the way when one of the places going by suddenly sparks a memory; and a recognition that opens up whole new dimensions of significance; and a deep space for wonder.

I’d like to give you one of those moments.

You have the opportunity to see, from the roads going by, a literary landmark that a million people all over the world have seen only in their minds.  They have pictured that very home, and the barns and fields around it, from the pages of a book, and through the words of a man who wrote his memories of living there as a boy.

The Farm as seen today in a Google-eye view from Route 309, 200 yards west of Home Road.

The house is easy to see from Home Road, or Longview Avenue, or Route 309.

The book is The Farm by Louis Bromfield.

During Bromfield’s lifetime (1896-1956) The Farm sold 443,450 copies in hardback.  That number was compiled before the book went into many different paperback editions, and before each of those separate editions went through multiple printings.  That was before the generation of students who knew the book as a text in high school and university classes.

These are a few of the paperback editions of The Farm: from 1955, 1961 & 1980.

When the book first came out in 1933 it was considered the high point of Bromfield’s career—pretty lofty praise for someone who had already been awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Critics who reviewed it for the New York Times said, “The Farm is an honest book, a deeply felt book and a valuable record for this generation and for those which are to come.”

Today the novel has faded from modern awareness in the 21st century, but only after decades of powerful presence in American literature.

Then & Now

In many ways it appears as if the farm that inspired The Farm has not changed at all in 100 years.  In some other, rather significant and ironic ways however, it is as if it is now located in an entirely different place altogether.

When you drive by you’ll see the place is now a small island of agriculture surrounded by tides of traffic.  Route 30, passing on the north, and Route 309, immediately on the south, keep the atmosphere humming with traffic sounds as a continual reminder that The Farm is no longer the quiet, slow-paced rural nirvana Bromfield described.  The traffic that he witnessed as a boy was all powered by horses or oxen.

When he was a kid, the rural topography of the Mansfield/Ontario landscape was considerably different from what we see today.  At that time The Farm was described as being ‘out Fourth Street and up a lane.’

The highways, of course, didn’t exist then.  The ‘turnpike’ was Fourth Street.

The rustic farm lane that led from Fourth Street to the historic barnyards followed the path of what is today Lindaire Lane.  The rutted drive passed between fields of cropland sewn in Timothy grass; then curved down through a stony glen to cross a creek; then ascended through a cool evergreen tunnel of Norway spruces.

With careful scrutiny, gazing across the gulf of 309 as if it were the intervening barrier of many decades, it is still possible to make out the last of these stately spruces on the hill.

Stately old spruce trees on The Farm as seen from Home Road across Route 309 in a Google view.

Fourth Street itself—the very roadway we take for granted—is a place Bromfield would hardly recognize from 100 years ago.  Today you drive underneath the railroad tracks, through a long, gradual, barely noticeable underpass that was dug out in the 1940s.

In his youth however, the Fourth Street pavements went over the tracks. 

He said that every time he was heading west out Fourth Street his first glimpse of The Farm came when the horse and wagon bumped up over the tracks.  That railroad bed was like a threshold, and as soon as his wagon wheels hit the top of the rise he could see the bright white barn in the distance, and felt like he had come home once again.

West Fourth Street today goes underneath the railroad tracks, but in Bromfield’s day the road passed over them.

Bromfield’s story about The Farm was his 8th novel, his 9th best seller.  It was presented as a work of fiction, but anyone who lived in Mansfield knew the work as plainly autobiographical.

The Book and The Man

The names were changed, as they say, to protect the innocent, but Bromfield himself knew that everyone in Mansfield was going to recognize the town and its characters, so he tried to make his own pre-emptive disclaimer.

He wrote a public letter to the News-Journal from his home in France the day The Farm was released.  It said, “I hope it will be clear that certain pictures and certain unpleasant references have nothing to do with the Mansfield of today, but rather with a semi-fictional community…”

He knew that his portrait of Mansfield was not going to be seen as particularly flattering.  He was using the city in a literary way to epitomize the course of American political and economic values since 1815.   In his eyes—as a farmer who watched the rural agrarian society he loved being ground under the influences of industry and commerce—the story was not headed toward a happy ending.

Bromfield’s disillusionment expressed in The Farm makes more sense if the writing is seen within the larger context of Bromfield’s life and career.

When he wrote this book he was 37 years old.  He had experienced a rather meteoric rise to fame, and was living a very glamorous life shuttling between expatriate literary society in Paris and high profile celebrity parties in Hollywood.

It had not been that long since he was a poor farm boy struggling to get his Fourth Street crops to pay for themselves. 

He left Mansfield so he could earn a living as a writer, but the largest part of him never wanted to leave the farm because he loved it so much.  Only 17 years later, with success that was fabulous beyond all expectation, he felt there was something missing from his life.

He was ungrounded.  He had lost his roots.  He was searching for meaning.

His search, his self-exploration, was The Farm.  In tracing back the story of how his beloved farm had evolved through history he was clarifying for himself his own needs and values.

He was also a little bit homesick.

A small pocket sized paperback edition of The Farm was published for homesick Armed Forces overseas during WWII.

Mansfield and American Lit

Many critics believed that The Farm was the best of Louis Bromfield and the most likely to endure.  Others were not so kind, but what is amazing today, looking back, is how much of a public dialogue the book created when it was published.  It was among the 10 best selling books of 1933.

Bromfield’s work is always at his best when he writes about what he loves, and it is clear from the passion and conviction and authority with which he writes The Farm that he loved his hometown.

It may not be a proper novel as such—it really has no plot or form—but as a documentary glimpse into another age of Mansfield it is exciting and unparalleled.

And he succeeded in projecting our town large and luminously to the whole wide reading world.  People in 18 different languages became familiar with characters who walked our streets.

There is something priceless and meaningful about any artwork that connects together different levels of reality.  The Farm provides an opportunity for exactly that: to tie together distant history with the immediate present; to synthesize fiction with non-fiction; to unite the broad spectrum of American Depression-era popular culture with very specifically local culture.

The best example of this is found in the book itself: in the very binding.  When you open a first edition of The Farm the very first thing you see inside on the end pages is a diagram of the buildings, outbuildings, barns and barnyards where the story takes place.

Anyone in 1933 who opened the book would assume that the diagram was composed from details of the story and, as such, was an imaginary drawing of a fictional place. Yet folks in Mansfield at the time were quick to point out that the ‘imaginary’ diagram in the book was exactly how the Fourth Street farm was laid out.  They couldn’t help but be amazed that their humble, overlooked and undervalued hometown was suddenly admired all over America

End pages of the first edition of The Farm featured a diagram of the book’s setting drawn from Bromfield’s actual Mansfield barnyards.

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