World War Two was a pivotal point in history that changed human culture on the planet. It certainly changed America. And it’s easy to see the realignment it made in the career and values of Louis Bromfield.
Before the war, he was a novelist who wrote fiction and was known across the U.S. and Europe as a storyteller. After the war, his books became mostly nonfiction and the world came to recognize him primarily as a farmer.
He had been self-indulgent for more than a decade living in France—traveling, entertaining and giving his imagination free rein from 1925 to 1938. His tremendous success as an author gave him the freedom to be a carefree expatriate in bohemian self-discovery.
But when his nation—both of his nations—were in crisis, he determined to find a focus that could be based more in community and expressing a national identity.
A Dose of Reality
Bromfield, as a novelist, considered himself above politics and said he was “merely an observer” for the purposes of shaping his literary characters. But living in France during the years leading up to the war it was impossible for him to ignore the pending storm and remain neutral. He was swept into the fight against fascism in Spain, and contributed to that war effort in a humanitarian way by raising funds for hospitals.
Then in 1938, when England acceded to Hitler’s demands and France began preparing for war, Bromfield knew that his time in Europe was drawing to a close. That year the French government requisitioned his car for national defense. It was shortly afterward he sent his wife and daughters to America. He stayed behind only long enough to deal with the accumulated wealth he couldn’t take out of the country. He said he literally hid cash under the floorboards of his house.
One of the things he took care of before he left was to make arrangements with his European publishers to donate all of the royalties from his books—an estimated million francs—to the French resistance.
Some of his companions in France said he had abandoned them, but he was convinced that his best service to humanity in the crisis would be with his words and his voice, and they would be effective only in America.
Voice for France
In American media, in 1938, Bromfield definitely had a voice. He had, at the time, a dozen books on best-seller lists with over three million copies in print. The public had already seen his name at the front of four popular major motion pictures based on his stories. As soon as he stepped off the ship in New York he was a celebrity quoted in newspapers across the nation.
He used that fame in every way he could from the very start by becoming the spokesperson for a variety of Free France organizations like the French-American Club, and the France Forever Committee, raising funds for war relief. He spoke up as often as he could for so many desperate causes that he rapidly went onto a watch list at the FBI, who were suspicious of anyone with foreign connections; particularly an organization of suspected communists, of which Bromfield was the President, called Friends of Democracy.
When Bromfield’s 1939 blockbuster movie, The Rains Came, made him even brighter in the public spotlight, the Roosevelt administration recognized what an excellent loudspeaker he was to generate headlines, so they put him to work selling war bonds.
This official Washington recognition made him, perhaps, a little tipsy from heady drafts of politics, and he decided to leap into the national agenda by announcing he was running for Congress. Bromfield had the backing of no less a force than Eleanor Roosevelt who was charmed by his boundless energy and his literary presence enough to say he was ‘a natural politician.’
It didn’t take Bromfield long to recover from the power binge though, when he recognized that, between scripts to write in Hollywood, fields to plow at Malabar, stories to write for Cosmopolitan Magazine, and countless speeches to deliver all over the nation, he hardly had time left to sit in a chair at the Capitol.
It was his words on paper that carried his greatest influence. Ultimately, he was a writer, and his job was to write.
Voice of Propaganda
Bromfield’s proximity to politics and war had an immediate impact on his words. He became part of the fight and went on the attack.
He twisted some arms at his publishers to put out a current-affairs pamphlet very unlike anything else they printed. The thirty-two-page tract, called England, A Dying Oligarchy, revealed to his reading public a bitter side they had never seen of him. To the critics, Bromfield’s novels were loved for their timeless characters and strong women, yet here he was suddenly in print with a rant that was cold and manipulative.
To win back his audience, he followed the pamphlet in 1942 with a novel that was more in keeping with his accepted fictional genre, Until the Daybreak. It was classic Bromfield in many ways, and well-written with his distinctive insight into peoples’ inner motives, but there was an unaccustomed meanness and anger just below the surface that his readers recognized as propaganda.
Of all the novels on Bromfield’s shelf, Until the Daybreak sold the least.
It was disappointing to the readers and critics, but no less so to him. He had grown accustomed to writing books that everyone talked about. There were no movie offers for his wartime novel.
It was a lesson in humility, and it woke Bromfield from his revenge. Suddenly he grew a conscience like a character in one of his own stories. He knew now that people didn’t want to hate, they preferred to love, and what he wrote best were romantic stories. Instead of hating Germans, he needed to remind people what they loved about Americans.
So he put everything he had into his next work: an epic compilation of what he loved in American literature.
It was titled, Mrs. Parkington, and it became one of the biggest sellers of 1943, and among the most popular novels of his career. It spawned a highly anticipated MGM movie that earned Academy Award nominations for its two strong women.
Armed Forces Editions
Bromfield played another role in the war that is not so widely recognized today: he provided an essential element of morale by publishing reading material available to every uniformed person. The little paperbacks were not only entertaining, they contributed a few moments in America for personnel on foreign soil.
Voice for Farmers
The war seemed to bring everything into sharper contrast for the nation, and ultimately, it brought clarity to Bromfield as well. As the Army fought to keep its soldiers fed, and the U.S. Government struggled to keep the home front fed, it threw the crisis in American agriculture into stark contrast.
As a farmer, the answers to producing the best and the most food were obvious to Bromfield.
And fortunately for the soldiers, and the Army, and the Government, and the people of America, he had reached the peak of his popularity and fame where his voice was heard.
Bromfield threw himself into the fight to save America’s topsoil from erosion. He traveled 40,000 miles in one year to deliver impassioned speeches in any corner of the nation where they would let him talk to farmers, bankers, businessmen, and housewives planting Victory gardens in their back yards.
He went on the radio, broadcasting his voice to millions as often as he could. He wrote himself into newspapers, syndicated across the nation in a weekly column called A Voice From the Country. He used every media at his disposal to focus a whole new bright spotlight in the country on one word: conservation.
The greatest evidence for us today that Bromfield finally found his calling during WWII isn’t found studying his books, his archives or volumes of newspaper clippings, but by simply looking around the croplands of America at how many of the farming practices he promoted in the 1940s are standard practices and assumed wisdom of our time.
During the third year of the war, he stayed up nights working on a manuscript that was an entirely new genre for him, so that the evolution of his purpose in life was quickly reflected to the reading public as well. The best-selling book, published during the last year of the war, was his first work of nonfiction, Pleasant Valley.
In it, he was able to bring his proven talent for colorful narrative to bear on his own life at Malabar Farm in such a way to mirror for America the love of the land, and its traditions, to lay the groundwork for its vital future.