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The Farm–Louis Bromfield

A few years before Louis Bromfield fled from his hard life in France to the safer climes of rural Ohio, he penned The Farm, a novel that to my mind evokes Wendell Berry’s fiction. Having had Bromfield arrive on my radar screen recently, I began reading some of the man’s considerable body of work.

The Farm traces several generations of a family’s life on and around a fine piece of land in the Western Reserve, early nineteenth-century Ohio. From the time of “The Colonel,” who first claimed the property, to the novel’s present, the 1930s and the closest thing to a protagonist Bromfield offers in Johnny.

In the end, Johnny and his parents return from town to the farm in a last-ditch effort to salvage their economic lives, which they have fairly thoroughly mortgaged to the mercantile, cash-based life that Bromfield (or at least his narrator) so clearly detests.

Unlike Berry’s fiction, which, like this novel, focuses on place and generational change far more than artificial and over dramatic events that populate most novels, The Farm ends on a decidedly melancholy note. Apparently there is no hope for the preservation of an agrarian lifestyle and ethos. Who will win, we are asked in the book’s opening chapter, the farmers or the shopkeepers? The question seems reasonable, but Bromfield seems slightly oblivious to the fact that the game was never a particularly fair one. His supposedly archetypal farmer, the Colonel, never really existed separate from the shopkeepers. Rather than living a sustainable rural life, the Colonel subsidizes his desired lifestyle with property sales from the East. Is this truly the paragon of rural life that Bromfield seeks to champion.

Several times in this novel, Bromfield takes an opportunity to lambast Calvinism and its “superstitions.” Neither the author nor his preferred characters have any use for Christianity. Curiously, though, the novel’s apparently bleak ending resonates with a variety of Biblical texts, especially Ecclesiastes. As Johnny and his family come to the realization that they cannot cling to the life that their family once had, Bromfield foregrounds the loss of the Colonel’s “museum” collection, arrowheads, botanical specimens, and a journal. They’ve been scattered to the winds or used as kindling in cooking fires. Even the Colonel’s headstone is decaying with age.

Bromfield, it seems, cannot dispense with religious values quite as readily as he would like to believe he can. His farmers, more than Berry’s, are confronted by a voice calling, “You fool, this very night your life will be required of you.” That Bromfield knows how to properly respond to this voice is a decidedly open question.

Posted in Modernism.

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