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Early Autumn–Louis Bromfield

In yet another example of how awards committees know nothing, Louis Bromfield received the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for novels over an insignificant little book known as The Sun Also Rises. Despite this obvious miscalculation, Early Autumn hardly lacks merit.

At first glance, Bromfield’s most celebrated novel strikes the reader as simply a romance, a sort of Henry James novel without nearly enough psychological insight to carry the day. Certainly we have unhappy marriages, frustrated love affairs, and class obsessions, yet other attributes make this novel worthy of our attention.

One of the remarkable things about the book, and one of the things that seems to me to place it in the Modernist school rather than as a sort of Realism-to-late offering, is the sexual dysfunction that seems to run rampant in the Pentland family. The main character, Olivia Pentland, lives a loveless and sexless existence with her husband, the staggeringly bloodless Anson Pentland. Anson seems to find personal contact of any immediacy to be very difficult. He passes on his disapproval over his daughter’s meetings with the somewhat disreputable Frank O’Hara by way of his wife. He spends most of his days in Boston engaged in various committees and organizations that seek to improve society in indirect ways.

If Olivia’s were the only case of sexual frustration, the theme would not signify a great deal, but we’ve only begun. Perhaps the book’s most memorable character is the widow Aunt Cassie, who spends her days gossiping and attempting to control the lives of others. Cassie, married for year, feigned (apparently) illness in order to avoid the attentions of her husband. With his death, she was miraculously cured.

The patriarch of the family, John Pentland, Olivia’s father-in-law and Cassie’s brother, has produced only the one child because his wife became insane very early in their marriage, apparently in revulsion or reaction to their marital relations. She has lived for decades in the north wing of the family home, quite mad and out of the picture.

In generations past, we learn, the Pentland blood was actually replaced in an adulterous affair. The miserly Jared Pentland, cuckolded by a lower class man, gave little enough attention to his wife that her one child was undoubtedly in her mind not his.

All of this repression is contrasted with the rather disreputable Sabine Callender, a cousin who married a commoner, lived a full life, and returns to the ancestral home to thumb her nose at the mores of her family. The family’s horse groom, Higgins, despite his odd appearance, beds virtually every servant in the area. At the novel’s end, Olivia’s daughter, Sybil, escapes the family’s traditions by marrying a young man of mixed French and American parentage. The promise of their passionate marital life is clear.

Louis Bromfield made little secret of his antipathy for religion and restrictive mores in various of his writings, yet this attitude does not seem reflected in the novel’s conclusion. All through Early Autumn, the pride of the Pentland family is held up for scorn. How ironic is it, then, that as the novel closes the doubly wealthy Olivia rejects the passion and apparently genuine love of Frank O’Hara in order to take up the proffered position as leader of the Pentland heritage, a heritage she knows to be fraudulent. She protects that heritage by burning the discovered letters that prove the current Pentlands to have no actual Pentland blood in their veins. She sacrifices her chance for a full romantic life, opting to remain with Anson, her mad mother-in-law, and her intrusive and manipulative aunt.

Why does Olivia make this choice? I would suggest that she demonstrates a sense of duty that cannot exist absent a very real morality. Like the young people Hawthorne’s “The May Pole of Merrymount,” she turns from the very real pleasures promised for her future and embraces a much more dreary, less appealing lot. Like Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, she turns from an easier, more enjoyable life and claims a more difficult, more responsible one. In all three cases, these characters make this turn because it is the right thing to do.

Curiously, in Bromfield’s The Farm, we see characters discovering that they cannot hang on to a very tangible and desirable thing, while in Early Autumn, Olivia chooses to cling to something she recognizes as built upon deceit and promising disappointment. Unless Olivia is programmed for despair and self-torture, which is not supported by the text, one has to assume that her choice suggests an allegiance to something larger than herself. Her daughter already married, Olivia does not remain at Pentlands on her behalf. She wouldn’t make the choice for the anemic Anson or the heartless Cassie. She could readily provide for the nameless mother-in-law without rejecting O’Hara; thus, her choice must indicate a belief in a higher claim that even family.

This line of thought should not be interpreted to suggest that Olivia found God. That wouldn’t seem to be consistent with Bromfield’s stated attitudes. It might, however, suggest that Bromfield had an inkling of a higher calling than what he ever admitted in so many words.

Posted in American Literature, Modernism.

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