Ohio History Journal

  • 1
  •  
  • 2
  •  
  • 3
  •  
  • 4
  •  
  • 5
  •  
  • 6
  •  
  • 7
  •  
  • 8
  •  
  • 9
  •  
  • 10
  •  
  • 11
  •  
  • 12
  •  
  • 13
  •  
  • 14
  •  
  • 15
  •  
  • 16
  •  
  • 17
  •  
  • 18
  •  
  • 19
  •  
  • 20
  •  
  • 21
  •  
  • 22
  •  

Nelson
Winter-Spring 2001
pp. 5-25
Copyright 2001 by the Ohio Historical Society. All rights reserved.
This article is presented page by page with footnotes according to the original print version. If a sentence seems to end abruptly, scroll down to continue with the next page.

The Ideal of Nature
and the "Good Farmer":
Louis Bromfield and the
Quest for Rural Community

By Philip J. Nelson


World War II and its aftermath dominated the 1940s as have few events in other decades. But beneath the overwhelming panorama of war lay domestic problems, some of which occupied the attention of rural activists across America. Battered by the Depression, rural society continued to lose population due to structural changes in agriculture and the war's demographic changes. Even in a time of relative agricultural prosperity, rural community advocates identified the decline of small towns and rural culture as a critical social issue which, in their minds, rivaled the urgency of the war itself. While it was undoubtedly an emergency of unparalleled proportions, they viewed the diminution of the small community as an even larger threat to the American way of life. Small community advo- cates pointed out the chronic challenges to small towns and their farming hinterlands and warned of dire long-term consequences to democracy itself if their demise was allowed to proceed further. By studying a specific ruralist, Louis Bromfield, we can observe the interaction of a small-town, midwestern belief system with the evolving mass cultural order representative of an increasingly industrial, urban, and bureaucratic society.1


Philip J. Nelson received his Ph.D. in Agricultural History and Rural Studies from Iowa State University and is currently teaching in the history department at the University of Northern Iowa.

1. There exists a range of historical opinion on the 1940s. It runs from the picture of a troubled America in William S. Graebner's The Age of Doubt (Boston, 1991) to a very optimistic America in William L. O'Neill's American High: The Years of Confidence, 1945-1960 (New York, 1986). In between are John Patrick Diggins, The Proud Decades: America in War and in Peace, 1941-1960 (New York, 1988); John Morton Blum, V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture during World War II (New York, 1976); Geoffrey Perrett, Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph: The American People, 1939-1945 (Baltimore, 1974) and Eric F. Goldman, The Crucial Decade-And After: America, 1945-1960 (New York, 1961). Primary sources revealing the existence of a small community reform movement are Arthur Morgan, The Small Community: Foundation of Democratic Life (New York, 1942); Wayland J. Hayes, The Small Community Looks Ahead (New York, 1947); Earle Hitch, Rebuilding Rural America (New York, 1950); and Baker Brownell, The Human


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 27

Known today primarily for his advocacy of soil conservation and agroecological ideas, Ohio native son Louis Bromfield also played a prominent role in the small community reform movement of the 1940s and 1950s. He occupied what can be called the agrarian wing of the movement, along with writer Carey McWilliams, Southern Agrarian Herman C. Nixon, and decentralist Ralph Borsodi. All agrarians continued to view the land as the fundamental physical, economic, and emotional basis for small communities and even national identity. Whatever shape it took, whether it was Borsodi's place of refuge or Bromfield's alternative to an increasingly money-oriented and materialistic world, agrarians located the good society in the small rural community. Bromfield tried to defend the traditional agrarian reverence for the soil, respect for farming, and love for a rural society of small producers by updating and modernizing the Jeffersonian vision. Although not technically a utopian with a blueprint of the perfect society, he searched for the ideal of the decent rural citizen, denounced those aspects of established society which clashed with his vision of the virtuous life, and promulgated small community principles he believed were conducive to a better cultural order. To this end and in the face of imminent war, he gave up his expatriate existence and left France in 1938. Upon his return to Ohio, he created the most famous experimental farm of its day-Malabar Farm near Mansfield.2

Bromfield not only saw threats to democracy and a special rural way of life reflected in the dilemma of the small community, but also to the spiritual and ethical health of American culture. He lamented that modern mass society was turning away from time-honored traditions, and he believed that its growing rejection of the small community was destroying the natural, organic social bonds. The result was a moral and spiritual crisis. In this respect, he agreed with the patriarch of small communitarians, Arthur Morgan, who stated that "Without fairly definite standards society will disintegrate. The small community is the best place, almost the only

 

Community (New York, 1950). For an analysis of this movement, see the author's Ph.D. dissertation "The Elusive Balance: The Small Community in Mass Society, 1940-1960," Iowa State University, 1996. See also Richard 0. Davies, Main Street Blues: The Decline of Small- Town America (Columbus, Ohio, 1998), for a recent history of a specific Ohio small town, about which he concludes that the 1940s was the key decade in which the old, traditional community was irretrievably transformed into an appendage of mass society.
2. The context of American agrarianism is described in Clifford B. Anderson, "The Metamorphosis of American Agrarian Idealism in the 1920s and 1930s," Agricultural History, 35 (October, 1961), 182-88; and Paul Thompson, "Agrarianism and the American Philosophical Tradition," Agriculture and Human Values, 7 (Winter, 1990), 3-9. A sampling of the voluminous primary agrarian writings of the 1930s and 1940s includes P. Alston Waring and Walter Magnes Teller, Roots in the Earth: The Small Farmer Looks Ahead (New York, 1943), 34; Herman C. Nixon, "Government of the People," in Cities Are Abnormal, ed. by Elmer T. Peterson (Norman, Okla., 1946), 175; Carey McWilliams, Factories in the Fields (Boston,


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 28

place, for stabilizing and transmitting the finest of those ethical standards which concern the intimate relations of its members." Bromfield also believed that the problem was caused by increasing individualism and materialism which tended to subvert an ecological understanding of the land and stewardship of the soil. American society was in trouble because it had abandoned Thomas Jefferson's agrarian vision of a yeoman citizenry. "No great democrat ever realized more clearly than himself [Jefferson] that the survival of democracy and its growth are founded upon the stake of a citizen in the government and the nation to which he belongs, . . . which makes him a stockholder in a vast corporation whose welfare was his direct interest." By arguing for the continued relevance of the rural social order, Bromfield created a place for himself among communitarians who maintained that the small community was the "seedbed" of human life itself. In his own way, this Midwesterner launched a quest to reinvigorate and reform the small rural community so that it could once again act as the generator and fountainhead of American life. Although his significance is easily overlooked in a decade of momentous events, his story may well provide insight and perspective to the contemporary interest in local community.3

Born in Mansfield, Louis Bromfield (1896-1956) learned early in life about midwestern small-town and rural values. Prodded by the high hopes of his family, he entered Cornell University only to withdraw a year later to help run the family farm. Returning to college in 1916, he studied journalism at Columbia, until his desire to experience the world at war caused him to enlist in the United States Army Ambulance Service in 1917. In the 1920s he worked as a reporter and night editor in New York City. Later he was a drama and music critic and columnist. While an advertising manager for G. P. Putnam's Sons, he published his first novel, The Green Bay Tree, in 1924. He then began to write full time, and moved with his family to France for fourteen years. His expatriate years proved to be the basis of his rapid and successful rise as a novelist. Bromfield won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for the novel Early Autumn (1926). He and his wife became the acquaintances of many Europeans and Americans in high society, and developed a fondness for the simple but rich lifestyles and architecture of provincial France. The Bromfields returned to Ohio under the threat of the rapidly approaching war. There, with royalties from his books and screenplays, he bought three run-down farms, totaling one

 

1939), and Ill Fares the Land (Boston, 1942); and Elmer T. Peterson, Forward to the Land (Norman, Okla., 1942).
3. The basis for Bromfield's personal, agricultural, and economic philosophies is found first in Pleasant Valley (New York, 1945). Morgan, The Small Community, 261; Louis Bromfield, A Few Brass Tacks (New York, 1946), 172.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 29

thousand acres, in Richiand County, Ohio. He dubbed this place "Malabar Farm" after the verdant coastal area of Malabar in India, the site of many Bromfield family vacations. After a speaking tour and a brief stint as a Hollywood writer, Bromfield returned to Malabar Farm and took up a career as an agriculturalist, ecological spokesman, and rural visionary.4

Critique of Modern Society

During the Great Depression, Ohio's material condition had been as acute and desperate as any other state. Yet it was not so much the poverty and unemployment that caught the attention of Bromfield, but the movement away from fundamental cultural beliefs which had served American society well for many years. He believed, along with fellow Ohioan Sherwood Anderson, that the rise of mass society, with its twin supports of industrialism and urbanization, had not only made city life more precarious but had been particularly hard on the rural locale by undercutting its traditional equilibrium. Thus, the problems of Ohio's small places were symptomatic of difficulties experienced by all Americans. According to Bromfield, the ultimate problem with modern society was the lack of a balanced, progressive cultural order which worked for the average person. Believing that the nation was at a crossroads, Bromfield wrote in 1946: "Either we drift on and on into the depressing condition of a corporate state, or we act to establish a redistribution of economic values and continue as a democracy in which the rewards are free enterprise, independence, human dignity, and freedom." Huge centralized agglomerations of people produced weak and ineffective populations who tended to clamor for "bread and circuses," which undercut the discipline and welfare of nations. Hence, he railed against what he perceived as the deleterious cultural flaws of mass society-urbanization, the "bottom-line" mentality of big business, greedy and mindless consumerism, and a superficiality and transitoriness which grew out of a dangerous relativity of values.5

Like liberal and radical agrarians, Bromfield focused on the issues of security, independence, and stability for rural dwellers and their communities. Although his utopian vision of a future perfect society never

 

4. David D. Anderson, Louis Bromfield (New York, 1964), 15-16; Mark Hoy, "The Most Famous Farm in America," Audubon, 91 (November, 1989), 64-67.
5. Ohio's experience of the Depression is ably described in Eugene H. Roseboom and Francis P. Weisenburger, A History of Ohio (Columbus, Ohio, 1953), 361-80; Sherwood Anderson, Home Town (New York, 1940); Louis Bromfield, "To Clear the Dross," in Cities Are Abnormal, ed. Elmer T. Peterson (Norman, Okla., 1946), 198.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 30

A view of Malabar from "Mount Jeez," a nearby hill. (Photo by Joe Monroe; p400, Ohio Historical Society Collections.)

attained back-to-the-land advocate Ralph Borsodi's level of concreteness and clarity, it did spring from many of the same intellectual roots. The two writers, as agrarians, shared a passion for Jeffersonianism and believed in the continuing relevance of the moral agricultural order. Medium-sized farms, each owned and operated by a family, provided the most stability, dignity, and prosperity for both the individual entrepreneurial units and the nation as a whole. Morality inhered in the relationship of farmer and the land; it taught responsibility, honesty, hard work, thrift, and perseverance. Such noble values were then passed on from generation to generation, inviolate and incorruptible. The temptation to amass riches was limited and moderated by the land and the nature of farm work itself. Bromfield, like Jefferson, saw no reason why a society of equals could not exist on the "good earth." Yeoman farmers constituted the heart and soul of both the local community and the larger republic. Bromfield made these points by drawing on numerous sources. For example, he approvingly quoted John Dewey's obeisance to Jefferson: "The agrarian class is the first in utility and ought to be the first in respect .... It is a science of the very first order. Young men... [should] return to the farms of their fathers, their own


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 31

or those of others, and replenish and invigorate a calling, now languishing under contempt and oppression."6

Bromfield's idealism sought the mitigation of the "evils" of industrialization and materialism. Highly critical of the New Deal, he believed that the solution did not lie with more government, at any level. In fact, he maintained that stable, self-sufficient farming communities, loosely defined, could be largely self-governing. This was true because pervasive dehumanization sprang from the selfishness, greed, and puritanism of industrialists, distributors, and bureaucrats, rather than from the economic system as such. He claimed that people lived in "the age of irritation" because their potentials had been turned toward destruction rather than creation, thus producing a constant irritation that threatened to create a cancer fatal to civilization. Yet, despite this highly negative assessment of the dominant society, he never really adopted the confrontational, militant style of other agrarians such as Borsodi. Instead, he preferred to withdraw and ally himself with a milder pastoralism, embodied in the language of historian Leo Marx's "middle landscape" and the garden. In farm life, Bromfield found an alternative to the "tyranny" of the industrial world; the simplicity of agricultural work and the inherent integrity and stability of ecological thinking and action provided an antidote to the "poisoning" of the Jeffersonian vision by a modern world seemingly out of control. He ultimately wanted to recapture the panoply of democratic values he attributed to the agrarian communities of Ohio and the Midwest. By focusing on utopian versions of fertile soil and the "good farmer" and updating them to withstand the rigors of modernity, small places would be allowed to transcend the environmental ugliness and social horrors he saw as endemic to commercialized industrialism.7

 

6. Ralph Borsodi was an agrarian distributist and well-known writer in the 1920s and 1930s who promoted suburban homesteads as the best way for people to gain independence and strike a blow against the encroaching industrial society. His best known books were This Ugly Civilization (New York, 1929) and Flight From the City (New York, 1933). Bromfield, A Few Brass Tacks, 2-7; Dewey quoted in Louis Bromfield, Out of the Earth (New York, 1950), 296.
7. Bromfield generally blasted the New Deal on practical issues, not ideological grounds. For example, he liked the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Soil Conservation Service because they did ecologically sound work. See his "New Deal's Social Medicine Plan a Snake- Oil Cure," folder Bromfield, Louis, Box 20, MSS #364, Friends of the Land, Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, Ohio. Anderson, Louis Bromfield, 78-154; Charles E. Little, ed., Louis BromfIeld at Malabar: Writings on Farming and Country Life (Baltimore, 1988); David D. Anderson, "Louis Bromfield's Myth of the Ohio Frontier," The Old Northwest, 6 (no. 1, 1980), 63-74; Louis Bromfield, "I Live on the Edge of Paradise," Saturday Evening Post, 222 (March 11, 1950), 22-23. For the concept of the middle landscape see Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York, 1964). For a positive review of Bromfield's agroecological thinking, but a largely negative glance at his philosophical and utopian stance, see Randal Beeman, "Louis Bromfield versus the 'Age of Irritation'," Environmental History Review, 17 (Spring, 1993), 77-92.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 32

Bromfield believed that he had witnessed the general demise of the Jeffersonian dream during his childhood in Ohio. He attributed this to a diminution of the equanimity and potency of rural culture and the rise of what he considered crass materialism. In response, he wanted to recreate the intimate, warm, if somewhat circumscribed society which had taken its strength from a close relationship with the land and animals. His goal became the reconciliation of traditional rural values with selected techniques of modern, scientific agriculture which emerged after World War II. He sought further to create a home in what he believed was the best of agrarian, rural American society. He identified his agent of utopia in the person of the good farmer-the farmer as artist, conservator, ecologist, and naturalist. He talked about "the good farmer, the real farmer, and not that category of men who remain on the land because circumstance dropped them there and who go on, hating their land, hating their work and their animals .

The good farmer, working with nature rather than fighting or tying to outguess it, would be perfected by healthy soil-nature's fountainhead. The primary utopian characteristic of perfectibility could be approximated by aligning oneself with the principles of ecology and nature. Bromfield sincerely believed that an ideal balance existed in a natural and objective form, and its attainment gave meaning and purpose to human life. People were basically good, but were corrupted by society in their search for that better life. The wayward social order prevented people from realizing the natural laws associated with the good farmer, environmental balance, and small-scale agricultural communities.8

That a real golden age had existed in America, particularly the Western Reserve, Bromfield was quite certain. Simple but strong in its material life, the nineteenth-century agrarian community exuded emotional and psychic richness. Writing during the Depression, Bromfield traced the rise and decline of agrarian civilization to 1914 in The Farm (1933). It was the "story of a way of living which has largely gone out of fashion," although it was a "good way of life." "It has in it two fundamentals which were once and may be again intensely American characteristics. These are integrity and idealism. Jefferson has been dead more than a hundred years and there is no longer any frontier, but the things which both represented are immortal. They are tough qualities needed in times of crisis." Millions of people experienced that time of crisis deeply in the thirties whether they lived on farms or not. But Bromfield believed that the equalitarian agrarian community of semi-autonomous family farms was in the process of breakup even before the Great War. He wrote: "The Farm is a story of

 

8. Bromfield, Out of the Earth, 299; See Louis Bromfield's The Farm (New York, 1933) for his thinly veiled autobiographical fictional account of rural society in the Ohio country.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 33

the pioneers who subdued a great, potentially rich wilderness, and in so doing, came near to destroying its riches." At first, they got it right: "There were no great 'industrial kings' or any 'high-pressure salesmen' or bankers who were 'omnipotent.' There was no overproduction. There was no lack of market. There was no unemployment. There was no starvation." Bromfield's ideal community constituted a "natural" democracy. He likened the good agrarian community to Bronson Alcott's world of utopias: "That solid, prosperous, pathetically idealistic world had curiousity and a touching desire, once so typical of America, to learn, to grow and expand, not in the pocketbook, but in the mind and spirit."9

But then the "religion of business" arrived with its "bottom-line" mentality and dislike of individualism and character-building eccentricity. Bromfield maintained it had always been there, lurking in American history in the form of Hamiltonianism. "I think that if Alexander Hamilton had looked ahead he would have had the American dollar stamped with the motto, 'Nothing succeeds like success.' It lies at the root of the average American's incapacity to understand and appreciate life, of his habit of living always to the limit of his income and often beyond it." Neither spartan nor particularly hedonistic, Bromfield sought an individual and collective life of moderation, in harmony with one's labor, fellow workers, and one's physical and social environment, devoid of those nasty alienating relationships noted by Karl Marx and all subsequent social critics worth their salt. The paradoxical pitfalls of limitless progress dovetailed with the "American passion for speculation, and for the abysmal helplessness of the American in a financial depression-the American who does not own his own home, although he has his automobile-the American without enough saved to support his family for six months." As victims of the new consumer society, people found their ideas of the good perverted because "One has to keep up a false front, and a good many Americans worry themselves into the grave struggling to maintain that bogus facade." Seduced by the proverbial pot at the end of the rainbow, shrewd and exploitative businessmen overtook the agrarian commonwealth and lined the growing urban horizon with industry and smokestacks, the back streets with workers' shacks, and their pockets with special tax breaks and contracts awarded through "back-room deals." Once prosperous farms and villages fell into disrepair and infertility that only pessimistic owners and uncaring tenants could create. Without their real awareness, citizens of the Western Reserve waged an all-out ideological battle between Jeffersonianism and Hamiltonianism, and crass

 

9. Bromfield, The Farm, dedication, x, 69, 59.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 34

commercialism won. "One had to be successful, no matter how success was achieved. One must make money, no matter how one came by it. The only hell was poverty and lack of success, and the only heaven was material."10

For Bromfield, Ohio farming communities, and by implication all American agricultural locales, were dependent on their people and their respect for and knowledge of the land-a symbiotic relationship which existed only within well-established and understood limits. These parameters remained unchanging or, at most, open to only very gradual alteration. Hills and forests, valleys and streams constituted the agrarian garden, which, once "tamed," should remain free from further tampering and exploitation. Disruption of this natural balance would inevitably yield social poverty, both material and spiritual. Seen in this light, agriculture ideally produced a culture of conservation. Of course, not all farmers acted as stewards of the soil, but in the long run, Americans would find their real wealth in the natural abundance of the land; if that capacity ever vanished, industrial and urban civilization would necessarily disappear as well. Bromfield believed that essential balance had been compromised even before World War I; he ended The Farm "on a note of pessimism, regarding the future of agriculture and that note remains because it was authentic and justified in the year 1914."11

By 1945, with the publication of Pleasant Valley, Bromfield's discouragement turned to optimism, "a glowing optimism," concerning the potential of agriculture to regain its ecologically sound and culturally vibrant and socially supportive nature. He wrote in that manner "not from any change in conviction or point of view, but because of the great advances which had taken place and because in the intervening period the science of agriculture has probably made more progress than in all the preceding history of the world." The heart of Bromfield's vision was not dependent on a particular social or economic arrangement, but on the requirements of healthy soil-the interface of the organic and the inorganic. Repeating a phrase made famous by the New Deal soil conservationist Hugh Bennett, Bromfield constantly said that "poor land makes poor people." He believed that poor people would exploit not only the land, but each other as well. He had seen the scarred land of the Great Plains Dust Bowl, and with it, its scarred human occupants. He was convinced that by working with nature, specifically the soil, one could create a whole farm, a whole life, and a whole community. He accepted, along with other "New Agriculture" advocates such as Bennett, journalist

 

10. Ibid., 181-82,177.
11. Ibid., x.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 35

Russell Lord, and organicist Albert Howard, that healthy soil was an integrated community of inorganic and organic elements-gravel, sand, clay, silt, humus, water, microflora, and microfauna. As an early agroecological thinker, Bromfield posited that no single aspect of nature was unrelated; specialization in the extreme led to a dead end. Those who knew how to build, utilize, and maintain fertile soil were those who also knew the path to utopian social constructs. Thus, his thought squared with the notion of changing the environment in order to change people. Social character could be ameliorated through the improvement of the environment. Cooperation with the natural laws embodied in the concept of fertile soil would therefore yield the communitarian harmony he so eagerly sought. 12

"The Plan" for Rural Renewal

In 1939, Bromfield began his quest to prove that a Jeffersonian way of life could be achieved in a manner that all ordinary farmers could duplicate. On Malabar's varied acres of gullied, worn out, Ohio crop, pasture, and timber land, he meticulously transformed the farm into a showplace of fertility and bounty. He demonstrated, along with his assistants, the characteristics of organic order and intentionality by taking individual responsibility for the healing of the land, something he believed existed only for a short time on the Ohio frontier until overtaken by foolish, extractive agricultural methods. Bromfield believed that a perfect natural order already existed within the land, but that it had been sabotaged by greedy, misguided, and ignorant techniques of farming. The natural balance had been disrupted, and he intended to restore it by renewing the soil. "Nature herself, if understood and given co-operation, provides the means of health, productivity, abundance, and fecundity. It is when these laws and balances are outraged that we arrive at disease, sterility, and disaster."13 Bromfield coordinated what was called "The Plan" with his main assistant Max Drake. The first order of business was to stop the soil erosion and heal the gullies. They and some part-time employees hauled tons of topsoil to these washed-out areas, chiefly by means of small

 

12. Ibid., x; Louis Bromfield, "The Task Before Us," Audubon, 55 (January, 1953), 20-22. For Bromfield's admiration of Sir Albert Howard see Russell Lord, The Care of the Earth (New York, 1962), 318. One of Howard's most important works is An Agricultural Testament (London and New York, 1940).
13. Hoy, 64-67. Bromfield, Our of the Earth, 95.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 36

Bromfield was dubbed the "Sinatra of the Soil" for his engaging advocacy of soil conservation. (Photo by Joe Monroe; p400, Ohio Historical Society Collections.)

tractors with rear-mounted dirt buckets. They also adopted experimental agriculturalist Edward Faulkner's system of "trash farming," especially for the most infertile hillsides. This method of renovation involved disking and/or chisel plowing into the soil liberal amounts of lime, manure, and starter fertilizer, plus the existing vegetation. Lime balanced the acidic and alkaline composition of the soil; manure began the renewal of humus; up to 400 Ibs./acre of 3-12-12 commercial fertilizer enabled quick growth of the newly planted cover crop; and the stalks and roots of the existing vegetation produced natural aeration and channels for water percolation and retention. On established fields, all crop residues and green manures (clovers, alfalfa, and alfalfa/grass combinations) were incorporated during the fall, in a kind of sheet-composting action by means of repeated diskings or a couple of passes with a chisel plow. The fields of Bromfield's Pleasant Valley soon changed from anemic plots capable of growing only thin grasses and stubborn weeds, to lush swaths of deep green vegetation. People had called these areas "poor or 'worn-out' when in truth they only appear so because the soil is dead-killed by a bad agriculture which ignored the replacement of organic materials either in the form of green


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 37

manures or of the infinitely more important animal manure."14

Malabar Farm's agriculturalists quickly adopted the waste-fighting methods of the "New Agriculture"-soil conservation techniques, new tillage equipment, soil fertilization and trace elements, and new hybrids, especially in forage crops like nitrogen-fixing alfalfa and high-yielding grasses. Bromfield's interest in high-quality hay and pasture forages grew when he proposed a grass or sod-based agricultural system. Not only would forage crops largely stop soil erosion, but they would also reduce the concentrated labor requirements involved in the autumn harvest of row crops common on America's farms. This system allowed for more hilly and highly erodable land to return to uses better suited to its productive capacity-forest for the steepest ground and pastures for less steep but still erodable land. Malabar's farmers reduced erosion on regular cropland, too, by avoiding the moldboard plow and its way of exposing bare soil. Instead, they used a chisel plow or field cultivator which ripped through the crop, but did not turn over the soil. The sod was allowed to die, and then more or less orthodox methods of seedbed preparation were utilized. This methodology left the soil exposed for a very short period of time before planting. They demonstrated successful use of these techniques through increasing yields of wheat, for example. From five bushels the first year, the yield jumped to twenty the next year, to thirty in the third year, and finally to forty bushels in the fourth year.15

The Plan also called for a program of diversified farming, including a balance between the production of crops and livestock. Bromfield's dairy herd and beef cattle mainly subsisted on dry hay, hay silage, and pasture, but very little grain. These fodder requirements allowed for a diversity of landscapes to flourish as well. Bromfield established productive fields, permanent pastures, rank hay fields, and thick woods, where before only sparse vegetation grew. He also planted filter strips along creeks, and allowed other land to grow up into wildlife areas. In addition, he built ponds, grassed waterways, terraces, and tree-filled drainage outlets. Most of these water-handling designs did their job without the use of underground tiles. Bromfield measured the progress of valley-wide soil and water conservation efforts by observing Kemper's Run, a wild, winding, but clear stream he had played in and around in his youth, but which local farmers had straightened, making it nothing more than an eroded drainage canal. He latched onto a species of willow called Babylonica as the means to heal the scar on the land. "Today the little

 

14. Little, 27-41; Bromfield, Out of the Earth, 61-82, 95; Edward Faulkner, Plowman's Folly (Norman, Okla., 1943).
15. Bromfield, Out of the Earth, 13-58, 59, 60.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 38

stream is rarely discolored save in corn-planting time" and "the flow has been stabilized." "As the springs throughout the watershed come back to life and flow once more, the game fish and the water vegetation are coming back and watercress actually grows again on the riffles."16

The most idealistic part of The Plan was Bromfield's desire for self- sufficiency. To accomplish this, he proposed the proliferation of small- scale projects, including bee hives, goats, sheep, all manner of fowl, and a huge organic garden which yielded so much produce that he needed a roadside stand to sell the surplus. People, impressed with its quality, drove miles out of their way to buy Malabar's produce. Bromfield's philosophy of soil fertility, too, implied that self-sufficiency was possible with the land. Through the use of long-rooted crops like alfalfa and brome grass, "farming from three to twenty feet down" was possible; meaning that these plants would bring up from subsoil depths the basic mineral nutrients necessary for healthy plant growth. Thus fields would be self-renewing if not farmed too intensively. Although there was some scientific data to support his theory on soil fertility, it best illustrated "[his] mystical understanding of farming that defied both rational analysis and textbook farm economics." Bromfield simply observed Nature, and decided largely on the basis of intuition to mimic its ways as much as possible when acting in the role of farmer. 17

Although Bromfield never gave up on the idea that soil could provide most of its own inputs in the long-term, he did put aside most of the small- scale business projects. Farm manager Max Drake convinced Bromfield that he would go broke tying to achieve complete self-sufficiency. Realizing that he could not do it all himself or get enough steady, good help, Bromfield kept the dairy and beef cattle and sold the hogs, chickens, ducks, and most of the other ancillary operations. Even then, he happily put his many houseguests to work preparing vegetables for canning, driving cattle, and stacking hay. Nevertheless, Malabar eventually became a grass and cattle farm-never the self-sufficient farm originally envisioned. Yet, it remained largely organic; herbicides, pesticides, and large amounts of commercial fertilizer were not used. In addition, Bromfield kept the level of mechanization manageable. Tractors were small and the machinery in general was older and inexpensive, except for the key pieces, such as the chisel plows and rotary tillers. In fact, he urged machinery manufacturers to build their field equipment of rugged steel, not cast or gray iron, thus saving farmers countless hours of downtime and

 

16. Bromfield, Out of the Earth, 120-22.
17. Ibid.,99-112;Little,xv.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 39

a large amount of hard-earned cash in broken and bent implements.18

Soon after the institution of The Plan at Malabar, Bromfield, concerned with the financial insecurity, economic instability, and psychological uncertainty of the times, put into place a cooperative plan for the operation and finances of the farm. It combined aspects of capitalism, social planning, and mild collectivism. Malabar employed four full-time men, who with their families lived on the farm in rent-free houses. Additionally, the farm provided them with free food, much of it raised on the farm. They received salaries which were above average, and were guaranteed a share in the farm's profits. Bromfield took five percent off the top as payment for his capital investment. Called "The Boss" by everyone who lived at the farm, Bromfield certainly had the most influence in its administration. His was not the only voice, however, because all the full-time employees contributed their expertise and ideas to the farm's operation and progress. Indeed, Bromfield's top assistant handled most of the day-to-day operations of the farm. But the whole point of Bromfield's endeavor was to align all actions with Nature. Human beings could fix other human's mistakes, but there was no advantage to be gained in taking on Nature. People had created conditions under which good farmers and bad farmers both had lost their land for nonpayment of taxes or mortgages. Almost fixated on the idea of security, Bromfield sought the ultimate in permanency. "Backed by the proper capital, we should never be forced to sell in a bad market in order to pay interest or taxes. We could often enough, be able to deal with the ruinous middleman on our terms and not his."19

This cooperative venture presupposed the concept of brotherhood, which Bromfield believed to be vital to the survival of agrarian traditions in the tough economic times of the 1930s and the global uncertainties of the 1940s. He looked for ways to help young people get started in farming by counteracting its high capital costs. "We sought a way to operate a big farm without dispossessing families . . . . We sought a way of raising the standard of living of all of us on that farm." Bromfield adopted a nominal collectivism mixed with free enterprise, with himself as the capitalist. Indeed, not only did he envision a better social and economic order centered on the pastoral small community, but he moved closer to a utopian perspective based on The Plan. The community was Nature personified; Nature was the model of the ideal community. Nature was small in its locality; it was massive and ubiquitous in its totality; it was

 

18. Anderson, Louis Bromfield, 161; Hoy, 66; Bromfield, Out of the Earth, 263-69. Ellen Bromfield Geld, The Heritage: A Daughter's Memories of Louis Bromfield (New York, 1962), 81-84, offers the most perceptive and best reasons for her father's abandonment of the quest for self-sufficiency.
19. Anderson, Louis Bromfield, 127; Hoy, 66; Little, xvi, 27-41.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 40

extremely powerful in all its manifestations. Here Bromfield demonstrat- ed the ideas of justice and fairness, characteristics typical of the utopian concept of brotherhood. However, his literary biographer, David Anderson, characterized Bromfield as becoming more and more like Jefferson's "natural aristocrat" because of Bromfield's role as leader of the cooperative. Yet, one need not fault Bromfield too much. There is a need for sensitive leaders at most times and in many situations.20

Bromfield respected the inherent dichotomies of human existence, but he thought too much could easily be made of them. He believed that the creative act involved mind, "heart," and body, especially in the realm of agriculture. The resolution and unification of apparent opposites was the point of rural culture and community. There were no artificial or contrived unities as was necessary with industrial pursuits, in which people shaped the environment to their ends, not the ways of Nature. Bromfield reveled in handwork as well as headwork. In his vision and action they blended together as one. Whatever he looked at he tried to envision as a whole, whether it was a landscape, a farm, or a community. "I have worked and suffered . . . in the creation of something . . . -a whole farm, a whole landscape, in which I could live in peace and with pride and which I could share with others to whom it would bring pleasure."21

Bromfield often merged the material and the spiritual in his thought and writings. In a Saturday Evening Post article written in 1950 entitled "I Live on the Edge of Paradise," he extolled the virtues of the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District-a balanced, multi-use flood control project in central Ohio. A devastating flood in 1913 prompted its construction. It consisted of a series of small upstream dams and catchment basins, which Bromfield agreed were better than a few large dams low on the river plus the usual assortment of levies. He favored government involvement for large projects such as the Muskingum complex. During a period of heavy rains in 1947, the Muskingum reservoirs proved their worth by containing potential floodwaters and minimizing downstream damage. This conservation district also created extensive wildlife habitat which Bromfield predicted would pay for itself through increased tourist spending. His commonsense notion of a rural good place was quite evident when he wrote: "The pattern is there-a pattern which any child can understand. Perhaps it is too simple and obvious. More likely it is simply not grandiose enough or futile or expensive enough to merit the interest of most of our planners."22

 

20. Little, 35-36; Anderson, Louis Bromfield, 127.
21. Hoy, 67.
22. Bromfield, "I Live on the Edge of Paradise," 94.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 41

Part of the paradox of Bromfield's thought resided in the simul- taneously held desires of achieving a comprehensive unity in a new social order and realizing the benefits of an experimental attitude. He understood that balance between change and continuity is an issue of paramount importance for any responsible social critic. Planned alterations in the social order could produce extremes of unforeseen change which could veer dramatically from the status quo. But Bromfield's brand of agrarian radicalism tended to be of the self-limiting variety. The Plan writ large would have simply shifted the emphases of American culture back toward a pattern which had already existed. In the process, Bromfield would have amended the Jeffersonian rural community with certain modern advances in both knowledge and technology. For example, he believed in scientific agriculture, but wanted it to support his ideal of rural life, not industrial agriculture and its de facto abandonment of the small community. He dared to be different, go against the American grain, and make that difference mean something. He advocated not a political revolution, but a revolution in the relationship of people to places. Although he eagerly accepted the newest in conservation tillage machinery, he rejected the emerging agricultural trends of buying bigger equipment and the latest in automated feeding systems. He kept his farm machinery as simple and small as realistically possible (his Ford Ferguson tractors produced at best thirty horsepower), because he wanted machinery to serve human beings, rather than people serving machines. With respect to technology, he differed little from the positions taken by others in the small community movement like Herbert Agar, Borsodi, and Baker Brownell. Technology would be simply another piece of culture to be managed, but not manipulated, by human beings within the general guidelines set down by Nature. "I believe that one day our soil and our forests from one end of the country to the other will be well managed and our supplies of water will be abundant and clean .... as God and Nature intended, an abundance properly distributed when man has the wisdom to understand and solve such things."23

Bromfield's experimentalism always centered on the natural balance of organically healthy soil. Although he used commercial fertilizer in "emergency" situations, he raged against those who promoted complete dependence on artificial fertilizers, not so much because of that particular technology's undesirability, but because of its promoters' ideology, which considered the soil as a machine, not as a whole, living thing. Bromfield lashed out at businessmen, agriculture professors, and farmers alike who

 

23. Bromfield, A Few Brass Tacks, 11; Bromfield, Out of the Earth, 297-300; Little, xvii-xix; Bromfield, Pleasant Valley, 300.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 42

advocated the commercial fertilizer theory, labeling them greedy, impatient, ignorant, and arrogant. In Bromfield's view, they sought an improper "short-cut or a means of outwitting nature." He opted for less than maximum production in return for the maintenance of a living soil community of plants, animals, bacteria, fungi, and inorganic constituents. This community was the main focus of his experimentalism. "Many of the greatest contributions to agriculture in our time have not come from the billion-dollar Department of Agriculture nor from the countless colleges of agriculture but from a county agent or a farmer who had the power to observe, the imagination to speculate and the logic to deduce a process from which vast benefits have developed." Despite these criticisms of what later would be known as agribusiness, he was able to establish some working relationships with an assortment of representatives from fertilizer companies, farm machinery corporations, and land-grant university agriculturalists.24

What Bromfield offered was not a revolutionary panacea for all problems, but an essentially conservative pattern for one of the root difficulties of modern times. He thought that the community and that sense of belongingness formerly provided by it were missing from mid- century America. Lack of it produced even more destructive greed, envy, hate, and violence. The soil and landscape of small, local places provided identity and the elusive balance between extreme individualism and complete suffocation of personal autonomy. People needed homes, not just houses; the land would give that if addressed in the proper manner. While reticent about the details of his ideal community, clearly Bromfield accepted the Jeffersonian view of a community composed of hard-working independent farmers, small shopkeepers, and agricultural villages. Not quite that simplistic or naive, Bromfield realized that cities were here to stay, and were not necessarily innately evil or predatory. The publication of Malabar Farm (1948), a record of the successes and failures of the extensive experimental program he carried out, signaled that he had moved beyond the concept of the farm as a Great Depression-induced security blanket, and viewed it as a place to achieve lifelong fulfillment. "In a world and a nation where the opportunities of the Horatio Alger hero become steadily more restricted ... the farm is a good place . . . to find security [and] satisfaction in living."25

Along with those who contributed articles to the decentralist magazine Free America after World War II, Bromfield feared that democracy could not survive in a nation so heavily structured by industrialization,

 

24. Bromfield, Out of the Earth, 14-17, 5, 88.
25. Louis Bromfield, Malabar Farm (New York, 1947), 405.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 43

urbanization, and centralization. Therefore, he, like them, advocated decentralization of industries and cities, not as a panacea but as a way to short-circuit a system which was building up to a potential catastrophe. At times he became shrill and dogmatic when it came to his suggestions for the future of urban areas. "It is time to consider doing away with them [cities], simply as a basis of common sense and social and economic security." Bromfield could be equanimous, however, as when he praised the TVA as a superb example of what could be done to develop both industry and agriculture in a state of peaceful coexistence and symbiosis. Industry did not require huge masses of people living in high-density urban slums. Thus he looked favorably on the planning then being done for a Missouri Valley Authority. Demobilization would go more smoothly and produce more positive repercussions for the future if returning soldiers or disgruntled urbanites could settle on a few acres near a small or medium-sized town and work both at a nearby industry and on their land. "The one activity co-ordinates and guarantees the security of the other and together they provide [them] with economic security and a genuine stake in the economy of the nation." Thus, a modification of the Jeffersonian dream would still be viable and applicable to a nation seemingly in perpetual crisis, uncertainty, and need for security. Bromfield's priorities emerged clearly in two mutually supporting liberties: the "freedom of action" and the "freedom from fear of depressions." The countryside could and should support more people, reducing populations of overburdened cities, and at the same time introducing more people to the greater independence, stability, and abundance possible in well-managed and ecologically oriented agrarian communities.26 Bromfield continued this theme on an international level in his most ambitious socioeconomic work, A New Pattern for a Tired World (1954). Similar to the contemporary notion of bioregionalism, he pointed out the need for an economic revolution which would reconstruct balances within major geographical areas of the world along self-sufficient lines. Each area would work within its natural potential, not according to arbitrary standards of financial theory and economic manipulation. Both industrialized and underdeveloped areas could avoid the "great industrial concentrations and the abnormal conditions which breed not only racketeering and vice but the radical and foreign political ideas." He believed that the peace, abundance, and security existing at Malabar Farm could be transferred to the world at large, thus reducing Cold War levels of fear and conflict. The solution was the "decentralization of industry

 

26. Bromfield, "To Clear the Dross," 196-97.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 44

into smaller communities and rural areas where men can own something, have a stake in the nation and have a reasonably normal life for themselves, their wives and their children."27

Whether on the global or local level, Bromfield most admired those people who were "front line" activists; and, therefore, he disliked bureaucrats and administrators. In his experience, the most productive people in agriculture were the field men of the Soil Conservation Service, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Farm Security Administration, and the County Extension Service. He had high praise for them and their respect for public service. They, in concert with "good farmers" everywhere, would bring about Bromfield's idealistic rural vision. But other officials at higher levels came in for venomous treatment. He labeled Henry Wallace a "phony farmer and scientist"; "no man in the U.S. has less respect from the farmer." While not ready to condemn every single aspect of the New Deal, Bromfield believed that the government's program of farm subsidies did more harm than good. "A subsidized agriculture is necessarily a static agriculture in which subsidies serve mainly to protect and maintain the poor and inefficient farmer or absentee landlord who is always looking toward high prices rather than production per acre to give him economic solidity and prosperity." Farming for the bottom line alone was not farming but the act of a conqueror. As with many outstanding and notable people, life for Bromfield was art, and the good farmer was a kind of artist. He likened the restorer of land to the best of all artists. "The Farmer may leave his stamp upon the whole of the landscape seen from his window, and it can be as great and beautiful a creation as Michelangelo's David, for the farmer who takes over a desolate farm .... and turns it into a Paradise of beauty and abundance is one of the greatest of artists."28

In this vision, farmers played the most important role, the role of caretaker of the land, the human spirit, and the Jeffersonian ideal. Upon these bases then, the community would rest, forever secure in the honor and integrity inherent in the right relationships between soil and farmer. Bromfield was unable to foresee, however, that falling production per acre, the great enemy of the good farmer as he defined it, would be turned around not so much by the type of sustainable agriculture he advocated, but by heavy applications of commercial fertilizer and powerful hybrid seeds. True, soil and water conservation methodology did spread quickly

 

27. Louis Bromfield, "Our Great Stake in Agriculture," Vital Speeches of the Day, 11 (May 15, 1945), 470; Louis Bromfield, A New Pattern for a Tired World (New York, 1954).
28. Bromfield, Out of the Earth, 299; Bromfield to Russ, June 20, 1947, folder-Bromfield, Louis, box 20, MSS #364, Friends of the Land, Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, Ohio; Bromfield, Malabar Farm, 7.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 45

throughout the country, thus stopping the most serious erosion situations; but few farmers adopted Bromfield's pastoral, "disturb the earth the least" ideology. Even though many farmers subsequently adopted conservation tillage methods, they still tended to plant fence row to fence row. Yet, he was correct in his judgment that fully diversified farms of the turn of the century were no longer very viable. Some degree of specialization was necessary for making an adequate living, and that practice would benefit the community in the long run, especially if that specialization was based on the competitive advantages of the locale. Bromfield encouraged the labor exodus from farming, seeing that not everyone could be a good farmer and that bad ones tended to drag their communities down with them. But he underestimated the power of mechanization to force farmers off their land, and thus to depopulate and disrupt their local communities. He had preached his gospel of organic farming and soil conservation to crowds of farmers, scientists, journalists, and assorted visitors from the top of a hill on Malabar Farm dubbed "Mount Jeez"; specifically, he voiced the message that it did not take a fortune to rehabilitate worn-out farms- that ordinary farmers without access to large amounts of capital could replicate what he had done at Malabar. In reality, that did not exactly ring true. American farmers did fulfill Bromfield's hope of producing cheap, bountiful food, but they did it largely with a high-powered, highly capitalized agricultural technique dependent on expensive commercial inputs and a significant degree of government intervention. A society full of rural communities based on small, efficient, low-input, organic farms did not evolve, despite his tireless advocacy through such organizations as Friends of the Land, the National Audubon Society, the Ohio Wildlife Commission, hundreds of articles, and countless speeches. His desired rural renaissance failed to materialize, even as the ideas of ecology and low-input, sustainable agriculture were catching on across most of the nation.29

Bromfield and even some of his reviewers knew he was swimming against the tide, for as The Commonweal's Edward Skillen observed, "To put over a program of such scope and importance, counter to the dominant commercial farming trend in the United States, is enough to ask of any man." Others were reluctant to criticize extensively his work: Myles W. Rodehavor, reviewing Pleasant Valley, said, "It is difficult to submit a book like this to cold, critical analysis, for not many, even reviewers, can read very far into its pages without catching something of the author's enthusiasm for a subject which he has lived." And ecologist Paul Sears

 

29. Bromfield, Out of the Earth, x-xi; Hoy, 67; Beeman, 86.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 46

trumpeted that "those who teach science should read it [Out of the Earth] and ask themselves whether, with all of their technical discipline, they have been imparting as broad a view of the interrelations of nature as this gusty layman, Louis Bromfield." But as Russell Lord, a long-time Bromfield admirer noted, some people saw him as an irresponsible anarchist. Worse, others perceived him as a novelist out of his element who simply made facile statements and pontificated with no thought to reality. For example, the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review unleashed the following diatribe: "Mr. Bromfield's book is a grim warning that the kind of 'thinking out loud' which comes out of the mouths of characters in novels, and in which slovenly speech and slovenly thinking can always be excused on the plea of character delineation, just won't do in a book [A Few Brass Tacks] purporting to tell the public what's what in the world." Nevertheless, in the end, Bromfield won to himself more friends than enemies, and some of his contemporaries even called him the "Sinatra of the Soil" for his unfailing and entertaining advocacy of soil conservation.30

Conclusion

Louis Bromfield's accomplishments and legacy are decidedly mixed. He initially set out to create a "medieval fortress-manor... where a whole community once found security and self-sufficiency." Yet, he later admitted that "the vague and visionary idea I had in returning home seems ludicrous and a little pathetic." Despite not finding exactly what he was seeking, he mused that he had "found something much better-a whole new life, and a useful life and one in which I have been able to make a contribution which may not be forgotten overnight .... And I managed to find and to create .... a beautiful and rich landscape and the friendship and perhaps the respect of my fellow men and fellow farmers." The passage of time has rendered his emphasis on agricultural sustainability no longer radical and utopian. Today's farmers have largely integrated into modern agriculture many aspects of conservation tillage, which owe something to Bromfield's and Edward Faulkner's practices of mulch and trash farming. Consumers are increasingly interested in natural food and organic produce. However, much of the social dimension of Bromfield's modernized

 

30. Edward Skillen, review of Out of the Earth, by Louis Bromfield, in The Commonweal, 52 (April 28, 1950), 73-74; Myles W. Rodehaver, review of Pleasant Valley, by Louis Bromfield, in Rural Sociology, 10 (December, 1945), 441-42; Paul Sears, review of Out of the Earth, by Louis Bromfield, in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, April 2, 1950, 5; Russell Lord, "Louis Bromfield, Pamphleteer," Saturday Review of Literature, 29 (June 22, 1946),17; no author, review of A Few Brass Tacks, by Louis Bromfield, in the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, July 7, 1946, n.p.; Beeman, 87.


Louis Bromfield and the Quest for Rural Community
Page 47

At Malabar, Bromfield found "a whole new life, and a useful life and one in which I have been able to make a contribution which may not be forgotten overnight." (Photo by Joe Monroe; p400, Ohio Historical Society Collections.)

Jeffersonian vision remains unlikely, imaginary, or untested. Farm population continues to decrease, while very small towns fight to remain viable. Nevertheless, several waves of "back-to-the-landers" have adopted the ideas of appropriate technology, balance between urban and rural environments, semi-self-sufficiency, and home production and consumption. After many years of financial instability, Malabar Farm itself has found a long-term home as part of the Ohio state park system. But the cooperative notions of Bromfield, many agrarians, and most small communitarians have languished as desiderata of a small, still somewhat radical minority. Yet the appeal and attraction of the land, soil, and rural community has a perennial quality about it, and so also do the ruralist ideas of Louis Bromfield.31

 

31. Bromfield quoted in Little, 221. Many books appeared in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s which proposed various "looks" at getting back to the land including Helen and Scott Nearing, Living the Good Life (New York, 1954), Bradford Angier, One Acre and Security (New York, 1972), and Gene Logsdon, Homesteading (Emmaus, Pa., 1973).