B-Sides: Louis Bromfield’s “Pleasant Valley”

“What I wanted was a piece of land which I could love passionately, which I could spend the rest of my life in cultivating.”

As a quintessential interwar American expat, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Louis Bromfield palled around with Edith Wharton, John Dos Passos, and Gertrude Stein, among others. And yet he eventually opted for the French countryside instead of Paris’s Rive Gauche. Bromfield lived, wrote, and farmed a few acres of land in Senlis, an ancient village north of Paris. There he entertained aristocrats, movie stars, and fellow farmers and cultivated a lavish garden, along with a deep and enduring connection to the soil he tilled. Unlike his friends who were members of the Lost Generation, Bromfield, in the country, crafted his own sense of what a found generation might be: one that is settled instead of adrift; one that is rooted instead of directionless; one that has a sense of attachment seldom found in the city.

Later, after France, Bromfield found what he was looking for in a rather unlikely place: in the soil of an old, worn-out farm in Ohio. His 1945 memoir, Pleasant Valley, offers lyrical reflections on his quest to cultivate a modest, “satisfactory life” from the 1,000 acres of overworked Ohio farmland he bought after leaving France. He explains:

I knew that permanence, continuity, alone was what I wanted, not the glittering life of New York and Washington, not the intellectual life of universities. What I wanted was a piece of land which I could love passionately, which I could spend the rest of my life in cultivating, cherishing and improving, which I might leave together, perhaps, with my own feeling for it, to my children who might in time leave it to their children, a piece of land upon which I might leave the mark of my character, my ingenuity, my intelligence, my sense of beauty—perhaps the only real immortality man can have.

Bromfield sets an intention, before “living intentionally” was a thing. And Pleasant Valley offers an inward glimpse of his ambitious mission.

The book, as Bromfield describes it, offers “a personal testament written out of a lifetime by a man who believes that agriculture is the keystone of our economic structure and that the wealth, welfare, prosperity and even the future freedom of this nation are based upon the soil.” In it, he details his daily work of tending to the depleted soil, nurturing his crops, and developing bold philosophies on sustainable agriculture.

Yet Bromfield insists that Pleasant Valley is not written for agricultural experts. Instead, the book is for “the average reader who does not know too much about the earth and what goes on in it and above it.” Written years before celebrated authors like Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver popularized agriculture writing, Pleasant Valley initiates Bromfield’s pivot away from the fictional narratives and screen adaptations he penned in the early 1920s and 1930s, and toward his lasting concentration on nonfictional prose.

The most obvious reason why readers and scholars overlook Bromfield makes up the very theme of “Pleasant Valley.” Simply put, the author came to prefer farming over fame.

My hometown of Mansfield, Ohio, is known for two things: as the primary filming site of The Shawshank Redemption and as the birthplace of Bromfield. If you ever find yourself in Mansfield, only one of these two facts would be very clear to you: there are tours of the old Reformatory prison building, a Shawshank trail, and themed souvenirs (prison bar of chocolate, anyone?).

Bromfield’s legacy isn’t celebrated here with themed candy. Indeed, any local fame he has is only vaguely traced to his writing. Instead, he is remembered as the caretaker of the nearby Malabar Farm, a rural oasis nestled in a picturesque region known as Pleasant Valley.

Now a sweeping state park and living museum, Malabar Farm was once an exhausted parcel of land that Bromfield helped resuscitate. When he wasn’t farming and writing there, he was entertaining his many celebrity friends. In fact, it was where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall married and honeymooned. While Malabar Farm is a popular day trip for many in northeast Ohio, few locals have actually picked up a Bromfield book.

It has always puzzled me why Bromfield, as a writer, has largely been forgotten. After all, he won the Pulitzer for his novel Early Autumn, published in 1926, the same year his friend Ernest Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises. Bromfield wrote 30 novels—including The Green Bay Tree (1924), Twenty-Four Hours (1930), and The Man Who Had Everything (1935)—most of which were best sellers, and several of which were adapted into successful films. Chances are good that your local or university library will have a few old Bromfields tucked away somewhere. Even so, today only a single, regional press prints his work.

The most obvious reason why readers and scholars overlook Bromfield makes up the very theme of Pleasant Valley. Simply put, the author came to prefer farming over fame.

Pleasant Valley is at once a modest and an arduous book, somewhere between Walden and A Moveable Feast, with Midwestern modernist influences of Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, and Sinclair Lewis. Peppered with hometown folklore, ghost stories, and pages of unexpected technical farm jargon, Pleasant Valley apparently befuddled readers and reviewers who had grown accustomed to Bromfield’s lightweight and breezy best sellers, which tended to focus on American life, tradition, and family. As one critic put it, “No doubt his numerous readers, the world over, will buy it and read it; but one cannot help wondering what they will make of it.”

Yet there’s something unusually satiating and visionary about the book. It unveils the romantic qualities of farm labor, without romanticizing it. It celebrates hard work, without being patronizing. It makes you want to get dirt under your nails.

Bromfield’s vision comes most alive to me when he contemplates not just the soil that needs to be tilled, but the home that needs to be created. “The Big House” comes with a pointed disclaimer: “A chapter to be skipped by those who have no interest in architecture.” Yet I enjoyed this chapter, in the same way I savor home-renovation shows: it helped me experience the planning, the work, and the outcome of a home-revitalization project, without the cost and sawdust.

Bromfield painstakingly describes his dream farmhouse, a home he wants to “create rather than build.” This house celebrates an aesthetic that he calls “the New England style of northern Ohio”: a blend of English Georgian architecture with Swedish and Danish influences and a French sensibility. What results is a bright white, 19-room Greek Revival–style farmhouse with a Kelly green roof that still stands today.

The passions of home generally, of Ohio specifically, of soil conservation, and of making something intentional and sustainable punctuate every page of “Pleasant Valley.”

Bromfield spends two whole pages carefully describing the specific criteria for his home office: “Plenty of wall space for books and plenty of space for a giant desk and room for five or six dogs,” with additional space “for seeds and farm books and pamphlets, for both country and city clothes, for the pruning shears and saws and trowels that were my personal property, and room for the vast accumulation of photographs, souvenirs, posters, letters, etc.” Bromfield designs the ultimate multipurpose room: “It had to be a bedroom, a farm office, a study, a workroom, a sitting room,” one that could accommodate furniture where “a tall man could lie on the base of his spine and where you could talk for hours undisturbed with friends about farming or politics or international affairs.”

This textual blueprint reflects Bromfield’s broader vision of what he desires Malabar Farm to be: cluttered, vast, and shared. The architectural and aesthetic styles of houses, according to Bromfield, “should be the expression of the people who live in them. They should belong to people, not to communities.” However, houses, particularly his house, should also “be used not only by ourselves but by friends and neighbors as well, and by generations after we are dead.”

This sentiment, to me, is what rescues Bromfield from being just some rich guy telling fancy farmhouse stories. He convincingly describes his sense of obligation to the environment and to community. These beliefs come alive in his prophetic wish that his house might one day “belong to the state together with the hills, valleys and woods of Malabar Farm.”

Above all, Bromfield’s most enduring legacy is his innovative, sustainable agricultural practices. He was an early advocate for no-till farming, organic and self-sustaining gardening, and “collective” or co-op land management. These passions—of home generally, of Ohio specifically, of soil conservation, and of making something intentional and sustainable—are the sentiments that punctuate every single page of Pleasant Valley.

Unlike his crowd-pleasing novels, Bromfield’s Pleasant Valley is no page-turner. Nor is it a beach read, or a before-bed book. Rather, it is a book of chapters to be read singly or in small bundles—something to consume with your morning coffee or at your desk at lunch. Read it when you have 15-minute chunks of time that you don’t want to waste by scrolling through your phone.

You could also enjoy it in accordance with the seasons. Instead of (or in conjunction with) the obligatory apple-picking trip in autumn, you might peruse a chapter about Bromfield’s great-aunt Mattie. Her father apparently saved and dried seeds for his frequent overnight visitor, Johnny Appleseed.

Or, instead of yet another true-crime Netflix binge, you might read Bromfield’s account of the legend of Ceely Rose. This “dim-witted girl” had a mother, father, and brother who thwarted a love interest of hers. So Rose decided to murder them by “soaking the arsenic out of flypaper” and mixing it into their cottage cheese.

Pleasant Valley is charmingly nostalgic, yet offers environmental commentary that is timely and urgent. Bromfield’s writing will appeal to lovers of regional writing, unconventional memoirs, and mid-century modernity in literature. Most of all, it is a book to read when you miss home, whatever and wherever that may be. icon

Featured image: Malabar Farm welcome sign at the intersection of Pleasant Valley Road and Bromfield Road, in Monroe Township near Lucas, Ohio (2008). Photograph by OHWiki / Wikimedia Commons