The distinguished novelist and conservationist Louis Bromfield published his first novel, The Green Bay Tree, ninety years ago on March 18, 1924. It was the first in a tetralogy (a collection of four works) examining the lives of people, principally women, as they strive to find some kind of steady ground on which to stand in a world of materialism, corruption, and shoddy values. They also concern the conflicts between people concerning tradition, and the traditions of the places where they live, and the opportunities provided by modern life. Bromfield followed The Green Bay Tree with Possession (1925), treating the life of one of the characters from The Green Bay Tree, a pianist; Early Autumn (1926), and A Good Woman (1927).
Bromfield was born near Mansfield, Ohio on December 27, 1896. He was educated in local schools and later attended Cornell. He served during the First World War as a U.S. Army ambulance driver, then worked in publishing and as a book reviewer before the release of The Green Bay Tree. Later in the 1920s Bromfield moved his family to France and continued writing novels, some of which were adapted for the screen.
With the threat of war looming, Bromfield returned to the U.S. and purchased several worn-out adjoining farms in his native Richland County and began work restoring the land. His farm became known as Malabar Farm, and he wrote a number of books about the life and operations of the farm, becoming as well known as a spokesman for agrarian life and values as he was a novelist. Celebrities often visited the farm, and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married there in May of 1945. The farm is now Malabar Farm State Park.
The Green Bay Tree concerns a mysterious house on a hill called “Shane’s Castle” and the women who live there: Julia, the widow of John Shane, who became wealthy selling land for the factories that now surround the castle; Lily, a daughter who will leave the town for a more uninhibited life in Paris; and Lily’s sister Irene, who turns to religious asceticism in response to the events around her. Another important character is a cousin named Ellen Tolliver, a talented pianist who becomes the subject, as noted above, of Bromfield’s second novel, Possession.
There is tension between the Shane women and people in town. Julia Shane refuses to sell a piece of property for a railroad station, and is treated with hostility in town for what she feels if her adherence to older values (although the Shane wealth is built on earlier, similar transactions). Lily seduces the state’s governor at a party and becomes pregnant, fleeing to Paris for a life free of the town and its culture, although she will eventually return home and understand there is no escaping the forces of the modern world.
I don’t want to say too much as I hope this blog and anniversary-related posts such as these might inspire readers to pursue these books. But it’s safe to say there’s a complicated train of events in the novel highlighting Bromfield’s theme of tradition versus the forces of modern life, and the challenge of accommodating change in ways that respect human dignity and values. It’s a theme that echoed in Bromfield’s life as well—he sought in Malabar Farm a way of life that was in accordance with the rhythms of nature and grounded in humane values, an existence that stood in contrast to the chaos of the twentieth century.
The Green Bay Tree by Louis Bromfield. Reprinted by The Wooster Book Company, Wooster, Ohio, 2002.
Louis Bromfield by David D. Anderson. Twayne’s Publishers, Inc., New York, 1963.