Author Stephen Heyman was foraging for a story when he unearthed the name of Louis Bromfield, an early 20th-century novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner who abandoned his literary career in favor of farming, becoming a pioneer of the organic movement.
It was 2015, and Heyman, a former New York Times staffer, had recently moved to Pittsburgh. His wife was pursuing a doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University and Heyman, 36, was looking for a chance to learn the area, so he headed out to the Laurel Highlands with the intention of pitching his former paper on a travel piece.
“I found this lamb farm called Jamison Farm, which is famous among people in the sustainable agriculture world, and I went out there and interviewed John Jamison and his wife, Sukey, and at some point in the interview they mentioned Bromfield,” recalled Heyman.
After returning home to his Squirrel Hill rental, the former Florida native Googled Bromfield and quickly fell down a rabbit hole of hyperlinks, old writings and unanswered questions.
Bromfield had been a critically acclaimed, award-winning novelist. He lived in Paris for a while, associating with Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and other members of the Lost Generation, but eventually gave up that life to focus on sustainable farming.
“I just got very captivated by his story,” said Heyman, a former features editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine, who, like Bromfield, lived in Paris.
As a student at Brandeis University, Heyman had studied in the French capital. He returned there after graduation for two years to work as a foreign reporter and for his wife to pursue a professional opportunity.
Heyman wrote an article for The Times in 2016 based on his research but didn’t mention Bromfield’s name.
“I immediately saw that I wanted to do it as a biography. I didn’t want to write a kind of article, which would then be the basis of the book,” said Heyman, whose byline has appeared in Slate, Vogue and The Wall Street Journal. “I felt like his story was so weird and it was kind of split between these two somewhat divergent worlds.” Bromfield required “a book-length treatment in order to make any sense.”
On April 14, W.W. Norton & Company released Heyman’s work, “The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution.”
“Nothing has given me more pleasure or satisfaction in my work life than working on this book,” Heyman said.
The author was set to promote his book when the pandemic hit. A tour with events including an April 16 evening at Carnegie Library in Oakland through Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures had to be postponed. In the meantime, Heyman is sharing the story of Bromfield through interviews and short published pieces.
Bromfield had a “surprisingly interesting” relationship to Jews, Heyman told the Chronicle.
Bromfield “dabbled in a lot of casual anti-Semitism, but as time went on, and he became friendly with Jewish writers like Gertrude Stein and Edna Ferber, his attitudes changed completely.”
Eventually, through connections with British politicians, and Peter Bergson, a Lithuanian-born Jewish secret agent sent to the United States from Palestine by the Irgun, Bromfield became a supporter of Zionism and an advocate for the protection of the Jewish people. In 1943, Bromfield sent a telegram to Eleanor Roosevelt criticizing the lack of urgency taken by democratic forces against the Nazis’ immediate “threat to annihilate the Jewish people of Europe.”
Heyman discovered the telegram at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, and said that finding it was “insane.”
“I mean, that’s one of the beautiful exciting things about biography, the chase and the discovery of things that aren’t previously known or well-known.”
Heyman is now contemplating his next project while working to promote “The Planter of Modern Life” to “whoever is listening,” he said. “I think a lot of authors feel that they’d love for the work to speak for itself, but you kind of need to get out there and sell your story, which is uncomfortable for us but necessary.”
In a sense, it’s tireless work, but so too are the undertakings of a farmer, wrote Bromfield in “From My Experience,” a 1955 memoir: “Daily life on a living farm with its countless facets, its daily crises, its seasonal changes, resembles very closely the pattern of this book — a record of ups and downs, which must be taken, if at all, as they come.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.