The Farm: Narrative Without a Story

Frontpiece of The FarmBased in part on author Louis Bromfield’s own family history, The Farm is an unsatisfactory novel. Crowded with characters and brimming with anecdotes, many of which seem worthy of being turned into a novel, the book doesn’t succeed in melding them into more than the sum of its parts.

The story begins in 1815. Colonel MacDougal a Maryland aristocrat “sick of dishonesty and corruption and intolerance and all the meanness of civilization and of man himself ” arrives in Ohio to establish a farm and a new life.

As the Colonel arrives a Jesuit priest leaves, marking the end of the French missionary work among the Native Americans, and a Massachusetts peddler arrives, marking the start of the commercialization of rural America.

Bromfield uses the memories and experiences of one of the Colonel’s great grandsons, Johnny, to thread together the story of the rise of towns and decline of farms up to World War I. Unfortunately, Johnny never really comes alive as a person. He’s just a device.

Bromfield’s real hero is the farm itself, and even that is largely symbolic. Johnny’s grandfather explained its importance:

Some day…there will come a reckoning and the country will discover that farmers are more necessary than traveling salesmen, that no nation can exist or have any solidity which ignores the land. But it will cost the country dear. There’ll be hell to pay before they find it out.

The Farm is worth reading for social history and cultural perspective, but it’s not worth reading today as a novel.

Slaves being conducted through the farm to freedom in Canada
The farm was stop on the Underground Railroad
The Farm
By Louis Bromfield
Illus. Kate Lord
Introduction by Winfield H. Rogers
Harper & Brothers, 1946
346 pages
1933 bestseller #9
My grade: C+

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Raintree County Is Impenetrable

Ross Lockridge Jr.’s Raintree County is one of the best novels you will never read. It’s only for the literati or readers serving consecutive life sentences.

This magnum opus — it’s over 1000 pages — follows John Wickliff Shawnessy from dawn to midnight July 4, 1892, weaving John’s memories and musings into the record of the county’s holiday celebration.

John was born in 1839 in Raintree County, Indiana. Before he was out of his teens, the entire county knew he was destined for greatness. He’d be a great runner, or great poet, or great politician.

His greatness never materialized.

At 43, John is principal of the local school. He lost his bid for Congress and has never finished his epic poem on the origins of the American republic. But he’s had some incredible adventures.

Throughout the day, John muses over his personal failures and wonders about the future of America and the human race. He reaches the conclusion that he’s a dreamer, but that dreaming is a lovely, courageous act.

Even with the chronologies Lockridge provides so readers can untangle the history, Raintree County is a tough slog. John is too intellectual to be attractive, and the novel is too literary to be entertaining.

Raintree County
By Ross Lockridge Jr.
Houghton Mifflin, 1948
1,060 pages
Bestseller # 7 for 1948
My Grade: B
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni