1927 Pulitzer Prize Review: Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield

Louis Bromfield was a fascinating man. He was an Ohioan by birth who lived as an expatriate in France for many years, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein, before returning to the United States around 1939 to escape the outbreak of World War II. He studied agriculture at Columbia University before embarking on a literary career. With the financial success of his many books, particularly the Pulitzer-Prize winning Early Autumn in 1926, Bromfield purchased nearly 600 acres in North-Central Ohio called “Malabar Farm.” On this land, Bromfield employed many of his organic agricultural interests and techniques, many of which have become en vogue today, such as the avoidance of pesticides. He was an agricultural innovator and conservationist, as well as an early proponent of the idea of “organic” food. Many of his high-profile friends came to visit his farm Ohio. In fact, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married at Malabar Farm in 1945. Bromfield married the daughter of a New York socialite in 1921 and they had three daughters together. Bromfield lived on his Ohio farm until his death in 1956.

Louis-Bromfield-1933 Bogart_Bacall_wedding_1945
(Pictured Right: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s wedding at Bromfield’s farm).

Today, Early Autumn is Bromfield’s best known novel (mainly because it won the Pulitzer Prize). The rest of his best-selling novels have largely been forgotten. In some editions, the subtitle for the first edition of Early Autumn appropriately reads: “A Story of A Lady.”

Early Autumn presents a simple, concise, conservative mystery novel with a slightly dark undertone in effort to echo 19th century Gothic literature (a la the Brontë sisters). In essence, the novel is about the decline of a once great Massachusetts family, the Pentland family. They reside near the fictional town of Durham on vast coastal acreage which is in decay while the familial matriarch, Olivia, bears the weight of her family on her shoulders. She married years ago into the Pentland family and her husband, Anson, now pays little attention to her. He is focused on writing a book called the ‘History of the Pentland Family and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.’ Olivia and Anson have not shared a bedroom in 15 years. Olivia bore two children, one daughter, Sybil, who is married toward the end of the novel, and the other a sickly son, Jack, who tragically dies in the novel, leaving the future of the Pentland family in question. Throughout the book we are slowly introduced to a web of lies and infidelities among the family.

The old patriarch of the Pentland family is John Pentland who spends his time drinking and pretending to care for his ill wife who has apparently gone mad. However, we discover that he has been having an affair with his wife’s care-taker. Mr. Pentland’s nosy sister also lives on the property. As part of the changing demography of the Massachusetts region, Irish Roman Catholics have increasingly migrated to the area, replacing the old Congregational Church of the Pentlands. One such person is Michael O’Hara who is in love with Olivia but she cannot pursue his love out of duty to her husband and the Pentland family. One night, the mad old Mrs. Pentland escapes and starts ranting about a hidden secret in the attic. Olivia pursues Mrs. Pentland and discovers a bundle of letters that detail the origins of the Pentland family, Apparently, the family is not as noble as everyone believes. The name of the old aristocratic family was merely stolen amidst infidelity long ago. In the end, John Pentland kills himself by riding his horse off a ravine and he leaves his whole estate to Olivia to manage the future of the Pentland family.

The plot of Early Autumn takes place over one summer. The title of the book is in reference to the next season of life: the “early autumn” for the Pentland family. What will become of the Pentland family as they move into this next season? Their old way of life is dying and they need to grow and adapt to an uncertain future, a future which rests on the capable shoulders of Olivia.

With Early Autumn, the Pulitzer Prize once again chose to select a moralistic novel, rather than embracing the American literary revolution taking place among the likes of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson and others. The year 1927 was unfortunately another missed opportunity for the Pulitzer Prize.

On The 1927 Pulitzer Prize Decision
In contrast to other early Pulitzer awardees, the nomination of Early Autumn did not set off any kind of critical firestorm. It was a relatively quiet year for the award. The 1927 Novel Jury was composed of returning members: Dr. Richard Burton (Chair), Jefferson B. Fletcher, and Robert M. Lovett.

  • Richard Burton (1861-1940) studied at Trinity College and Johns Hopkins was a professor at Rollins College for many years. In addition to serving on several Pulitzer Juries in the Novel and Biography categories, he also served on the Book and Drama Leagues of America.
  • Jefferson Butler Fletcher (1865-1946) was born in Chicago, served in the American Field Ambulance Services during World War I, and educated at Harvard and Bowdoin College. He was a long-serving professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University (from 1904-1939). He was considered a foremost expert on the Italian Renaissance and Dante, and in his obituary in The New York Times, it was noted that he served on the Pulitzer Novel Jury for “several years.” Sadly, his son died in an automobile accident in 1926, Fletcher also had a daughter.
  • Robert Morss Lovett (1870-1956) was a Bostonian who studied at Harvard. He taught literature at the University of Chicago for many years, he was associate editor of The New Republic, served as governor secretary of the Virgin Islands, and was a political activist –he was accused of being a communist by the Dies Committee which forced him out of his secretary position. He was often on the frontlines of left-leaning picket lines, and helped launch the careers of several young writers, including John Dos Passos. In later years, his wife became a close friend and associate of Jane Addams and the couple lived at Hull House for a spell.

Here are a few memorable passages from the novel:

“There was a ball in the old Pentland house because for the first time in nearly forty years there was a young girl in the family to be introduced to the polite world of Boston and to the elect who had been asked to come from New York and Philadelphia” (opening lines of the novel).

“Rather, it might have been said that the nation had run away from New England and the Pentland family, leaving it stranded and almost forgotten by the side of the path which marked an unruly almost barbaric progress away from all that the Pentland family and the old house represented” (pg. 2).

“‘…I am the same as I always have been, only to-night I have come to the end of say ‘yes, yes’ to everything, of always pretending, so that all of us here may go on living undisturbed in our dream…believing always that we are superior to every one else on the earth, that because we are rich we are powerful and righteous, that because… oh, there is no use in talking…I am just the same as I always have been, only to-night I have spoken out. We all live in a dream here…a dream that some day will turn sharply into a nightmare. And then what will we do?” (pgs 31-32).

“There were no more Pentlands. Sybil and her husband would be rich, enormously so, with the Pentland money and Olivia’s money…but there would never be any more Pentlands. It had all come to an end in this…futility and oblivion. In another hundred years the name would exist, if it existed at all, only as a memory, embalmed within the pages of Anson’s book” (pg 159).

“It was a superb morning – cool for Durham in mid-August – and on the lazy river the nympheas spread their waxy white blossoms in starlike clusters against a carpet of green pads. It was a morning made for delights, with the long rays of the rising sun striking to silver the dew-hung spider-webs that bound together the tangled masses of wild grape vines…” (pgs 175-176 -Olivia and Michael O’Hara bump into each other out in the countryside one summer morning).

Bromfield, Louis. Early Autumn: A Story of A Lady. New York, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1926.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s