1927: Early Autumn, by Louis Bromfield

Literary Style:

I know I’d suggested there would be another post before this review, but I got swept up in the book and raced to the finish (being home sick plays a role in that, I think).  There’s a lot to say about where the book took me in the end, but I’ll try to keep it at least relatively brief.

Bromfield is very good at a lot of things, which makes the book a really excellent reading experience.  He’s at his best, I think, in long conversations between two characters, in which both are saying things that are difficult to say.  That sense of breathlessness, of revelation and reluctance, is really well developed.  His one drawback here, which I’ve mentioned before, is that Bromfield has a tendency to show rather than tell, at times—he doesn’t always do the work he needs to do to make it clear that someone is behaving out of character, or to reveal a side of someone that they would rather have kept hidden.  And so he ends up telling us that this is happening, or that a character notices it…not terrible, but certainly worse than letting us see and feel it ourselves.

And in many other ways this book is also a real work of art—characters are not, in fact, what they seem to be, and yet they feel very real throughout.  The plot moves rapidly and in ways not always easy to anticipate.  There is a real richness to Olivia Pentland, in particular, and Bromfield really gives her a full range of emotions and impulses that makes it wonderful to stay at her side through some very difficult patches.

In the end, the book has much more to say than I would have expected about duty, and about belief, and love (in a strange way).  By the end of the book, despite my certainty that this was a story about Olivia and Michael O’Hara (the man who loves her), or Olivia and Anson Pentland (her cold yet possessive husband), it seems it was a story about Olivia and her father-in-law, John Pentland.  Bromfield lures you in with the promise of a romance, but he’s after something much harder to put into words than that.  He makes it seem obvious, at the beginning, that this is an old and withered family, and that the outsiders in this place are much better and wiser people than the dusty old Pentlands…but in the end Bromfield lays that bare, also.

I liked that approach, personally—Olivia, in the end, finds herself to be a different person than she might’ve guessed along the way.  She certainly finds herself with a different impression of the people around her, even those people she was most certain in her judgments about.  I like the fact, perhaps most of all, that I could not remotely guess what would have happened next, if the novel had gone on even one more page, and yet I reach the end with a strange sense of hope.  Strange, I think, in part because there is something happy about death in the book—death being preferable to an existence characterized, as Bromfield says at one point, by “living only through watching others live”.  I don’t want to overinterpret the book’s title, but I wonder if there is a way to see this as an inevitable Autumn that comes before the Spring—a dying that is better than clinging to life because the death clears the world for what will come, and provides ground in which to be reborn.

This book isn’t, in the end, a masterpiece like Wharton’s novel (that still ranks, for me, atop the Pulitzer pile), but I think it does more than any book I’ve yet read to confront what it is that America was losing in the 20th Century, and how it was deceiving itself as it turned slowly into modernity.  This is not the whole picture, of course—there are many wonderful things ahead, in 1927—but what was lost is something that is too easy to worship (as Tarkington does) or to dismiss (as someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald did, I think), and Bromfield finds the right tone in seeing it for what it was, and why it would die.  A very lovely story, in the end, and a melancholy one—but beautiful even in its sadness.

Historical Insight:

As I just noted, this book does a wonderful job of getting into the reality of a fading “high society” and the rise of whatever the 1920s would bring.  The book, in a sense, picks up where The Age of Innocence left off, exploring the lives of old people who feel they missed their chances at love, and the younger generation whose passion runs away with them.  It does a better job with the old folks than the young—I wouldn’t read this book to explore “what it was like to be a flapper”—but it’s so good with those older generations that it’s well worth the read, independent of plot and style, for a chance to see into a fading New England village, and the dying old family that sees it as their birthright.

Review:

I have to give this a “you ought to read this book”.  It’s not quite as definitive as The Age Of Innocence, which I (as I recall) said you really had to read, no excuses allowed.  It’s a very good book, but no one would mistake this novel for “The Great American Novel”…it stumbles often enough to show Bromfield’s limitations, though thankfully it doesn’t stumble often.  I’d rank it, though, in the top 3 of the Pulitzers I’ve read, and perhaps at #2—I hope some of you read it, and comment here, as I’d love to hear other takes on the book.  I may be a little too taken with old New England families, after all!

The Last Word:

Bromfield leaves many excellent passages at the end of the book, but I think it’s best to finish with a piece of a strained conversation between Olivia and her husband, Anson.  Many things have happened which I’m reluctant to reveal (lest I spoil the plot), but I can at least give this much context—the family has been through a very difficult time, there’s a sense that scandal (of one type or another) may ruin them entirely, and Anson’s worldview is being thoroughly challenged by his wife, as we see here (all the ellipses . . . are in the original):

“Let’s leave the gentleman out of it, Anson,” she said.  “I’m weary of hearing what gentlemen do and do not do. I want you to act as yourself, as Anson Pentland, and not as you think you ought to act.  Let’s be honest.  You know you married me only because you had to marry someone . . . and I . . . I wasn’t actually disreputable, even, as you remind me, if my father was shanty Irish.  And  . . . let’s be just too.  I married you because I was alone and frightened and wanted to escape a horrible life with Aunt Alice.  . . . I wanted a home.  That was it, wasn’t it?  We are both guilty, but that doesn’t change the reality in the least.  No, I fancy you practised loving me through a sense of duty.  You tried it as long as you could and you hated it always.  Oh, I’ve known what was going on.  I’ve been learning ever since I came to Pentlands for the first time.”

He was regarding her now with a fixed expression of horrid fascination; he was perhaps even dazed at the sound of her voice, slowly, resolutely, tearing aside all the veils of pretense which had made their life possible for so long.  He kept mumbling, “How can you talk this way?  How can you say such things?”

Slowly, terribly, she went on and on: “We’re both guilty . . . and it’s been a failure, from the very start.  I’ve tried to do my best and perhaps sometimes I’ve failed.  I’ve tried to be a good mother . . . and now that Sybil is grown and Jack . . . is dead, I want a chance at freedom.  I’m still young enough to want to live a little before it is too late.”

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5 comments on “1927: Early Autumn, by Louis Bromfield

  1. Diablevert says:

    Our essential difference on Bromfield, it seems to me, is that I think he’s full of it and you don’t. (Penny has much more of a soft spot for him than I.) Passages like Olivia’s dialogue above….to me they read very stagy in a very old fashioned way. Not that everybody has to be a Hemmingway, and there’s a certain aricificliaty to all dialogue in novels, to be sure….but yeah, when I read the above I don’t picture the real world, I picture some black-and-white 30s costume drama, with Kathrine Hepburn turning to grip the paper-mache balustrude and looking off wistfully into the middle distance as she launches into a lock-jawed soliliquey. The Barretts of Wimpole Street, or something. I don’t think what he’s describing is authentic, I think he’s carefully constructed a strawman setting so he can knock it down. As Penny and I discussed in one of our chats, there’s little slippages in the detail there…I doubt whether the man had ever been to New England, much less knew the millieau of a stiltified, old-money family that was besties with the Transcandentalists.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for your perspective, Diablevert—I guess you’re right, since I don’t think Bromfield is full of it. And maybe I’m okay with Olivia being a little bit Katherine Hepburn…I can understand the stagy quality you see there. The overuse of ellipses (a real fault of Bromfield’s) doesn’t help. But it felt genuine to me given the setting, given especially the stagy quality that the Pentlands have because of who they are. They’ve been actors all their lives, in a sense, and they see their decline and fall in fairly dramatic terms. It’s a bit overwrought of them, I suppose, but it also works for me in connection with the larger themes of the novel.

      You and Penny do make some good points about New England—I’m not familiar with N.E. personally, but after reading your comments to each other, I have to admit you make a good case that he didn’t know the society very well. I think he covers for it better than you think he does, but I can’t really say why….it just didn’t feel disconnected for me.

      Anyhow, thanks for your insights (as always), and for providing me with a string of fun and interesting posts to read once I’d finished the novel! I like the conversational approach you two have taken with recent books, and I hope it continues.

  2. […] that I hadn’t already covered in a slightly more rural high-income old New England family in Early Autumn, or in a more or less equally high-income old family in New York in The Age of Innocence, but there […]

  3. […] traveled to Hollywood, became even more well-known, and made a small fortune. His third novel, Early Autumn, published in 1926, won the Pulitzer Prize for […]

  4. […] traveled to Hollywood, became even more well-known, and made a small fortune. His third novel, Early Autumn, published in 1926, won the Pulitzer Prize for […]

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