Chapter 5: “Early Autumn” by Louis Bromfield (1927)

“He had a feeling that somewhere in the course of her life something had happened to her, something terrible which in the end had given her a great understanding and clarity of mind. He knew, too, almost at once, on the day she had driven up to the door of the cottage, that she had made a discovery about life which he himself had made long since . . . that there is nothing of such force as the power of a person content merely to be himself, nothing so invincible as the power of simple honesty, nothing so successful as the life of one who runs alone. Somewhere she had learned all this. She was like a woman to whom nothing could ever again happen.”

Five novels down, and I think I’m just starting to attain the level of commitment necessary to finish this project. As my brother in arms, Joshua, said to me today, “This Pulitzer project is a true test of endurance my friend.” Amen to that. I didn’t really suppose that this project would be particularly easy, but I also didn’t think it would be this difficult.

I mean—I am a reader. For all intents and purposes, I am a reader by trade. I read my way through childhood and high school to keep me occupied, I read my way through college in order to graduate and my goal has been to make reading my profession. That being said, I guess I kind of assumed that this project wouldn’t be such a chore. What I didn’t take into account, however, was that there would be some books along this journey that I really don’t have any interest in at all. Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter and Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, as has been well documented, were dreadful bores and, to be entirely forthcoming, so was my most recent reading, Louis Bromfield’s Early Autumn.

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Now, even though I wasn’t very taken by this book, I wouldn’t ever say, “It’s not a good book,” because, in all honesty, it is a good book. It’s very well written and the subject matter is of great interest. It’s just that I had a difficult time getting into it.

For one thing, most of the characters in the book were entirely one-dimensional. There were a couple of exceptions of course, like Olivia, Michael O’Hara and, eventually, John Pentland, but the others were so drab and dull. Even in their most exciting moments, I wasn’t particularly enthralled with them. This book reminded me of something John Lennon once said about the Bible: “Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.” It was the other characters in this book that I think made Olivia so intriguing—if it wasn’t for their mediocrity and lack of character development, Olivia probably wouldn’t have been so interesting. It really seemed as though she was the only one throughout the entire book that had any real conflicts about anything; everyone else had a set opinion or feeling about such and such and that’s the way they were throughout the entire book despite whatever situation they were in. Aunt Cassie was shallow and concerned with image; Sabina was vindictive and completely against the establishment the wealthy had created; Sybil was the dreamer that longed to see the world; Jean de Cyon was the young, hopeless romantic Frenchman and these personality traits defined the characters throughout the entire book. They were completely one-dimensional.

And, of course, with Sabine and Sybil, I quite liked their personalities. But one worthwhile quality does not a good character make.

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And, just like The Magnificent Ambersons, Early Autumn was really nothing more than a long-winded narrative about High Society. I commented to Josh yesterday, while I was still trudging through Chapter 7, “With all this shit, there has to be a story here somewhere.” Throughout the first seven or eight chapters, I must confess, I really didn’t know what was going on. Maybe I was reading through too quickly, maybe I was just reading for the sake of reading and not really getting the full scope of what Bromfield was trying to convey, or maybe I was too distracted by the density of the text, but I really didn’t see any overarching plot in the book. There were a lot of subplots going on—I was able to pick those out pretty easily: a couple of deaths, a love scandal, an affair or two, family rivalries, etc., etc.. It almost seemed as though the subplots were actually driving the story. I suppose one could say that the plot of the story was Olivia’s eventual disenfranchisement with High Society, but, to me, were this any other book written by any other author, this would seem more like a subplot.

Fellow readers, help me out on this one: is there something blatantly obvious that I’m missing or is Bromfield just another case of a fantastic writer suffering from a bad story?

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 5: “Early Autumn” by Louis Bromfield (1927)

  1. It seems we part ways a bit on this novel, though I can understand where you're coming from! I thought there was more dimension than you did — not the young lovers (who really seem to be there as symbols more than anything else), but Aunt Cassie and Sabine I thought got more complex as time went on, and Olivia's opinions of them gradually turned.Your comment about "there has to be a story here somewhere" is, in my experience, really typical of the 1920s novels. Few of them identify a clear objective in the first chapter or two to help you know what to pay attention to, and what not (though the one I'm currently reading, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, manages it). In some ways, I think we're hindered by the Pulitzers picking series novels — both of the novels you've just read (this and Ambersons) are the second novel in a series (a trilogy for Tarkington….I hear it's a quartet for Bromfield? you even have two of the other novels in that edition, I believe!). Maybe it would be easier to know what counted having read the novel preceding it….not that you (or I) have time for that!I'd say more in an effort to "help you out", as requested, but I'm not sure my liking for Early Autumn is something I can argue. I just _did_ like it — the symbolism in her "garden seduction" by O'Hara, the way we only slowly learn who John Pentland is over the course of the whole book, how Olivia comes to terms with herself and the family, etc. — and would have a tough time making the case that the novel "matters". If you have time and haven't read it yet, my review on my blog (and the last post or two preceding it) offers some of my case for the book. But ultimately I wouldn't go to the wall for this book in the way I would for, say, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence.Good luck finding a new course for the project in the short term! I look forward to seeing you again when you dip back into the first decade. 🙂

  2. Keep chug chug chugging along! I admire the determination despite the experience of the past few novels for you. Once a book nose dives to boring or "one dimensional", I have trouble finishing it.

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