I picked up Mrs. Parkington (1942) by Louis Bromfield at a thrift store some years ago. My copy is a first edition, but after reading this one, I’m pretty sure it isn’t really worth anything. I first started reading it a few years ago. After I got through the first page, I thought, “This book is going to be good. I’m going to savor it. I want to read it later when I have time to enjoy it leisurely.” I didn’t get back to it until a few weeks ago.
Yes, the first page was good. This book is the type and style of writing I enjoy: realistic twentieth century fiction. However, it went quickly downhill. While it certainly was fun to read, and while I loved some of the characters, I could tell exactly why this one was a thrift-store find and not on any of the literature lists I’ve read during my college education. It is popular fiction. It is dramatic. It is disjointed. It isn’t great literature, but that’s okay.
The story is of 84-year-old Mrs. Parkington, a wealthy widow in New York City with many annoying relatives. She is the matriarch, and she must deal with all of their problems. She is approached early in the book by a grandson-in-law named Amory, who has swindled all of his clients of their fortunes and is begging her for financial help so he can avoid prison time. He’s the Bernie Madoff of the book.
This privileged, foolish, and arrogant grandson by marriage reminds Mrs. Susie Parkington of her husband Gus. The novel visits her earlier years, telling us that she began as the daughter of innkeepers in the western United States, where she knew about horses, sunsets, and mining. Gus found her there, and when her parents died in a mining accident, she kind of accidentally married him, although she was only 17.
This led to her life of comfort and pleasure in the big city. However, Gus always gained his money by stepping on other people. We don’t get a lot of detail about his exact financial dealings, but we realize through the narrative that he’s selfish and ruthless. His natural habitat is Wall Street, and this novel gives us insight into the ways in which the world has little changed. We still have robber barons and Wall Street tycoons who care little for other people and who see this sort of gain and greed as their right.
They are described as “the kind of men who believed astonishingly that privilege placed them above the moral laws of the average citizen. They were . . . a special product of a special era in American life; they were born of a period undistinguished by morals and distinguished principally by an undue respect for success, no matter how it was achieved. But they were, too, types that were eternal” (p. 100). It’s true. We still have these types, and we may never be rid of them. Tom Wolfe explored them in the 1980s in The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Interestingly, Susie Parkington has one great-granddaughter who has turned out to be much like Susie. Janie is level-headed, doesn’t care for money, and feels deeply. Mrs. Parkington, in the end, helps Janie to escape some of the embarrassing circumstances of her family (including that her father Amory is indicted), and makes sure that Janie won’t have to deal with the curse of money. Her inheritance is delayed, as Janie requests, until she’s older and has had time to earn her own privileges and struggle to make her own life. This storyline explores just how corrupting money can be, and how much more we learn by having to earn our own and by not caring much for it at all. Mrs. Parkington’s family is a study in corruption (of children and of morals) through too much ease.
Overall, the novel is an interesting study of one woman’s life, and her dealings with colorful and obnoxious relatives and the memories of the past. I enjoyed it. It reminded me a little of the type of novel Dorothy Whipple wrote. These novels are fun, light, and enjoyable, while tackling pertinent subjects of social ills and problems. If you enjoy the realism of the early twentieth century, give this one a try.
I think it’s very interesting (and fun) to pick up a popular, non-literature book from such a long time ago. The only ‘old’ books that make their way to us now are the classics, but these popular books can also tell us a lot about that time period and what the masses were reading, assuming this was popular then. What a great find!
Yes! It is fun for that very reason. I love the canon, but this stuff feels more “real” in some ways.
It sounds like the themes in contemporary books haven’t changed a lot from the ones 100 years ago. We have the same old temptations and the same interesting mix of characters. I agree with what Cecilia said. It makes me wonder what the bestseller list would have looked like back then.
I wonder that too. I think I searched for bestsellers by decade once, and there are ways of finding out. It would be fun to base a reading list off of one of those.
Good idea for a post, Emily!
Human nature never changes. Styles of writing do, however.
Louis Bromfield’s farm (and the place where Bogie and Bacall tied the knot) is not too, too far from my home, and it’s one of my favorite places to visit–a model of sustainable farming…I haven’t read any of Bromfield’s fiction, but I enjoyed his passion in writing his books about farming and homesteading. Maybe it’s time to read his fiction! Thanks for an interesting and offbeat review!
Wow! You live in a neat place. I would love to visit there and learn more about Bromfield. I really don’t know anything, other than that I’ve read one of his books.
I love books from the 30s and 40s, although most of my favorites are British, not American… ever read any Margery Sharp? I’m going to see if I can find any Bromfield!
I haven’t read Sharp, but I love Whipple!
Hmm, in my experience most of the realistic books from the early 20th century are pretty grim. Anyway, on a side note, you can’t really tell if your book is worth anything by reading it. You need to look for others that are the same age and condition. Who knows? It could be worth a lot!
Ah, good point! Maybe somebody out there would want it, and that would make it valuable, although it is missing a dust jacket.
It’s sort of reassuring that there was “fluff” reading back in the day — everyone likes some splashy escapism now and then!
Absolutely! There’s likely a long and noble tradition. 🙂
I grew up within 5 minutes of Bromfield’s Malabar Farm and know a decent amount about him. It’s interesting that you call Bromfield’s book “fluff,” because I’m not entirely sure it would have been regarded as pop writing at the time. Bromfield did win a Pulitzer Prize in the 20s for one of his first novels Early Autumn. He was part of the Lost Generation and, for a short time, was regarded just as highly as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Though, since Mrs. Parkington was published in 1942, I’m sure his serious/literary status had waned considerably by that point (though he was still very popular and made a lot of his cash through book club selections).
I’d agree with other commenters that his agriculture writings and his journals on life at Malabar Farm are way more interesting than his entirely and appropriately disregarded fiction. If Bromfield has any chance of resurgence it will be through his farm and agriculture writings, as it could resonate with the “green movement” and the higher public consciousness of how we farm (i.e. people hating on Monsanto) and what we eat (i.e. Chipotle as a fast food chain). However, I think that would require a scholar going through and condensing and compiling all those farm writings into a single volume.
As far as your book having any value, you’re right in assuming it doesn’t. I have in my personal collection two or three first editions signed by Bromfield himself. The most expensive one was maybe $30-$40 at the time.
However, Malabar Farm is definitely worth the visit. Lots of easy nature hiking and touring his preserved house is pretty cool, too! Fall is a beautiful time to check it out.
The one piece of fiction I actually like by Bromfield is Up Ferguson Way. It’s pretty and cheesy in all the right ways.
This is such great information! Thanks for sharing your knowledge with me. I think I would love visiting his farm and reading his writing about farms. That would be fascinating to me. In fact, there’s a professor at my university that writes and teaches about farm literature. I’ll have to ask her what she knows about Bromfield. Although, it sounds like his farm writing isn’t necessarily lit. I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of him as part of the lost generation, as I studied modernism and some of those writers in depth during my master’s program. I can’t wait to learn more about Bromfield now that you’ve given me a taste of how interesting he is. Thanks!
I recently saw an original illustration by Tom Lovell which, on the back of the canvas was written: Mrs. Parkington and 1942. Lovell was a famous illustrator during the 1930-1940 era and he is considered by some as one of the greatest American artists of his time, noted for his western art and the Civil War series he did for National Geographic. Does your first edition have his illustrations? If so, you might find there is more value in the artwork than in the literature.
I will look into that. Thanks! I don’t remember any artwork in my copy but perhaps I have forgotten.