In 1940, Louis Bromfield's long awaited book Night in Bombay was published. The book was released to an audience who had come to recognize Bromfield among the leaders in the literary scene of the day. Bromfield had produced books like Early Autumn, which achieved a Pulitzer prize (1927), and Mrs. Parkington which was made into a movie soon after publication. The novel came to an audience who had read his earlier novel, The Rains Came, in which he first made use of the exotic Indian sub-continent as a backdrop for his plot, one which was also produced as a movie, and had received it graciously. Night in Bombay was an instant bestseller and stayed on the bestseller list for a considerable amount of time, but an analysis of both contemporary and subsequent critiques suggests that the book did not necessarily fulfill the expectations that had been attached to it as far as content is concerned: "..As a literary masterpiece we would not rank Night in Bombay with The Green Bay Tree or with The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg"(Owens, p.1). Bromfield was no stranger to bestsellers; every book that he wrote during his career was a bestseller. The major point of discussion here is that the success of Night in Bombay as a novel, had a lot more to do with the persona of the author, and the expectations of the audience that he catered to, than to the content of the novel itself.
In simplest terms this novel, inspired perhaps by Bromfield's visit to India in 1933, is the story of Bill Wainright, a rich businessman from America, his college friend, Buck Merrill, a sick man who has devoted his life to helping the needy of India, and Carol Halma, and ex-beauty queen who was once married to Bill. Set in the hot, bizarre environment of India, the story unfolds as Bill finds himself falling in love with Carol again, while Carol and Buck fall in love with each other. This love triangle finds itself caught amidst corrupt Indian maharajahs and seductive foreign women whose lives are made up of drinking, gambling and deception. The major critical complaint with the content of the book at the time of publication seems to have been regarding the characters. A 1940 critical essay written by A Calder-Marshall, states that as far as the characters in Night in Bombay are concerned, there is "not a single human being...All are characters for the film." Clifton Fadiman, in the May 11th, 1940 issue of The New Yorker writes: "All the characters are vigorously overdrawn and would be readily understood and recognized by any nine-year-old who had not led too sheltered a life." Most subsequent reviews dealt with this same failing of the book: "Bromfield is not willing to allow his plot or his theme to grow out of his collection of characters: rather, he imposes characterization upon plot and theme..the result is an array of weakly presented character sketches..."(Anderson, p.115). But this is not the only negative criticism that the book has received. Some critics have gone so far as to say that the quality of the plot and theme is no better than that of the characters. Questions arise about reasons for the success of a book that seems to have failed with so many critics as far as content is concerned, yet reached best-seller status and retained that status for as long as it did. How could a book that would not be grouped with other 'literary masterpieces', indeed one that has been described as a 'weak book'(Anderson, p.116), become a best-seller?
One of the few consistent facts about bestsellers is that the readers' expectations are influenced by the persona of the author. In the case of Night in Bombay there could not be a more illustrious, charismatic author. Louis Bromfield, by the time of the publication of this novel, had become something of a legend. He mingled with celebrities and the elite of France as well as America; something which is reflected in his choice of characters for Night in Bombay.
His personality seemed to draw all sorts of people towards him. He had been compared to F.Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemmingway. He is described as 'a large, energetic man with an outgoing personality and keen intellect'. He was an author in an era when everyone read and a movie playwright in a time when movies were beginning to charm the entire nation. To the average American, Bromfield led a celebrity's life:
"Bromfield wrote by day and led an active social life in celebrity circles in New York and Hollywood by night, making friends with some of the best-known people of his generation. Entertaining, witty, and never afraid to speak his mind, Bromfield was recognized, celebrated and sometimes reviled for his powerful ego, explosive temper and forceful personality. Yet the wealthy and talented clamored to be at his side. Bromfield was a man who wanted to experience everything life offered. He spent money and traveled the world."(pbs.org)
One aspect of Bromfield's personality that made people want to purchase his books, especially those about far-away countries, is that through them, he seemed to share his fantastic life with others. While they read Bromfield's books, they could catch a glimpse of what life was like for him, living the way he did, surrounded by the type of people who surrounded him. Because he traveled throughout the world, the average American could be where Bromfield had been, and see what he had seen, in his books:
"..And downstairs on the ground floor there was a vast hallway and a huge stairway which led up and up into the heights of the big hotel. Through the hallway and the bazaar which occupied half its area, came and went a procession of Arab horsedealers, British Governors, and Civil Servants, Russian and German trollops, Indian princes, jewel merchants, Parsee millionaires, comic middle-aged tourists, gamblers, oil prospectors. The procession went on day and night, for in the heat of the city and with the fantastic character of many of the guests, the place was as alive at four in the morning as at midday." (Bromfield, p.51)
Readers could have been attracted by Night in Bombay in the sense that it paints a very vivid picture of the India that Bromfield experienced:
"They leaned over the rail looking at the city which had begun to appear out of the haze-the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Readymoney Building, the Yacht Club, the Gateway of India and the green eminence of Malabar Hill, dotted with bungalows and the palaces of the Maharajahs with the Towers of Silence at the foot of them all like the coffin which was carried among the guests at an Egyptian banquet. Life and death in India, more than anywhere else in the world, went hand in hand."
Another reason people bought Night in Bombay was that every book Bromfield had written during his career had been a best-seller. In this way, he can be compared to the Stephen Kings and the Tom Clancys of today. Whenever readers are overwhelmed by the choices they have, they seek out the well-known best-sellers to be on the safe side. Since every book Bromfield ever wrote was a best-seller, readers came to associate his name with best-sellers and expect nothing but best-sellers from him and so they bought his books. Thus the cycle continued. In this way, Louis Bromfield's persona and popularity led to high sales of Night in Bombay.
The publisher of any book, especially one with bestseller potential, attempts to ensure the sales of that book prior to publication. Besides some factors, such as the author's popularity, which are a natural endorsement for the novel, several tactics are utilized in order to guarantee that the book will have an audience.
An observation of the campaign that the publishers launched prior to the release of Night in Bombay reflects the confidence that they had in the inevitability of this novel's success. Publisher's Weekly describes the 'full-page ads in the N.Y.Times Book Review, the Herald Tribune Books and Harper's Magazine; big spaces in dailies in New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco' as well as 'several kinds of posters and imprint postcards' that were part of the campaign. The expectations regarding this novel were indeed very high. It seems as though even before the book was published, the masses were preparing themselves for a comparison with The Rains Came, precisely according to the publisher's design. The two page ad that Harper placed in the April 13th edition of Publisher's weekly, presented Bromfield as 'the author of The Rains Came, which clearly told the readers 'if you liked that, you'll like this'. A similar tactic was used in the designing of the front cover of the first edition. Nearly every mention of Night in Bombay prior to publication contains mention of The Rains Came. Given the success of the latter, the former was sure to benefit. People were definitely going to buy the new Bromfield story that takes place in India, based on the quality and success of the earlier Bromfield story that takes place in India. It makes one wonder whether the book would have fared as well had it not had the earlier novel to lean on. Thus through advertising the publishers created an environment of anticipation about the book, and the readers reacted just as they should have, having certain strong expectations from the book and awaiting publication so that they could buy one as soon as it was released. This is another way in which sales for Night in Bombaywere secured.
There is no such thing as a 'typical' bestseller. In fact, in order to be a bestseller, a book must be something out of the ordinary. While there is no set formula for a bestseller, there are certain factors that bestsellers might have in common. Sometimes, it is these factors, rather than the content of the book itself that assist it in reaching the bestseller list. Such is the case with Louis Bromfield's Night in Bombay. One may compare it to other works by Bromfield as well as study critiques of the book and deduce that the quality is not at the same level as that of these other works. More than the content of the book, it is the persona of Louis Bromfield and the expectations of the readers brought about by advertising as well as by the fact that the author was Bromfield, that carried this book into the bestsellers list.
Anderson, D. David. Louis Bromfield. Twayne Publishers, NewYork, 1964.
Bromfield, Loius. Night in Bombay. Harper Brothers, New York and London,1940.
Book Review Digest, 1940.
Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. II
Publishers Weekly, 1940.