Louis Bromfield's The Rains Came enjoyed popularity as a bestseller in the late 1930s in part because of the author's persona and previous success with novels, which were also bestsellers. Thus, in a sense, The Rains Came teaches us that bestsellers can acquire their status with impetus from an author's reputation: Bromfield, by 1937, belonged to prominent social circles in both Europe and the United States and his writing was accepted as having a degree of literary merit. In addition, the book represents an extension of the author's Jeffersonian philosophy, the notion of directing one's own destiny and the concept of an independent, self-made man or woman, to a new setting, that of an exotic, disaster-ridden India. What does this choice of setting and social commentary contribute to the book as a bestseller? How is The Rains Came a product of its time and how does it compare to other novels and bestsellers of the 1930s?
In context of the bestseller scene in the year of its publication, The Rains Came stands out as a novel set in a non-American locale. Northwest Passage and Drums Along the Mohawk, for example, as bestsellers in 1937, both incorporated the backdrop of a colonial American frontier. Bromfield's step in the opposite direction with a story set in the East may have disillusioned his reading audience at first, but this element came to be regarded as a sort of novelty and attracted more attention than it deterred. Bromfield's ability to entertain audiences with the winning Hollywood formula was exemplified by The Rains Came as it incorporated the "catastrophe approach" popular in the 1930s, similar to other books on the scene such as The Hurricane and The Grapes of Wrath. The novel also fits into the category of the "romance in a far-off land," appealing particularly on the verge of World War II, a time when people wanted to hear that the romance could still flourish amidst seemingly inevitable confusion.
In the 1930s Cass Canfield of Harper publishers wanted to sign up "three young American authors whose knowledge and wit and cultivated writing added much luster to literature and life both here and abroad," one of whom was Louis Bromfield (Exman 241). Thus, since The Farm in 1933, Bromfield remained with Harper and Brothers. The publishing release of The Rains Came in October of 1937 appears somewhat strategic in the sense that it was only five days after one of Hemingway's novels and in time for the holiday season. These factors aided the novel's "jump?to bestsellerdom immediately" and contributed to the fact that it was "in big demand for Christmas gifts" (Publisher's Weekly 1852, 2365). It was also no coincidence that Harper promoted The Rains Came with the input of Edna Ferber, another bestselling author of the era. Her insert praising the novel as a great achievement of literature could be found in numerous locations including the New York Times Book Review and Publisher's Weekly. What does this show about the power of the publisher in a novel's success? Mainly, these factors reveal that a publishing company can market a book with the "bestseller" label by effective use of its promoting skills, particularly in coinciding publication dates and utilizing other well-known figures in the writing industry. The Rains Came made its first appearance on the Publisher's Weekly hardcover fiction bestsellers list as number ten on November 13, 1937 and attained its peak position at number three on the list on December 11, 1937, remaining at this spot for twenty weeks. Its combined total on the New York Times list and the Publisher's Weekly list was sixty-eight weeks, revealing that the book, through successful advertisement and the winning formula of Bromfield's writing, was able to appear on the annual bestseller list in both 1937 and 1938.
Bromfield was known as an "entertainer" in both his writing and everyday life. He had been described as a "sparkling conversationalist" and one who was always eager to talk, as long as it was not about himself or his books (Democratic Digest 11). His involvement in numerous organizations, including those related to war relief and farming, helped to build his persona as a man of action and reputation. The November 1941 issue of The Democratic Digest describes the typical life of the "good democrat" Louis Bromfield: "[T]here's the Farm Bureau meetings, and?a British War Relief carnival?dances and parties?a steady stream of friends, house guests, world famous actors and actresses, writers, and all sorts of celebrities?" (Democratic Digest 11). It is no wonder that the public was intrigued by Bromfield's writing: it gave the readers a glimpse into the life and mind of a man with virtual celebrity status. The publishing of The Rains Came was no exception to this facet of his persona. In fact, the varied personalities, from Tom Ransome to the Maharani, and gripping action he portrays in the novel appear to reflect his cosmopolitan lifestyle and encounters, while at the same time revealing his strong connection to the land.
At a time when Americans were particularly eager to relieve their worries through entertainment, Bromfield's fast-moving novels and movies were in high public demand. "His books created a path to the world of Hollywood - Bromfield's novels were among the first adapted for feature-length sound films. By the mid-thirties, he had attained fame and riches in an era when reading was an international pastime and movies had just begun to influence American culture" (www.pbs.org). During the Depression era, "movies were one of the strongest sales" and Hollywood provided an escape on numerous levels (www. geocities.com). The movie production of The Rains Came was no exception in the 1930s and 1940s, when numerous bestsellers, including Gone with The Wind, Of Mice and Men, and The Citadel were transformed into big screen versions. Winning the Academy Award for best special effects, "[The Rains Came] marked the final storm in a decade of screen extravaganzas?complete with all the romance, intrigue, suffering and action of the book" (Trent 166). Released in 1939, after the novel dropped from annual bestseller lists, the film did not appear to maintain or increase sales of Bromfield's book. However, what is notable in The Rains Came is an attempt to bridge cultural gaps, a break from solely a depiction of "The White Man's Burden" that prevailed in earlier portrayals of India. This is representative of the contemporaneous struggle for India to acquire an "identity" and the movement toward Indian independence from Britain, a sentiment with which Americans could relate. Bromfield's ability to incorporate the American notion of the Jeffersonian ideal, based on directing one's own destiny, into an Indian setting led some Americans to retract the cynicism that accompanied the Depression to a degree and focus on the roots of democracy. In The Rains Came, the essence of this ideal is illustrated by the nurse, Miss MacDaid, and her revelation: "?[T]here was a sense of fate, a sense of dedication, which Miss MacDaid had discovered long ago existed in many Indians" (Bromfield 17). At the same time, the fact that Bromfield shifted the setting of his novel to the East reflects a type of disillusionment with American society and the West in general during the 1930s, especially with its focus on industrialization and profits. "In?late 1930s and early 1940s works, any promise that might have been found in America is presented as dead, defeated by circumstances both economic and moral" (Wagner-Martin 54). Bromfield uses the characters of Lord Esketh and Tom Ransome to portray characteristics of the Western "illness": "Now [men from the West] were all like Esketh, greedy and ruthless and evil or like Ransome, warped and barren and tired. Ransome?was an ill man and his illness was the illness of Europe?" (Bromfield 147).
The reviewers, for the most part, praised Bromfield's use of "exotic" detail and his elaborate presentation of catastrophe and crisis. Why so much emphasis on how crisis was portrayed? This may have to do with the fact that The Rains Came entered the American scene during the Great Depression, which lasted from 1930 to 1939. Readers were more likely to sympathize with situations similar to their own, being themselves victims of natural disasters such as floods, drought, and the "dust bowl" prevalent during the Depression in America. How could American readers sympathize with the plight of characters living in India during monsoon floods and earthquakes depicted in The Rains Came? As was the case with Pearl S. Buck's book set in China, The Good Earth, published in 1931, The Rains Came was particularly notable for its "universality of plot" (Entry on The Good Earth). The notion that many of the struggles that people were facing in America during the 1930s could and did happen in other regions of the world was an appealing aspect for readers of both The Good Earth and The Rains Came. In addition, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, continued the theme of the "chaos-stricken" workers and the notion of a common human bond, an idea that Bromfield seemed to have in mind while writing about the relationships between Europeans and Indians in the city of Ranchipur. How did Indians feel about Bromfield's portrayal of their society? According to David Anderson, "?[The Rains Came] has, in fact, found more acceptance among modern Indians than E.M. Forster's A Passage to India?in total impact it should rank high among the books of its time" (Anderson 110). Although The Rains Came may not have the literary caliber that is often associated with A Passage to India, Anderson's comment teaches us that bestsellers can sometimes have a greater impact on society than other "great works" of literature because of the publicity they gain and media that they span.
It is interesting to note that Bromfield was one of a number of authors (such as Hemingway and Dos Passos) during the so-called "lost generation" who drove ambulances during World War I. Although one might believe it to have little significance, ambulance service, in this case, provides some insight into the effect that writers of this period had on their audiences:
"?[O]ne might almost say that the ambulance corps and the
French military transport were college-extension courses for a
generation of writers. But what did these courses teach??They
carried us to a foreign country, the first that most of us had seen;
they taught us to make love, stammer love, in a foreign language?
They made us more irresponsible than before?they made us fear
boredom more than death?ambulance service had a lesson of its own:
it instilled into us what might be called a spectatorial attitude"
If there is nothing worse than a sense of boredom, what can be done to amend it? The solution offered by Cowley in Exile's Return is to take risks, for "[d]anger [is] a relief from boredom, a stimulus to the emotions?" (Cowley 42). In The Rains Came, the narrator comments on Lady Esketh's irrepressible sensations of monotony: "She was so bored that it seemed to her she could feel every nerve in the complicated network which ran through her body" (Bromfield 219). The solution for Lady Esketh involves promiscuity and relations with men such as Tom Ransome and Major Safti outside her marriage. Lady Esketh's "challenge" to seduce Major Safti can be seen in the context of the "exotic" and "forbidden" romance so alluring to reading audiences. Lady Esketh comments, "Maybe through Major Something-or-other I could begin to discover India. Maybe he would be able to kill that last vestige of prejudice" (Bromfield 193). Thus, in addition to the social commentary Bromfield offers in The Rains Came, there is also a sense of the appealing "untamed" quality found in the East. The New York Times Book Review described this phenomenon as a striking and refreshing attribute: "All restraint is swept aside in an orgy of passion that involves brown and white alike" (NY Times Book Rev.).
The notion of "escape" is a prominent quality in The Rains Came and it is a topic that Bromfield was definitely interested in and familiar with prior to 1937. In fact, Bromfield thought that four of his earlier novels, including The Green Bay Tree (1924), Possession (1925), Early Autumn (1926), and A Good Woman (1927), could be grouped "under the general title of Escape" (Dictionary of Lit. Biography 59). Numerous bestsellers spanning the decades, such as Return to Paradise (1951) to Shogun (1975) use an exotic setting as the means of conveying an escape from daily life. The character of Miss Hodge describes the power of the East: "It seems impossible to tear yourself away, one the Orient gets into your blood?so strange and different and colorful" (Bromfield 221). If for no other reason but to escape into a distant land, readers are drawn to novels like The Rains Came for their "exotic" and remote backgrounds.
Although Bromfield may not have "fulfilled" his literary potential according to critics, he definitely knew how to win over his reading audience. Hollywood also realized the dramatic nature of his books and took his plots to a new level of entertainment. The Rains Came is an example of a bestseller with many of the necessary ingredients: an author with an established persona, a successful and knowledgeable publisher, and a reflection of the public's interests and desires.
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