Rita Mae Brown Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Since the publication of her autobiographical first novel, Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown has been an important literary force. She was born on November 28, 1944, in Hanover, Pennsylvania. She was adopted by Ralph Brown and his wife, Julia Buckingham. She attended the University of Florida and received a B.A. degree from New York University in 1968 in English and classics. That same year, she earned a cinematography certificate from the New York School of Visual Arts. From 1969 to 1970, she was employed by Sterling Publishing of New York City as a photography editor. From 1970 to 1971 she lectured in sociology at Federal City College in Washington, D.C. She was a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., from 1971 to 1973, receiving her Ph.D. there in 1976. After settling in 1978 in Albemarle County, Virginia, she shifted her focus from political feminist and lesbian activism to writing works portraying the importance of building communities (such as the one she has found) where creativity can be nourished and barriers of class, race, and sex overcome.

Although Brown had published two books of poetry previously, Rubyfruit Jungle was the work that first attracted widespread attention. After Rubyfruit Jungle was rejected by the major publishing houses, it was brought out by Daughters, Inc., a small company specializing in feminist works. The novel sold a surprising seventy thousand copies, thus encouraging a large firm, Bantam Books, to acquire publication rights in 1977. Another 300,000 copies were printed, and sales eventually exceeded one million.

Rubyfruit Jungle is a picaresque novel whose protagonist, Molly Bolt, has been likened to Huckleberry Finn. Molly is bright, lusty, and lesbian. She is also, like Brown herself, an adopted child who...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Rita Mae Brown was born in Hanover, Pennsylvania, on November 28, 1944, to Juliann Young, a single mother, and weightlifter James Gordon Venable. Within two weeks, Young gave Rita Mae up for adoption to Ralph and Julia Ellen Buckingham Brown, Young’s half cousin. Brown began school in Pennsylvania, where she dealt with ostracism due to her illegitimate birth and her family’s lower socioeconomic status, then, in 1955, moved with her family to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she thrived because people did not discriminate against her. She began writing stories as a child. A voracious reader, Brown frequented area libraries. Her Latin classes at school enhanced her reading and writing abilities. As a teenager, she was a gifted tennis player.

After graduating from Fort Lauderdale High School in 1962, Brown enrolled with a scholarship at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In 1964, she was dismissed from that university for civil rights activism and for being a lesbian. She returned to Fort Lauderdale and attended the Junior College of Broward County, where she earned an A.A. in 1965. Following her graduation, Brown relocated; she earned a B.A. in English and classics from New York University in 1968 and a certificate in cinematography from Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts that same year. While she lived in New York, Brown worked for several publishers and composed articles that were published in underground newspapers. She also became active in...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Rita Mae Brown, born out of wedlock, was adopted by the working-class family of Ralph and Julia Ellen Buckingham Brown. Brown was not only a child of uncertain origin, but poor and female. This combination failed to impress the class-and gender-conscious students she trounced academically. Not surprisingly, Brown’s works frequently involve a critical appraisal of the class system and the unfortunate tendency of some individuals to denigrate others in consequence of their wealth or gender.

When Brown was eleven, her parents moved to Florida. This change of scene allowed Brown to transcend the circumstance of her birth, but plunged her into an alien society on the verge of chaos. Brown survived the ensuing cultural shock, but her father’s death shortly after proved a nearly insurmountable obstacle. Betrayed and abandoned at birth, she found herself again bereft of parental connection, one to death and another to extended grief, as she slipped into the turbulence of adolescence. Brown’s father died before she observed any flaws, while her surviving parent daily stood revealed with human imperfections. In Brown’s work, men are either paragons of virtue or feckless individuals devoid of redeeming features. As for the maternal portion of Brown’s successive novels, although few attain the savagery of Rubyfruit Jungle, even the more affectionate assessment of Six of One is often delivered through clenched teeth.

The climate when Brown left for college in 1963 was unfavorable toward anyone committed to the equality of every human being without recourse to limitations imposed by birth or inclination. Convinced the South offered her no quarter, Brown headed north, where she found academic validation at New York University and the Institute for Policy Studies, where she was awarded a doctorate. Brown returned to the South; she was not the first Southern writer to seek refuge in the North but to return to the South in memory or in person. With a northern father and a mother of Southern sympathies, she appreciates both sides of the regional coin.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Author Profile

Rita Mae Brown rejects the decorum that marks much of mainstream literature, and publishers were wary of the brash lesbianism of her semiautobiographical novel Rubyfruit Jungle (1973). Active in the National Organization for Women (NOW), Brown has taken a highly personal view of feminist issues in her poetry, The Hand That Cradles the Rock (1971), Songs to a Handsome Woman (1973), and Poems (1987). A Plain Brown Rapper (1976) recounts a decade of her work in the women’s movement. Her novels Southern Discomfort (1982) and Sudden Death (1983) are iconoclastic portrayals of feminist and racial issues.


Boyle, Sharon D. “Rita Mae Brown.” In Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Sandra Pollack and Denise D. Knight. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Profiles Brown’s life and work. Includes an extended discussion of Rubyfruit Jungle and a useful bibliography.

Chew, Martha. “Rita Mae Brown: Feminist Theorist and Southern Novelist.” Southern Quarterly 22 (1983): 61-80. Chew shows how Brown’s early novels are informed by a specifically “lesbian feminist political vision,” whereas her later works are “increasingly directed toward a mainstream audience.”

Decure, Nicole. “The Feat of Telling It Like It Is: Concealment Tactics in Rita Mae Brown’s Fiction.” Women’s Studies International Forum 17, no. 4 (July/August, 1994): 425-433. Treats Brown’s condemnation of women’s tendencies to conceal socially unpopular practices, such as lesbianism.

Harris, Bertha. Review of Rubyfruit Jungle, by Rita Mae Brown. The Village Voice, April 4, 1974. A particularly good source.

Moore, Claudia. School Library Journal 41 (March, 1995). Assesses Dolley’s historical relevance for young adult readers.

Ward, Carol Marie. Rita Mae Brown. New York: Twayne, 1993. Provides an overview of Brown’s life, writings, and philosophy, as well as an annotated bibliography of sources. A good introduction to Brown’s life and works.

Zimmerman, Bonnie. The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction, 1969-1989. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990. This insightful book-length study of contemporary lesbian prose explores the interaction between fiction and community, specifically how lesbian novels and short stories have both reflected and shaped the lesbian community. Zimmerman describes Rubyfruit Jungle as the quintessential “coming-out” novel.