Rosellen Brown 1939-
American novelist, poet, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Brown's career through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 32.
A highly respected and best-selling author of poetry and prose, Brown produces works dense with metaphor and imagery. In her poetry she experiments with form, linking poems in a way that suggests the scope of a novel, while her fiction incorporates many poetic elements. In both her poetry and fiction Brown draws on her experiences of living in the South during the Civil Rights movement—particularly in Some Deaths in the Delta and Other Poems (1970) and Civil Wars (1984)—though her primary focus remains on family relations, self-preservation versus family loyalty, and personal standing within the community.
Brown was born in Philadelphia on May 12, 1939. Her father was a salesman, and Brown's family moved several times during her youth. Because of the family's frequent relocation, Brown felt alienated at school and often used her free time to write. In high school Brown devoted herself to journalism, and her work earned her a scholarship to Barnard College in New York City. After completing her B.A. in 1960, she attended Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she earned an M.A. in 1962. She married Marvin Hoffman in 1963. Upon receiving a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in 1965, Brown and her husband moved to Mississippi, where Brown taught at Tougaloo College, an African American university, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Her time spent in Mississippi influenced Brown's first collection of poetry, Some Deaths in the Delta and Other Poems, as well as her later literary endeavors. She lived for three years in Brooklyn, New York—which is the setting of her second work, Street Games: A Neighborhood (1974)—and then moved to New Hampshire, the setting for her poetry collection Cora Fry (1977). Brown has received various awards and grants, including a Howard Foundation grant, two National Endowment for the Humanities creative writing grants, a Radcliffe Institute fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, an Ingram-Merrill grant, a Bunting Institute fellowship, a Best First Novel award from the Great Lakes College Association for her first novel, The Autobiography of My Mother (1976), and a Janet Kafka award for Civil Wars. She was also co-named Woman of the Year in 1984 by Ms. Magazine, and her novel Before and After (1992) was a New York Times best-seller. In addition to teaching at Tougaloo College, she has held positions at Goddard College, Boston University, University of Houston, Northwestern University, and the School of Art Institute of Chicago.
Brown's experiences in the South during the Civil Rights movement figure prominently in her first book, Some Deaths in the Delta. The poems compare the degrees of racism and deprivation in the South to those in the urban North. In Street Games, a collection of linked short stories, Brown delves deeper into the relations between people of different races and beliefs. The characters in Street Games are occupants of houses on a fictional, multicultural street in Brooklyn, and each story highlights the characters's inner, social, and economic struggles. In Brown's first two novels, The Autobiography of My Mother and Tender Mercies (1978), she focuses on familial relationships and employs two narrative voices to portray the protagonists' dual perspectives. The Autobiography of My Mother explores the antagonistic relationship between a mother and her daughter, with alternate chapters narrated by each woman. Tender Mercies centers on a family's struggle to adjust after the wife is paralyzed in an accident caused by her husband. The novel is written in two distinct styles—the husband's story is narrated in straight prose, while the wife's perspective is rendered in an imagistic, stream-of-consciousness narrative, consisting largely of dreams and memories that resemble prose poems. Brown again fuses fiction and poetry in Cora Fry, a cycle of poems that relates the story of a New England housewife who is frustrated in her marriage but ultimately decides not to leave her husband. Cora Fry's Pillow Book (1994) includes the original Cora Fry and continues her story in a series of poetic verses. In Civil Wars Brown returns to the southern location of Some Deaths in the Delta. The protagonists—Jessie and Teddy—are an unhappily married couple who were civil rights activists during the 1960s and still cling to the ideologies they held at the time, although many of their beliefs are outdated and unwanted. For example, they are the only white family in their neighborhood; in the 1960s this was considered a political statement, but in the 1980s they are simply an awkward and unwelcome presence. Teddy, the husband, feels disaffected by the low-key opportunities available in the modern Civil Rights movement, confessing that he preferred the heroic, high-profile actions that typified the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. The couple's niece and nephew are orphaned in an automobile accident and move in with Jessie and Teddy. The niece and nephew are racists and are appalled at being forced to live within an African American community. The novel examines the moral complexities inherent in family situations and the differences between family bonds and community ties. Brown further explores these connections in her fourth novel, Before and After, which centers on a family that is thrown into upheaval after the teenage son, Jacob, murders his girlfriend. The novel focuses the effect of the murder within Jacob's family, rather than the murder itself. Each family member is affected differently and the main thrust of the narrative is an investigation of their individual attempts to come to terms with the murder and the murderer, their small-town community, and their preconceived notions of identity and normalcy. Half a Heart (2000) blends many of the themes of Brown's earlier works—racial issues, the Civil Rights movement, mother-daughter relationships—with the two-voice narrative style that Brown uses in Some Deaths in the Delta and Tender Mercies. In Half a Heart the protagonists are Miriam, an upper-class white Jewish suburbanite, and Ronnee, her abandoned child from an affair with an African American professor during the Civil Rights era. Miriam seeks out Ronnee and the two begin to develop a relationship fraught with hidden purposes and emotional wounds. The recurring themes of personal agendas conflicting with the family structure and the sacrifices people make in the name of family loyalty are analyzed differently, depending on which narrative voice is speaking.
Reviewers have attributed Brown's lyrical prose and precise, worded narration to her poetic roots. While the majority of commentators have applauded her skillful narrative style and her eye for descriptive details, some have found it difficult to empathize with her characters and have deemed her depictions somewhat superficial. Critics have also expressed divided opinions about the often fragmentary details sometimes found in Brown's novels. Some reviewers have asserted that such stray details and background information further develop her characters, whereas others have suggested that they lure the reader away from the main plot and leave too many questions unanswered. Overall, commentators have lauded Brown's talent for realistically and compellingly depicting families under stress and have been intrigued by her dissection of the family unit to examine the difficulties of retaining individuality and, at the same time, family loyalty.