(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Some Deaths in the Delta and Other Poems (poetry) 1970

Street Games: A Neighborhood (short stories) 1974

The Autobiography of My Mother (novel) 1976

Cora Fry (poetry) 1977

Tender Mercies (novel) 1978

Civil Wars (novel) 1984

Before and After (novel) 1992

A Rosellen Brown Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose (poetry, essays, and short stories) 1992

Cora Fry's Pillow Book (poetry) 1994

Half a Heart (novel) 2000

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Rosellen Brown and Karla Hammond (interview date winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Rosellen, and Karla Hammond. “An Interview with Rosellen Brown.” Chicago Review 33, no. 3 (winter 1983): 117-25.

[In the following interview, Brown shares her views on the politics of feminism and discusses her poems in Cora Fry.]

[Hammond]: From an essay that Erica Jong wrote on Some Deaths in the Delta, I understand that you both knew each other at Barnard. Jong speaks of how you both met in Robert Packs' office “clutching manuscripts of sonnets, sestinas, and Popian couplets—(at that time, there were thought to be such things as cooked and raw poetry—and we were both cooking with a vengeance)” (Barnard Alumni Magazine,...

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Marion Glastonbury (review date 24 August 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Glastonbury, Marion. “Fighting Words.” New Statesman 108, no. 2788 (24 August 1984): 22-3.

[In the following excerpt, Glastonbury provides an overwhelmingly positive assessment of Civil Wars.]

The British edition of Civil Wars, Rosellen Brown's third novel, has arrived peppered with transatlantic hyperbole. According to the blurb, it took five years to complete. (Coming from a publisher, is this a boast or a lament?) The cover proclaims its contents ‘skilful … passionate … fascinating … consistently absorbing … absolutely gripping … intricacies of perception … justness of language … a brave and fine work’. Can Vogue, the...

(The entire section is 470 words.)

Judith B. Walzer (review date spring 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Walzer, Judith B. “After the Movement.” Dissent 32 (spring 1985): 244-46.

[In the following review, Walzer applauds Civil Wars's highlighting of disaffected civil rights “warriors” in modern, more complacent times. Walzer believes that Brown effectively chronicles their struggles and praises Brown for her attention to detail.]

In Civil Wars, Rosellen Brown has created a remarkable personal view of the long-term effect of the 1960s civil rights movement on two of its participants. Teddy Carll, a native Mississippian, and Jessie Singer, a “red-diaper baby” from New York, meet and marry in the movement. They settle in Mississippi, to live...

(The entire section is 1798 words.)

Linda Simon (review date summer 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Simon, Linda. Review of Civil Wars, by Rosellen Brown. Prairie Schooner 59, no. 2 (summer 1985): 113-15.

[In the following review, Simon compliments Brown's adeptness with description and characterization in Civil Wars, but argues that the subplots occasionally clash with the main story line.]

When we meet him in the late 1970s [in Civil Wars], Teddy Carll is a has-been: he was once a charismatic civil rights activist, a leader, a daring strategist, a man engaged in an urgent struggle. Now he is a travelling salesman for an educational book company, husband to his former comrade Jessie (they spent their honeymoon in jail), father of two;...

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Merla Wolk (essay date summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wolk, Merla. “Uncivil Wars: The Reproduction of Mother-Daughter Conflict and Rosellen Brown's Autobiography of My Mother.American Imago 45, no. 2 (summer 1988): 163-85.

[In the following essay, Wolk examines the emotional and behavioral dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship in Brown's The Autobiography of My Mother, using Nancy Chodorow's study The Reproduction of Mothering as a reference guide.]

The studies of recent feminist psychoanalytic theorists and the fiction of contemporary female writers reveal a common interest in mother-daughter relationships, each demonstrating in its own fashion the centrality of that relationship...

(The entire section is 8447 words.)

Eleanor J. Bader (review date winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bader, Eleanor J. “Boerum Hill Blues.” Belles Lettres 8, no. 2 (winter 1992): 29.

[In the following review, Bader praises the creation and blending of the characters who occupy George Street, a fictional neighborhood in Street Games.]

George Street, the scene of Rosellen Brown's 14 interrelated short stories, is fictional, but Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, the neighborhood she writes about in Street Games, is not. Like many changing neighborhoods, Boerum Hill was once peopled with newly arrived Puerto Ricans and American-born New Yorkers. Then, in the early to mid-1970s, the professionals who would later be called Yuppies discovered the area's rundown...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

Bonnie St. Andrews (review date winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: St. Andrews, Bonnie. “Bridging Our Separation.” Belles Lettres 8, no. 2 (winter 1992): 30.

[In the following review, St. Andrews applauds the selection of short stories, essays, and poems that comprise A Rosellen Brown Reader.]

Only a few volumes dedicated to the works of individual artists currently exist in the prestigious Breadloaf Contemporary Series. The newest [A Rosellen Brown Reader]—Rosellen Brown's selection of 12 short stories, several essays including “The Jewish Writer as Endangered Species” and “On Not Writing a Novel,” a lively interview with Tom LeClair, and a judicious selection of her poetry—sets another jewel in the...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Darcie Conner Johnston (review date winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnston, Darcie Conner. “A Crack Across Their Lives.” Belles Lettres 8, no. 2 (winter 1992): 31, 39.

[In the following review, Johnston praises the subject matter and execution of storyline in Before and After.]

Like a renegade comet, near-shattering violence careens into the lives of the ordinary people who populate the novels of Rosellen Brown, slamming them off course and in directions they never imagined. In Tender Mercies (1978), for example, a swimming accident destroys the vigor of a young woman who will be paralyzed for life, and Civil Wars (1984) portrays two children forced to cope with the death of their parents. “Many people...

(The entire section is 897 words.)

Rosellen Brown and Carla Seaquist (interview date winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Rosellen, and Carla Seaquist. “Belles Lettres Interview: Rosellen Brown.” Belles Lettres 8, no. 2 (winter 1992): 34-9.

[In the following interview, Brown discusses the thematic focus of and reasons behind her writing Before and After.]

“Before I answer your challenging questions,” writes Ms. Brown, “I need to try to explain a little my understanding of what I as a novelist am attempting to do. Many of your questions assume a prescriptive attitude on my part, an attitude of approval for the responses of my characters or for the outcomes of their actions. I, on the other hand, feel that my responsibility is to present a set of characters...

(The entire section is 4532 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 3 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Troubled Family Needs a Reality Check.” Los Angeles Times (3 September 1992): E4.

[In the following review, Eder argues that Before and After is a compelling story, but believes that Brown fails to adequately develop the majority of her characters.]

A fortunate family, the Reisers [in Before and After]. Carolyn is a successful and devoted pediatrician in the bucolic New Hampshire town to which they have moved. They have added neat modernizing touches to their old farmhouse. Ben makes sculptures out of “found objects”; he is fulfilled, although he doesn't make much money. On the other hand, he makes gourmet meals and is an...

(The entire section is 886 words.)

Sven Birkerts (review date 2 November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. “Family Secrets.” New Republic 207, no. 6 (2 November 1992): 40-2.

[In the following review, Birkerts praises the premise of Before and After, but believes the characters lack depth and dimension and that Brown doesn't follow up on some of the novel's themes.]

The title of Rosellen Brown's latest novel, Before and After, is misleading on a literal level: apart from a short impressionistic evocation of the Reiser family in happier days, the book is really focused upon after, on what transpires in the private and public lives of that family as the horrible facts of a killing come to life. But in the deeper sense, which is...

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Pearl K. Bell (review date winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bell, Pearl K. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 60, no. 1 (winter 1993): 65-6.

[In the following excerpt, Bell asserts that the conclusion of Before and After leaves too many loose ends unresolved.]

A brutal murder is also at the heart of Rosellen Brown's Before and After, and like Tartt's novel, it was an immediate bestseller, with the film rights quickly snapped up. Beyond this, however, the two novels have little in common. Brown is an intelligent, thoughtful writer, of poetry as well as fiction, who is not tempted into pretension. Her new novel is a domestic tragedy about a family of recognizable human beings whose normally stable,...

(The entire section is 742 words.)

Isobel Armstrong (review date 5 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Armstrong, Isobel. “In Death Estranged.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4692 (5 March 1993): 21.

[In the following review of Before and After, Armstrong examines the degrees of alienation the main characters feel toward each other and toward their small-town community.]

Before and After is a crime novel seen from back to front. When a teenage girl is found brutally battered to death in a small New Hampshire town, the mystery begins rather than ends with the discovery of the killer. And the drama begins and continues with the murderer's family, when the unsuspecting parents learn that their son is wanted for the murder. Not who did it, but how...

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Rochelle Ratner (review date October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ratner, Rochelle. “Categorically Writing.” American Book Review 15, no. 4 (October 1993): 31.

[In the following review, Ratner offers mixed assessments of A Rosellen Brown Reader and Before and After.]

Call it modernist, postmodern, experimental, or whatever you want. It seems as if fiction writers have two choices these days: (1) to abandon plot and sometimes character as well (or at least interaction between characters), concentrate solely on language and its ability to stand on its head and do tricks; or (2) to be a traditional, unliterary, unpoetic (a.k.a. boring) writer. For those would-be literary writers who can't let it all hang loose, there...

(The entire section is 1559 words.)

Rosellen Brown and Missouri Review (interview date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Rosellen, and Missouri Review. “An Interview with Rosellen Brown.” Missouri Review 17, no. 1 (1994): 91-115.

[In the following interview, Brown discusses her current writing projects, the pros and cons of writing a best-seller, and politics in her writing.]

[Interviewer]: Can you tell us about your background, your family, and early influences?

[Brown]: I think my beginnings as a writer were not unlike those of a good many others. I was feeling particularly cast out at a certain point. I was nine, and the writing was a comfort. We had just moved from one coast to the other and I was very lonely in a new school,...

(The entire section is 6669 words.)

Julie Parson-Nesbitt (review date January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Parson-Nesbitt, Julie. Review of Cora Fry's Pillow Book, by Rosellen Brown. Belles Lettres 11, no. 1 (January 1996): 34.

[In the following review, Parson-Nesbitt assesses the strengths of the poetry in Cora Fry's Pillow Book.]

Novelist and poet Rosellen Brown refuses to allow her characters less than their difficult and contradictory humanity. Her new poetry collection [Cora Fry's Pillow Book] is narrated by the astute and unsentimental Cora Fry, a woman approaching middle age in a rural, working-class New England community.

The burden of being female, and how women cope, is news as daily as the mail Cora delivers. She describes...

(The entire section is 315 words.)

Merla Wolk (essay date winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wolk, Merla. “Offerings: The Price of Speaking Out in the Fiction of Rosellen Brown.” Critique 38, no. 2 (winter 1997): 123-34.

[In the following essay, Wolk analyzes the effects that “speaking out” have on the female protagonists in Brown's novels.]

For all the wise humor, the rich ironies, and the confirmation of life's ambiguities that mark the fiction of Rosellen Brown as measured and reasoned in its judgments, disaster—terrifying, irreversible, irrational—stands at the center of each of her novels. A child dies, the consequence of mutual rage between mother and daughter, in Autobiography of My Mother (1975); a boat accident in Tender...

(The entire section is 5929 words.)

Molly Haskell (review date May-June 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Haskell, Molly. “Race and Reunion.” New Leader 83, no. 2 (May-June 2000): 33-4.

[In the following review, Haskell asserts that the racial situations in Half a Heart are at times unbelievable and the characters are occasionally unsympathetic, but notes that Brown's most effective depictions are of the bonds between family members.]

Rosellen Brown's best-selling novel, Before and After (1992), describes the devastating effect on a family when the teenage son accidentally kills his girlfriend and becomes a fugitive from justice. But the title could serve most of her novels, focusing as they do on a cataclysmic event that spotlights family...

(The entire section is 1913 words.)

Steve Brzezinski (review date fall 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brzezinski, Steve. Review of Half a Heart, by Rosellen Brown. Antioch Review 58, no. 4 (fall 2000): 525-26.

[In the following review, Brzezinski compliments Brown's characterization and the situations that the protagonists must endure in Half a Heart.]

Brown, the distinguished author of Tender Mercies and Civil Wars, returns in this new novel [Half a Heart] to her two most enduring thematic preoccupations: family relationships and the racial divide in America.

The novel is composed of two major sections. The first surrounds the search by former civil rights activist Miriam Viner, now an affluent Houston wife and...

(The entire section is 334 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Brown, Rosellen, and Judith Pierce Rosenberg. “PW Interviews: Rosellen Brown.” Publishers Weekly 239, no. 39 (31 August 1992): 54-5.

Brown discusses her life and writing career.

Lee, Don. “About Rosellen Brown.” Ploughshares 20, nos. 2-3 (fall 1994): 235-40.

Lee presents a biography of Brown and includes a brief synopsis of her major works.


Allen, Bruce. “Tense Novel of Residual Idealism, Racism.” Christian Science Monitor 77, no. 185 (15 August 1985): 22.

Allen offers a positive assessment of Civil...

(The entire section is 213 words.)