Rosellen Brown 1939–
American novelist, poet, and short story writer.
A respected author of poetry and prose, Brown began her career as a poet and has since incorporated poetic elements in her fiction, which is dense with metaphor and imagery. In both her novels and her poems she writes of marriage and the family, although she has also drawn on her experience as a Civil Rights worker in the 1960s in a book of poetry, Some Deaths in the Delta (1970), and a novel, Civil Wars (1984).
In her first and second novels, Brown uses two narrative voices to portray the protagonists' dual perspectives. Autobiography of My Mother (1976) explores the antagonistic relationship between a mother and her daughter, with alternate chapters narrated by first one and then the other. Tender Mercies (1978), which centers on a family's struggles to adjust after the wife is paralyzed by an accident caused by her husband, is written in two distinct styles: the husband's story is narrated in straight prose while the wife's is rendered in imagistic stream-of-consciousness, consisting largely of dreams and memories, and resembling prose poems.
In Cora Fry (1977), Brown again fuses fiction and poetry. This cycle of poems tells the story of a New England housewife who is frustrated in her marriage but ultimately decides not to leave her husband. Brown said in an interview that her purpose in Cora Fry was "to take a woman's experience and see how it is kaleidoscopic, how every tiny piece of her life can be set against another and made to create the illusion of the whole life."
In Civil Wars Brown returns to the southern location of Some Deaths in the Delta. The protagonists are an unhappily married couple who were Civil Rights activists in the 1960s. The title refers to several instances of civil war: the American Civil War of the 1860s, the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, and the perennial conflicts between the sexes and the generations within a family.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
Poets so often are apologetic these noisy days, and Rosellen Brown is no exception. She apologizes for the fact that "poems are not action," and contests what she has written with "real events." Well, though one can understand what she is getting at, she is wrong. Her poems [collected in Some Deaths in the Delta,] are an event, and the work and love that went into them a form of action. At least one phase of the so-called civil rights struggle is over. But for a few years a certain torch glowed in the South, and men and women and children came to it and felt its heat and helped hold it up for the world to see. Rosellen Brown was among those who came: white, a Yankee, she … took part in many efforts to make the South a place where "liberty and justice for all" can be found. As the title of her book suggests, the task is an enormous one….
[Those] who leave and go North find another hell up there, as the second part of this collection of poems emphasizes. For the author eventually returned to New York, and learned (as have so many others before her) that once awakened, the old kind of sleep comes hard. Mississippi made her a less satisfied New Yorker. Now she is not only a damn Yankee, but perhaps a touch un-American. She wants us to measure up to those young Americans of both races she knew in the South in the middle sixties. Though she spends many of her lines setting down the sad ironies and...
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outright evils which plague life in the South, she lets us know from time to time that there is no escaping those ironies and evils, certainly not by crossing the Mason-Dixon line. In doing so she demonstrates a willingness to avoid ideological rancor and rhetorical postures of one sort or another. She loves the people she spent so much time with, and in these poems gives voice to their "life"—their hopes, doubts, assets, handicaps. She has a right to feel that only the successive storming of various Bastilles areacts, but no doubt in many towns of the Delta there are individuals who have been in the past grateful for what Rosellen Brown the teacher and social activist has meant to them—and who are now grateful that she has chosen to speak out so intensely and honestly on their, on America's behalf.
A review of "Some Deaths in the Delta," in The New Republic, Vol. 164, No. 8, February 20, 1971, p. 31.
Rosellen Brown's poetry deals with racism and violence in Mississippi and with the grimness and desolation of city life in the North, specifically Brooklyn—themes that are still painfully valid in reality but have become almost banal when used as subject matter for poetry or fiction, unless the expression is particularly strong or fresh. The quality [of Some Deaths in the Delta] is uneven; Brown rarely seems sure of herself as a poet, for the poems tend to slip out of her grasp. I like some of her humorous asides … and some verses have an effective simplicity…. In its suggestion of uncommunicated rage, most of this volume seems insufficient as a liberation of the poet's feeling; the erratic Some Deaths in the Delta is ultimately unsuccessful, but promising.
John Alfred Avant, in a review of "Some Deaths in the Delta and Other Poems," in Library Journal, Vol. 96, No. 12, June 15, 1971, p. 2088.
Poems of social protest have perhaps more built-in drawbacks than any other kind. To mention only two disadvantages, they run the risk of appearing frivolous in comparison to the issues that have provoked them; still more dangerously, they run the risk of sounding self-righteous. Rosellen Brown has had considerable success in eluding these difficulties [in Some Deaths in the Delta]…. She is unsparing and sardonic…. It may be that her first-hand experience has added vividness to the poems. Many poets who deal with social topics have little connection with them beyond the newspapers, and their poems show it. In any event, Rosellen Brown is finally successful because she refuses to allow committedness to outweigh craft in the making of a poem. Her sensibility is as disciplined as it is radical. Other poets intent upon treating social issues might profit from reading her. (p. 348)
Robert B. Shaw, "The Long and the Short of It," in Poetry, Vol. CXIX, No. 6, March, 1972, pp. 342-55.∗
[Some Deaths in the Delta] might have been subtitled, is certainly about, "The Impact of the Deep South on a Nice Barnard Girl."… She manages to record sensations without slipping over into either condescension or sentimentality…. But sometimes … [her lines] are flat: "He is a black general now— / never planned to join up but / got drafted / because things rolled the way they did," is perfectly nice colloquial prose. And sometimes her sympathy overrules her judgment, as when she prints out as poetry a freshman essay by one of her (obviously bright and sensitive) Tougaloo students. (This is the socio-fallacy: that we must admire these verses because their source is so remarkable. It rears its ugly head all over the place these days.) But wherever she is, in Jackson, back home in Brooklyn, or reading a poem about the Bedouin, she is a recording instrument of great depth and sensitivity.
Margaret Wimsatt, in a review of "Some Deaths in the Delta," in Commonweal, Vol. XCVI, No. 1, March 10, 1972, p. 22.
A middle-class woman comes home to her apartment in a "multi-ethnic" neighborhood in Brooklyn and finds a burglar going through her jewels. She has already survived so many similar catastrophes that she can afford to be casual about this one, so she says to the burglar's back, "Who are you?" Adapting himself to her tone, he says, "You got a lot of junk, you know?"… Here's a good story [from the collection "Street Games"], appropriately called "The Only Way to Make It in New York," but Rosellen Brown spoils it by tacking on an apocalypse—an earthquake in Califomia—that drove the woman, her husband and daughter to Brooklyn. She doesn't need the earthquake—it is just an excuse for some fancy hallucinating, when all the time her story is right there in Brooklyn, present, concrete, deft, economical. When you have a life in Brooklyn—or anywhere in New York—an earthquake in California is just a Technicolor Cinerama extravaganza, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Leave well enough alone, Mrs. Brown. Quit while you're ahead.
She makes the same mistake in "How to Win," a chilling story of a mother who has a hyperactive child, an innocent monster of energy, a furious prisoner of perpetual motion. Musing on him in his devastations, she wonders how this happened to her to him, to our specials. He is a "possessed" child, not of witchcraft, but of psychology books, which only serve to deepen the mystery. Then his mother discovers that, at his school, they "walk on his neck," break his spirit, "teach him how to lose." We get a sermon on the suffocation of education, and there goes the broken spirit of a promising story.
"Why I Quit the Gowanus Liberation Front" is a fine satire on the efforts of a group of emancipated whites to "integrate" their semirenovated neighborhood. Semirenovated is the telling word here, connoting a limbo where the twain shall never meet, where no amount of foreign aid will ever win over the havenots. A street fair is proposed: it will shake everybody together, like a black-and-white frosted from the candy store down the block….
But Mrs. Brown still doesn't know when enough is enough. The narrator is so drugged or dragged with the "decadence" of his life that he has to flee wife and family. He "scales gates" in his getaway. He carries a suitcase crammed with symbolism. It is already coming apart at the seams, and so is the story….
Whoever condemned literature to a life sentence of hard labor, anyway? So many of our "serious" writers are becoming lugubrious, are approaching what might be described as the "official" art of the liberal establishment. The gaiety we see on TV rock 'n' roll programs or on the dance floor of the Cheetah, the wit, the invention, the transcendence—why doesn't someone write these down? In "Street Games," Mrs. Brown sometimes comes close. She has the eye, the ear, she knows what the have-nots have that you don't. But perhaps she has been too well educated…. Perhaps she has been alienated by high culture, by the creative writing theory that catastrophe is the only proper subject for the contemporary short story. She may have forgotten how to dance. If she is not careful, she will be joining the Gowanus Liberation Front.
Anatole Broyard, "Some Semirenovated Stories," in The New York Times, June 18, 1974, p. 37.
Each of the fourteen short stories in [Street Games] deals with the lives of the people living on a block in Brooklyn…. Even the shortest of these works conveys something of what the reader can regard as the fundamental outline of a particular life. In "Gold," a little girl simply takes a walk through her neighborhood, and one feels as if one has participated not just in her fantasies but also in the total ambience of dirt and frustration from which she dreams of escaping. In another, longer story, the main character moves between the squalid and chaotic existence of a "commune" on George Street and her parents' townhouse in Brooklyn Heights…. With sometimes brutal but consistently evocative imagery, Mrs. Brown manages to depict a particular strand in current parent-child relationships, a familiar brand of post-adolescent panic and disaffection, the violent self-pity of the girl's brilliant but aimless Puerto Rican boyfriend. Mrs. Brown's point of view is never merely spectatorial; even when the stories are told from an exterior perspective, one has a powerful sense of receiving knowledge about the complex substance of her characters' everyday experience—as they themselves perceive it. To be sure, Mrs. Brown concentrates almost unwaveringly on the stormier, more wrenching aspects of the experience of life represented, but her stories seek to enlarge rather than to diminish the people portrayed in them, and it is from this impulse of her writing that the primary seriousness and effectiveness derive.
Jane Larkin Crain, in a review of "Street Games," in Saturday Review/World, Vol. 1, No. 21, June 29, 1974, p. 19.
"Do you think there could be something like victims without crimes?" asks a woman in Rosellen Brown's Street Games. "Does someone always have to get blamed?" She is writing a letter to her dead junkie husband ("A Letter to Ismael in the Grave"), and struggling to figure out whose fault he was, but she is asking the questions for everybody in this tough, painful, funny, perceptive book.
Street Games is more than a collection of stories. It is a neighborhood of real people who wander in and out of each other's lives in the semirenovated "200" block of George Street in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. Things happen. People hurt. They blame someone, no one, themselves.
Rosellen Brown takes a lot of risks. Her stories are intensely felt but not sentimental or old-fashioned; they are about class and sex and race without being politically rhetorical or didactic. They work because, though she writes about human suffering, Rosellen Brown is interested not in misery or blame or histrionics, but in everyday life. She gets you inside people and beyond them at the same time. She moves in behind their eyes like a literary ventriloquist and writes with their voices, telling more about them than the words they use because she pays such fine attention to shades of expression, to the feelings behind what people say.
Some of the stories are overwrought. Sometimes a literary phrase creeps in where it doesn't belong, or an image is played out too far. But the risk of coming too close to poetry is worth taking, since in this kind of writing the line between what works and what doesn't is so elusive. Rosellen Brown is traveling out of her own experience into the voices of other people's thinking and feeling, talking and seeing. When she succeeds, and she usually does, the voice evokes the world it inhabits.
The woman in a story called "How To Win" talks explicitly about this problem of getting inside somebody else's head—only she poses it not as a writer but as the mother of a hyperkinetic six-year-old…. But only paranoid schizophrenics and a few behavioral scientists believe that you really can see into somebody's thoughts. Good writers, actors, mothers, doctors, friends, and teachers can make good guesses—and Rosellen Brown's are first-rate.
She is most successful where (here I'm guessing) she is most familiar. Two of the strongest voices in the book belong to white, articulate, middle-class people. (p. 40)
The epiphanies in Street Games are writ small. They sneak up on you the way some new small truth about your life does, and they don't have anything to do with who deserves them or with the fixing of blame. Yes, there are crimeless victims, and what gives life to these stories is not the placing of blame but the way the characters cope with pain and loss, fear and victimization. (p. 41)
Jean Strouse, "Crimeless Victims," in Ms., Vol. III, No. 3, September, 1974, pp. 40-1.
Anyone who goes through a good deal of modern fiction must have had this experience so often that it seems like a recurrent bad dream: You read a novel that shows considerable evidence of talent, intelligence, awareness and technical skill, a book that addresses itself to urgent and timely themes—and when you have reached its last page, you find yourself wondering what you are supposed to feel. You have been given plenty to think about, but that's not the real business of fiction, which is to put you in a posthypnotic trance, where your will is no longer your own and you are suffering or are thrilling to the vicissitudes of someone else's life.
For 270 pages of Rosellen Brown's first novel, I assumed that she had something original and startling up her sleeve, that she was going to find a way to fuse her two main themes into a single chord that would sound the hope or doom of mothers and daughters in our day and age. Because it was impossible to accept in any glad sense either the mother or the daughter in "The Autobiography of My Mother." I supposed that Miss Brown was going to tune the tension between them, to rewrite the equation somehow, show me a resolution I never thought of. Everything pointed this way: What other reason could there be for describing such a total antagonism between parent and child but to show us how we would have to learn to live with it or die of it.
Gerta Stein, the mother, is a 72-year-old lawyer who has devoted her life to "the defense of indefensible and unpopular people." She does this because she loves principles, not people…. She sees nothing in the here and now, but everything under the aspect of eternity.
Gerta once had a husband, but since her passion found greater satisfaction in court than in bed, she got rid of him. The price she paid for having briefly lost sight of herself was Renata, her daughter. Renata is the kind of young woman who would not know what to do with herself if she did not have a mother to distinguish herself from in every possible way. She is a parody of every psychoanalytic theory of rebellion, a negative parasite that hates what it feeds on.
Gerta, the mother, has a compulsion to be in the right, and she generally is, which makes her about as interesting as a computer. This leaves Renata nothing but a boring wrong-headedness to get through her life with. The reader is hard put to choose between them….
To be sure, Miss Brown's book raises a number of interesting questions, but it is part of the complacency of some modern novelists to believe that they need only ask interesting questions—no answers are required. Answer may be too strong a word. A novel need not give us answers, but it should, perhaps, question the questions until they bleed a little….
There are good things in the book, I must not forget to mention that lots of smart wisecracks about the opposing camps; a scene before a Congressional committee …; a talk show on which Renata and Gerta appear together and do their respective numbers.
In fact, Miss Brown is so lively sometimes that I'm almost tempted to say that it's not her fault that her novel isn't better—society is to blame. But no, it hasn't quite come to that yet.
Anatole Broyard, "Questioning the Questions," in The New York Times, May 26, 1976, p. 37.
In her ingenious book of short stories, "Street Games," Rosellen Brown explored the anxieties of the residents of a Brooklyn block. It was an impressive work….
Assault and anxiety are still Brown's subjects in her first novel, "The Autobiography of My Mother," but her focus has narrowed to the occupants of a single dwelling on the Upper West Side. (p. 7)
Three generations of Stein women in one household create the kind of tension that precedes breakdown. Gerda and Renata cannot stop judging one another by the opposing standards that have made of each of their lives, in its way, a suffocating and dead-ended half-life. Like Grace Paley, Rosellen Brown has a talent for writing the things that very intelligent people say and think when they are slowly going crazy. Renata cannot say what she feels—that she wants, desperately, to gain her mother's acceptance; and Gerda cannot feel the things she says. Each woman talks to the reader instead, in alternating narratives, and gradually, powerfully, the interlocking stories of mother and daughter unfold. (pp. 7-8)
As Gerda becomes more emotionally unmovable, Renata grows increasingly inert. The war between the women becomes a struggle over the child, and in her terrifyingly understandable ignorance, Gerda makes plans to gain custody of Tippy. This decision and its consequences form the shocking and yet completely logical climax of a novel about the unresolvable and deadly connections between mothers and daughters. These connections are nowhere in contemporary fiction better dramatized than here.
"The Autobiography of My Mother" is a bitter, funny, stringently unsentimental novel of rare merit. Rosellen Brown's strength lies in the steady but often dazzling accumulation of facts and details. She writes with great candor and ease, never retreating for one moment from her conviction that family is an accident from which the victims can never recover. That they try to, nevertheless is what makes this novel dramatic and even hopeful. Renata's story is half of "The Autobiography of My Mother," because she feels doomed to share her mother's life, to repeat it. But Renata's return home, in spite of the anger and futility behind the action, is also the first step in being able finally to leave home for good. (p. 8)
Laurie Stone, in a review of "The Autobiography of My Mother," in The New York Times Book Review, June 20, 1976, pp. 7-8.
If maternity ever seemed simple, it no longer does. Our madonnas look more hassled than serene, and our pietas show us gazing not at a child but into a mirror. In her subtle and moving first novel [The Autobiography of My Mother], poet and short story writer Rosellen Brown explores this ambivalence and puzzlement with cool-eyed sympathy….
Many novelists would … [be content with] pointing to the generation gap and the outlines of personality which separate us from each other. But Brown is after something more difficult to understand and describe—the recurrence of pattern within a family despite changes of style and condition, a recurrence that both women in part perceive and that explains the title….
"Autobiography" is long on character and incident, short on plot. It is clever rather than witty, sharply observant rather than satirical. Many episodes are touching; a few others, such as a quasirape, are to me unconvincing (Brown is least persuasive when most lurid). The language seems stiff at times, but then both narrators suffer from stiffness of heart.
The novel's chief strength lies in the author's delicate insistence on the contradictions within each woman. Aimless Renata is an acute observer; chilly Gerda has her commitments and a few moments of chivalrous passion ("Am I not to be allowed my paradoxes?). Brown could have made her another monstrous modern mother, and indeed Gerda is not a parent one would wish on anyone—although it is a relief to read about a mother who passes out the guilt to her daughter not with chicken soup but with exhortations to get a job. A monster-mother would be useful as an "explanation" of how Renata got that way: poor girl/ambitious mother/no love/compensation. But Brown resists the negative as well as positive simplifications we bring to each other; she allows her creations their full measure of paradox.
Anne Lake Prescott, "Rock-a-Bye Mamas," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXI, No. 25, June 21, 1976, p. 43.
"The Autobiography of My Mother" does exactly as the title suggests: it makes two separate people and identities into one Rosellen Brown focuses on the psychological warfare between an unusual mother, Gerda Stein, and her very disturbed daughter, Renata. Their confrontation clearly and efficiently reveals how emotional ambivalence in a family upsets the members.
Gerda's and Renata's alternating monologues compose the novel. As their voices mesh, their struggle begins to look like that within one person rather than that between two….
Out of these tangled identity questions Brown unravels the central problem for both mother and daughter—ambivalence. Love and hate mingled together keep these women from understanding each other. "The Autobiography of My Mother" also emphasizes the difficulty of self-knowledge. Caught in an unhappy pattern, these people over-simplify and ignore their own motives. Ultimately Gerda rationalizes legally removing her grandchild from the custody of her daughter. She never perceives the irony that she, an oblivious, insensitive parent should see her daughter as an unfit mother.
Despite her many subtleties, Brown's humor is usually direct, as are her ideas and lively images. Her subject matter—the lives of confused, depressed people—does limit these talents. But "The Autobiography of My Mother" does highlight Brown's ability to crystalize the delicate interconnections of love and identity.
Eve Ottenberg, in a review of "The Autobiography of My Mother," in The Christian Science Monitor, August 16, 1976, p. 22.
[Rosellen Brown] has powers of phrasing, of insight into feeling, of evocation; she has learning and she is, novelistically, ambitious, setting—and bringing off—a difficult section of her novel in a pre-Nazi Germany that she cannot have known firsthand but has to have grasped wholly through imagination and intelligent reading. Rosellen Brown has almost everything a novelist should have except, in The Autobiography of My Mother, a real story. Her extremely intelligent book might more accurately have been entitled Two Characters in Search of a Novel.
The two characters, a mother and a daughter, are each remarkable. An old world figure, the mother resembles someone not altogether unlike the late Hannah Arendt, though in a more activist strain…. European, cerebral, with a mind honed to cut fine distinctions, thinking in an English that makes the requirements of precision that only a well-educated foreigner can bring to the language, she is a most fascinating construction…. As for the daughter, she is very near to a human disaster. A floater out on the sea called counter-culture, she has lived in hippy squalor, sleeping round, picking up then dropping one or another interest, eventually becoming a professional incompetent, a title which she earns indisputably by having a child out of wedlock by a Trotskyist whose fingers smell of cat food. (A nice touch, that last.) Such are Miss Brown's two characters, mother and daughter—not exactly a page out of the Christmas J. C. Penney Catalogue.
The setting is claustral, as perhaps it should be for female combat; but more than claustral, it is a bit menacing, as the upper-west side of Manhattan can often be. The novel proper begins with the daughter showing up at her mother's legal office with her child. No men of any moment appear in the book. The two women know each other too well, which doesn't make conversation between them any easier; this and the fact that neither is what the other had in mind for a mother or daughter. Many valuable things about women—also about Woman—get said in Miss Brown's pages; and if at times one is inclined to label this a "feminist" novel—an insulting label—it is finally better than that. Yet for all her talent Miss Brown's novel wants a sense of direction. Hers is a book that offers the object lesson that subtle portraiture, keen psychological insight, and splendid writing—rare and blessed things though they are in themselves—are not sufficient to produce a novel of the first class. It is only at the very end of The Autobiography of My Mother that, through a twist with a fatal air of contrivance to it, something like a plot emerges. The effect is rather like hearing a joke splendid in the telling capped by a weak punch-line. Still, her novel does make one indisputable point, and this is that Rosellen Brown is a novelist worth reading. (pp. 599-600)
Joseph Epstein, "Is Fiction Necessary?" in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, Winter, 1976–77, pp. 593-604.∗
[The title character of Cora Fry] is a young wife with two children named Nan and Chip, and a husband she thinks of as Fry. No first name. Not that she doesn't love him, but well, she doesn't trust him yet, and she feels trapped in her marriage….
Cora lives in rural New Hampshire. She has always lived there, and she is growing vaguely restless. Watching the lives of others on TV has fed her uneasy wants….
What Cora wants for Cora is what Greta Garbo always said she wanted, it's "luscious freedom / it's not to be needed. To be just alone…."
But the luscious freedom to be alone is not for Cora. When her husband, Fry, takes a night's shore leave from marriage. Cora tries to escape. She moves out. She wrecks her car. She takes the children on the bus to Boston. Then, her anger vented, she returns home. To her worried, welcoming Fry, who "sat still / and worried / swayed in the tidal pull / that brought me home / and still could drown us all."
That tidal pull is what this stream-of-consciousness poem/novel is all about. The tidal pull of the seasons, the sexes, the social norms. Poet Rosellen Brown here pays homage to the ambiguous ties of home and family. Caught in the annual round of gardening, preserving, caring for her husband and children, Cora Fry longs to break loose, envies the muskrat who gnaws himself free from the trap, but cannot emulate him.
Cora, Ms. Brown seems to be saying, is New England to the core. Honest, frank, unromantic, tradition-bound, good. No Anna Karenina she, to spoil her life in pursuit of passion. No Emma Bovary, no Hedda Gabler, no histrionics, only quiet desperation. Even desperation sounds too dramatic. Quiet acceptance.
She's sound as an apple, Cora is, and in consequence, her inner monologue is often prosaic. One can't wax very poetic over putting away the children's rubber boots. Still, Cora has her moments, and it is Rosellen Brown's creative intuition to let us see that deep down inside, like all apples, Cora hides a star.
Victor Howes, "'Cora Fry' Tests 'the Tidal Pull'," in Christian Science Monitor, March 9, 1977, p. 23.
Cora Fry works because Brown has found a persona close to herself: the spirit of a woman in a small New England town, half pioneer, half modern. Brown is secure enough as a poet to let the words stand on their own, to know when she's said enough, not to explain or justify what she's said. She's strongest where she's most alone, working from the primitive parts of herself. The poems leave a lot unsaid, they make us stop and think, relate them to our own life. At times some of the modern images seem a little surface, but they also serve to show the reader this isn't really grandmother's old days; the poet still has to exist right here…. Brown knows what she's doing, and she does it well.
Rochelle Ratner, in a review of "Cora Fry," in Library Journal, Vol. 102, No. 6, March 15, 1977, p. 713.
[Rosellen Brown] writes in her second novel, "Tender Mercies," an arabesque, Faulknerian prose … which ordinarily tries the patience by making metaphor the familiar landscape of action without justifying the style of metaphor. Complicatedly beautiful.
However, in "Tender Mercies" she has created such a powerful dramatic situation that almost no degree of stylistic ornamentation could diminish it. Dan Courser, in a moment of coltish exuberance, has swung the hull of a boat he is steering over his swimming wife, and caused her to be paralyzed from the neck down. Now, at the beginning of the novel, he has snatched her from a rehabilitation center and driven her home, with her two young children to their house in New Hampshire, where they will begin the awesome journey across the gulf of their mutual resentment and guilt.
I'm still not certain that the style of "Tender Mercies" is specifically apt to its dramatic situation, or that it serves to make of that situation any sort of resonant metaphor. Laura, the crippled wife, thinks, feels, and dreams in imagistic italics, which surely reflect a tenuous grip on the real world, but the third-person narrative that embodies Dan's point of view is sometimes at odds with his supposedly rough-hewn Yankee style. Still, the prose does serve to filter what in blunter language might have been unbearably painful. And it gives Miss Brown scope to make of a brutal situation an often touchingly pointed drama.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in a review of "Tender Mercies," in The New York Times, November 24, 1978, p. C25.
In Rosellen Brown's Cora Fry, a long cycle of poems narrated by the woman of the title, we find many things that may remind us of Frost, rural loneliness, for example; but we do not find … [Frost's] particular compression and resonance…. The voice and consciousness of Cora Fry are too weak to echo long after her. Brown's characters don't seem to have any place to begin from, any point of solitude, selfhood, or inwardness. Not quite in touch with things, they are brutal and grasping, prodigiously lonely, and pathetically modern. They are either imprisoned in their houses or hurtling someplace in their cars and consequently have no connection to those corners of the landscape where the human traces blend back into the earth…. The highway runs like a ribbon through Rosellen Brown's book, and it is no surprise that Cora Fry has a bad, perhaps a deliberate, car accident two-thirds through the book.
Cora Fry is the story of a woman who sees only a few things, and those, only intermittently. The housewifely poems sound like Sylvia Plath…. Some of Cora's poems about her husband also resemble those in Ariel…. The analogy with Plath makes sense because, like her, Cora is a woman emerging from herself during the Fifties and Sixties; and, like Plath, she doesn't quite reach the surface. History touches Cora rarely; the shock waves in her world are more local in origin. But unlike Frost and other American Romantics like William Carlos Williams, the poems in Cora Fry do not get very deeply inside the local, either. The complications of perception and conscience that mark Frost and Williams have no place in this world, which is not only godless and dry, but dull. When, to brave this problem, Cora or her author try to sound lyrically rich and suggestive, as in the squash poems or the one about an old woman going through garbage cans, the poems just sound foolish; the consciousness does not play or examine, but turns briefly on itself and then lets go…. (pp. 98-9)
But every so often the right note is struck. Reunited with her husband after trying to leave him, Cora notices that he walks in a peculiar, stiff way as if during her absence he had "Sat still / and worried, / swayed in the / tidal pull / that brought me home / and still could / drown us all." Rosellen Brown is also fairly good at describing rather ugly domestic scenarios [as in the poem which begins:]
"Fry," I said when he touched me on my breast. "Do you think of women, other women, when you're touching me there?" (p. 99)
There are some fine observations here, the husband blinking in the dark, his inability to shrug properly in this position, his coarse and chilling assurance, "No one you know." But the analogy with the "butterfly / kiss" Cora gives her daughter is a false step, a descent into sentimentality.
One also wonders what principle of realism or surprise is behind the poet's choice of line breaks; I don't know the answer in this case nor in any other in the book. The jaggedness of the lines seems to mirror the tenuousness of Cora's courage, the frailty of her will, and perhaps a foregone conclusion on Brown's part about her character's importance: Cora Fry was born to go under. This persona cannot fight back, and can hardly remember events in the past; in minor ways Brown tries to remember for her. The first poem in the book, a bit portentous but also touching, says:
I want to understand light years. I live in Oxford, New Hampshire. When, then, will the light get to me?
Get to her, we must ask, from where? Cora suffers her marriage to Fry, has two children, a car accident, an affair, leaves Fry, comes back to him, and in the last poem in the book we are answered: the light doesn't come from anywhere, it's all manmade…. (p. 100)
Between the question about light years and the extinguished stars on the rug, what lies stretched out upon the rural tarmac is what E. M. Forster called "the tapeworm of time," the simple and not necessarily logical sequence of events in a story: one thing happens, and then another thing happens, and the minor characters come and go, and that's all the meaning there is to it. There are a number of voices, often finely caught, in Cora Fry, but no conversations; Brown's is not a world in which people can really talk to each other. She uses the basic convention of the long monologue, with here and there a lyric slipped in…. The poems do not sound like one person's, and perhaps this is Rosellen Brown's point—that this life is patched together and its errors and lapses irrevocable. (p. 101)
Mary Kinzie, "'What Are You Doing Up There in Those Grapes?'" in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1978, pp. 96-116.∗
It is not entirely an original device to place a handicapped person at the centre of a piece of fiction; perhaps, however, it may be seen as a kind of reaction to all those tales of domestic life in which troubles proliferate in conditions of absolute normality: … [The heroine of Tender Mercies] is in a spectacular predicament: she is paralysed from the neck down, as the result of an accident caused by her husband in a moment of thoughtlessness. The theme of the novel is rehabilitation, in a wide sense; it's a difficult subject, rife with unease and emotion, full of dangers, for the novelist, of lapses of taste and errors of form. (p. 62)
The details of the situation are distressing, the feelings of the characters are complicated by guilt and a special variety of bitterness, so highly charged it's almost converted into a positive force. One possible tone of conversation is a defensive smartness with an undercurrent of acid; Tender Mercies is not a book about futile indulgence. At the worst moments the husband, the culprit, resorts to a desperate clowning.
It's a difficult subject, but the author has achieved a density of language and feeling which represents an efficient fusion of manner and matter: this is reality on a special plane. Just occasionally the sensitive touch becomes a little too marked and showy; it is simply going too far, for example, to present the thoughts of maimed Laura in a format which degenerates into poetic incoherence. But on the whole the narrative method works well; the subtle approach may lead to its own kind of inflations … but it contributes style, a quality unexpected and valuable in the context. (pp. 62-3)
Patricia Craig, "Cripples," in New Statesman, Vol. 98, No. 2521, July 13, 1979, pp. 62-3.∗
[Civil Wars], a densely packed and morally scrupulous chronicle, occupies a place long vacant and waiting. It belongs to our recent history. It is both political—an account of civil rights activists living through that moment's ambiguous, often deadening aftermaths—and literary—part of a group of realistic novels, many but not all by women, that insist on the family as a social model and potently depict it as strained by the opposing demands of private and public values. Love and work, our perennials.
In her first novel, "The Autobiography of My Mother," Miss Brown wrote about the political rigors of one generation's giving way to, or indirectly leading to the personal fragmentation of, the next. In "Tender Mercies," her subject was a marriage tested by a dreadful accident. In "Civil Wars," these themes are re-examined and recombined, emerging more wisely pondered, more tensely wrought. The cast of characters is larger, and the Southern landscape, physical and spiritual, is richly rendered.
Jessie and Teddy Carll and their children, Andy, 14, and Lydia, 11, are the last white family living in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Jackson, Miss., in 1978….
Teddy's bigoted sister and brother-in-law are killed in an auto accident, inexplicably leaving their two children in the Carlls' care. Not only a bigger house but a more spacious way of life must be found, one that can accommodate a grief-stricken boy of 8 and a silently exasperating, fastidious girl of 13, both brought up on epithets like "nigger" and the latter closer to breakdown than anyone dreams. The ensuing struggles to make room in every sense are the "civil wars" of the triple-edged title.
In the narrowest reading, the novel is about the demise of a marriage—a civil pact, after all. But the gradual fraying of the bond between Jessie and Teddy has its place in a complex net of broader issues. What is left for a hero is an unheroic age, especially when he suspects, and his black friends tell him, that it was never "his" movement at all? At what point do dedication and sacrifice become fatuous and self-serving? Is it noble or simply arrogant for a man to have "more anxiety for the world than for himself" (from the Kafka epigraph)? Ultimately, this lucidly courageous book asks not only about heroes stuck in memory's groove but about us. Are we a people surviving, like Jessie's father, at "the bottom of the barrel," living not on "the ideals but the sloughed impurities of the ideals?"
Those large questions are handled in the domestic rather than the epic mode. For Jessie, the "personal" and the "political," words whose meaning has been diminished by slogan, are never polarities to be yanked together by force but exist naturally intertwined as she goes about her life, "her yoked forward movement." I know of no contemporary novel that devotes such respectful care to the actual work of a woman raising a family, in this case almost single-handedly. Everything is unabashedly shown, from draining the spaghetti to finding a dancing school to the time-consuming talks addressed to the needs and wants of bewildered children, all four drawn with a vivid attention to character rarely given the young in our fiction….
Rosellen Brown's approach to her characters is exhaustive. She knows and tells all—their smug and foolish earnestness that becomes courage when challenged, their self-absorption that becomes selflessness in time of need, their true and false heroics. Her style is dense, her tone wry as she records the flux of Jessie's inner life. Intricacies of perception, emotion and thought are assessed by a skeptical intelligence coupled with a thorough devotion to the subject. This very thoroughness sometimes works to the detriment of the story. A poet as well as novelist, Miss Brown is prodigal with metaphor and analogy; on occasion she seems unable to resist the call of her own talent, indulging in skillful but superfluous paraphrase. True as her words are, fewer would have been better.
Any work so clearly of the heart and spirit takes immense risks, this one particularly. It dares to be about ideals and the perils awaiting those committed to them, and it dares to dwell on the most quotidian of matters, with critical scenes taking place in the kitchen and the family car. It directly confronts the sorely ambivalent position of a white family enmeshed in the fight for black people's rights. At a time when fiction by women seems perversely misunderstood, one can only hope that "Civil Wars" will be recognized as a brave and fine work.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz, "End of a Movement, End of a Marriage," in The New York Times Book Review, May 6, 1984, p. 15.
Now that the 1960s generation has come of middle age, a little nostalgia for the old activist days seems to help take the edge off the big chill of life in the 1980s. In the therapeutic thaw, however, memories have a way of turning muddy. The essence of the era, to judge from versions of it offered by recent movies and fiction (and politicians), was a warm communal spirit—just what's missing these days. The actual political causes that brought together all the hopeful, youthful bodies generally get skimpier treatment; so do the private pursuits that have since split up the members of that generation, who are older and more encumbered now.
Rosellen Brown's large novel about two veterans of the Civil Rights Movement is a remarkable exception to such selective recollections of the 1960s. Not that there isn't muddiness in this ambitious novel, an epic of sorts. There is, literally: Civil Wars ends with a flood. And there is figurative murkiness as well, but it comes from delving into the ambivalent truths of the past and present, not from skimming too quickly over the styles of the times. In Civil Wars, as in her striking first novel, The Autobiography of My Mother (1976) and her acclaimed Tender Mercies (1978, no relation to the movie of the same name), Brown aims to confront her characters with unwieldy circumstances and see how resilient they turn out to be. Her own style is vigorous and graceful as she unfolds her episodic plot. In scene after carefully lit scene, Brown explores rather than blurs the relations between the past and the present, between private lives and larger forces. (p. 37)
Jessie and Teddy's struggle, an undeclared but serious one, is not the only battle Brown stages between the claims of the public, active realm and those of a more private sphere. In her first novel, The Autobiography of My Mother, civil rights lawyer Gerda Stein wins fame crusading for her clients' freedom, only to come home to face a daughter whose will seems paralyzed. In Civil Wars, Brown explores the tensions between public and private history on several different scales. She points to the disharmony between the internal and external politics of the Civil Rights Movement, which is recollected and reappraised in the course of the novel. In the background, she sketches in earlier schisms as well, the result of competing familial and social values. (pp. 38-9)
These marital, familial, and political wars—all cool or cold as the novel opens—heat up in the face of disaster, a familiar device in Brown's fiction…. At stake in the crisis of this divided house are ideological principles and day-to-day practices.
To set out the novel's thematic structure is not, however, to suggest that Civil Wars is schematic. On the contrary, it's of the loose and baggy monster school, and some of its many episodes are flat and almost sentimental. But most of them are the product of the best kind of intellectual and emotional patience, for Brown's inclination is Keatsian, and she filters her narrative through Jessie's equally ambivalent vision. "If your sympathies exist two at a time … they call you soft, and they always will," Jessie muses, defensive about her half-doubts and uncertainties. Thanks to her ease with ambiguity, there is unusual tension and texture in the novel's political and familial dilemmas. It's only the Carlls's marital troubles that fail to get such rounded treatment.
As Jessie reflects on the political past, she finds that her and Teddy's years on the march look more complicated rather than less. In retrospect, she dwells on the divisiveness, not the harmony, of the internal politics of the movement…. (p. 39)
Jessie also thinks back on some of the public rhetoric, which bothered her in passing then but looms larger now…. The lesson … the novel as a whole teaches by the accretion of social and psychological detail [is] that the categories of victim, victimizer, and savior are misleading ones, as reductive almost as master and slave, denying the independence of all. It's not the sort of lesson that translates into political positions or leads to saintly action, but the kind that keeps ideological delusion at bay.
Jessie confronts familial, as well as political, facts with few formulaic conceptions…. [She] views the children in her life with unpossessive clarity. It's the girls, not the clear-eyed boys, who are hardest to read. Helen, in fact, is a morose mystery, her adolescent soul bared in diary entries that punctuate the narrative. But even with her troubled surrogate daughter and with her own intense Lydia, Jessie is able to step far back and visualize the invisible…. (pp. 39-40)
Such moral sympathy, however, seems to escape Jessie when it comes to her husband. After the opening chapters, in which Jessie's ambivalence toward Teddy is well modulated between impatience at his posturing and insight into his predicament, she loses the depth of vision that guides her so well on political and familial terrain….
Too often, Brown offers no corrective to Jessie's uncharacteristically reductive view of her husband. Poor Teddy carries on as a caricature, ever flatter as the novel progresses and he turns away from the family to politics, first dabbling in action (he aims to stir up an implausible boycott in a nearby black town), then in theory (he plans a book setting out an even less plausible reassessment of the Movement).
Jessie too loses her shadows in his presence.
She sounded like a television commercial, she knew, the contemptuous kind she most despised….
Jessie's analysis is striking, as always, but she's right, the bickering between them belongs to a less fully imagined medium. It's Teddy who articulates their conflict, accurately but crudely, as he's about to take the kids off to boycott with him. "I'm teaching them there are larger groups than the family that you can swear loyalty to…. I am teaching them that women tend to take a narrow view of anything that threatens their beloved family." Beneath the civil wars between the races and generations seems to lurk the longest lasting battle of them all, between the sexes.
That struggle, somewhat surprisingly, is the only one Brown fails to bring into her fine-grained focus, to consider with the "concentration" she celebrates in her fiction. By that word, which she uses often, she seems to mean the energetic fusing and focusing of emotion and thought that others have called imagination or sympathy—a crucial moral linking that lets the locked-in self escape and see others from their own center out. Her protagonists have it or aspire to it, and their lives are complicated in the best sense. Brown has it too, and her concentration is the generous, rigorous power of a well-schooled intelligence—a soul, Keats would call it. Her fiction opens onto worlds of pains and troubles and truths that aren't simple. (p. 40)
Ann Hulbert, "In Struggle," in The New Republic, Vol. 190, No. 18, May 7, 1984, pp. 37-40.
Civil Wars, should the title mislead, is not an evocation of the Old South. It is a startling, chilling introduction to the New South, where social upheaval has taken out all the sugar and left the sting….
[Civil Wars is an] unfailingly well-written book, a story that could just as easily be named Tender Ironies in an echo of Brown's second novel, Tender Mercies….
It takes a new cadence to tell this novel of the New South, and Brown's rhythm is consistently strong. Her prose is packed, of course, with irony, and with a bitter but very real humor. Out go the back roads and magnolia-scented symbols of the Old South and in come the expressways and startling emblems of the New South. Brown conjures it beautifully…. (p. 9)
Her characters could easily have fallen into a new brand of stereotype: the middle-aged civil rights workers could have been laughable, forever sitting around and listening to Pete Seeger albums. Instead, they are treacherously good, leading the reader to an expectation then taking a sharp turn. Teddie is a complex ascetic, with his own battles raging inside, a front-lines radical whose purity of purpose is tarnished by his chauvinism and egotism. Jessie is a sympathetic heroine, but there's a bit of nagging and some middle-age, middle-class compromising that keep her driving a jagged unpredictable path.
But Brown's characterization is at its finest with Helen, the pale, blond orphaned 13-year-old who reveals her tortured self only through her diary, page after page of which Brown has captured with the perfect voice of a teen-age girl. Everything from Helen's tortured poetry to her girlish crushes spills out so realistically that the reader feels uncomfortably voyeuristic, as if he'd hung around the school yard and picked up ages that had blown out of a young girl's notebook.
Civil Wars is an intensely political novel, but it is not burdened with its politics. North versus South, Young versus Old, Black versus White, Right versus Left, Rich versus Poor: everywhere Brown's jackhammer cadence and deep convictions keep the novel driving hard, through battle after battle in a New South where there is no peace. (pp. 9, 17)
Jeanne McManus, "Mississippi Breakdown," in Book World—The Washington Post, May 27, 1984, pp. 9, 17.
Rosellen Brown is a novelist of marriage and the family. Her subject is the lives of men and women as husbands and wives, mothers and fathers. Her story is how the immediate world looks to one of her characters at a moment when attachments that have taken years to knit themselves up threaten to unravel. Her method is to pay concentrated attention to what her character registers during the time of crisis. Tender Mercies, Brown's last novel, was set in Vermont among hippie dropouts leading marginal country lives, and Civil Wars is set in Mississippi among ex-civil rights workers whose lives are equally uncentered. In each novel the social setting feels accurate and persuasive, but the single-minded attention paid to a moment in the kitchen or the bedroom while a marriage is coming to pieces is Brown's real context. This attention is her metaphor. It is what gives her the patience and the skill necessary to make her writer's intelligence move forward. This new novel is a fine example of the increased authority of her prose….
Throughout Civil Wars, we are inside Jessie's head. The way she sees—how she orders experience, interprets motive and event—is the way we see. Her thoughts about how their life came to be as it is are peripheral—a stream of pride, confusion, and regret about the Movement that does not run very deep. Her thoughts about the children are alive with tenderness and concern. Her thoughts about herself apart from her husband and children are remarkably unformed. Her thoughts about Teddy are central. Jessie's continual rumination on who and what Teddy is—the shrewdness of her observations, the shades of distinction over how the Movement first pushed him into and then out of shape—gives character to the prose, provides the novel with texture and pain…. He is there on the page because Jessie's thoughts have given him dimension.
Jessie also endlessly appraises, judges, and scorns Teddy—for living in the past, being insensitive to the present, without energy for the future. Intelligent as she is, Jessie begins to sound like a passive scold who could drive anyone (male, female, husband, reader) away. As the narrative progressed. I found myself thinking: Lady, get yourself a life of your own. Leave this poor bastard alone already.
Civil Wars is the work of a writer who respects her craft. Rosellen Brown has lived a long time with Jessie and Teddy: she understands the weight and shape of the prose required to render the feel of their lives, and she has given them their due. I believe the Carlls are trapped. I see them squirming around inside their limitations, am persuaded they cannot break free of a dream-ridden past. However, they lack a vital piece of wisdom—they do not know that their failure to grow into separate adults must pull them apart despite the long woven years together. And unfortunately the author seems to know only as much as her characters. Brown writes without the detachment (the consciousness, if you will) necessary to penetrate the meaning of the Carlls' pain and bewilderment. She takes Jessie and Teddy at face value, presents them as they'd present themselves. In a writer who makes such brilliant use of the close up, this lack of distance is troublesome.
Vivian Gornick, "The '60s Are Over," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIX, No. 25, June 19, 1984, p. 47.