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Rosellen Brown is a well-respected, best-selling novelist and poet whose works are noted for their intensity of metaphor and imagery. Brown s primary focus is on family relations, and her works explore such issues as loyalty, self-preservation and self-fulfillment, and the individual s relationship with the local community.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Childhood of Movement
Brown was born in Philadelphia on May 12, 1939. Because her father was a salesman, Brown s family moved several times during her childhood. Brown often felt alienated at school, and she used writing to fill her free time. In high school she turned to journalism. Because of her writing, she received a scholarship to attend Barnard College, an all-women s college in New York City. After receiving her degree from Barnard in 1960, she went on to graduate studies at Brandeis University, graduating with an MA in 1962. She married the following year.
Brown has moved throughout her adulthood, just as she did during her childhood, and the various places she has lived have figured prominently in her writing. In 1965, Brown took a position at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where she witnessed the upheavals of the Civil Rights Movement. During this time, there was a high-profile showdown between the federal government and the Southern states over questions of desegregation and equal access to public facilities. Seeing this showdown firsthand influenced he first collection of poetry, Some Deaths in the Delta and Other Poems (1970). Questions of race relations were also important in her later works, particularly in Civil Wars (1984).
After leaving Mississippi, Brown and her husband moved to Brooklyn, New York, which became the setting of her second published work, Street Games: A Neighborhood (1974). She then lived in New Hampshire, where her poetry collection Cora Fry (1977) was set.
Brown continued to move frequently, taking teaching positions at Goddard College in Vermont, Boston University, University of Houston, and Northwestern University and the School of Art Institute in Chicago. Her works continue to draw on her personal experiences moving around the country, though they have also come to focus on questions of family relations. Her latest work, Half a Heart (2000), includes many of the themes evident throughout her works, including racial issues, the Civil Rights Movement, and family relationships.
Works in Literary Context
Using Dual Perspectives
Brown frequently employs dual narrative voices to portray her main characters’ different perspectives. Her first collection of poetry, Some Deaths in the Delta, and her first two novels, The Auto biography of My Mother (1976) and Tender Mercies (1978), all employed two distinct narrative voices for the main characters. In the novels, Brown showed the different views of the two main characters on the family relationships explored in the story. In Tender Mercies, not only are there two different perspectives, Brown employs two distinct styles for her narrators: the husband’s voice is straightforward prose while the wife’s voice is stream-of-consciousness and often poetic. Brown returned to this technique in Half a Heart, exploring a mother-daughter relationship through a narrative that gives the mother and daughter separate voices and styles.
Fusing Prose and Poetry
Brown is a poet as well as a novelist, and she is noted for fusing poetry and prose in her novels. She often includes vivid imagery and lyrical writing in her prose, and she employs poetic language to provide distinct voices for different characters in her dual-narrative novels. She explicitly blends poetry and prose in Cora Fry’s Pillow Book (1994), which is a sequel to her poetry collection Cora Fry (1977) that includes the original story continued through a series of poetic verses.
Works in Critical Context
Brown has been praised for her lyrical prose and skillful use of different narrative styles as well as her evocative and precise descriptions. However, some reviewers have noted that her characters are difficult to empathize with, partly because of her superficial character depictions and fragmented, incomplete details that leave too many questions unanswered. Other reviewers, however, have claimed that she is able to develop her characters through stray details and sporadic background information. In general, though, critics praise Brown’s ability to depict families under stress in a realistic and compelling manner, and a number of reviewers have given her major works impressive reviews.
Brown has often been noted for her ability to take on difficult issues in familial relations with insight and skill. Her second novel, Tender Mercies, was called an ”intense and challenging” book by a Chicago Tribune critic and the monologues that make up some of the book were considered ”uncanny, sometimes brilliant” by a reviewer for the Washington Post Book World. Joyce Carol Oates states that Tender Mercies is ”a haunting novel” which ”contains prose as masterful, and as moving, as any being written today.”
Before and After
Brown’s 1992 novel, Before and After, received more mixed reviews. While a Washington Post Book World reviewer called Before and After ”a superior novel” and, ”for all its pain and sadness, … [Brown’s] most affirmative book,” a reviewer for the Nation ”closed this novel unsatisfied.” A Contemporary Novelist reviewer praised the book for its strong character depictions and challenging themes but concluded that “Reading Rosellen Brown is a highly personal experience; hers isn’t the angst for everybody.”
- Bonetti, Kay, ed. Conversations with American Novelists: The Best Interviews from The Missouri Review and the American Audio Prose Library. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
- Contemporary Novelists, sixth edition. Detroit: St. James, 1996.
- Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 32. Detroit: Gale, 1985.
- Brown, Rosellen and Judith Pierce Rosenberg. ”PW Interviews: Rosellen Brown.” Publishers Weekly (August 31, 1992): 54-55.
- Brown, Rosellen and Melissa Walker. ”An Interview with Rosellen Brown.” Contemporary Literature (Summer 1986): 144-159.
- Dunford, Judith. Realms of Wrong and Right.” Chicago Tribune Books (September 6, 1992): 1, 6.
- Lee, Don. ”About Rosellen Brown.” Ploughshares (Fall 1994): 235-240.
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