Brown Publishes

Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle was significantly different from earlier novels addressing lesbian lives. It likely was the first novel that made it clear that being lesbian is a good thing.

Summary of Event

Rita Mae Brown’s first novel, Rubyfruit Jungle
[kw]Brown Publishes Rubyfruit Jungle (1973)
[kw]Publishes Rubyfruit Jungle, Brown (1973)
[kw]Rubyfruit Jungle, Brown Publishes (1973)
Rubyfruit Jungle (Brown)
[c]Literature;1973: Brown Publishes Rubyfruit Jungle[0920]
[c]Publications;1973: Brown Publishes Rubyfruit Jungle[0920]
Brown, Rita Mae
Arnold, June
Bowman, Parke

(1973), burst upon a lesbian community at a time when the newly awakened consciousness of lesbians had no literature to match their self-image. The 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York City had brought homosexuality not only to the often horrified eyes of the general public but also to the newly opened eyes of individual, and often isolated, lesbians and gays across the United States. Suddenly it seemed possible to a silent and marginal lesbian and gay community, consisting largely of individuals and couples who believed they were “the only ones,” that they could find both a voice to speak their existence and a space within the heterosexual world in which to be visible to one another and to the larger world.

Rita Mae Brown and her famous kitty Sneaky Pie Brown, 1994.

(Mark Homan)

Into this historical moment exploded Rubyfruit Jungle, which has been called the mother of lesbian coming-out novels. It was first issued in paperback by Daughters, Inc., Daughters, Inc.[Daughters Inc] a small Plainfield, Vermont, women’s press established in 1973 by writer June Arnold and her partner, lawyer Parke Bowman, to publish high-quality fiction by women. In the year of Rubyfruit Jungle’s publication, Daughters, Inc., also published Arnold’s The Cook and the Carpenter: A Novel by the Carpenter
Cook and the Carpenter (Arnold) (1973) and Blanche McCrary Boyd’s Nerves
Nerves (Boyd) (1973), now lesbian classics, albeit of a different sort from Rubyfruit Jungle.

Lesbian readers responded instantly and enthusiastically to Rubyfruit Jungle. Its outspoken, totally out heroine, Molly Bolt, was what every lesbian wanted to be—bold, sharp-witted, self-made, and unafraid of her sexuality in all its manifestations. Mainstream media were slower to respond. Book World reviewed the novel, as did several alternate publications, including The Village Voice. The novel’s most significant reviews were in Ms. magazine (June, 1974), which included it among four others in a review of Daughters, Inc.’s, first-year offerings, and in the lesbian-feminist publication Off Our Backs, but at the time neither periodical was widely read. Major review outlets ignored Brown’s work.

Readers, however, loved the book and bought it. Rubyfruit Jungle rapidly sold seventy thousand copies, becoming Daughters best seller. This ongoing demand brought the book to mainstream attention, and after a bidding war in which Daughters held out for the best possible offer, in 1977, Bantam bought the book rights for $250,000 and issued an initial press run of 250,000 copies, soon to be increased to more than one million. Since that time the book has been in print.

Once Rubyfruit Jungle entered mainstream media, it reached a new audience. As a Bantam offering, it got an extensive and favorable review in The New York Times. The novel also was optioned for a 1979 film, but the film was never made.


Possibly the single most important reason Rubyfruit Jungle caused such an immediate and ongoing stir among both lesbian and heterosexual readers was that it filled a place in English-language literature that had been conspicuously vacant. Certainly there had been a “literature of homosexuality,” but that literature largely presented the then-standard view of homosexuality as an aberration—albeit God-given—whose expression brought only unhappiness.

The model for this literature was Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness
Well of Loneliness, The (Hall) (1928), perhaps the most widely read fictional account of a homosexual life, in which Stephen Gordon “manfully” drives her lover Mary Llewellyn into the arms of heterosexual normality. Although Gordon is a successful writer, and although both she and her creator stoutly maintain that “the invert” is a child of God and therefore should be accepted and loved, the entire narrative force of the novel moves inexorably toward unhappiness in love and failure in relationships.

So too with the drugstore novels of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In books like the series written by Ann Bannon Bannon, Ann or Paula Christian, Christian, Paula there was a lot of love and a lot of sex, and lesbians read the books avidly, but relationships were never completely successful. Even well-written art novels like those of Gail Wilhelm Wilhelm, Gail launched their protagonists into a sea of feeling in which “we too are drifting.”

It was not impossible, of course, to imagine a better fictional world for lesbians and gays. That imagining, however, was largely confined to realms not directly accessible to the readers of the books. For instance, the delightfully romantic Patience and Sarah (1973; originally published in 1969 as A Place for Us by Alma Routsong under the pseudonym Isabel Miller) is set in a distant past and located on an unpeopled frontier, and the protagonists’ lives are lived virtually alone and self-reliant. Bertha Harris’s Lover (1976) has been variously described as nonlinear and surreal, and its nontraditional attempt to establish what Harris herself called a new genre made it, along with its near-contemporary Monique Wittig’s, Les Guerilleres (1969), unreadable for many readers.

Arnold’s The Cook and the Carpenter confused and even angered some readers because of its pronoun avoidance, which made it impossible to determine the sex of the main characters. Elana Nachmann’s Riverfinger Women (1974) was a fantasy, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) was science fiction, and Sally Miller Gearhart’s Wanderground (1978) was set in a dystopian future. Although these and other contemporaneous novels presented a newly positive view of lesbian life, that life remained inaccessible to the people who read them.

Not so with Rubyfruit Jungle. Its protagonist Molly Bolt is loosely patterned on Rita Mae Brown. An illegitimate adopted child in the redneck South, Molly discovers at an early age both her polymorphous sexuality and her inclination to defy authority and custom. She questions adult authority, follows her inclinations, eschews limiting attachments, and overcomes an industry’s hostility to become a filmmaker. At the end of the novel, Molly remains jobless, mentorless, without a significant relationship, and uncertain of her next step in life. One might say that Rubyfruit Jungle leaves Molly no better off, really, than Stephen Gordon was at the end of The Well of Loneliness, but there is a key difference that readers immediately perceived and that drove the book’s success, both when it appeared and now. Molly Bolt has a finely developed sense of self and a conviction that she is valuable and lovable as she is—as a lesbian. It was this consciousness, this assertion of the value of being lesbian, that made Rubyfruit Jungle Daughters, Inc.’s, signal success and has given it an ongoing life as a lesbian classic.

Daughters, Inc., however, went out of business in 1977, the same year Bantam bought the rights to Rubyfruit Jungle. Rubyfruit Jungle continues to be the modern coming-out novel; Molly Bolt’s audacious happiness has replaced Stephen Gordon’s dignified doom as The Lesbian Story. Rubyfruit Jungle (Brown)

Further Reading

  • Brown, Rita Mae. Rubyfruit Jungle. 1973. Anniversary ed. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.
  • Douglas, Carol Anne. “Rubyfruit Jungle.” Off Our Backs 4, no. 2 (January 31, 1974).
  • Forrest, Katherine V. “The Evolution of a Revolution in Lesbian Literature.” Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review 3, no. 2 (Spring, 1996).
  • Harris, Bertha. Introduction to Lover. New York: Arno Press, 1993.
  • Klemesrud, Judy. “An Underground Book.” The New York Times, September 26, 1977, p. 38.
  • Webb, Marilyn. “A Publishing House Is Born.” Ms. 11, no. 12 (June, 1974): 35-38.

1903: Stein Writes Q.E.D.

1928: Hall Publishes The Well of Loneliness

1956: Foster Publishes Sex Variant Women in Literature

June, 1971: The Gay Book Award Debuts

1973: Naiad Press Is Founded

1975: Rule Publishes Lesbian Images

1981: Faderman Publishes Surpassing the Love of Men

1981: This Bridge Called My Back Is Published

October, 1981: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press Is Founded

1982: Lorde’s Autobiography Zami Is Published

1985: Lesbian Film Desert Hearts Is Released

1986: Paula Gunn Allen Publishes The Sacred Hoop

1987: Anzaldúa Publishes Borderlands/La Frontera

1987: Compañeras: Latina Lesbians Is Published

June 2, 1989: Lambda Literary Award Is Created