The Autobiography of My Mother, 1976
Tender Mercies, 1978
Civil Wars: A Novel, 1984
Before and After, 1992
Half a Heart, 2000
Street Games, 1974
Some Deaths in the Delta, and Other Poems, 1970
Cora Fry, 1977
Cora Fry’s Pillow Book, 1994
A Rosellen Brown Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1992
The Whole Word Catalogue, 1972 (with Marvin Hoffman, Martin Kushner, Philip Lopate, and Sheila Murphy)
Rosellen Brown is noted for her perceptive treatment of alienation, displacement, exile, and disaster in seemingly ordinary American families. Born in Philadelphia to Jewish parents, who moved frequently and much of the time lived in non-Jewish neighborhoods, Brown came to feel that she had no roots. She found, however, that she could escape her loneliness by writing, and by the time she was nine she had decided to become a writer.
After earning a B.A. from Barnard College in 1960 and an M.A. from Brandeis University in 1962, Brown began working at her craft. In 1963, she married Marvin Hoffman, an English teacher, and in 1965 the couple went to Mississippi to teach at Tougaloo College and to participate with their black students in the Civil Rights movement. After the birth of her first child, Adina, Brown wrote most of the poems in her first published volume, Some Deaths in the Delta, and Other Poems, which were inspired by her often frightening experiences in Mississippi.
After three years at Tougaloo, Brown and her husband moved to Brooklyn, New York, where their daughter Elena was born. In 1972, she collaborated on a lucrative nonfiction volume entitled The Whole Word Catalogue. Her real interest, however, was short fiction, and her stories were appearing in magazines and in anthologies, including in the annual publication O. Henry Prize Stories, 1972, 1973, and 1976. In 1974, her collection Street Games appeared, which contains stories drawn from her multiethnic Brooklyn neighborhood. Most of the stories involve problems with relationships, often within the family.
Grants and honors signaled Brown’s increasing status as a writer. In 1973-1974, Brown won a National Endowment for the Humanities creative writing grant. From 1973 to 1975, she was a Radcliffe Institute fellow. During the summer of 1974, she served as a member of the fiction staff at the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
By that time, the family had moved to New Hampshire, where they lived for more than eleven years and where they continued to spend their summers, even after moving to Houston. One day, while weaving, Brown had the experience of seeming to hear a woman’s voice that she later identified as resembling that of a Jewish refugee she had met in Mississippi. The experience inspired Brown to write her novel The Autobiography of My Mother.
Brown’s husband had been supportive of her writing from the start, but it was not until the children were in school that she began to have extended periods of time at her disposal. Even before then, she had been gaining insights and developing the themes that later dominated her novels. By having children, she said, she came to learn a great deal, not only about family ties but about the precariousness of life. She first develops this theme fully in The Autobiography of My Mother. Haunted by a real-life story about a child who had fallen off a precipice when someone let go of its hand, Brown based her plot on that tragedy. Later works, too, reflect her belief that catastrophe is never far away. In Tender Mercies, a husband’s momentary foolishness results in his wife’s becoming a quadriplegic; in Civil Wars, the parents of two children die in an automobile accident, leaving the children to live with relatives they do not know; and in Before and After, whose plot was suggested by a murder trial in Houston, the teenaged son of a respectable family commits a murder.
In her essay “Displaced Persons” Brown describes her fascination with the two most traditional regions of the United States, the South and New England. She was delighted with the southern atmosphere of Houston after moving there in the 1980’s. Like her early poems, the novel Civil Wars is set in Mississippi. The collections Cora Fry and Cora Fry’s Pillow Book describe the life of a New England woman, and both Tender Mercies and Before and After use similar small-town settings. In fact, in the latter novel the fictional family lives in Brown’s own house in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Half a Heart, a complex novel dealing with race, mothers and daughters, and the lack of social commitment in the late 1990’s, is set in the South.
In 1982, Brown began teaching in the University of Houston’s creative writing program. She continued to win honors for her achievements, including being named “Woman of the Year” by Ms. magazine in 1984 and winning the Janet Kafka Award for best novel by an American woman for Civil Wars. With Before and After, she also attained popular success. Even before publication, the novel was scheduled for production as a motion picture, and soon after it appeared, Brown’s earlier novels were reissued as paperbacks. In 2000, she became writer-in-residence at Northwestern University. Although Brown has published poetry and short fiction and even experimented with drama, it is her novels for which she is best known. Many consider her to be one of the most compelling contemporary writers.