Born 5 December 1857, Hampton Falls, New Hampshire; died 21 June 1948, Boston, Massachusetts
Also wrote under: Martin Redfield
Daughter of Levi and Elizabeth Lucas Brown
After graduating from Robinson Female Seminary, Alice Brown taught school in New England, but soon decided on a literary career. She wrote for the Christian Register, then joined the staff of The Youth's Companion in 1885. In Boston, Brown belonged to a group of young Bohemian artists led by poet Louise Imogen Guiney. The collaborations of the two close friends included a biography of Robert Louis Stevenson (1896) and the founding of the Women's Rest Tour Association. During these years Brown wrote in support of women's rights and prison reform movements.
An advocate of American involvement in World War I, she often commented on politics, criticizing the direction of modern life. In her later years, her passionate privacy and religious mysticism carried her further from the mainstream. Highly praised as late as the 1920s, Brown's work was virtually forgotten by the time of her death. During a career spanning seven decades, Brown wrote in almost every genre, including criticism, biography, and sketches. She considered herself primarily a poet, but the Victorian idealism and strained diction of her verse has not aged well.
Brown's greatest public recognition came to her as a dramatist. In 1914, amid much publicity, she won the $10,000 Winthrop Ames prize for the best play submitted by an American author. Her entry, Children of Earth (1915), later opened on Broadway to mixed reviews and a short run. Brown's one-act plays, often adapted from her stories, were more successful.
Brown's fiction is now considered her best work, particularly her early local color stories. Meadow-Grass made her literary reputation in 1895; Tiverton Tales confirmed it in 1899. Both consist of loosely connected sketches portraying the fictional village of Tiverton, a farming community close to the sea and modeled after Hampton Falls. These and subsequent stories were compared favorably to the work of Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman. Although Brown's portraits of spinsters and rebellious wives (especially in "A Day Off" and "The Other Mrs. Dill") are as fine in their way as Freeman's, her goodnatured humor, idealism, and careful craftsmanship bring her closer to Jewett's more pastoral regionalism.
However, Brown's work can stand easily without such comparisons. Described as a "little masterpiece," "Farmer Eli's Vacation" demonstrates Brown's gentle irony, control of plot, and psychological acuity. Having dreamed all his life of seeing the ocean, only six miles from his pastures, Eli makes the journey at last. The vision is more than he can bear; "He faced [the sea] as a soul might face Almighty Greatness, only to be stricken blind thereafter." Leaving his family camping by the shore, Eli hurries home gratefully to his cows and barns, the world he knows and loves best. "Local color" is too narrow a category for this fine story.
As public interest in regional writing waned at the turn of the century, Brown experimented with other genres. Unlike many local colorists, she made the transition successfully. Between 1900 and 1920, she published over 130 stories in prominent magazines. In these short pieces and her many novels, Brown attempts more urban settings and sophisticated characters. Her themes concern the strain of reconciling city and country, the industrial future with the values of the agrarian past.
Critical opinion of this later work is mixed. Brown's growing skill as a storyteller and firmer control of structure has been noted by one critic, who observed, however, that she mistakenly adopted an elaborate figurative style beyond her powers. Only when she returned to her New England characters, with their earthy straightforward dialect, did she regain the grace and authenticity of her early work. Although such novels as Old Crow (1922) and John Winterbourne's Family (1910) achieve a greater philosophical and psychological depth than the more charming local color stories, Brown's artistry could not keep pace with her ambition; her characters, puppetlike, mouth lofty ideas instead of embodying them.
A devoted artist, Brown's local stories hold their own against the more famous work of Jewett and Freeman and represent a distinctive contribution to the genre. Through a synthesis of symbolic and realistic representation, her work conveys an essentially romantic pastoralism. Brown's sentimentality is, however, offset by knowing humor; her idealism is expressed with subtlety. Fresh, evocative, and lovingly detailed, her sketches of country life show a disciplined literary craft. Her New Englanders speak and act with authenticity; their dilemmas are universal, their resolutions sometimes wise and always human.
Stratford-by-the-Sea (1884). The Fools of Nature (1887). Three Heroines of New England Romance (with L. I. Guiney and H. P. Spofford, 1894). Robert Louis Stevenson (withL. I. Guiney, 1896). The Rose of Hope (1896). By Oak and Thorn (1896). Women of Colonial and Revolutionary Times—Mercy Otis Warren (1896). The Road to Castalay (1896). The Day of His Youth (1897). King's End (1901). Margaret Warrener (1901). Judgement (1903). The Mannerings (1903). The Merrylinks (1903). High Noon (1904). The County Road (1906). The Court of Love (1906). Chap. XI of The Whole Family (a novel by 12 authors, 1908). Rose MacLeod (1908). The Story of Thryza (1909). Country Neighbors (1910). The One-Footed Fairy (1911). My Love and I (1912). The Secret of the Clan, A Story for Girls (1912). Vanishing Points (1913). Robin Hood's Barn (1913). Joint Owners in Spain; A Comedy in One Act (1914). Children of Earth; A Play of New England (1915). The Prisoner (1916). Bromley Neighborhood (1917). The Flying Teuton and Other Stories (1918). The Loving Cup, A Play in One Act (1918). The Black Drop (1919). Homespun and Gold (1920). The Wind Between the Worlds (1920). One-Act Plays (1921). Louise Imogen Guiney (1921). Ellen Prior (1923). Charles Lamb: A Play (1924). The Mysteries of Ann (1925). Dear Old Templeton (1927). The Golden Ball (1929). The Marriage Feast, A Fantasy (1931). The Diary of a Dryad (1932). The Kingdom in the Sky (1932). Jeremy Hamblin (1934). The Willoughbys (1935). Fable and Song (1939). Pilgrim's Progress (1944).
Langill, E. D., "Alice Brown: A Critical Study" (dissertation, 1975). Overton, G., The Wowen Who Make Our Novels (1922). Pattee, F. L., The New American Literature, 1890-1930 (1930). Toth, S. A., "Alice Brown (1857-1948)," in ALR (Spring 1972). Toth, S. A., "More Than Local Color: A Reappraisal of Rose Terry Cooke, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and Alice Brown" (dissertation, 1969). Walker, D., Alice Brown (1974). Westbrook, P., Acres of Flint: Writers of Rural New England, 1870-1900 (1951). Williams, B., Our Short Story Writers (1920). Williams, Sister M., "The Pastoral in New England Local Color: Celia Thaxter, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Alice Brown" (dissertation, 1972). Wood, A. D., "The Literature of Impoverishment: The Women Local Colorists in America, 1865-1914," in WS (1972).
Atlantic (July 1906). Book Buyer (Nov. 1896).
—SARAH WAY SHERMAN