This Day In Writing History
On December 6th, 1933, a federal judge ruled that Ulysses, the classic epic novel by legendary Irish writer James Joyce, was not legally obscene. At the time, the novel had been banned in the United States for over ten years.
Beginning in 1918, Ulysses was published in serialized form in the American literary magazine The Little Review.
In 1920, when the magazine published the novel's thirteenth episode, Nausicaä, a moralist group called The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) objected to the content and determined to keep Ulysses from being published in America in any format.
The NYSSV was founded in 1873 by the notorious Anthony Comstock and his supporters in the Young Men's Christian Association. (Yes, that YMCA.) Comstock was a United States Postal Inspector.
The same year that he founded the NYSSV, he persuaded Congress to pass the Comstock Act, which made it illegal to send obscene materials through the mail.
The passage of the Comstock Act resulted in the enacting of "Comstock Laws" at the state and federal level. The last of these laws wouldn't be struck down by the Supreme Court until 1965.
The Comstock Act was a nightmare. His definition of obscenity was so vague that he even used the law and his power as a Postal Inspector to block the shipment of certain medical textbooks to medical students.
Comstock had copies of George Bernard Shaw's classic play Mrs. Warren's Profession blocked, calling Shaw "an Irish smut dealer." The furious playwright remarked:
"Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all."
Although Comstock enjoyed a public reputation as a devout Christian guardian of morality, privately, he was corrupt - and notoriously so.
As a moralist, he destroyed the lives of many innocent people. He proudly admitted to being responsible for 4,000 arrests and 15 suicides.
In his later years, his health began deteriorating, the result of a severe blow to the head from an unknown attacker. Before he died in 1915, Comstock attracted the attention of an admirer.
The young man was a law student named J. Edgar Hoover. He agreed with Comstock's beliefs and was interested in his methods of investigation, prosecution, and conviction.
Unfortunately, Comstock's NYSSV was successful in its prosecution of The Little Review for publishing the offending episode from Ulysses.
At the first trial in 1921, the literary magazine was ruled legally obscene, and as a result, Ulysses was banned in the United States.
The ruling was a product of its time. The Nausicaä episode contained a scene which must have been shocking to 1920s sensibilities. Leopold Bloom, one of the main characters, meets a girl named Gerty MacDowell at the beach.
Gertie has come to watch a fireworks display. She soon notices Bloom staring at her. Her passion stirred by both him and the fireworks, Gerty deliberately exposes herself to Bloom. He becomes aroused and starts to masturbate, which arouses her in return.
They both reach orgasm as a Roman candle explodes overhead, gushing out "a stream of rain gold hair threads." Afterward, Gerty leaves and reveals herself to be lame, leaving Bloom to contemplate on the beach.
With Joyce's playful punning, the erotic scene becomes a parody of the Catholic Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament ceremony, with Bloom acting out his own version of an Adoration.
In this parody, Gerty's body serves as the body of Christ. The revelation of her lameness is Joyce's biting metaphor for the Catholic Church. At the time, such satirical jabs at the Church or religion in general could easily spark a fire of outrage.
The trial that resulted in Ulysses being banned in the United States drew a huge amount of publicity. As a result, pirated editions of the novel were published.
These illegal editions were sold on the black market or under the counter in bookshops. They made the novel a bestseller, but Joyce didn't earn a penny from the sale of them.
In 1933, after twelve years of frustration, Joyce's official U.S. publisher, Random House, decided to set up a test case. They imported an uncensored French edition of Ulysses and had Customs confiscate a copy after the ship was unloaded.
That year, the case of United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses came to trial. On December 6th, 1933, U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that Ulysses was not legally obscene.
A furious NYSSV appealed the decision. The case reached the United States Second Court of Appeal, which affirmed it on August 7th, 1934.
Ulysses was finally published uncensored in the United States. Most of these editions - including the one that I have - feature the text of the Woolsey ruling as part of the forward.
Woolsey had ruled that Ulysses was not pornographic because it contained no "dirt for dirt's sake." Also, the novel was so hard to understand that people would be unlikely to read it for the purpose of titillation.
British literary scholar and translator Stuart Gilbert wrote that Woolsey's ruling was "epoch-making." He was right. The ruling made it much harder for would-be censors to get written works declared legally obscene.
Also, the ruling made it practically impossible for an entire novel to be declared legally obscene because of a few allegedly offending lines or passages contained within it.
Quote Of The Day
“[A writer is] a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.” - James Joyce
Today's video features a documentary on the censorship trials of James Joyce's Ulysses. Enjoy!
Friday, December 6, 2013
Thursday, December 5, 2013
This Day In Writing History
On December 5th, 1941, Sea of Cortez, the classic non-fiction book by the legendary American writer John Steinbeck, was published. Subtitled A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, the book was co-written by the noted marine biologist, ecologist, and philosopher Ed Ricketts.
The two men had first met in 1930. Steinbeck had always been interested in marine biology; Ricketts, a professional biologist, had a small laboratory in Cannery Row where he prepared specimens of intertidal plant life for sale to universities and other laboratories.
Steinbeck spent many hours with Ricketts in the lab and they greatly enjoyed each other's company. In 1939, Ricketts published Between Pacific Tides, a definitive textbook study of intertidal fauna.
The following year, Steinbeck was in desperate need of escape and relaxation following the controversy surrounding his classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939) - he had been publicly vilified as a communist propagandist, though he had taken great pains to avoid being labeled as such.
Meanwhile, Ricketts had been planning another specimen collecting trip along the Pacific coast. The two friends decided to go together. Steinbeck hired a sardine fishing boat called the Western Flyer take them down the Pacific coast and into Mexico.
To offset the cost of the trip, Steinbeck and Ricketts decided to write a book together about the expedition. They both kept detailed journals, which they would rework into a book manuscript.
After sailing leisurely and fishing down the Pacific coast, they refueled in San Diego and moved on to Cabo San Lucas. There, they were greeted by Mexican officials and began collecting specimens.
They and the crew of the Western Flyer engaged in frequent battles with the boat's outboard motor, which they nicknamed the Hansen Sea-Cow. Their problems with the motor served as a running gag in the book:
Our Hansen Sea-Cow was not only a living thing but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful living thing.... [it] loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed... when attacked with a screwdriver [it] fell apart in simulated death... It loved no one, trusted no one, it had no friends.
At La Paz, out of beer and warmly received by the natives, they hit the town and enjoyed the hospitality. They also spent three days collecting specimens. Steinbeck would base his classic novella The Pearl (1947) on his time in La Paz.
On their way to San José Island, Steinbeck, Ricketts, and their crew ended up rowing their boat when the cantankerous Hansen Sea-Cow refused to start. From there, they moved on to Puerto Escondido.
In Puerto Escondido, Steinbeck and Ricketts found their most abundant fauna collecting ground. They also hung out with some new Mexican friends, eating, drinking, and listening to dirty jokes in Spanish.
The six-week expedition would take the men to many other locations around the Baja California peninsula. They would collect over 500 species of intertidal plant life and discover 50 new species of marine life, including three new species of sea anemone.
Dr. Oscar Calgren of the Lund University's Department of Zoology in Sweden named these species Palythoa rickettsii, Isometridium rickettsi, and Phialoba steinbecki after the two men who discovered them.
When Steinbeck and Ricketts got back to Monterey, they began work on their book. After the manuscript was completed and submitted, Steinbeck's editor wanted the title page to state that Steinbeck wrote the book, which included appendices by Ricketts. A furious Steinbeck shot back, "I not only disapprove of your plan — I forbid it!"
He enjoyed writing Sea of Cortez with Ricketts. He liked the challenge of applying his skills as a novelist to writing scientific non-fiction and making it entertaining. The book is part scientific text, part travelogue, and part philosophy.
Steinbeck believed that Sea of Cortez was the best work he'd done, but expected the critics to savage it. He also expected it to be of limited commercial appeal. The reviews were mixed, but mostly favorable.
The book was indeed a commercial failure, but not because of limited appeal. It was published on December 5th, 1941 - two days before the Pearl Harbor attack took place, bringing the United States into World War II. Suddenly, marine biology was the last thing on the public's mind.
The revenues from Sea of Cortez were not nearly enough to allow Ed Ricketts to pay John Steinbeck back for financing their expedition. Steinbeck didn't care. He remained close friends with Ricketts, on whom he based the character of Doc, the good-natured, booze guzzling marine biologist who appears in Cannery Row (1945) and other novels.
In 1948, Ricketts was killed when a train struck his car. Steinbeck was devastated. Three years later, their book was reissued as The Log from the Sea of Cortez. The new edition included a biographical preface titled About Ed Ricketts. This time, the book received the commercial success it was due.
Quote Of The Day
"When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day's work is all I can permit myself to contemplate." - John Steinbeck
Today's video features a presentation about a team of researchers and biologist who retraced the expedition that John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts took, which formed the basis of their book, Sea of Cortez. Enjoy!
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
This Day In Writing History
On December 4th, 1916, the legendary English writer W. Somerset Maugham departed on a ship to Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa. During the voyage, he became friendly with his fellow passengers.
Two of them, a missionary and a prostitute, would inspire him to write one of his most famous short stories, Rain, which would appear in his 1923 short story collection, The Trembling Of A Leaf.
Rain, (originally titled Miss Thompson) told the story of the downfall of a devoutly religious, severely repressed missionary who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of a prostitute.
After their boat docks in Samoa, fiery Scottish missionary Reverend Alfred Davidson and his wife find themselves trapped by the island's heavy seasonal rains. They lodge at a seedy rooming house and general store.
To the Davidsons' dismay, the occupant of the room below them turns out to be Sadie Thompson, a fast young American woman who was a passenger on their ship. The Davidsons can hear the sounds of Sadie's phonograph, her laughter, and the sailors that she entertains.
When Reverend Davidson learns that Sadie is a prostitute, he becomes determined to save her soul and make a good Christian woman out of her. But Sadie is a tough cookie and wants none of that.
As Davidson becomes Sadie's unwanted "avenging angel" and tries to save her from sin, his repressed passions threaten to explode. He ends up killing himself, and the story ends with the disturbing implication that he raped Sadie.
In 1923, Rain was adapted as a play by John Colton and Clemence Randolph. It opened first in London, then in New York the following season, becoming one of the biggest Broadway hits of the 1920s.
In 1927, silent movie megastar Gloria Swanson bought the film rights to Rain, determined to play Sadie Thompson. This brought her into conflict with Hollywood Production Code Administration head censor Will Hays, because he forbade any negative depictions of religion.
Swanson got around Hays by making changes to her original cut of Rain. The missionary Reverend Davidson became a religious layperson, Mr. Atkinson. All she had to do was change the character's name and description on the silent film's title cards.
The name of the picture was changed to Sadie Thompson to avoid any references to Rain. This was done to appease studio bosses who had pledged not to adapt "salacious" books and plays for the screen.
The silent film's title cards had been changed, but Will Hays was so concerned about eliminating all references to Rain that he hired lip readers to screen Sadie Thompson.
They must have been asleep at the switch, because they missed seeing Gloria Swanson mouth the line "You'd yank wings off butterflies and claim you were saving their soul, you psalm-singing son of a bitch!"
Sadie Thompson became a huge hit, earning record-setting revenues at the box office, thanks to Swanson's performance in the lead role, which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Lionel Barrymore delivered a typically brilliant performance as Atkinson. When the film was restored in 1984, the original title cards were used, and Atkinson became Reverend Alfred Davidson again.
Due to the degradation of the original film elements, the last reel was lost forever, so the restorers had to use stills and new title cards to prepare an ending for the movie.
Quote Of The Day
"What mean and cruel things men can do for the love of God." - W. Somerset Maugham
Today's video features a complete reading of W. Somerset Maugham's classic short story Rain. Enjoy!
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
This Day In Writing History
On December 3rd, 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire, the classic and controversial play by the legendary American playwright Tennesee Williams, opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Williams had written the steamy play while living in an apartment in New Orleans, rewriting the script numerous times and changing the title as well. Early titles of the play included The Moth, The Poker Night, and Blanche's Chair on the Moon.
A Streetcar Named Desire told the story of Blanche DuBois, a fading but still attractive Southern belle who comes to stay with her sister, Stella, and her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowlaski, while taking time off from her teaching job after suffering from a nervous disorder.
Actually, she was fired for having an affair with a 17-year-old student. On the surface, Blanche may seem like a virtuous, cultured Southern belle, but that's just an act to conceal her alcoholism, mental illness, and delusions of grandeur.
Blanche is also a nymphomaniac, driven to sexual addiction after catching her husband, Allan Gray, having an affair with another man, which resulted in the end of their marriage and Allan's suicide.
Stella, who knows that her sister is a nymphomaniac, is hesitant to let Blanche stay with her, for fear that she'll seduce her husband. Stanley is a brutish, domineering slug who abuses Stella both emotionally and physically, but his beastly nature and animal sexuality are what attracted her to him.
The arrival of Blanche predictably upsets the unhealthy co-dependent relationship of Stella and Stanley. When Blanche sets her sights on Stanley's friend Mitch, Stanley determines to unmask her Southern belle facade. He learns about her past and confronts her with it.
Finally pushed to the breaking point, Stanley rapes Blanche in a fit of rage, which is alluded to rather than shown explicitly. The attack drives Blanche to a nervous breakdown, and she ends up being committed to a mental institution.
When the kindly doctor takes her away, Blanche utters her famous line, "Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
The original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire starred Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella, Karl Malden as Mitch, and a 21-year-old newcomer named Marlon Brando as Stanley. The play caused a sensation with its sexual themes and violence.
The play also won Tennessee Williams a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Four years after it opened, a feature film adaptation was released. Directed by Elia Kazan, the highly acclaimed movie featured Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden reprising their Broadway roles, and Vivien Leigh as Blanche.
Due to the stifling restrictions of the Hollywood Production Code, which would remain in effect until the ratings system was adopted in 1968, the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire omits, changes, or waters down elements in the play deemed too objectionable for the screen.
By making these sometimes drastic changes, the film could get the PCA (Production Code Administration) Seal of Approval it needed. At least, that's what director Elia Kazan thought he had done. But then the film ran afoul of the notorious Legion of Decency.
During the Production Code era, the Catholic Legion of Decency acted as an unofficial film censorship board. They rated films and expected Catholics to abide by their ratings. If they rated a film Condemned, all Catholics would be forbidden to see the picture under the pain of mortal sin.
Priests were encouraged to loiter in the lobbies of theaters showing condemned films, take down the names of parishioners who failed to heed the Legion's rating, and deny them communion. Priests were also encouraged to organize picket lines at certain films.
In addition to the imposition on Catholics, the Legion also organized national protest rallies to encourage people of all faiths to boycott Condemned films. To avoid a costly boycott, studio bosses would order directors to negotiate cuts with the Legion to get them to drop the Condemned rating.
Despite Elia Kazan's restraint in adapting Tennessee Williams' play, the film was still threatened with a Condemned rating by the Legion of Decency. While Kazan was away making his next movie, Warner Brothers canceled the premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire.
The studio made several minutes of cuts to the film without his knowledge or consent. The Legion of Decency dropped its Condemned rating, but Kazan was livid. He made one final appeal, asking Warner Brothers if they would release both their censored version and his director's cut of the film.
Kazan wanted audiences to decide for themselves which version to see, but the studio refused, as the Legion of Decency mandated that only their approved version of the film could be released or the Condemned rating would be reinstated.
Elia Kazan's director's cut of A Streetcar Named Desire would remain unseen for over forty years, until Warner Brothers finally restored the film in 1993. Several years after Streetcar's original release, Kazan and Tennessee Williams teamed up again.
Their new film, Baby Doll (1956), an adaptation of Williams' classic one-act play, Twenty-seven Wagon Loads of Cotton, would prove to be another challenge to the Hollywood Production Code and the Legion of Decency, with its steamy sensuality and dark humor.
Quote Of The Day
"I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really." - Tennessee Williams
Today's video features the original theatrical trailer for Elia Kazan's 1951 film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. Enjoy!
Monday, December 2, 2013
Friday, November 29, 2013
This Day In Writing History
On November 29th, 1832, the legendary American writer Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania. She had three sisters, Anna, Elizabeth, and Abigail, and would base her most famous novel on her experiences growing up with them in New England.
Louisa's father was Amos Bronson Alcott, who called himself Bronson. He was a famous teacher and transcendentalist philosopher who belonged to Ralph Waldo Emerson's Transcendentalist Club.
In addition to his spiritual beliefs, Bronson shared Emerson's ferocious abolitionist convictions. The Alcott family would host a runaway slave in their home. In 1840, when Louisa was eight years old, Bronson moved the family to Concord, Massachusetts.
Growing up in a liberal, intellectual family, Louisa was tutored mostly by her father's friend, the legendary writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. She also received instruction from Ralph Waldo Emerson and family friends Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller.
Louisa would write of these experiences in an early newspaper article, Transcendental Wild Oats. She would also write of the brief time her family lived in the Utopian Fruitlands commune co-founded by her father.
The commune would fail not only because of the members' philosophical extremes, but also due to the severe New England winter for which most of them were unprepared.
Economic hardship would require Louisa to go to work at a very young age, and she worked at such various jobs as governess, seamstress, domestic servant, and occasionally, as a teacher. What she really wanted to be was a writer.
Her first book, Flower Fables, was published in 1849, when she was seventeen years old. It was a collection of short stories originally written for Ralph Waldo Emerson's young daughter, Ellen. A year later, she began writing for the Atlantic Monthly magazine.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Louisa served as a Union hospital nurse, caring for wounded and sick soldiers in Georgetown, D.C. She wrote vivid detailed letters home chronicling her experiences.
These letters would be revised and published in the Commonwealth newspaper. When they appeared in book form as Hospital Sketches (1863), they brought their author to the attention of critics, who praised her talent.
While she worked to build her career as a writer of traditional fiction, Louisa also wrote sensational, passionate stories and novels strictly for money. They were published under the pseudonym of A.M. Bernard.
These early novels were torrid Gothic potboilers with titles like Behind a Mask, or A Woman's Power, A Long Fatal Love Chase, and Pauline's Passion and Punishment. One novel she published anonymously was called A Modern Mephistopheles.
When her collections of children's stories became successful, Louisa was able to devote herself to traditional fiction. In 1868, she published her most famous novel. Originally intended for young adult readers, it would prove to be not only a critical and commercial success, but also one of the great classic works of American literature.
Little Women told the story of the four March sisters, (Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy) growing up in Concord, Massachusetts, was based on Alcott's experiences growing up with her own three sisters in Concord and Boston. Louisa modeled the character of Jo after herself.
Fifteen-year-old Jo March is the second oldest of the sisters. Intelligent, outspoken, and tomboyish, Jo longs to be a writer. An early feminist, Jo finds herself at odds with the restrictions placed on women in the late 19th century, including not being able to go to college and being pressured to marry.
Through the course of the novel, the March sisters become friends with Theodore "Laurie" Laurence, the handsome, charming, affluent boy next door. An orphan, Laurie lives with his grandfather. He becomes especially close to Jo. They get into various scrapes as Laurie joins in the March sisters' adventures.
The sisters also struggle to overcome their particular character flaws (Jo has a temper, Meg is vain, Beth is shy, and Amy selfish) in order to live up to their parents' expectations and become, well, little women.
The first part of Little Women became a huge hit with both critics and readers, and an overnight sensation, selling over 2,000 copies in 1868. Louisa May Alcott received many letters from fans (and visits from them at her home) clamoring for a sequel.
So, in 1869, Alcott published the second part, Good Wives. Although her fans were begging for Jo to get married - especially to Laurie - she initially resisted the idea, believing that Jo should remain a "literary spinster."
Louisa changed her mind, and in Good Wives, married off not only Jo, but Meg and Amy as well. However, in a surprising twist, Jo marries Friedrich "Fritz" Bhaer, the poor German immigrant and professor who encouraged her to be a serious writer, while Amy eventually marries Laurie.
Louisa would later write, "Jo should have remained a literary spinster, but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn't dare refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her."
As for her own spinsterhood, in an interview with literary critic Louise Chandler Moulton, she joked that the reason she herself was a spinster was because she had "fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man."
In reality, while traveling through Europe, she'd had a passionate affair with a young man she'd met in Switzerland, a Polish freedom fighter named Ladislas "Laddie" Wisniewski.
Louisa would base the character of Laurie on Laddie. Though she had written of her affair with Laddie in her journal, she tore out those pages prior to her death. The details of their relationship remain unknown.
Little Women would be followed by two sequels: Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886). Louisa also wrote other memorable novels including Eight Cousins (1875), Under The Lilacs (1878), and Jack and Jill: A Village Story (1880).
Louisa May Alcott suffered from chronically poor health in her later years, which she attributed to mercury poisoning from a typhoid fever treatment. She ultimately died of a stroke in March of 1888 at the age of 55.
Although her early biographers had agreed with her assessment of mercury poisoning, a more recent analysis of her chronic illness indicated that she most likely suffered from lupus.
Quote Of The Day
“Keep good company, read good books, love good things and cultivate soul and body as faithfully as you can." - Louisa May Alcott
Today's video a reading from Louisa May Alcott's classic novel, Little Women. Enjoy!
Thursday, November 28, 2013
This Day In Writing History
On November 28th, 1944, the famous American writer and activist Rita Mae Brown was born. She was born in Hanover, Pennsylvania, but grew up in Florida. Her biological mother, an unwed 18-year-old girl, turned her over to an orphanage.
When Rita was three months old, she was adopted by her new parents, Ralph and Julia Ellen Brown. An intellectually gifted child, she had learned to read when she was three years old. As a high school student, she excelled at both academics and sports.
During Rita's teen years, she lost her adoptive father and began to experiment with sex, taking both male and female lovers. She considered herself a bisexual who preferred women, saying, "I don't believe in straight or gay. I really don't. I think we're all degrees of bisexual."
When she was 16, the father of Rita's high school girlfriend found her love letters and outed her. As a result, she was kicked out of the student council. It was the first and not the last incident of homophobic persecution she experienced.
By 1964, Rita had won a scholarship to the University of Florida. When she wasn't studying, she worked for the civil rights movement. Her scholarship was revoked and she was expelled from university, allegedly because of her civil rights work, but that was just the university's excuse.
The real reason for Rita's expulsion and loss of scholarship was that she had been outed as a lesbian by the officers of her sorority. When they suspected that Rita was gay and confronted her, she told them she didn't care if the person she was in love with was a man or a woman.
After losing her scholarship, a penniless Rita hitchhiked to New York City. Homeless at first, she lived in a car with a male friend and a cat she'd named Baby Jesus. Determined to make something of herself, she put herself through New York University.
Upon graduating with a Bachelor's degree in English and the classics, she continued her education, studying cinematography at the New York School of Visual Arts. She would ultimately receive a Ph.D at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.
In 1970, while studying at the New York School of Visual Arts, Rita worked for the National Organization for Women (NOW). She would resign in protest over NOW president Betty Friedan's homophobic remarks and attempts to distance NOW from lesbian organizations.
After leaving NOW, Rita Mae Brown co-founded The Furies Collective, a lesbian feminist newspaper collective. She began her literary career with two poetry collections, The Hand That Cradles the Rock (1971) and Songs to a Handsome Woman (1973).
In 1973, Rita's classic first novel was published. One of the most controversial young adult novels ever written, it was rejected by every major publisher in New York. She tried to get an agent, but that didn't work, either.
One agent, a woman, literally threw Rita's manuscript at her, called her a pervert, and told her to get out of her office. She finally found a publisher, a new and small feminist publishing house called Daughters Press, who bought her novel for $1,000.
Rubyfruit Jungle is a picaresque, semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman's coming-of-age as a lesbian, a tale told with humor, pathos, and zest. It paints a frank and honest portrait of lesbians that shatters all the stereotypes.
Molly Bolt is a pretty young girl who has a tempestuous relationship with her mother, Carrie, who informs her that she is an adopted bastard child. Beginning at the age of eleven, Molly experiments sexually with both girls and boys, including her cousin Leroy.
As a teenager, Molly loses her adoptive father Carl, to whom she was close, and has an affair with a cheerleader, Carolyn, who rejects the lesbian label, seeing herself as a bisexual.
Determined to make something of herself, Molly becomes an excellent student and wins a college scholarship. When her lesbian affair with her alcoholic roommate is discovered, Molly loses her scholarship and is expelled from university.
Broke but not broken, the feisty Molly heads for New York City to study filmmaking and finds that life in the concrete jungle isn't all she dreamed it would be. Using her beauty, charm, intelligence, and sparkling wit, she determines to become the greatest filmmaker of all time.
Since Daughters Press, the publisher of Rubyfruit Jungle, was so small, there was no marketing or reviews of the novel at the time it was published, nor was it available in any major bookstores.
The novel was mostly sold in small bookshops, by mail, and even out of the backs of cars. Nevertheless, word of mouth made Rubyfruit Jungle an underground hit, selling 70,000 copies in its first four years.
When the novel gained a wide release, it received great reviews and copies soon appeared on high school library shelves, causing an uproar - a censorship row that would last for many years - due to its sexual content and language.
Rita Mae Brown would write more great novels, including In Her Day (1976), a lesbian comic romance set in early 1970s Greenwich Village. Carole is a conservative, middle aged art history professor whose life is turned upside down when she falls for Ilse, a 20-year-old feminist revolutionary.
Southern Discomfort (1982) is a demented Southern Gothic comedy set in Alabama, circa 1918. It told the story of Hortensia Reedmuller Banastre, a Southern belle trapped in a loveless marriage who falls madly in love with Hercules Jinks - a handsome black prizefighter!
In 1990, Rita decided to try something different. She began a series of mystery novels allegedly co-written by Sneaky Pie Brown - her cat. The Mrs. Murphy Series features the adventures of Mrs. Murphy, a tiger cat, and her human companion, Mary "Harry" Haristeen, who live in the small town of Crozet, Virginia.
In the first novel, Wish You Were Here (1990), someone is brutally murdering Crozet's most prominent citizens. Each victim received a postcard before they were murdered, with a tombstone on one side and the message "Wish you were here" written on the back. Can Harry and Mrs. Murphy solve the murders?
So far, Rita Mae Brown has written twenty Mrs. Murphy Mysteries. She has also written several screenplays for TV movies and feature films, including the cult classic horror film The Slumber Party Massacre (1982). It was written as a spoof, but the director chose to shoot it as a serious slasher flick.
Quote Of The Day
"Writers will happen in the best of families." - Rita Mae Brown
Today's video features Rita Mae Brown speaking at the 2011 Gaithersburg Book Festival. Enjoy!