Christy Brown is best known for his autobiographical novel Down All the Days (1970), a work which reflects the influence of Thomas Wolfe and, closer to Brown’s milieu, James Joyce. It is a powerful book, and its drama is all the more compelling because of what Brown had to accomplish to write it. He was born, and remained all of his life, almost completely paralyzed by cerebral palsy.
Brown first received notice in 1954 with the publication of My Left Foot, a straightforward, concise account of his early life and his persistent struggle to function in spite of his handicap. In addition to Down All the Days, Brown wrote two other novels, A Shadow on Summer (1974) and Wild Grow the Lilies (1976), neither of which received the critical acclaim that accompanied Down All the Days. He also had three volumes of poetry published: Come Softly to My Wake (1971), Background Music (1973), and Of Snails and Skylarks (1977).
Brown was the tenth of twenty-two children born to a Dublin bricklayer and his wife. Thirteen of the Brown children survived into adulthood. Well into his adolescence, Brown could not speak intelligibly, and he could move only his left foot. His autobiography dramatically recounts his discovery, at age five, that he could control his foot sufficiently to write on his sister’s chalk slate. His mother, who had never believed that her son was retarded despite repeated diagnoses by doctors, taught him to write the alphabet, to spell, and to read. As a teenager, Brown painted industriously, mostly with water colors, using his left foot, and read voraciously, chiefly nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels. In the late 1940s, Robert Collis, an orthopedist and amateur playwright, heard about Brown’s handicap and made the acquaintance of Brown and his parents. Through Collis’s efforts, Brown was able to obtain therapy, which improved his muscle coordination and his speech. Collis urged Brown to put his thoughts on paper and actually oversaw the writing of My Left Foot. It was during the writing of his autobiography that Brown met David Ferrer, his first editor, who remained a close friend and literary advisor.
In 1972, Brown married Mary Carr of Killarney; the couple settled in Parbrook, Somerset, where Brown did most of his writing. He and his wife designed and constructed many devices to make their home more accessible and to improve Brown’s mobility. He impressed most all who met him as a cheerful and gregarious man, though he never overcame the impediment which made his speech almost unintelligible to those who did not know him well. Brown died in September 1981 at the age of forty-nine.
After completing My Left Foot , Brown did not have anything published until 1970, when Down All the Days appeared. The work, which was published in fifteen countries, received wide critical attention, much of it favorable. The story is Brown’s own, told from the perspective of a mute and crippled but remarkably sensitive boy whose brothers’ and sisters’ willingness to push him about in a homemade wagon allows him to observe, if not participate in, the street life which is often the only childhood Dubliners know. The book’s characters are familiar in Irish fiction: a hard-working, hard-drinking, and often brutal father; an enduring mother who refuses to succumb to bitterness; an array of children alternately infuriated and heartbroken by their circumstances. The boy’s brothers become soldiers; his older sister runs off to London to escape her father’s capricious wrath. The boy remains a mute observer, coping with ridicule, which he is intelligent enough to understand, and with sexual longing and frustration, which he is sensitive enough to be confused by and even afraid of. Brown also supplies the requisite trappings: drunks, bawds, lusty young men, compliant young women, brawls, dreams, and wakes. Yet the book is not formulaic or trite. Brown’s ability to convey the intensity of the emotions around and inside him and his fine ear for dialect distinguish this novel from others of its kind.
While recognizing Brown’s potential, several reviewers quite rightly criticize his tendency to overwrite, his endless descriptions, and his occasional mawkishness. An impressionistic work, Down All the Days is essentially plotless, though many of the events are clearly recreations of the anecdotes included in My Left Foot. Brown later dismissed the early work as “the kind of book they expected a cripple to write–too sentimental and corny.” The narrator of My Left Foot is essentially an adolescent–all hope and naivete, still somewhat astounded by the relative success of his painful struggle. In Down All the Days, an older, somewhat embittered Brown seems intent on exploring the pain involved in that struggle and in the more general struggle of lower-class Dublin life. Though there is no overt sentimentality in the novel, Brown does not wholly avoid the excesses that often result from introspection and over-analysis.
Over-analysis also characterizes Brown’s second novel, A Shadow on Summer, published in 1974. Another autobiographical work, the novel centers on Riley McCombe, a handicapped young writer who has “arrived” on the English-American literary scene. McCombe, visiting America for the first time, becomes a kind of artist-in-residence at the Connecticut shore home of Don and Laurie Emerson. Don, a rather bland, nondescript fellow, is nothing if not a devoted husband; his wife is rather more high-minded, with a literary bent. Inevitably, she falls in love with Riley, who resists both his feeling for her and her attempts to influence his writing. At one of his obligatory cocktail parties (all inhabited by shrewd publishers, their glittering wives, and successful but disillusioned playwrights), Riley meets Abbie Lang, a winsome, waifish photographer who loves Riley even though she doesn’t understand his work. The novel deals with the several conflicts which ensue, including those between Riley and his work, Riley and his women, and Riley and the artificiality of the commercial literary world. The action moves from the affluent Connecticut shore to the counterculture of Greenwich Village. None of the characters is quite fully drawn and much of the novel is taken up with Riley’s excruciating self-consciousness–about his sexual inadequacy, about the literary process, about his own response to the people and environment that surround him.
Critics were generally unimpressed with A Shadow on Summer, again faulting Brown for overwriting. It is a flaw which Brown himself recognized (“Why this endless love affair with words”” Laurie asks Riley in exasperation) but did not quite know how to correct. Brown’s powers of description were immense, but the ability to construct characters of any dimension or to put an original cast on ordinary events is not evident in A Shadow on Summer.
Wild Grow the Lilies, Brown’s third novel, is less verbose than the others, but no less full of cliches. Brown abandoned the autobiographical mode; but this novel seems largely an exercise in wish-fulfillment nonetheless. Luke Sheridan, the main character, is a good-looking, charming, and gifted writer whose rakish lack of discipline prevents him from producing anything more important than sensational pieces for a local scandal sheet. Cavorting across the Irish countryside, Luke gets more than his share of alcohol and women (who fight for his favors), and the narrator contrives to get him into several scrapes with characters more vulgar and less entertaining than those encountered by Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. The alcoholic-sexual escapades become tedious after a while, and the entire novel rings a bit hollow. One critic dismissed the work as “full of utter falseness … interminable, contrived, and untrue.”
Brown’s poetry is pleasant, containing many a lilting phrase and reflecting his keen eye and flair for imagery. But, like his novels, his poems are undisciplined and unpolished. The three volumes published before his death are enjoyable rather than brilliant, interesting rather than provocative.
Brown did not reach maturity as a novelist or as a poet before his sudden death in 1981. He had less difficulty refining short, lyrical pieces of poetry than taming his own created expanses of landscape and emotion and character, but neither his poems nor his novels reflect a fully developed artistic vision or sense of craftsmanship. Because of his handicap, writing was for Brown a laborious process; editing, which is essential to the art, was no doubt equally difficult. A reviewer has characterized his prose as “static, given lengthily to pursuing and explicating the sensations of each slow moment, very much the product of living at the edge of immobility.”
Just before his death, Brown submitted the manuscript for another novel, entitled “A Promising Career.” There could be no more fitting title for a final manuscript. The words clearly characterize Brown’s own career: he had much promise, but he never achieved the greatness of which he seemed capable.
Please read the Poem The Inspiration of Christy Brown by Abou Ali