Born in 1932 in Dublin, Ireland; died of asphyxiation, September 6, 1981, in Parbrook, England; son of a bricklayer and Bridget Brown; married Mary Carr (a dental receptionist), October, 1972.
Novelist and poet.
Christopher Award from Christopher Society for My Left Foot.
My Left Foot (autobiography), foreword and epilogue by Robert Collis, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1954, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1955, published as The Childhood Story of Christy Brown, Pan Books (London, England), 1972.
Down All the Days, Stein & Day (New York, NY), 1970.
A Shadow on Summer, Stein & Day (New York, NY), 1974.
Wild Grow the Lilies, Stein & Day (New York, NY), 1976.
A Promising Career, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1982.
Come Softly to My Wake: The Poems of Christy Brown, Stein & Day (New York, NY), 1971.
Background Music, Stein & Day (New York, NY), 1973.
Of Snails and Skylarks, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1977, Stein & Day (New York, NY), 1978.
Collected Poems, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1982.
My Left Foot was filmed in 1989 and released in the United States by Miramax Films.
Born with cerebral palsy, the tenth of twenty-two children, Christy Brown was so disabled that he could not eat, drink, or dress by himself. He did have the use of his left foot, however, and he used it to paint pictures and to type books and poetry on a typewriter. Because Brown was unable to communicate or to move by himself, he was presumed to be totally disabled for his first five years. The first indication of his potential appeared, said Newsweek's S. K. Oberbeck, when “at age five, sitting on the floor watching his sister do sums on a chipped slate, Christy Brown's left foot reached out and snatched the chalk from her hand.” Although Brown did not master speech until he was eighteen, he soon learned to write—with his left foot—in chalk on the linoleum floor.
“From very early on I had the urge to write,” Brown told New York Times reporter Desmond Rushe. “As far back as I can remember I was always writing bits and pieces. … I had to compensate for being handicapped and the only way I could do it was to put my thoughts down on paper.” Brown's urge to write resulted in My Left Foot, an autobiography published when the author was twenty-one years old. The book, a chronicle of Brown's struggle to overcome his staggering handicap, begins with the author's birth in an Irish slum. Brown later dismissed the work as “the kind of book they expected a cripple to write, too sentimental and corny,” but Oberbeck appraised it as “an engaging, inspiring autobiography.”
Brown wrote My Left Foot in hopes of earning enough money to buy an electric typewriter. The title succeeded far beyond his wildest dreams and brought him some literary celebrity. “This warm and mature autobiography shows that at age 22 Christy Brown already had more understanding of himself and the world than many of us ever achieve,” noted E. J. Taylor in the New York Times. Library Journal correspondent E.P. Nichols styled the work “an absorbing, beautifully written story of a boyhood in Dublin, Ireland.” Concluded Carol Stewart in Spectator: “[ My Left Foot] is not a book only for those directly concerned with cerebral palsy. We can all learn from the writer's refusal to be shut in by self-pity and bitterness over his limitations.”
Brown's next book, Down All the Days, took fifteen years to complete. This fictionalized autobiography was, according to Robert Ostermann of National Observer, “an astonishing achievement, for it poured out in a verbal flood the coming to physical, imaginative, and intellectual life of a Dublin slum child born into the same crippling prison as its author.” Brown once described Down All the Days as “just a slice of life, a very raw slice of life,” and most critics agreed. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer observed that “Christy Brown's Dublin slums are larger than life, dens of roistering blasphemy and fornication.” Often focusing on the sexuality of its seedy characters, the book contains “a goodly number of O'Portnoyesque sexual gropings,” noted a Time reporter, who also pointed out that Brown “too often confuses the artificial throbbing of sex for thematic development.”
Eugene A. Dooley of Best Sellers praised Down All the Days for its “picturesque language and the phrasing of incidents” and commended its literary style. A Times Literary Supplement critic thought Brown's style was “too facilely romantic and anecdotal,” but admitted that “Brown writes with a breadth of understanding that makes him already one of the most discerning and lively observes of Irish life.” Oberbeck concurred, stating that the book is “tender, gritty, immensely warm in its penetration of the hair-trigger tempers and passions that explode, recoil and reverberate in … [Brown's] deftly etched episodes.” In another National Observer review, Robert Osterman declared: “The very fact that it exists at all gives Down All the Days an unassailable value; it would be worth attention if it had no literary merit, which is far from the truth.” Osterman concluded that the book provides “an unforgettable literary experience.”
Down All the Days became a best-seller and was translated into fourteen languages. It was followed by two books of poetry that Ostermann described as “more poetic ore than refined metal.” Brown's collection of love lyrics, Come Softly to My Wake, fared well. According to Desmond Rushe, the book's “first issue of five thousand copies … sold out, which is remarkable for a volume of poetry.” While popular with readers, Brown's verse drew some pointed criticism from reviewers. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Cathleen Donnelly wrote: “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.” British Book News contributor Robert Greacen perhaps best summed up Brown's poetry when he stated that, “though not outstanding in a purely literary sense, [it] scores highly for humanity and sincerity.”
Brown's second book of poems, Background Music, was followed by a novel, A Shadow on Summer. While highly anticipated, the novel failed to find favor with the critics, who especially faulted it for its verbosity. The story of a disabled Irish writer who seeks perspective by visiting America—where he becomes infatuated with two American women—A Shadow on Summer revisits many of Brown's previous preoccupations, including an absorption in the writing process. To quote Donnelly, “None of the characters is quite fully drawn and much of the novel is taken up with [the protagonist's] excruciating self-consciousness—about his sexual inadequacy, about the literary process, about his own response to the people and environment that surround him.”
America's Peter LaSalle maintained that A Shadow on Summer “demonstrates again that Brown is a master word-wielder.” New York Times critic Anatole Broyard, however, criticized Brown's overuse of adjectives and cliches. “The author is not trying to make us feel what he describes,” Broyard wrote, “he is trying to impress us with his description of it. His ‘eloquence’ is not urgent, but complaisant.” Conversely, New Statesman essayist Valentine Cunningham observed of the novel: “At its best, and worst, Christy Brown's prose is static, given lengthily to pursuing and explicating the sensations of each slow moment: very much the product of living at the edge of immobility. It's a marvelously apt medium for rendering the feelings of a hero who is also marooned on crutches or stuck at a table, familiar most of all with the stench of his own armpits and the race of his own thoughts.”
Brown's novel Wild Grow the Lilies was also faulted for its excessive verbiage. Again in the National Observer, Ostermann pointed out that Brown “has barely stayed the flood of words so fitting for Down All the Days, and can't resist muffling every sentence in Lilies with five adjectives where one would do.” Valentine Cunningham, in another New Statesman piece, agreed that the novel is wordy and filled with “blarneyfied eloquence” but still found delight in Brown's “filthy-minded pun-palace.”
The success of his writing brought Brown a life of comparative comfort with his wife in a home in the English countryside. He died there of asphyxiation, choking on his dinner, on September 7, 1981 at the age of forty- nine. A manuscript he had just turned over to his publisher was released posthumously as A Promising Career. The first of his books to be set outside of Irish concerns, A Promising Career follows the efforts of two aspiring singers and their dissolute and venal manager. “There could be no more fitting title for a final manuscript,” noted Donnelly. “The words clearly characterize Brown's own career: he had much promise, but he never achieved the greatness of which he seemed capable.”
Frank Tuohy expressed a similar sentiment in the Times Literary Supplement. “Christy Brown's early writing triumphed over devastating physical disability and an impoverished background,” the critic stated. “He was fortunate only in that the moral traditions of Catholic Dublin provided him with twenty-two siblings who helped him to survive. In addition, as a native Irishman, he had the ability to translate into coherent and rhythmic prose some of the untiringly fluent speech—that sense of talking your way into life—which was part of the surrounding scene. His later separation from this source was perhaps inevitable, but the abandonment of whatever experience, even indirect, that it gave him proves in the event to have been disastrously mistaken.”
In the years since he died, Christy has continued to inspire people worldwide through both his words and the 1989 movie adaptation of the novel My Left Foot starring Daniel Day- Lewis. Trevor White, writing in the online Irish Central commented: “Thankfully there is no danger that Christy will be forgotten. He is celebrated in Ireland and around the world, remembered in songs by U2 and The Pogues, and immortalized in the Oscar- winning film ‘My Left Foot’”. White's comments originally accompanied a 2015 exhibition, Dear Christy, at The Little Museum of Dublin.
An Owlcation website contributor also offered praise for Brown and his courage in a 2018 post, noting: “Christy Brown provided the world with an amazing insight into the life of a disabled person. He also inspired many others to pursue their dreams and overcome their disabilities.” As noted by Irish Post contributor Rachael O'Connor in a 2019 article, “Christy Brown is still regarded as an important figure in Irish literary and disability activism circles alike.” And a contributor to the Cerebral Palsy website likewise commented: “Brown was one of the 20th Century's most unique voices; he was a writer and an artist that pushed past his own physical limits to leave a compelling legacy that extends well beyond his native Dublin.”
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 63, Gale (Detroit), 1984, pp. 46-57.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 14: British Novelists since 1960, Gale, 1982, pp. 147-50.
America, March 22, 1975, p. 217.
Best Sellers, June 15, 1970; January 15, 1972, p. 459.
Booklist, November 1, 1973; June 15, 1976; October 15, 1978; April 15, 1983, p. 1071.
British Book News, December, 1982, p. 763.
Christian Science Monitor, March 26, 1975.
Critic, January, 1974.
Listener, August 1, 1974, pp. 156-57.
National Observer, June 29, 1970, p. 19; September 25, 1976, p. 21.
New Statesman, August 2, 1974, p. 163; April 16, 1976, p. 514.
Newsweek, June 8, 1970; October 16, 1972.
New York Times, May 30, 1970; October 18, 1971; February 3, 1975, p. 23.
New York Times Book Review, June 14, 1970, pp. 4, 20.
Reader's Digest, June, 1982, pp. 71-77.
Saturday Review, August 20, 1955, pp. 17, 33; August 1, 1970, p. 28.
Spectator, February 18, 1955, p. 201; May 16, 1970, pp. 652-53; April 17, 1976, pp. 20- 21.
Time, June 15, 1970; October 16, 1972.
Times Literary Supplement, February 4, 1955, p. 75; May 28, 1970, p. 577; April 16, 1976, p. 455; May 19, 1978, p. 550; August 13, 1982, p. 888.
artnet, http://www.artnet.com/ (February 15, 2022), author profile.
Cerebral Palsy website, https://www.cerebralpalsy.org/ (February 15, 2022), “My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown.”
Irish Central, https://www.irishcentral.com/ (September 7, 2020), Trevor White, “Remembering the Incredible Story of My Left Foot's Christy Brown on His Anniversary.”
Irish Post, https://www.irishpost.com/ (September 6, 2019), Rachael O'Connor, “Irish Artist and Writer Christy Brown Died on This Day 38 Years Ago.”
Owlcation, https://owlcation.com/ (May 11, 2018), “Christy Brown: The Novelist and Painter With Cerebral Palsy Depicted in the Movie ‘My Left Foot.’”
New York Times, September 8, 1981, C. Gerald Foster, “Christy Brown, Author, Dies: Crippled, He Wrote with Toe.” *