Brautigan (1935-1984), American novelist, short story writer,
and poet has been called one of the major writers of "New
Fiction" and was considered the literary representative
of the 1960s era known variously as "the hippie generation,"
"the counterculture movement," and "the Age of Aquarius."
He is generally considered to be the "voice" of this time
of tremendous social change, the voice representing the
developing values of the youth of this period.
novels were offbeat autobiographical pastorals, and were
widely acclaimed. His later works experimented with different
genres like gothic, science fiction, mystery, and detective,
resisted classification, and were generally considered less
successful by critics.
Save for a campus/underground
cult following, and a growing popularity abroad, Brautigan
all but disappeared from the arena of literary attention
in America in the 1970s when critics began accusing him
of relying too heavily on whimsy and being disconnected
This sense of disconnection
was a prevalent theme in his writing. He often used an autobiographical
"I" figure as his narrator, a figure who wandered through
the world as an observer, who seemed "of" the world but
not "in" it, a narrator who observed and reported everything
in an unemotional, matter-of-fact voice. Like the Beat's
"Zen Narrator," none of the events that Brautigan's narrator
witnessed seemed to have any effect on him and the narrator
always moved on to the next observation indifferent, unchanged,
to have come early in Brautigan's life. It's not definitive,
as he refused to discuss his childhood, but what he did
tell helps us understand his later years and offers some
background for understanding and appreciating his writing.
He was born in Tacoma,
Washington, on January 30,1935, the son of Bernard F. and
Mary Lula Brautigan. When he was nine, his mother, according
to Brautigan, abandoned him and his younger sister, Barbara,
age four, in a hotel room in Great Falls, Montana.
It is unclear how
long Brautigan and his sister stayed in Great Falls, but
their mother returned later, reclaimed them, and took them
back to Tacoma. Later they moved to Eugene, Oregon (see Wright)
wasn't a happy one according to Barbara. "I can never remember
our Mother giving Richard a hug or telling us that she loved
us. We were just there" (see Wright)
There are hints that
Brautigan never knew who his real father was. He apparently
made an effort to find Bernard Brautigan, the man named
on his birth certificate as his father.
death the elderly Mr. Brautigan denied that he ever met
his son. According to an October 27, 1984, UPI news story,
"The death of author
Richard Brautigan shocked a Tacoma man who learned for
the first time he was the 49-year-old writer's father.
Bernard Brautigan, 76, a retired laborer, discovered his
relationship to the Tacoma-born writer Friday in a telephone
call from his ex-sister-in-law, Evelyn Fjetland.
"At first he did
not believe the story but he said he called his ex-wife,
whom he has not seen in 50 years. Brautigan was formerly
married to... Mary Lula Folston... who gave birth to Richard
on Jan. 30, 1935.
her ex-husband asked 'if Richard was his son, and I said,
no. I told him I found Richard in the gutter.'
said he knew nothing about his famous son... 'I never
read any of his books,' he said. 'When I was called by
Evelyn, she told me about Richard and said she was sorry
about his death. I said, 'Who's Richard?' I don't know
nothing about him. He's got the same last name, but why
would they wait 45 to 50 years to tell me I've got a son?'"
Brautigan began writing
in high school, perhaps as a means of expression, or escape.
"He wrote all night," Barbara recalls, "and slept all day.
My folks rode him a lot. They never listened to what he
was writing. They didn't understand his writing was important
to him. I know they asked him to get out of the house several
In 1955, Brautigan
showed his writing to a girl he had a crush on. She criticized
it and Brautigan was shattered, terrified. He threw a rock
through the police station window, was arrested, and spent
a week in jail. He was then committed to the Oregon State
Hospital and diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic (see
Barbara says he received
shock therapy and after he returned from the hospital he
was very quiet and never opened up to her again. A few days
later, Brautigan called to say he was going away forever.
"I guess he hated
us," his mother said. "Or maybe he had a disappointed love
affair. Whatever. Richard practically abandoned the family
when he left here. I haven't the slightest idea why" (see
maintained that his formal education consisted only of high
school. In later years, Brautigan said that he spent a great
deal of time as a young man trying to learn how to write
"I love writing
poetry but it's taken time, like a difficult courtship
that leads to a good marriage, for us to get to know each
other. I wrote poetry for seven years to learn how to
write a sentence because I really wanted to write novels
and I couldn't write a novel until I could write a sentence.
I used poetry as a lover but I never made her my old lady.
"One day when I
was twenty-five years old, I looked down and realized
that I could write a sentence... wrote my first novel
Trout Fishing in America and followed it with three
"I pretty much
stopped seeing poetry for the next six years until I was
thirty-one or the autumn of 1966. Then I started going
out with poetry again, but this time I knew how to write
a sentence, so everything was different and poetry became
my old lady. God, what a beautiful feeling that was!"
In 1956, Brautigan
was 21, and living in San Francisco. It was the heyday of
the Beat Generation and San Francisco was full of young
writers and poets like Jack
Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Robert
Snyder, and others, all hoping to give America
a new literary voice.
Brautigan was working
at odd jobs and writing poetry but was too shy to read it
in any of the North Beach coffeehouses where the Beats hung
out. Besides, his more humorous (which they thought queer)
and benign view of things was quite out of fashion with
The Return of the Rivers (a single poem) in 1957,
The Galilee Hitch-Hiker (a single poem) in 1958,
Lay the Marble Tea (a collection of 24 poems) in
1959, and The Octopus Frontier (22 poems) in 1960,
and a novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur in
1964. None were successful.
In 1967, Brautigan
at last found success with his novel, Trout Fishing in
America. Written in 1961, the manuscript had been rejected
by numerous publishers until Four Seasons Foundation of
San Francisco decided to take a chance on it. Critics acclaimed
Trout Fishing in America as "New Fiction" and welcomed
Brautigan to the American literary scene as a fresh new
figure, in the tradition of Mark
Twain and Ernest
America was looking
for a new literary voice then. The Beats were out of favor
and the rose-tinted, magical, mystical drug experiences,
sexual freedoms, and popular music of the 1960s counter-culture
movement were in. Brautigan certainly recognized, among
America's youth, a dissatisfaction with the absurdities
of the 1960s and a concurrent nostalgic longing for the
past and because of media exposure, quickly became the literary
guru of this changing young America that identified with
his use of imagination and good humor to give zest and humility
to life, his unorthodox use of language, and the original,
playful, eccentric brilliance of his poetry and fiction
which seemed to shatter ordinary notions of experience and
then reconstruct them with whimsy and startling metaphors.
With the publication
of In Watermelon Sugar in 1968, and a renewed interest
in A Confederate General from Big Sur, Brautigan's
reputation as a fiction writer seemed secure. These novels,
like Trout Fishing in America, were told from the
point of view of an "I" narrator who spoke of a new vision
for America, suggesting that through imagination one could
achieve an escape and a salvation from an increasingly mechanized,
But while his writing
mourned the betrayal of the American Dream and promoted
the search for a new American Eden, there was also a darker,
more existential philosophy in Brautigan's work. As in Samuel
Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the
characters in Brautigan's A Confederate General from
Big Sur are waiting for someone who will give meaning
to their lives. Brautigan, like Godot, says there is no
one ultimate solution or ending but rather multiple endings,
infinite endings. He "ends" this novel by saying,
"Then there are
more and more endings: the sixth, the 53rd, the 131st,
the 9,435th endings, endings going faster and faster,
more and more endings, faster and faster until this book
is having 186,000 endings per second" .
Sugar ends just as it began: in "deeds that were done
and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar."
Time does not flow here, it, in the spirit of Kenneth
Patchen's Albion Moonlight, "just is."
Time is told only by the fact that a different color sun
rises every day over the utopian community of... Death.
In this novel Brautigan
seems to outline the communal ethics necessary for the success
of the new "Aquarian-Agrarian" world that was popularly
viewed at the time. In Watermelon Sugar may be considered
a "tract" -- a guide for survival in the post-apocalyptical
world. Brautigan seems to be saying that in order for a
utopian community to be successful, a great deal of emotional
repression and deprivation is necessary. And, that, like
the people of iDeath, one must turn one's back on the surrounding
world and shut all emotions and history away, forever, in
"The Forgotten Works." In Watermelon Sugar is a Surrealistic
aesthetic, an exercise in a world where the I and the not
I, the interior and the exterior, the dream and the waking,
and even silence and speech are possible forms of equally
These three novels
seemed to capture the spirit of an extraordinary moment
in American history which advanced the thought that it was
no longer necessary to see things as one had been taught
to see them and what one had learned to call reality was
only one version, and possibly not the best version, of
the surrounding world. These novels seemed to be the first
light of the dawning new age. Counter-culture advocates,
and indeed, for a short time, the critics, loved them.
Brautigan was suddenly
tremendously popular, and in great demand. After years of
handing out his poetry on the streets of Haight-Ashbury,
he was ensconced as the poet-in-residence at the California
Institute of Technology in 1966-1967. He lectured at Harvard,
and articles about him appeared in Time and Life magazine.
Brautigan, the untraveled, uneducated, northwest country-bumpkin
With the publication
of his later novels, critics began to lament that Brautigan
was no longer in a shape that was recognizable to them.
The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1966 (published
in 1971 and dealing with the extreme narcissism and the
implications of being deeply withdrawn into self) brought
uneven response, as did All Watched Over by Machines
of Loving Grace (collected poetry published in 1967)
and The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster
(a collection of most of his previous poetry published in
1968). Critics wondered where the vibrant, exuberant, youthful
Brautigan of Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon
Sugar was. They felt these new Brautigan works were
unstructured ramblings occasionally sparked by whimsy and
wonderful metaphors but wondered if Brautigan could sustain
a collection of short stories entitled Revenge of the
Lawn: Stories 1962-1970 in 1971, and it was clear that
he was not going to "continue" in the same vein as his earlier
work, much less "sustain" it. He experimented with different
literary genres: a parody of westerns and gothic horror
films in The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western (1974),
a parody of sadomasochistic books like The Story of O
in Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery
(1975), a study of the alienation and purposelessness of
being divided from any world of shared experience in Sombrero
Fallout: A Japanese Novel (1976), and a parody of hard-boiled
detective fiction in Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye
Novel 1942 (1977). He also published two more books
of poetry, both collections of previous work: Rommel
Drives on Deep into Egypt (1970) and Loading Mercury
with a Pitchfork (1975).
Because of the timing
of his success with Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan
was often called "the hippie novelist," a term that puzzled
him. "I never thought of myself as a [hippie novelist],"
he said in rebuttal, "My writing is just one man's response
to life in the 20th Century" [Bozeman Daily Chronicle 6].
to the 20th Century was the casual injection of faintly
surrealistic elements into his fiction. There was a quality.
suppressed but evident, in his early works which promised
much. But he seemed unable to go beyond it, or to develop
it [The Times 12]. The sincerity and the disconnected, elliptical
style of Brautigan's writing that had so charmed critics
and readers in the early years, palled. Critics enjoyed
his Hemingway style, Twain humor, and unique philosophy,
but they generally dismissed Brautigan as a writer who had
peaked early and had nothing new to offer.
Terence Malley, in
his book Richard Brautigan summarized the eventual
critical consensus when he said,
are for the most part directly autobiographical and curiously
elusive. For one thing, it's usually difficult to separate
confession from whimsy... For another, although he draws
heavily on his pre-San Francisco experiences in his writing,
those 'old bygone days' are what he describes as 'years
and years of a different life to which I can never return
nor want to and seems almost to have occurred to another
body somehow vaguely in my shape and recognition...'"
was expelled from the arena of critical literary attention.
As Thomas McGuane,
noted Western author and Brautigan's friend, succinctly
put it: "When the 60s ended, he [Brautigan] was the baby
thrown out with the bath water" [Bozeman Daily Chronicle
he was disappointed over the lack of positive critical acclaim
he received in the United States, Brautigan allegedly refused
to give lectures or grant interviews from 1972-1980. He
divided his time between California, Montana, and Japan. California
was "home," Montana was a solace, a retreat, and Japan was
a source of acceptance and acclaim not afforded in America.
He had a substantial following in Japan and traveled there
He published another
book of poetry, June 30th, June 30th in 1978, and
another novel, The Tokyo-Montana Express in 1980.
Both were about his experiences in Japan and Montana.
With the publication
of The Tokyo-Montana Express, Brautigan began granting
interviews, giving readings and lectures, and even participating
in "writer in residence" programs, teaching creative writing
So the Wind Won't
Blow It All Away, Brautigan's last novel, was published
in the summer of 1982. When it was not accepted and acclaimed
by the critics or the reading public he felt misunderstood
and alienated. Accounts from friends say that Brautigan
became depressed and drank heavily.
On October 25, 1984,
Brautigan's body was discovered in his Bolinas, California
home. He apparently had taken his own life some weeks before.
He was 49.
File 260: UPI News-April 1983-May 1987. Dialog Database.
Palo Alto, CA: Dialog Information Service, Inc. Dateline:
Tacoma, WA, October 27, 1984. General news story dealing
with Bernard Brautigan, Richard's father.
Malley, Terence. Richard
Brautigan. New York: Warner, 1972.
"Old Lady." The San Francisco Poets.
Ed. David Meltzer. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971. 293-97,
"The Life and Death of Richard Brautigan." Rolling Stone
Apr. 1985: 29-61.
Brautigan: An Annotated Bibliography
John F. Barber