Richard Brautigan:
A Critical/Biographical Overview

by John F. Barber


Apple Records Album Releases
Apple Records Single Releases
Apple: Employees
Apple: facts
Apple: misc. Expenses
Apple: propositions
Apple: spending
Apple: theft
Al Aronowitz
Alistair Taylor
Allen Klein
Álbum Branco
Bill Elliot & The Elastic Oz Band
Billy Preston
Black Dyke Mills Brass Band
Brian Epstein
Brute Force
Chris Hodge
David Peel
Delaney & Bonnie
Derek Taylor
Doris Troy
Electronics Sounds
Elephant’s Memory
George Harrison
George Martin
Homem pego com gravações roubadas
dos Beatles não será preso
Hot Chocolat Band
Jackie Lomax
James Taylor
John Alexis Mardas
John Lennon
John Tavener
Linda McCartney
Lon & Derrek Van Eaton
Magical Mistery Tour
Mal Evans
Mary Hopkin
Merseybeat friends in Liverpool
Modern Jazz Quartet
Neil Aspinall
Paul está morto
Paul se casa com Linda
Paul McCartney
Peter Brown
Phil Spector
Ringo Starr
Rolling Beatles
Ronnie Spector
Sundow Playboys
Those Were the Days -
the Beatles Apple Organization
Yellow Submarine
Yoko Ono



Richard Gary 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.

Brautigan's early 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 from reality.

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, and disconnected.

Disconnection seems 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)

Brautigan's childhood 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.

After Brautigan's 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.

"Folston... [said] her ex-husband asked 'if Richard was his son, and I said, no. I told him I found Richard in the gutter.'

"Bernard Brautigan 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?'" (Anonymous).

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 times" (see Wright)

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 Wright)

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. (see Wright)

"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 Wright)

Brautigan always 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 a sentence.

"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 other novels.

"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!" [Meltzer 304].

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 Creeley, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Gary 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 Beat sentiments.

Brautigan published 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 Hemingway.

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, urban country.

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" [160].

In Watermelon 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 concurrent reality.

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 had arrived.

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 himself.

Brautigan published 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].

Brautigan's response 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,

"Brautigan's books 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...'" [18-19].

Richard Brautigan 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 6].

Possibly, because 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 often.

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 once again.

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.


Anonymous. "Brautigan." 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, 304.

Wright, Lawrence. "The Life and Death of Richard Brautigan." Rolling Stone Apr. 1985: 29-61.

Richard Brautigan: An Annotated Bibliography
John F. Barber