Although written before Trout Fishing in America, Confederate General from Big Sur is stylistically a much more conventional novel. The narrator Jesse, who says he likes to watch triple features at cheap theaters, fashions a montage of narrative images, but his loosely related series of anecdotes effectively define the character of Lee Mellon and advance a cohesive plot that largely adheres to chronological linearity.
As in Trout Fishing in America, the prose is sparse, composed of unemotionally observed details. This direct, matter-of-fact style emphasizes the novel's philosophical refusal to make value judgments in a world in which good and evil are simply part of a never-ending pattern beyond man's comprehension. There is no attempt to explain contradictions, for in Confederate General from Big Sur, unlike the conforming world which the novel rejects, consistency has no particular value.
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Popularized after its reissue in 1968, Confederate General from Big Sur's portrait of nonconformist life in California was often read as a description of protohippies, a companion piece to Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). But the novel had originally been published in 1964, and its characters and message are antithetical to several concerns of the hippie movement.
Unlike the hippie counterculture that embraced pacifism and based its politics in opposition to the Vietnam War, Confederate General from Big Sur's protagonist Lee Mellon is a brutal and insensitive iconoclast who is unconcerned with the political reality of America. His rebellion is not a conscious reaction against his society as much as it is a simple determination to do what he wants.
Similarly, although the novel portrays a group of young people living together in elective poverty, it is no encomium to communal life. Instead, Brautigan's characters exist in worlds of private fantasy: Lee Mellon believing that he is descended from a Confederate General, the narrator Jesse rereading the punctuation in Ecclesiastes, and gentle Elizabeth playing the role of loving mother when she is not off in San Francisco working as a highly paid prostitute.
Even the novel's hedonism — casual sex, drugs, and alcohol — are a misleading parallel with the hippie counterculture and another indication of Brautigan's basic distrust of any collective...
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In Confederate General from Big Sur, as in much of his work, Brautigan frequently alludes to classics of American literature. When Lee Mellon taps the gas lines of Pacific Gas and Electric, he is paralleling the actions of Ralph Ellison's unnamed protagonist in Invisible Man (1952). Mellon's impoverished encampment at Big Sur is in many ways a parodic revision of Thoreau at Walden Pond. References to earlier American literary rebels are spelled out in the novel: Mellon was raised in Ashville, North Carolina, the birthplace of Thomas Wolfe, and at one point in the novel Henry Miller is observed waiting outside his Big Sur home for the mail delivery.
But perhaps equally important precedents are the rebellious characters played by James Dean and Marlon Brando in 1950s films such as The Wild One (1954) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955), for like the protagonists of these films, Lee Mellon is an apolitical figure who only wants to be left alone. It is the conforming world's intrusion into his world that leads him to violence.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Abbott, Keith. Downstream from “Trout Fishing in America”: A Memoir of Richard Brautigan. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1989. A personal account of Brautigan from a longtime friend. Some of the book is Abbott’s own memoirs, but it also contains interesting anecdotes and insights into Brautigan’s life and work. Chapter 8, “Shadows and Marble,” presents critical commentary on Brautigan’s novels, in particular Trout Fishing in America.
Bradbury, Malcolm. The Modern American Novel. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983. Chapter 7, “Postmoderns and Others: The 1960s and 1970s,” cites Brautigan, placing him in the genre of writers who “celebrated the hippie youth spirit.” Bradbury gives succinct but insightful critical commentary on Brautigan’s novels. He sees Brautigan as much more than a hippie writer, whose spirit of “imaginative discovery” has spawned a number of literary successors.
Chenetier, Marc. Richard Brautigan. London: Methuen, 1983. Assesses Brautigan’s writing in the context of the 1960’s, and traces the development of his art beyond the confines of a cult figure. An appreciative study that analyzes Brautigan in the light of his poetics.
Kaylor, Noel Harold, ed. Creative and Critical Approaches to the Short Story. Lewiston: The Edwin...
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