Richard Brautigan 1935-1984
American novelist and poet.
The following entry provides criticism on Brautigan's works from 1984 through 2001. For criticism prior to 1984, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 5, 9, 12, 34, and 42.
Brautigan's avant-garde poetry and fiction made him a transitional figure between the Beat movement of the 1950s and the counterculture movement of the 1960s, as well as a precursor of the postmodernists. In his novels, Brautigan employs lyrical prose, simple syntax, and a whimsical narrative style while exploring such themes as death, sex, violence, betrayal, loss of innocence, and the power of imagination to transform reality. Several critics have argued that Brautigan is an unclassifiable author, most closely allied with Kurt Vonnegut.
Brautigan was born on January 30, 1935, in Tacoma, Washington. He never met his biological father and had few happy memories of his childhood. Though a troubled teenager, he began to write stories in high school. Brautigan was once placed in a mental hospital after being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Upon his release in the mid-1950s, Brautigan went to San Francisco where he encountered poets of the Beat Generation, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Philip Whalen. Brautigan then began to frequent poetry readings in North Beach coffeehouses. In 1957 he married Virginia Dionne Adler, with whom he had a daughter. Brautigan first published poetry but began to write fiction in the 1960s, which were his most productive years. Brautigan divorced in 1970 and in 1977 married a Japanese woman after he had achieved a measure of literary success in Japan. In 1976 Brautigan bought a ranch in Montana, where he continued to write despite his waning popularity. Another divorce, numerous other personal disappointments, and a heavy dependence on alcohol contributed to his death in September of 1984 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Brautigan's first important volume of poetry, The Galilee Hitch-Hiker (1958), an outgrowth of his experiences with the Beat poets in San Francisco, is the surrealistic odyssey of a man who drives a Model A Ford across Galilee and the United States. Brautigan plays with language, especially similes and metaphors with humorous twists, in Lay the Marble Tea (1959) and in The Octopus Frontier (1960) uses objects in the natural world to construct a world of imagination. Another poetry collection, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (1967), was followed by The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (1968), which became his most popular volume of poetry. His novel A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964) is a play on the concept of historical accuracy. Brautigan's lasting fictional legacy was probably fixed by his 1967 novel Trout Fishing in America, which found its first audience among the counterculture then beginning to flourish in San Francisco. This novel, set mostly in the American West, is a lament for the loss of the natural landscape told in a picaresque and absurdist way. In Watermelon Sugar (1968) takes place in a postapocalyptic utopian commune called iDeath, where people manufacture everything they need from watermelon sugar and have no hope for uplift or progress. Brautigan's The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971) is a parody of a genre novel which tells the story of a trip to Tijuana to secure an abortion for the author's girlfriend. Another parody, The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western (1974), takes on the western novel genre in a bizarre tale of a monster who lives in ice caves under an estate in Oregon. Three more novels in this parody series included Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery (1975), Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel (1976), and Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel 1942 (1977). Brautigan produced just one volume of short stories, Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970 (1971), composed of very short vignettes on specific themes. He published several minor volumes of poetry in the 1970s, ending with June 30th, June 30th (1978), a collection of his impressions as an outsider in Japan in 1977. A novel, The Tokyo-Montana Express (1980), also grew out of his experiences in Japan and his new life on his Montana ranch. So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away (1982), Brautigan's final novel, was marked by the pessimism which pervaded the last part of his life.
Brautigan's critics have found him hard to classify. Some called him a last vestige of the Beat Generation, a hippie writer, or a modern-day Thoreau; others thought he was an early postmodernist or a Zen Buddhist. In the 1960s his experimental fiction was well received, although some reviewers felt his work was simplistic and lightweight. Trout Fishing in America received considerable critical attention for its unusual style and humorous tone. This book became something of a cult classic, especially on the west coast. Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar and A Confederate General from Big Sur were also reviewed and widely read. Brautigan's later genre novels, however, were given much less attention. His poetry gained mixed reviews, called uneven by some and linguistically and imaginatively interesting by others. In the 1970s and early 1980s Brautigan's work was out of fashion and received few reviews, except in Japan, where he had gained a new audience. Those western critics who did comment on Brautigan's work often labelled him an aging hippie whose literary time had past. By the time of his death, most critics had dubbed Brautigan a minor writer of the counterculture period. In the mid-1980s and in the years after his death, however, critics began to take a renewed look at Brautigan's work, finding in it considerable complexity and an originality. The publication of a biography, three biographical-critical studies, and a detailed bibliography helped to rekindle interest in Brautigan's life and body of work.
The Galilee Hitch-Hiker (poetry) 1958
Lay the Marble Tea (poetry) 1959
The Octopus Frontier (poetry) 1960
A Confederate General from Big Sur (novel) 1964
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (poetry) 1967
Trout Fishing in America (novel) 1967
The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (poetry) 1968
In Watermelon Sugar (novel) 1968
The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (novel) 1971
Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970 (short stories) 1971
The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western (novel) 1974
Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery (novel) 1975
Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel (novel) 1976
Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel 1942 (novel) 1977
June 30th, June 30th (poetry) 1978
The Tokyo-Montana Express (novel) 1980
So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away (novel) 1982
An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey (novel) 2000
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SOURCE: Horvath, Brooke K. “Wrapped in a Winter Rug: Richard Brautigan Looks at Common Responses to Death.” Notes on Modern American Literature 8, no. 3 (winter 1984): Item 14.
[In the following brief analysis of “Winter Rug,” Horvath discusses the manner in which the characters come to terms with death.]
“Winter Rug,” a story included in Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970, reveals in brief compass the preoccupation with death central to Richard Brautigan's fiction.1 Whereas Brautigan's major imaginative efforts present characters who typically bring radical tactics into play in their efforts to gain psychological control over death (the retreat into fantasy in A Confederate General from Big Sur, death's imaginative revision in Trout Fishing in America, the attempt of the iDEATH inhabitants to live in and with death in In Watermelon Sugar, and the mock-heroic triumph over death achieved in The Abortion), “Winter Rug” examines the paltry efforts of two characters to defuse death's sting through recourse to society's less drastic, habitual ploys.
The story concerns an old dog “dying very slowly from senility.”2 Owned by a wealthy old woman, the dog is eventually wrapped in an expensive Chinese rug and buried in the garden following the woman's reluctant decision to have her pet put “to sleep,” a...
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SOURCE: Horvath, Brooke. “Richard Brautigan's Search for Control over Death.” American Literature 57, no. 3 (October 1985): 434-55.
[In the following essay, Horvath examines the ways in which Brautigan's fiction deals with the illusion of cheating death.]
Ludwig Wittgenstein once noted that “Death is not an event in life. Death is not lived through.”1 However, as Keirkegaurd and others have forcefully argued, the prospect of death is life's central fact and the repression of this fact life's primary task. For Ernest Becker, moreover, man's heroism lies in his impossible efforts to transcend creatureliness, to deny death by means of “life-enhancing illusion.”2 Among such illusions might be placed statements such as Wittgenstein's and the fiction of Richard Brautigan.
As Becker writes early in The Denial of Death, “The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive” (p. 66). For Becker, this dilemma is inherent to consciousness, a consequence of human nature more than nurture. His views thus oppose those of Marcuse or Norman O. Brown, whose works speak to the desire for unrepressed living while pointing an accusing finger at society as the cause of repression. Yet throughout the Sixties, Brautigan...
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SOURCE: Boyer, Jay. “Trout Fishing in America.” In Richard Brautigan, pp. 19-24. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1987.
[In the following excerpt from his short study of Brautigan, Boyer discusses the ways in which Trout Fishing in America is an attempt to transcend reality through the use of the imagination.]
Rendering experience in self-contained little sections, and relying upon the cumulative power of these sections for dramatic effect, would be a technique Brautigan would become identified with, but one he used to greatest advantage in his first novel, Trout Fishing in America. Like his stories and poems, each of these sections relies upon voice and tone and the appeal of the speaker for its charm. And there's often a “serial” quality to be found here as well. The degree to which we can appreciate what's going on has to do with how willing we are to allow the speaker his unique path of logic. For instance, “Knock On Wood (Part One),” the second section of the fifty that make up the novel, begins in this way.
As a child when did I first hear about trout fishing in America? From whom? I guess it was a stepfather of mine.
Summer of 1942.
The old drunk told me about trout fishing. When he could talk, he had a way of...
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SOURCE: Abbott, Keith. “Shadows and Marble: Richard Brautigan.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 8 (fall 1988): 117-25.
[In the following essay, Abbott discusses the critical neglect of Brautigan's work and attempts a reevaluation of his skill at dialogue and narrative.]
“What I desired to do in marble, I can poke my shadow through.”
—Richard Brautigan, from an unpublished short story “The F. Scott Fitzgerald Ahhhhhhhhhhh, Pt. 2”
Since Richard Brautigan's death, his reputation has hardly been cast in marble. His writing has been relegated to the shadowland of popular flashes, that peculiar American graveyard of overnight sensations. When a writer dies, appreciation of his work seldom reverses field, but continues in the direction that it was headed at the moment of death, and this has been true for Brautigan. Even during Brautigan's best-seller years in the United States, critical studies of his work were few in number. What there were never exerted a strong influence on the big chiefs of the American critical establishment.
Since he was both a popular and a West-Coast writer, his work has been easy to ignore. There are no critical journals on the West Coast which can sustain a writer's career, as there are on the East Coast. His popularity among the young dumped his work with literary...
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SOURCE: Blakely, Carolyn F. “Narrative Technique in Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar.” CLA Journal 35, no. 2 (December 1991): 150-58.
[In the following essay, Blakely analyzes the narrative technique in one Brautigan novel, asserting that Brautigan has more literary worth than many critics have admitted.]
Richard Brautigan, one among many contemporary writers who have been either ignored or brushed aside by numerous critics as passing fads or as transitory appeals to the fancies of the young generation, should not be dismissed so lightly. One may not assume from a cursory reading of his work that he is shallow or that he has no message to convey. On the contrary, it seems that his message is just as profound and valid as that of more established writers, in spite of the fact that his prose style is revolutionary and that his ideas are couched in a language which is frequently implied rather than overt in its statements. It is sometimes necessary to go beyond what is said in In Watermelon Sugar and concentrate on what is not said, for that is where the statement seems to lie. Some critics ignore this possibility, however, casually dismissing Brautigan as possessing no literary worth but seeing him instead as the response to the Beat Generation's need for a vehicle through which to vocalize its cynical outlook on life.
Michael Feld explains Brautigan as being a writer who...
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SOURCE: Pietralunga, Mark. “Luciano Bianciardi Translates Richard Brautigan: Rebellion at Big Sur.” Romance Languages Annual 10, no. 1 (1998): 345-49.
[In the following essay, Pietralunga compares Brautigan's Confederate General from Big Sur to some of the work of its Italian translator, finding biographical and literary similarities between the two writers.]
In his “Diario americano 1959-60,” Italo Calvino writes about his impressions of Northern California and, in particular, of those scenic locations near the Monterey peninsula where a number of well known writers had established their residences. In the section entitled “Questi paradisi terrestri,” Calvino observes:
dove viv ono gli scrittori americani, non ci starei morto. Non c'e' altro da fare che sbronzarsi. Un giovanotto che si chiama Dennis Murphy o qualcosa di simile che ha scritto un best-seller, The Sergeant, che ora gli ha tradotto Mondadori nella Medusa gli e' arrivata proprio ora la copia e me la mostra e crede che sia un piccolo editore—arriva al mattino con tutti i polsi feriti. La notte si e' sbronzato e ha spaccato a pugni le vetrate della sua villa. Di Henry Miller che vive qui a Big Sur sappiamo gia' che non riceve piu' nessuno perche' sta scrivendo. L'ultrasettantenne scrittore che ha sposato da poco una moglie diciannovenne dedica tutto il resto delle sue...
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SOURCE: Hume, Kathryn. “Brautigan's Psychomachia.” Mosaic 34, no. 1 (March 2001): 75-92.
[In the following essay, Hume analyzes the aesthetics of Brautigan's narratives, noting that he consciously used Zen principles to evoke a special kind of reader response.]
Richard Brautigan's novels rouse readerly uneasiness. Now accustomed to the gigantism of Don DeLillo's Underworld and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, we wonder whether slender books can offer anything but wispy charm. The violent emotional substrate is also disquieting, tainted ex post facto by the author's suicide. Add to that the strangeness: Brautigan offers no authorial guidance on how we should respond to a trout stream described as a series of horizontal telephone booths. Is this a bizarrely accurate simile, or does it physicalize the metaphor of wilderness being commodified and reshaped by technology?
The current critical picture reflects our difficulties. In addition to readings of individual novels, we have many attempts to relate Brautigan to the American tradition, as if this will make his weirdness safer because more familiar. William L. Stull and Edward Halsey Foster derive a genealogy from Thoreau. Ancestor status is granted to Melville (Stull; Vanderwerken), Hemingway (Vanderwerken; Locklin and Stetler), and Fitzgerald (Locklin and Stetler; Willis). Terence Malley identifies beat...
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Barber, John F. Richard Brautigan: An Annotated Bibliography. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1990, 236 p.
Detailed overview of primary and secondary works, annotated and organized by type. Also includes chronology and a brief biography.
Boyer, Jay. “Selected Bibliography.” In Richard Brautigan, pp. 51-2. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1987.
Selected list of primary and secondary works.
Abbot, Keith. Downstream from Trout Fishing in America: A Memoir of Richard Brautigan. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1989, 174 p.
A readable, chronological account of the author's eighteen-year friendship with Brautigan.
Chénetier, Marc. Richard Brautigan. London: Methuen, 1983, 96 p.
Short biographical-critical study which stresses the self-referential and “metafictional” aspects of Brautigan's work.
“Fishing for Truth.” People Weekly 53, no. 23 (12 June 2000): 73.
Profile of Brautigan and his daughter Ianthe, also a writer.
Kerouac, Jan. Trainsong, pp. 154-57. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988.
Account of a 1983 meeting with Brautigan in Amsterdam, written by the daughter of Jack...
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