(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The very title of Richard Brautigan’s novel emphasizes the unusual conjunction of events, characters, and places that distinguishes much of his fiction from conventional treatments of history and society. His characters are drawn to powerful figures, such as Lee Mellon, who define their own reality; fantasy, in other words, is related as fact—primarily because, in Brautigan’s view, human beings make up their lives as they go along, regardless of what the history books and common sense seem to prescribe. The results of this flaunting of realism are usually comic and ironic and in the service of the novelist’s perception that reality is not nearly so stable or so reliable as serious recorders of fact would have it.

Lee Mellon, for example, claims to be from the South, although he has no trace of a Southern accent. His great-grandfather was a Confederate general, he tells the narrator, Jesse, although on their trip to the library they find no General Augustus Mellon in the history books. Jesse, who admires Lee and takes on his propensity for rewriting history, begins the book by stating that Big Sur was the twelfth Confederate state. Both characters engender a sense of history that is true to their own situation—that is, as outcasts from the dominant culture, they have picked a time and a place that suits their identities; they have seceded, so to speak, from the mainstream and fashioned a counterculture.

As befits an unconventional...

(The entire section is 502 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

A Confederate General from Big Sur, Brautigan’s first published novel, focuses the reader’s attention on its characters. The narrator is Jesse, a young man whose gentle, strange personality has the capacity to delight the reader with metaphoric insights and uncommon attitudes toward love, friendship, and life in general. The central character of the novel, however, is Lee Mellon, a true eccentric. In the first part of the book, he tries to gather information about an ancestor, Augustus Mellon, who (at least as family history would have it) was a general in the Civil War. Jesse tries to help Lee in his quest and thus becomes enmeshed in Mellon’s chaotic, rough-hewn life. At one point, Jesse calls his friend a “Confederate General in ruins,” echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s description of man as a god in ruins.

Lee Mellon is something of a narcissist and a bounder, but his character is compelling because he confronts life directly and leads the kind of wild, wide-open existence that invites readers to fantasize that they, too, could be more this way if they chose. Lee comes short of being truly offensive because he brings no lasting harm to anyone else.

Despite Jesse’s and Lee’s intensive search, they find no evidence that anyone by the name of Augustus Mellon was ever a Confederate general. Throughout the work Brautigan uses analogies from the Civil War, and particularly writings about that mythic struggle, as an underlying conceit. As in Brautigan’s later novels, an underlying literary work, a repeated allusion, acts as a source and inspiration, giving both information to the account and tone to the...

(The entire section is 674 words.)