Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In the figure of Lee Mellon, Richard Brautigan satirizes the myth of the self-made man. Lee is self-deluded in claiming ancestry from a Confederate general, although his conceit has an ironic truth to it in the sense that Lee, like Robert E. Lee, is ultimately a loser. He loses grandly, and he loses ridiculously. Like the causes of death listed for the Civil War generals in the section that prefaces the novel, “Attrition’s Old Sweet Song,” Lee Mellon has suffered many different kinds of defeat. His illusions do give him a kind of power, though, that eludes the more conventionally successful Johnston Wade. Like his putative Civil War namesake, Lee Mellon thrives in people’s imaginations, regardless of the fact that he has been, by several different measures, a failure.

What Jesse ultimately makes of Mellon is not entirely clear, although he recognizes the appropriateness of their names—outlaws both, they try to transcend their shortcomings in legendary, tall tale exploits, in episodes such as the one in which they buy two alligators to rid themselves of the noisy frogs that disturb their peace. Near the end of the novel, italicized passages portray the none too heroic adventures of Private Augustus Mellon. Evidently, Jesse has come to imagine, if not to admit explicitly, the absurdity of Lee Mellon’s megalomania. The terse, documentary style of these Civil War scenes is a stunningly effective rebuke to the characters’ fantasies.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Brautigan believes that each self should ideally be judged outside of history, and he recognizes that people, like Lee Mellon with his dreams of the Confederacy, can be inappropriate to their historical situation. Confederate General from Big Sur explores the possibility of transcending history, but the novel shows that even if one can transcend history, one cannot escape moral ambiguity. This version of the American theme of freedom derives from eastern thought with its emphasis on inevitability. At the end of the novel, as the characters search for Johnston Wade's pomegranate, the narrator sighs, "There was nothing else to do, for after all this was the destiny of our lives. A long time ago this was our future, looking for a lost pomegranate at Big Sur."

The book, therefore, is also absurdist. The narrator reads and rereads Ecclesiastes until he is only reading the punctuation. In Ecclesiastes there is a time for all things, but there is no pattern discernible by man. The multiple endings of Confederate General from Big Sur refute rational causality and suggest a world in which progress is an illusion and life is an endless repetition of the past.

(The entire section is 193 words.)