Richard Brautigan

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757

Richard Brautigan was born in Tacoma, Washington, on January 30, 1935, the son of Bernard Brautigan and Lula Mary Keho Brautigan. A series of stepfathers made Brautigan’s early life rather chaotic and unstable. He began to write while attending high school, and the Beat movement drew him to the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1950’s. There he met Philip Whalen, with whom he shared an apartment for a period, as well as Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and most of the other poets and fiction writers who congregated in the bookstores and coffeehouses. While Brautigan is primarily remembered as an offbeat novelist, he was first published as a poet; The Return of the Rivers appeared in 1957, the same year he married Virginia Dionne Adler. The Galilee Hitch-Hiker was published in 1958, Lay the Marble Tea: Twenty-four Poems in 1959, and The Octopus Frontier in 1960, the year his daughter Ianthe was born. During this period he worked at a succession of odd jobs while writing a considerable body of poetry.

During the four years Brautigan was married to Virginia Adler, he completed two of the three books of fiction upon which his literary reputation rests and began the third. Donald Allen was instrumental in bringing two of Brautigan’s novels to the attention of an editor at Grove Press in New York, which published A Confederate General from Big Sur in 1964. When this work sold poorly, Grove had second thoughts about handling a second book. Allen acted on Brautigan’s behalf again by publishing Trout Fishing in America himself in 1967, and Brautigan’s literary career quickly started to take shape. The “love generation” soon began to think it heard its own voice in the thoughtful, eccentric characters that peopled Brautigan’s novels; Brautigan became a cult writer to a social and political movement with whom he shared only a few preoccupations.

Though he had never attended college, Brautigan became poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology in 1967. In 1969, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut helped Delacorte Press secure rights to Trout Fishing in America as well as Brautigan’s new book, In Watermelon Sugar, which had been published by a smaller press a year before. With The Abortion: An Historical Romance (1971), Brautigan began to base more and more of his fictional works either on particular subgenres of the novel, such as the romance, or on specific earlier literary works, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” (in Tales of the Jazz Age, 1922).

Brautigan’s popularity grew, his book sales soared, and he began to wander more widely and more frequently than he had been able to before. In addition to his house in Bolinas, California, Brautigan acquired a strip of Montana ranch land near Livingston. The writer’s fascination with this section of the United States influenced both The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western (1974) and The Tokyo-Montana Express (1980).

Brautigan married again, in Japan, and brought his bride Akiko back to live with him in Montana. Like his first, this marriage was short-lived; the couple separated in 1981. Brautigan had earlier begun to drink heavily, and he grew despondent when the sales of his books declined steadily and critical reaction to his writing grew cool.

Experiments in fictional form and subgenre mark almost all the later and less important novels. Willard and His Bowling Trophies (1975) Brautigan subtitled A Perverse Mystery. Sombrero Fallout (1976) is subtitled A Japanese Novel, and Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel 1942 (1977) is an odd reworking of the 1940’s private eye story. So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away (1982) seems to be based, at least in some ways, on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854). During this period, Brautigan grew more and more moody and reclusive, granting no interviews and delivering no public lectures on his works. Only with The Tokyo-Montana Express, his next to last book, did Brautigan again achieve anything resembling the brilliance, effervescence, and wit of his early works.

Self-absorbed, deeply depressed, troubled by debts, and abrasive even to those who cared for him, Brautigan went from bad to miserable. After the commercial failure of So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away (it sold fewer than fifteen thousand copies), no publisher was interested in a work that he offered them in 1983. In his house in Bolinas, sometime late in September of the following year, when even his closest friends did not know where he was, Brautigan put a borrowed Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum to his head and pulled the trigger. His body was not found until October 25, 1984.


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Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99

In his early novels, Richard Brautigan searches for the meaning of America. What he finds is a country debased by commercialism, shaken in its values, and haunted by loneliness. For the individual, love, humor, and the imagination can bring meaning to life.

Brautigan explored the American soul in the middle of the twentieth century; he believed gentleness and peace to be both means and end in this quest. His highly original, richly metaphoric books show him to be much more than a transitional literary figure. His finely crafted prose bears witness to his unique way of viewing the world.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

Richard Brautigan was born in Tacoma, Washington, in the midst of the Great Depression. Very little is known about his early life. Although Brautigan apparently drew on his childhood experiences in his fiction, his idiosyncratic attitude toward his past made him reluctant to discuss actual details with anyone. From anecdotal fragments confided to a few persons close to him, a far less than idyllic picture emerges that includes a pattern of abandonment and mistreatment at the hands of stepfathers. Deprivation seems to have been a part of his heritage, and Brautigan would claim throughout his life that he never graduated from high school.

In 1956, Brautigan moved to San Francisco and became peripherally aligned with the Beat poets. He wrote and published several volumes of poetry, but none sold well. He also met an educated young woman, Virginia Adler, who became his first wife and the mother of Ianthe, their daughter. Adler supported the family by doing secretarial work. Problems arose when Brautigan continued his bachelor habits of haunting bars and bringing his friends home for further revels. In time, Virginia became involved with one of Brautigan’s drinking friends and ran away with him to live in Salt Lake City in 1963. Although he was devastated, Brautigan wrote one of his best novels, In Watermelon Sugar, in 1964.

Success showered on Brautigan with the publication of Trout Fishing in America in 1967. Fame and money afforded him opportunity for a period of more or less unbridled hedonism. After purchasing a ranch in Montana, Brautigan spent portions of the year entertaining friends, and, perhaps, cultivating a life-style that quickly became an unfortunate blend of egoism and dissipation. Although his friends would fondly recall their early days with Brautigan, heavy drinking and a mordant sense of paranoia began to estrange most of them. Brautigan’s later work was beginning to suffer at the hands of critics, his counterculture audience was dispersing, and sales in the United States were down. In Japan, however, his translated work was creating a wave of interest. In 1977, he married one of his Japanese admirers, Akiko. There was a brief period of happiness while they lived together in San Francisco, and Brautigan began to write The Tokyo-Montana Express in 1978. Unfortunately, Akiko, like so many others, was unable to cope with the peculiar stresses of a relationship with Brautigan; she left him. Brautigan tried the lecture circuit in 1980, but it was an unhappy venture. Sometime near the end of September, 1984, Richard Brautigan shut himself up in his house in Bolinas, California, and took his own life with a handgun. His body was discovered on October 25, 1984.


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Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 235

Richard Gary Brautigan was born and reared in the Pacific Northwest. The son of Bernard F. Brautigan and Lula Mary Keho Brautigan, he spent his early years in Washington and Oregon. His literary career took hold when, in 1958, he moved to San Francisco, California, and began writing poetry in the company of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Duncan, Philip Whalen, and Michael McClure. The company he kept led to his initial identification as a Beat poet, but Brautigan’s unique and now well-known style defied the classification.

Resisting crass commercialism and the profits linked with corporate America, Brautigan’s first books were published primarily for the benefit of his friends and acquaintances. Success finally forced him to allow a New York publication of his work in the 1960’s, however, and Grove Press published his A Confederate General from Big Sur. Shortly after his change of allegiance from Four Seasons Foundation in San Francisco to Grove Press in New York, Brautigan was invited to become poet-in-residence at Pasadena’s California Institute of Technology. Although he had never attended college, he accepted the invitation and spent the 1967 academic year at the prestigious school.

In 1957, Brautigan married Virginia Diorine Adler. They had one daughter, Ianthe, and later were divorced. In his later years, Brautigan divided his time among three places: Tokyo, San Francisco, and, when in retreat or fishing, a small town in Montana. He died in 1984, an apparent suicide.


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Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 367

From 1967 to 1971, Richard Brautigan’s popularity was based on his association with West Coast youth movements. His books, particularly his short, fanciful novels, were viewed as expressions of a generation disillusioned with the American myth. His gentle, comic books mourned the apparent loss of the American Eden, and his stories often focus on the search for a new American pastoral utopia. Such a search, his works point out, ultimately results in despair and disillusionment. Brautigan’s works comment upon social and personal values in America, linking life and nature. An implicit belief in Brautigan’s work is that one cannot find personal happiness in a contaminated, polluted environment.

Critical views differ widely on Brautigan’s vision, some emphasizing his apocalyptic, melancholy America, others pointing to his gentle, sweet, optimistic imagery that transcends the hard, workaday world. His use of nature is often compared to that of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), especially Trout Fishing in America, regarded as Brautigan’s best novel. Like Thoreau, Brautigan is considered to be an advocate of the individual conscience rather than the dictates of social laws, a theme explored in all of his early works, perhaps best demonstrated in his The Abortion: An Historical Romance, in which a couple live in a library of unpublished books and in which the woman has, without much guilt or any medical complication, an abortion.

Critics generally agree that Brautigan’s prose is more important than his verse, and that earlier, more stylistically innovative writings present his themes more concisely than his later work. Brautigan’s canon is widely discussed for his use of metaphorical, whimsical language rather than for any depth of philosophy or meaning. His use of America’s past as being both bankrupt of ideas and a necessity for understanding the present, his concern for the fluidity and stability of nature, and his quirky, surreal examinations of social disintegration remain of interest despite his reputation for merely being a spokesman for the revolutionary attitudes of the 1960’s.

While continuing to publish after 1971, Brautigan found both his critical and popular support eroding with each successive book. Brautigan apparently committed suicide in September, 1984, but his body was not discovered until October 25 of that year.

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