Richard Brautigan American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4190

The principal themes of Brautigan’s fiction are concerned with different aspects of the same classical philosophical question: What constitutes the good life? For example, in A Confederate General from Big Sur , Brautigan explores the role of friendship in life—its obligations as well as its joys and tribulations. Lee Mellon,...

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The principal themes of Brautigan’s fiction are concerned with different aspects of the same classical philosophical question: What constitutes the good life? For example, in A Confederate General from Big Sur, Brautigan explores the role of friendship in life—its obligations as well as its joys and tribulations. Lee Mellon, the book’s central character, is an entertaining ne’er-do-well whose complex, disorganized life brings the first-person narrator, Jesse, as much trouble as it does pleasure—perhaps more. Lee is inventive and funny, but his behavior and morals are an increasing strain on Jesse’s patience and sense of right and wrong. Lee’s spontaneity and his direct contact with life cement the friendship, but it is in almost constant danger of coming apart toward the close of the story.

Though the narrator feels “a sudden wave of vacancy go over me” when Lee treats another character harshly, Jesse remains loyal. One needs friends in this world, and sticks with them (the book implies) whether they are good or bad, right, or wrong. Such a youthful answer to one of life’s tougher questions did not go unnoticed by those readers wearing bell-bottomed trousers or miniskirts.

Brautigan was concerned as well with the individual’s need for a sense of community. In A Confederate General from Big Sur, community comes in the form of the little group that gathers around the bogus general Lee Mellon at his Big Sur encampment. Community nurtures the individual and helps both to create possibilities for each person and to establish the boundaries of his or her reality. Trout Fishing in America is concerned with this same question, though here the individual’s “community” is national rather than local.

In Watermelon Sugar, set in a fantasy-embroidered commune, is especially concerned with how life is best lived in relation to other lives. The community of iDEATH represents for Brautigan one answer to the problem of how men and women may relate meaningfully to one another within a social unit. Freedom, respect, and gentleness are all-important qualities of the sort of social construct that fosters growth and trust, that makes life worth living. Just as important as community, however, in bringing meaning and purpose to life is a sound, deeply shared love between a man and a woman.

The narrator of The Abortion had drifted through a purposeless existence until he met and fell in love with Vida, a beautiful woman who brings him back in contact with life. Love gone sour and the consequences of this on the soul are the principal concerns of both Willard and His Bowling Trophies and Sombrero Fallout. Without love, Brautigan’s books imply, life is a gray, pointless affair. Both his poetry and his prose point to healthy love and sexuality as a very important part of the good life.

Despite the strength and the consistency of themes in Brautigan’s novels, this element is seldom, if ever, the emphasis in his fiction, and his readers probably did not buy his books for their ruminations on particular ideas. Instead, Brautigan was a scintillating prose stylist whose humor ran toward a zaniness that was seldom lame or strained. Lee Mellon, despite his flaws as a human being, is entertaining and fascinating because he is at the same time likable and humorously fantastic.

In Trout Fishing in America, the narrator goes to a strange sort of retail business establishment that sells trout streams by the foot (trees and birds are optional and at extra charge). Like Lee Mellon, the Cleveland Wrecking Yard is funny and sad at the same time; the reader is encouraged to laugh and ponder the odd ways of America—how it treats everything as commodity, even as Americans (both the reader and the author) try to imbue everything with meaning. Even in Brautigan’s later books such as The Hawkline Monster, the humor of situation and character is frequently entertaining. A wry view of life animates Brautigan’s early novels, and when that disappeared, so too did the joy that readers found in his books.

Besides being humorous, the writing is richly metaphoric. When he began writing fiction, Brautigan retained both the insights and the methods of poetry. The Cleveland Wrecking Yard shows Brautigan’s use of figurative language as well as it shows his humor. This establishment represents the way America “does business,” packaging myth with environment and selling both at a profit. As in all good metaphors, the point is both clear and striking.

Often, however, Brautigan’s figurative language is harder to interpret. Every reader of In Watermelon Sugar has the impression that something besides a post-nuclear-war hippie commune is the topic under discussion, but even the critics have not been able to agree on what this extended figure of speech is intended to illuminate. Another type of figurative complexity is found in Brautigan’s frequent analogies. The “Ice Age Cab Company” chapter of The Tokyo-Montana Express finds the narrator struggling to describe how a sunset on the mountains constantly changes as it is being watched.

To help readers understand his problem, he tells the story of a woman cab driver who seems preoccupied with an entirely different kind of change in the appearance of the mountains—that brought about by successive ice ages. At the end of her monologue, the narrator says, “When she started talking about the mountains, they looked one way and when she finished talking about them, they looked another way. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say about this sunset.” On the superficial level, one learns how long it takes her to tell her tale—in terms of the sunset. On another level, one is informed about the kinds of changes that take place in the mind as one views things from different perspectives. On the poetic level, one experiences an abrasion, one kind of change (a relatively rapid one, the sunset) grinding against a very different kind (the very slow change that glaciers bring about over eons). The result of such carefully wrought poetic language, though it often seems simple on the surface, is a discourse that is lean and spare and drenched in nuance.

A Confederate General from Big Sur

First published: 1964

Type of work: Novel

A small band of bizarre nonconformists searches for Lee Mellon’s connection with the past and, not finding it, survives with whatever comes to hand.

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 writing style. In fact, Brautigan identifies the principal source as Ezra J. Warner’s Generals in Gray (1959).

After their failure to uncover any information about the hypothetical general, Lee and Jesse retreat to Mellon’s ramshackle place on the coast at Big Sur and ponder the possibilities of life while they have affairs with local women, help control a psychotic millionaire driven from home by his greedy family, and generally share whatever adventures and misadventures come their way. Jesse, however, is troubled by the chaos and uncertainty of life at Big Sur with Lee Mellon in charge. He is further unsettled by Lee’s increasing aggression toward others, especially the erratic millionaire Johnston Wade, who is also referred to as Roy Earle, the character portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the film High Sierra. Despite all Lee Mellon’s flaws, his rebelliousness, zaniness, and originality make him compelling and appealing.

This frankly experimental work is further complicated by Brautigan’s providing not one but several endings for the book. In the first ending, the two friends and their girlfriends are high on marijuana and Jesse is unable to complete the sexual act initiated by the woman he is with. The second ending resembles a still photograph of the foursome on the beach. By the time readers reach the sixth ending, they learn that the book has more and more endings unraveling faster and faster—“186,000 endings per second,” the speed of light.

While Brautigan’s decision to provide multiple endings may adequately describe marijuana intoxication (through confusion and disorientation), it nevertheless forces readers to select their own version of how the tale ends and thus casts some of the burden of the meaning of the story on them. No matter which ending (or endings) readers select, the conclusion of the book is desolate. One is alone, though one may find oneself among friends, and the isolation is painful and lacking in hope. Intoxication, sex, or activity may numb the pain for a while, but eventually each individual must face whatever hollowness exists within his or her soul. The contrast between the pervasive humor and the desolation of the ending (that desolation is also found elsewhere in the book) gives the novel a tense, haunting quality. The contrast oddly blends the angst that is often found in the Beats and the joyous, carefree attitude that characterized the American youth movement of the 1960’s.

Trout Fishing in America

First published: 1967

Type of work: Novel

Trout fishing becomes an extended metaphor for much that is either good or strange in the American experience: friendship, nature, commercialism, growing up, and love.

Trout Fishing in America is Brautigan’s best-known and probably most important novel, but it is organized in a manner different from his other novels and from more conventional examples of the genre. For one thing, it has no easily recognizable plot structure. Rather, it weaves together (with apparent randomness) about forty episodes in the unnamed narrator’s life and juxtaposes these with a few miscellaneous sections that illuminate the chapters in their vicinity. One thread of the story deals with the experiences of the narrator’s boyhood. From these the reader gains a sense of his unusual personality—especially his separateness, vivid imagination, and highly individual way of viewing life.

Another thread consists of the narrator’s trout fishing experiences, though these sometimes overlap with the boyhood episodes. Chapters set during the narrator’s adolescence show him seeking comfort and meaning from nature, well outside organized American society. Yet another thread in this complexly textured novel deals with the narrator’s life in beatnik San Francisco. By this point he has married and fathered a child. The reader will quickly notice that the chapters are not presented chronologically; instead, they occasionally form small thematic packets or sometimes appear to be arranged for the humorous relationships to one another.

The themes of Trout Fishing in America are at least as complex and various as the book’s structure. Many values that can be observed in Brautigan’s other books are upheld here. Certainly, friendship is important in life, the book implies, but so, too, are love, a direct contact with nature, freedom, individuality, and a good sense of humor.

Central to grasping the meaning of the novel is an understanding of Brautigan’s many uses of the term “trout fishing in America.” At its most fundamental level, the term refers to the actual act of fishing for trout—specifically, how this very act can rehabilitate a troubled mind. The term also represents nature itself in some sections and a state of mind that rises above the ordinary in others. Furthermore, the phrase is used as both a mythical character’s name and a spirit of adventurousness in which freedom and rebellion combine to produce an idealized view of the possibilities of life. While this last use of the term tends to give the work a zestful quality in some places, the book is not fundamentally optimistic.

At the heart of Trout Fishing in America is a critique of contemporary American life and culture. Rampant commercialism, the packaging and selling of both the body and the myth of America, is shown in all its ugliness in the important “Cleveland Wrecking Yard” chapter as well as in several other parts of the novel. Nature and the environment have become secondary concerns in a country where an abundance of wildlife (including trout) and the purity of air and water have been taken for granted for centuries. Restrictions to personal liberty and the pressures on the individual to conform to American society’s accepted roles are also criticized.

Such themes are not unique to this work; Brautigan’s ideas are closely related to those of other artists of the Beat movement. Brautigan’s extravagant humor masks the criticism implied by the work, however; the narrator never preaches, and if he does moralize, it is by means of a joke—often aimed at someone very much like himself. What is unique in the work is Brautigan’s method of making both story and meaning.

Trout Fishing in America is probably best understood if it is viewed as a novel that owes much to poetry. While it was published after A Confederate General from Big Sur, it had been written previously, when all that Brautigan had published to that point were volumes of verse. The key phrase of the work, “trout fishing in America,” acts much like an incantation or refrain in poetry—providing an echo of the main topic from beginning to end, while changing its meaning as the tale progresses and the reader sees more deeply into the theme. This refrain acts also as a unifying element in the work, as does the image of grass in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), itself a sprawling, seemingly disorganized work of poetry. Finally, the hook is highly metaphorical, from its often repeated key phrase to the details of its description. Trout Fishing in America is a novel that only a modern poet could have written.

In Watermelon Sugar

First published: 1968

Type of work: Novel

In a fantasy commune, the gentle, shy narrator tries to find peace and a sense of community while writing a book.

In Watermelon Sugar takes place in a world where life is lived simply and everything is made from watermelon sugar, a substance refined from both the watermelons grown on the commune and Brautigan’s considerable imagination. The central character, another of Brautigan’s gentle narrators, is the only writer in what seems to be the only settlement left on the planet. In fact, intellectual and artistic pursuits are allowed but not encouraged in the commune called iDEATH. Most of the residents live their lives on a more literal, physical plane: making stew for the gang, turning watermelons into building materials, and constructing transparent underwater tombs. Life at iDEATH moves at a leisurely, idyllic pace.

The novel consists of three books. In book 1, the reader is introduced to the gentle lives of most of the main characters. Pauline, whom the narrator describes as “his favorite,” spends the night with him. When he was a child, a band of speaking, ironic tigers ate his mother and father—after sending him outside to play. Book 1 ends with the narrator wishing his former girlfriend Margaret would leave him alone.

Book 2 is both a dream and a flashback. In the narrator’s dream, a band of misfits led by inBOIL, who seethes internally, rummages through the debris in the Forgotten Works, a place that seems to represent the remains of a demolished culture that placed its primary value in things instead of people. In its profusion of objects and its physical complexity, the Forgotten Works resembles a demolished twentieth century America. The residents of iDEATH seem to represent a postmodern settlement that has survived some great catastrophe by placing values where they rightfully belong: on simple living, friendship, and love. In Watermelon Sugar, more strongly than any other of Brautigan’s books, espouses the ideals of the youth movement of the 1960’s.

The drunken gang that follows inBOIL believes that they represent the real iDEATH. In an effort to prove this, they cut off their fingers and noses and consequently bleed to death. The residents of the commune watch this bloodletting with more relief than honor, finally collecting the dead and burning them in their cabins close to the Forgotten Works. At the end of book 2, after the carnage, the narrator realizes that all of his feelings for Margaret have turned sour.

The opening of book 3 shows the narrator awakening from his flashback dream. He joins his friends from the commune and appears to be little affected by it. Later, while gazing at the Statue of Mirrors, he has a vision of Margaret hanging herself. Margaret’s body is found (she actually has hanged herself) and brought back to the commune for burial.

Margaret is buried on a Thursday; in the bizarre world of In Watermelon Sugar the sun shines black on Thursdays and no sounds can be heard. At the conclusion, all the members of the commune are waiting for the setting of the black sun so that the social dancing, which customarily concludes a funeral, can begin. The narrator has finished his book, and the poetic wording of the ending reminds the reader of a similar incantation in the opening. One finds oneself reading the very book the narrator has been working on all along.

Upon publication of In Watermelon Sugar, many readers were tempted to see the work as a drug-induced fantasy. While the story may indeed by viewed as a many-colored distortion of the everyday world, it is doubtless a mistake to interpret it as a hymn to hallucinogens. Nothing in the content of the work suggests that drugs are either an issue here or a means to an end.

One of the main problems of interpreting this work accurately involves determining the meaning of the term “iDEATH.” The death of “I” seems to represent the suppression of the ego, a feature of the Zen philosophy that was held in very high esteem by the Beats. In this system of thought, the ego is identified with selfishness and aggression. Surely inBOIL and his gang have misunderstood iDEATH. The ego is not to be done away with by self-torture or by punishing oneself. Those who value material objects above human values—kindness, love, and community—are on the wrong path. Instead, Brautigan’s book recommends the simple life, as does Thoreau’s Walden. Where Brautigan differs from Thoreau is in his view of society. Whereas Walden depicts a utopia for one, Brautigan suggests that life can be lived—indeed, is more meaningfully lived—in the company of others.

A key to attaining the death of the ego seems to consist of living in the present moment. Intellectual pursuits and even art apparently hinder this process. It is probably for this reason that the narrator’s writing is considered something of an unnatural act in the commune. Because his scribbling harms no one, though, his foible is tolerated (if not encouraged). Important to this interpretation is the personality of the narrator; he is certainly more troubled than are the mainline iDEATH people with whom he associates. After the black sun sets and the writer concludes his work, he will be able to put aside whatever it was in his ego that made him want to write his book in the first place. In this way he moves toward greater and greater acceptance by those in the commune, and in the ending, with the completion of the book, the reader is, in fact, witnessing his final immersion into the community.

The Abortion: An Historical Romance

First published: 1971

Type of work: Novel

A reclusive librarian meets a beautiful woman who moves him farther and farther into the world by means of her having an abortion.

The Abortion: An Historical Romance was Brautigan’s first book to which he gave a subtitle; by doing so he clearly indicated that the work was based on an already established subgenre. A writer of such originality, however, does not produce the sort of romance that most readers might expect. Instead, he infuses the form with his own themes and zany humor.

The unnamed narrator of The Abortion, though distinguished by eccentric attitudes and gentleness, is not as fully developed a character as the narrators of several other of Brautigan’s books, most notably Jesse of A Confederate General from Big Sur and the unnamed narrator of In Watermelon Sugar. While he is admirable for his view of humanity, a self-imposed isolation and his chosen role in life reduce him in stature. Distant from most of society and remote in his feelings, he lives a life apart, both in the depths of his distinctly odd library (where he also lives) and in the labyrinth-like rooms of the Mexican abortion doctor later in the story.

Early in the story, the narrator describes his strange library: The books are all donated by the people who write them, society’s sad losers and misfits, and Brautigan goes into considerable detail with titles (Growing Flowers by Candlelight in Hotel Rooms, The Stereo and God) and descriptions of the often unhappy or disturbed people who get to shelve their books themselves. Included in the catalog is a book called Moose, written by one Richard Brautigan, “who looked as if he would be more at home in another era.”

In a flashback, the narrator relates how he met Vida, the extremely beautiful woman with whom he is living when the story opens. She, too, had brought her story, a tale of how her body does not really suit her, to be dutifully accepted and cataloged. Wherever she goes, even on the abortion trip to Mexico, her beauty brings chaos by the attention men pay to it. The stereotype of the mayhem-producing beautiful female can be traced in American literature from Katrina Van Tassel in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1819) to Eula Varner in William Faulkner’s The Hamlet (1940). Vida, as a character name, is derived from the Latin vita, meaning life.

This allegorical naming of a character is matched by the allegorical nature of the library itself. The narrator is the thirty-fifth or thirty-sixth librarian, which corresponds to the numbering of American presidents at the time the work was written—a split term for one president accounting for the confusion. In addition, the library is run by America Forever, Etc.

After they discover Vida’s pregnancy, she and the narrator travel by plane to Mexico for the abortion, and this trip ironically represents the quest found in traditional romances. From beginning to end, Brautigan adheres closely enough to the traditional romance form so that readers familiar with it can recognize the various necessary items and feel its subjective intensity. At the same time, Brautigan’s treatment of these essential forms is humorous, which casts an ironic light upon the entire novel.

Upon returning to San Francisco after the abortion, the narrator learns that he has lost his position at the library. While this forces him into the harsh realities of life outside his pleasantly numbing cocoon, where he had essentially retreated, Vida and his friend Foster welcome the change. He will become a hero in Berkeley, they assure him, and the final scene finds him outside among the students, contentedly collecting money for America Forever, Etc. Like the better-known Trout Fishing in America, this work deals with the problem of creating a meaningful life in the United States during the middle of the twentieth century.

The Abortion is the story of a man who has been strongly influenced by the literature he has read and obviously absorbed. The difficulties he encounters in the broader world are caused in part by his belief that life is—or ought to be—like literature. Literary forms, Brautigan suggests, provide a framework for thoughts and expectations. The Abortion shows how skewed a life based on these kinds of expectations can become.

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