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.