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What is a “cult writer”? What factors played a major role in Richard Brautigan’s becoming one?

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Cite instances of Brautigan’s taking literary advantage of his wanderlust.

Humor can be a saving grace for an individual and for literary works. Discuss this statement with brief reference to several of Brautigan’s works or more extensively with respect to one.

Brautigan’s writing is notable for vivid sensory details. Examine some of them and explain how they function.

For young people, friendships loom very important but often lead to disappointment. Discuss the ambivalence of friendships in Brautigan’s fiction.

What is the organizing principle of Trout Fishing in America? What does it have to do with poetry?

Do Brautigan’s poetic techniques work in a prose novel?

Other Literary Forms

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Richard Brautigan’s fragmented prose style makes any effort to classify his work into long and short fiction difficult and somewhat arbitrary. Brautigan himself called all of his prose works novels, with the single exception of Revenge of the Lawn, but critics have understandably referred to his books as “un-novels” or “Brautigans,” works that seem approachable only on their own terms because they deliberately confront the realistic tradition of the novel by disregarding causality and character development.

Nevertheless, Trout Fishing in America and The Tokyo-Montana Express can be grouped with Revenge of the Lawn as examples of Brautigan’s short fiction. Although arguably unified by point of view, setting, theme, and recurrent characters, Trout Fishing in America and The Tokyo-Montana Express lack any semblance of coherent plot, and many of the individual selections which compose each book possess an integrity independent of context. Brautigan’s other novels are distinguished by at least a thin strand of continuous narrative. The most important of these longer fictions are A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964), In Watermelon Sugar (1968), and The Abortion: An Historical Romance (1971). The best known of his poetry collections are The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (1968), Rommel Drives On Deep into Egypt (1970), and June 30th, June 30th (1978).

Achievements

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When Don Allen’s Four Season Foundation published Trout Fishing in America in 1967, it became a favorite of the counterculture movement that was peaking that year during the “summer of love.” In the following year, Richard Brautigan was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and Trout Fishing in America became a best-seller, eventually selling more than two million copies in twelve languages.

Trout Fishing in America was Brautigan’s first fictional work and established his success and reputation. In a sense, it became the standard against which his later works would be judged. Unfortunately, it associated him closely with the counterculture movement, giving rise to popular and even critical misconceptions. Brautigan was not (as some supposed) a spokesman for the hippie movement; rather, the counterculture simply became his first sizable audience. In actuality, Brautigan’s roots were more in the Beat poetry movement (which influenced his prose style), and he has even been considered a precursor to the metafictionalists of the 1970’s.

In any case, Brautigan brought a special quality to his fiction, a style of expression which, though deceptively simple and direct, teems with figures of speech that often seem to defy the bounds of language. Early critics seemed to miss, ignore, or disparage exactly these distinctive formal qualities. Often, Brautigan’s subject matter—the dead-end fixity of materialism, outworn myths, or the decay of the American dream—places him at home in the tradition of twentieth century American writers. What made Brautigan’s fiction attractive to his early psychedelic audience, however, was something new: implicit in his nontraditional structure and distended metaphors was the suggestion that experience could be transformed by imagination. The pursuit of shimmering, elusive instances of imaginative insight might possibly offer a personal alternative to the stultification of culture amid the grotesque remnants of American myth. Many postmodern writers have read Brautigan; W. P. Kinsella has referred to some of his own short works as “Brautigans.” At the very least, these writers have been alerted to the possibilities suggested by Brautigan’s work. His influence may be greater than anyone could have guessed.

Other literary forms

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Richard Brautigan (BRAWT-ih-gehn) began his literary career as a poet. “I wrote poetry for seven years,” he noted, “to learn how to write a sentence.” Though a poet for many years, Brautigan maintained that his ambition was to write novels: “I figured I couldn’t write a novel until I could write a sentence.” Although most of Brautigan’s later work was in novel form, he continued to publish poetry and also produced a collection of short stories (Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970, 1971).

Achievements

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Short-story writer, novelist, and poet, Richard Brautigan created a stream of works that resist simple categories—in fact, defy categorization altogether. Much of his popularity can be attributed to his peculiar style, his unconventional plots, simple language, and marvelous humor, which together provide a melancholy vision of American life and the elusive American Dream.

Much of Brautigan’s work involves the search for simplicity—an expansion of the Emersonian search for pastoral America. Yet, the complacent rural life is no longer available in Brautigan’s world: All the trout streams have been sold to the highest bidder, all the campgrounds are already filled, in fact overflowing; yet, the search must go on for new places where the imagination can still roam free—to a pastoral America where the individual can escape the suffocating din of technocracy.

Brautigan’s work evolved into a new, unorthodox version of the American novel. His experimentation with language, structure, characterization, plot, and motif broke new ground. Because of this, many critics have been unable to characterize his work with ease. Unable to pinpoint his exact standing, they have dismissed him as a counterculture phenomenon, a faddish nonentity. Although Brautigan’s oeuvre is indeed very uneven, his best work is genuinely original and ensures him a lasting place in American literature.

Other literary forms

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Richard Brautigan is best known for capturing the spirit of the 1960’s counterculture. His earliest novels—A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964), Trout Fishing in America (1967), and In Watermelon Sugar (1967)—were extremely popular, especially among younger readers; Trout Fishing in America sold millions of copies worldwide. His later works (such as The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1971, and The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western, 1974) continued the 1960’s zeitgeist into the 1970’s but were considerably less popular. Brautigan also published a collection of his short stories, Revenge of the Lawn: Stories, 1962-1970 (1971).

Achievements

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Richard Brautigan can best be understood as providing the bridge from the writers of the Beat movement of the 1950’s (Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac) to those of the literary counterculture of the 1960’s and early 1970’s (Ken Kesey and Tom Robbins). Brautigan exploded onto the literary scene in the middle of the 1960’s and became—like Hermann Hesse and J. R. R. Tolkien—a cult writer for younger readers. He was a poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology in 1967 and won a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1968. It is hard to think of another writer whose rise was so meteoric, but Brautigan started out reading his own poetry on the streets of San Francisco and just a few years later was invited to read at Harvard University. His reputation has not lasted (in comparison to that of his contemporary, the California poet Gary Snyder), but for some years, he helped shape the dreams and attitudes of the younger generation.

Bibliography

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Abbott, Keith. Downstream from “Trout Fishing in America.” Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1989. Abbott recounts his memories of Brautigan from their first meeting in San Francisco in 1966 through the Montana years and back to 1982 in San Francisco. Abbott’s last chapter, “Shadows and Marble,” is a critical essay devoted to Brautigan’s language and strategy of fiction.

Barber, John F. Richard Brautigan: An Annotated Bibliography. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1990. A good source for students of Brautigan.

Barber, John F., ed. Richard Brautigan: Essays on the Writings and Life. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2007. The thirty-two essays in this book are written by friends and colleagues of Brautigan who knew and respected the author and his writing. Many of the pieces here are previously unpublished, while others have appeared in literary journals. Altogether, they serve as a loving tribute to Brautigan, who was greatly admired by the essayists on both a personal and a literary level. Includes previously unpublished photographs and artwork.

Boyer, Jay. Richard Brautigan. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1987. Short study of Brautigan offering criticism and interpretation. Boyer describes how Trout Fishing in America sought to use the imagination to transcend reality. Includes a bibliography.

Bradbury, Malcolm. The Modern American Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Chapter 7, “Postmoderns and Others: The 1960’s and 1970’s,” cites Brautigan, placing him in the genre of writers who “celebrated the hippie youth spirit.” Bradbury gives succinct but insightful critical commentary on Brautigan’s novels. He sees Brautigan as much more than a hippie writer, whose spirit of “imaginative discovery” spawned a number of literary successors.

Brautigan, Ianthe. You Can’t Catch Death: A Daughter’s Memoir. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Brautigan’s daughter recalls her childhood spent bouncing between her two bohemian parents’ homes. She describes her father, who committed suicide when she was twenty-four years old, as a “dignified, brilliant, hysterically funny, and sometimes difficult” man.

Chénetier, Marc. Richard Brautigan. New York: Methuen, 1983. A semiotic examination of Brautigan’s approach to structure and elements of style that generate meaning. This slender volume touches on several works, with particular attention to Trout Fishing in America.

Foster, Edward Halsey. Richard Brautigan. Boston: Twayne, 1983. This blend of biography and criticism deals primarily with Brautigan’s work within his own cultural ambience, referring to other contemporary fiction, the Beat movement, and Zen Buddhism as an overall influence. Not always flattering, Foster discusses most of Brautigan’s novels and short fiction.

Horvath, Brooke. “Richard Brautigan’s Search for Control Over Death.” American Literature 57 (October, 1985): 435-455. Horvath explores possible limits to Brautigan’s response of imagination as a strategy for countering the basic issue of death in his four early novels and one of the stories in The Tokyo-Montana Express.

Iftekharuddin, Farhat. “The New Aesthetics in Brautigan’s Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970.” In Creative and Critical Approaches to the Short Story, edited by Noel Harold Kaylor. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997. This essay deals primarily with Brautigan’s short stories. Iftekharuddin’s discussion of literary innovation and his treatment of other Brautigan critics make this an important contribution.

Kaylor, Noel Harold, ed. Creative and Critical Approaches to the Short Story. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997. Farhat Iftekharuddin’s essay, “The New Aesthetics in Brautigan’s Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970,” deals primarily with Brautigan’s short stories. Iftekharuddin’s discussion of literary innovation and his treatment of other Brautigan critics make this an important contribution.

Mills, Joseph. Reading Richard Brautigan’s “Trout Fishing in America.” Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1998. A brief volume in the Boise State University Western Writers series, providing a critical analysis of the novel. Includes a bibliography.

Seymore, James. “Author Richard Brautigan Apparently Takes His Own Life, But He Leaves a Rich Legacy.” People Weekly 22 (November 12, 1984): 40-41. Provides a biographical background leading up to Brautigan’s suicide, including his heavy drinking and depression at the loss of his readers.

Stull, William L. “Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America: Notes of a Native Son.” American Literature 56 (March, 1984): 69-80. Stull approaches general themes in Trout Fishing in America by examining some of the book’s many allusions to other literature and Americana. A good introduction to the novel and to Brautigan.

Wright, Lawrence. “The Life and Death of Richard Brautigan.” Rolling Stone, April 11, 1985. A biographical sketch, noting Brautigan’s early fame and cult following, the fading of his reputation, and his suicide. Notes that when friends describe him, he seems two different people; at one point he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

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