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.