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...
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