Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, which appeared in 1967, is actually his first novel (although published after A Confederate General from Big Sur, 1964), written in the early 1960’s. Its publication was timely: It appeared two years before the famous rock festival at Woodstock, New York, and at the height of the hippie movement. Antiestablishment, ecologically aware, and, simply, hip, it became a national best seller. Its short chapters allow for fast reading and allow readers to skip around, and Brautigan’s unconventional wisdom distills much of the thinking of the Woodstock generation.
Readers since the 1960’s, however, have had a wider range of reactions to the book. Brautigan’s prose often slips into a primerlike flatness, and his messages are sometimes sophomoric and pretentious. Trout Fishing in America is a novel in only a very loose sense. It is a collection of random observations and experiences strung together with cute chapter titles. There is, nevertheless, a charm and folk wisdom about the book as well as a concern with the natural world that places it in the serious mainstream of American writing along with works such as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. Brautigan’s nature descriptions are often beautiful, and his analysis of the flip side of the American Dream is quite accurate. Trout Fishing in America is in many ways the representative novel of Brautigan’s generation, as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) was for his generation.
The title of the novel functions in at least three different ways to unify the varied parts of the book. First, the opening chapter, “The Cover for Trout Fishing in America,” not only describes the front photograph but also suggests the author’s disguise—his cover—as Trout Fishing in America, a personification of the myth of America as a land of vast open spaces, unlimited resources, and individual opportunity. The chapter describes the statue of Benjamin Franklin in San Francisco’s Washington Square; Franklin is the American prototype of the self-made man, the successful Yankee entrepreneur whose rags-to-riches life is the subject of his Autobiography (1791). Brautigan’s book is Franklin’s Autobiography turned upside down, a rejection of Franklin’s ethic of hard work and the way to wealth.
Early in the book, Brautigan recalls seeing, as a child, fishermen with three-cornered hats. The three-cornered hat, traditionally associated with the early American colonists, reveals these fishermen as typical Americans angling for riches and success, the same kind of “fishing” that was taught to the narrator himself. On his first fishing venture, he sees that what he earlier took to be a beautiful waterfall cascading from a hill is nothing more than a wooden staircase. Like the entire notion of the American Dream, the waterfall is an illusion. In his disguise as Trout Fishing in America, therefore, the narrator presents himself as a true believer in the doctrine of hard work, success, and moneymaking and the myth of the purity of the American landscape. The events throughout the novel undermine that belief.
Second, the title...
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