Trout Fishing in America

by Richard Brautigan

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

*Washington Park

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*Washington Park. Public park in San Francisco, California, that is meticulously described in the first pages of the novel. The park is named after George Washington, one of the Founders of America. Within the park is a statue of another Founder, Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography and aphorisms are famous for their optimism. The statue’s four-sided base has the word “welcome” on each side. The park, however, is not filled with optimistic Americans opening their arms to strangers. Rather, winos hang around waiting for sandwiches to be distributed to them. The narrator reflects on the gap between the literary America represented by Franklin, and the actuality of the park. While average Americans hurry past on their errands, the narrator wastes time with the winos, including a man named “Trout Fishing in America Shorty,” who is confined to a wheelchair. The narrator recalls that it was one of his stepfathers, a drunk, who first told him about fishing for trout and about the great beauty of trout. If any Americans still appreciate the beauty and romance of nature, they are the bums, drifters, and assorted poor who have no place in the society around them, which views nature as a commodity.

The book’s winos—including a boy who is a Kool-Aid wino—enjoy one advantage over more productive members of society: They still have imaginations. They talk with passion about improbable and hypothetical things, including how to train and maintain a flea circus. In the American West of this novel, the frontier is closed, and the only escape from an oppressive society lies inward. This path, however, is ultimately self-destructive.

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*American West

*American West. Richard Brautigan’s story follows the emotional journey of the narrator, who progresses from the satire of the first pages toward a sad, noble embrace of life’s transiency in the end. The book also moves from the specificity of the first chapter toward more generalized descriptions of the motels, roads, and bars of the poor in the American West. In this sense, the America of Trout Fishing in America is as much a quality as a place.

The book is also an excursion into the American pastoral literary tradition, and allusions to such works as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) and the nature stories of Ernest Hemingway are frequent. “Trout Fishing in America” is also the name of a person, as represented by the wino in a wheelchair named Trout Fishing in America Shorty. This character is the satiric opposite of the type of woodland hero that has been a staple of American mythology from the nineteenth century books of James Fenimore Cooper to twentieth century films of John Wayne. The wino is Brautigan’s comment on the end of the myth of the American West. One of the book’s many verbal tricks, in fact, is simple repetition of the phrase “trout fishing in America” to a point at which it becomes an ironic, meaningless mantra.

The novel’s surrealism, whimsicality, and critical stance toward materialism have endeared it to many members of the counterculture. The book’s comic appeal to the imagination, however, is very strongly undercut by its consistent pessimism about the mechanistic destruction not only of the environment but also of the human aspiration for freedom and happiness.

Literary Techniques

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The book comprises forty-seven "chapters," actually semi-autonomous prose poems or vignettes. There is no obvious narrative, and many critics have convincingly argued that such a book should not be called a novel at all. However, some commentators have shown that Trout Fishing in America is more purposeful than it seems at first. Chapters can be grouped by setting — the North Beach area in San Francisco, the Pacific Northwest of the narrator's childhood, a series of trout streams visited on fishing trips — or linked by repeated images and motifs. Most importantly, the consistency of the narrator's voice and the strength of the central themes unify this novel. In contrast, the prose poems that compose Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970 (1971) stand as individual pieces.

In Trout Fishing in America Brautigan uses an abbreviated, simplistic prose that is enlivened by his striking use of metaphor. The result is an approximation of spontaneous prose in which symbols and metaphor are used to create a concise complex of thought. The author's effort to escape linearity is also seen in his emblematic use of the cover photograph and the various "signs" he reproduces as ironic examples of "found poetry."

Despite its dark portrait of America, Trout Fishing in America is a funny book. In part its humor derives from Brautigan's technical nonconformity, for his book repeatedly refutes his reader's literary expectations. Its satire is indirect, gradually becoming clear as the narrator's dispassionate and fragmentary description of the sad contradictions of American life takes form. The book is also openly parodic. Brautigan rewrites Hemingway ("Sea, Sea Rider"), Thoreau, Steinbeck ("The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"), Melville ("Trout Fishing on the Bevel"), and others as one more demonstration of America's trivialization of beauty and spirit.

Social Concerns

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Although published in 1967 and popularized as a counterculture book, Trout Fishing in America was written in 1961 as a late expression of the San Francisco Beat movement. Like the other Beats, Brautigan was affected by the Depression and World War II, and he saw in these historical periods of poverty and violence truths about America and human nature that could not be hidden by the complacent commercialism of the 1950s.

Yet the social issues of the Beats — McCarthyism, nuclear tests, capital punishment, and materialism — are only a part of the environment of which Brautigan writes. His book is actually concerned with American culture on the broadest scale, including the dreams and fantasies which define the meaning of America for ordinary citizens.

Instead of a battle between revolutionaries and an entrenched establishment, Brautigan's book explores the subtler and more pervasive contest between defining fantasies: his nostalgic image of America as pastoral idyll against the consuming, materialistic fantasies produced by Wall Street and Hollywood.

Literary Precedents

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The attitude of general acceptance that pervades Trout Fishing in America and Brautigan's democratic use of diverse cultural materials hearkens back to Walt Whitman, but Brautigan does not share Whitman's optimism. His most immediate influences are the Beat writers of the late 1950s: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder. Through them he is profoundly influenced by Zen Buddhism and the compressed vision of the haiku as written by Japanese masters such as Basho (1644-1694). The wit of Basho, who when challenged to write a haiku that mentioned the famous eight views of Omi, simply described the sound of the temple bell at Mii-dera in a thick mist that hid the other "views," becomes the whimsy of Brautigan, who "always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise."

Trout Fishing in America can be profitably read as an ironic companion to Hemingway's story "Big Two-Hearted River." In Hemingway's story, young Nick Adams, scarred by his experience in World War I, escapes to the natural world of the trout stream where he begins to rebuild a sense of purpose. When Brautigan's narrator goes fishing, he finds dead fish, cyanide pills, and F.B.I. agents.

Bibliography

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Chenetier, Marc. Richard Brautigan. London: Methuen, 1983. Introduces all of Brautigan’s writing in the light of his surrealist and deconstructionist fictional theories. Sees Trout Fishing in America as a series of images that create a network of narrative meaning.

Foster, Edward Halsey. Richard Brautigan. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Good single-volume introduction to Brautigan’s life and work, showing how Brautigan drew upon his experiences.

Legler, Gretchen. “Brautigan’s Waters.” CEA Critic: An Official Journal of the College English Association 54, no. 1 (Fall, 1991): 67-69. Analysis of Brautigan’s treatment of nature and water in the novel.

Seib, Kenneth. “Trout Fishing in America: Brautigan’s Funky Fishing Yarn.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 13, no. 2 (1971): 63-71. Analyzes the theme of trout fishing, showing how it functions in various ways to give the book unified form, viewpoint, and meaning.

Stull, William L. “Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America: Notes of a Native Son.” American Literature 56 (March, 1964): 68-80. Discusses the themes and motifs of the book, and explains many of Brautigan’s allusions.

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Critical Essays