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Richard Brautigan, a San Francisco-based poet and a popular experimental novelist in the 1960s, left an uncertain critical legacy when he died, apparently by his own hand, at the age of forty-nine. Commentators have variously attempted to categorize him as ”the last Beat,” a Zen Buddhist, a hippie icon, an American humorist, a modern Henry David Thoreau, and a pioneer of post modern fiction.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Troubled Upbringing
Richard Brautigan was born on January 30, 1935, in Tacoma, Washington. Brautigan seldom spoke about his upbringing, but all indications are that his childhood was an unhappy one. He apparently never met his biological father, and according to Brautigan’s younger sister, Barbara, their mother seldom showed affection or concern for her children. Brautigan recalled his mother’s having once abandoned him and his younger sister for several days at a hotel in Great Falls, Montana.
Brautigan began writing stories in his adolescence, which was marked by a tendency toward antisocial behavior. While in high school he was arrested for throwing a rock through a police-station window and, following his arrest, was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and was committed to the Oregon State Hospital. According to his sister, he was treated there with electroshock therapy, a treatment that she believed led him to ”shut down” emotionally.
Shortly after his release from the hospital, Brautigan left home for good, moving to San Francisco, where, in 1956, he frequented North Beach coffeehouses and attended Beat poetry readings. The Beat poets were critical of mainstream American values, and they advocated experimentation with nonconformist practices, both of which were themes evident in Brautigan’s earliest writings. During this time, Brautigan befriended such influential Beat writers as Michael McClure and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He married Virginia Dionne Adler in 1957; their daughter, Ianthe, was born in 1960. The family lived on a meager income while Brautigan published his small-press poetry in the late 1950s and began writing fiction seriously in the early 1960s.
From Obscurity to Popularity
Brautigan dedicated himself to writing fiction in the early 1960s, producing the manuscripts for several novels. Although A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964) was his second novel written, it was first to be published. Grove Press promoted the novel nationally, but it garnered lackluster reviews and abysmal initial sales. Reviewers, particularly East Coast reviewers, associated the novel with the fading Beat scene in San Francisco.
As a result of the poor initial showing of Brautigan’s first published novel, Grove Press sold the publication rights of Brautigan’s second novel, Trout Fishing in America (1967). However, the book quickly found a local following, fueled by the flourishing of the counter culture in San Francisco. Although Brautigan wrote his novel a few years before flower children, diggers, and hippies arrived en masse upon the scene, his dropout characters, gentle, unassuming narrative voice, and experimental prose style appealed to the youth movement. By the end of the decade, the author had passed from regional obscurity to the status of minor pop-culture icon. Not only did he gain a national following for Trout Fishing in America, but Brautigan also achieved a favor able reception among critics, many of whom admired his innovative, eclectic style and gentle humor.
A Decade of Decline
In 1970, Brautigan divorced his first wife after a long separation. At the same time, his writing career began going into a slump from which it would recover only briefly when, in the late 1970s, Brautigan discovered a receptive new audience in Japan. In 1977, he married a young Japanese woman named Akiko, who had sought him out because she felt the worldview of his fiction was uniquely Asian. Their marriage, which ended in divorce in 1980, served in part as the inspiration for The Tokyo-Montana Express (1980). Personal rejection and feelings of social isolation, either on the ranch or in Japan, mark several of the chapters, making The Tokyo-Montana Express a transitional portrait of Brautigan’s growing disillusionment and insecurity.
Brautigan’s last novel, So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away (1982), failed to improve his literary reputation or sales. He faced mounting financial difficulties brought on by his decline in popularity and may have become increasingly despondent about his fading influence as a writer. These pressures and disappointments, perhaps combined with a personal life marked by heavy drinking, two divorces, and many breakups, may have led him to decide to end his life in the autumn of 1984. Brautigan’s body was discovered on October 25 in his Bolinas, California home beside a .44 caliber Smith & Wesson he had borrowed weeks earlier from an acquaintance.
Works in Literary Context
Some commentators maintain that Brautigan is an unclassifable writer most closely allied with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.; however, he has also been associated with such American authors as Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Her man Melville, and Ernest Hemingway. He shares with these authors an interest in the myths of rural American life, a respect for nature and solitude, and a propensity for unadorned language. Brautigan, however, does not share these writers’ beliefs in the authenticity or value of rural lifestyles.
A Tone at Odds with Serious Themes
In his early novels, which are regarded as his most important works, Brautigan employs a poetic style of prose along with simple syntax and a whimsical tone while simultaneously exploring such serious themes as death, sex, violence, betrayal, loss of innocence, and the power of imagination to transform reality. In these works, Brautigan discards such traditional features of the novel as plot, characterization, and setting in favor of a more innovative approach that includes a carefree style that is intentionally at odds with the somber nature of his concerns. For example, Trout Fishing in America is considered a tragedy, which is written in a whimsical style that is purpose fully inappropriate to the seriousness of Brautigan’s subject matter. As Terrence Malley stated: ”Ultimately, Brautigan is not writing a pastoral novel in Trout Fishing in America. Instead, he is writing an analysis of why the old pastoral myth of an America of freedom and tranquility is no longer viable.” While some critics contend that the many brief sketches included in Brautigan’s novels are only fragments unconnected in either theme or style, others find them to be humorous vignettes that inter weave his central concerns without succumbing to the straightforward direction of traditional narratives.
Linking Beat Poetry and Postmodernism
Brautigan employed a uniquely Western American literary voice that combined an avant-garde rejection of convention with the playfulness of popular culture. His narrative style pioneered the kind of challenges to traditional prose writing that would later inform postmodern literature, where generic patterns, fixed meanings, and the undisputed authority of the narrator were all rejected. Brautigan is also considered a link between the Beat movement of the 1950s and the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Trout Fishing in America (1967), which is widely regarded as the most important of Brautigan’s novels, exhibits many thematic and stylistic ties to Beat literature and anticipates the disillusionment experienced years later by the youth counterculture, a disillusionment that directly fed into the development of postmodern literature.
Brautigan, however, did not seem to develop along with the literary trends he initially influenced. In his novels of the 1970s, including The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1966 (1971), The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western (1974), and Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel, 1942 (1977), Brautigan parodies various genres of popular fiction, but in so doing, he became more conventional in his use of plot and characterization. While these works generated some serious critical attention, they were generally considered thematically and stylistically less significant than his early novels.
Works in Critical Context
Although Brautigan enjoyed a generally favorable critical and commercial response to his experimental fiction in the 1960s, reviewers often panned his work as formally simplistic and conceptually light. Many critics dismissed his later fiction and poetry as self-absorbed, empty productions of a flower child whose moment had passed. While some critics found a subtle complexity and artistic purpose in Brautigan’s seemingly plotless, monotone narrative fiction and his uniformly self-referential poetry, critical consensus at the time of his death cast Brautigan as a minor writer and a faddish literary icon whose significance had faded along with the counterculture out of which he emerged. While still perhaps a majority opinion, this view has begun to change slightly.
Decline in Reputation
The late 1960s were the high point of Brautigan’s critical influence and productivity, and thereafter his critical reputation as a serious writer steadily declined. As the tumultuous decade drifted into cultural memory, critics tended to categorize him as either a scene writer or a flash in the pan. Fairly or not, many reviewers characterized Brautigan’s post-1960s fiction as the lesser work of an aging hippie struggling to recapture the charm and promise of his heyday. So while Brautigan’s first three novels and his collected poems had at the outset of the 1970s earned him a substantial readership and some critical recognition, reviews of his sub-sequent literary productions often drew unfavorable comparisons with the Brautigan of Trout Fishing in America. By the late 1970s, interest in Brautigan’s writing had waned considerably in the United States, and reviews of his last novel, So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away (1982), were frequently uncomplimentary.
- Abbott, Keith. Downstream from Trout Fishing in America. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra, 1989. Gwendolyn Brooks
- Boyer, Jay. Richard Brautigan. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1987.
- Chenetier, Marc. Richard Brautigan. London: Methuen, 1983.
- Halsey, Edward Foster. Richard Brautigan. Boston:Twayne, 1983.
- Kinkowitz, Jerome. The American 1960s: Imaginative Acts in a Decade of Change. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1980.
- Malley, Terence. Richard Brautigan: Writers for the Seventies. New York: Warner Paperback Library, 1972.
- Tanner, Tony. City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
- Clayton, John. ”Richard Brautigan: The Politics of Woodstock.” New American Review 11 (1971): 56-68.
- Horvath, Brooke. ”Richard Brautigan’s Search for Control Over Death.” American Literature 57, no. 3 (1985): 434-455.
- Schmitz, Neil. ”Richard Brautigan and the Modern Pastoral.” Modern Fiction Studies 19 (Spring 1973): 109-125.
- Stevick, Philip. ”Sheherazade Runs Out of Plots, Goes on Talking; the King, Puzzled, Listens: an Essay on New Fiction.” Tri-Quarterly 26 (Winter 1973): 332-362.
- Vanderwerken, David L. “Trout Fishing in America and the American Tradition.” Critique 16,1 (1974): 32-40.
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