Brautigan, Richard (1935-1984)

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Brautigan, Richard (1935-1984)

Author of the widely popular novel Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan was a countercultural hero in the United States in the 1960s. Although he never aligned himself with any group, Brautigan, with his long hair, broad-brimmed hat, wire-rim glasses, and hobnail boots, became a hippie icon comparable during his generation to Jack Kerouac and John Lennon.

Brautigan was born on January 30, 1935, in Tacoma, Washington. He moved to San Francisco in the mid-1950s where he met Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and became loosely associated with the Beat poetry movement. In the 1960s, he wrote and published his first three novels, which would be his most popular: A Confederate General from Big Sur, Trout Fishingin America, and In Watermelon Sugar.

Trout Fishing in America was by far the most enduring and important of these. Published in 1967, it went through four printings before being reissued as mass paperback by Dell and selling two million copies. It was a favorite with college students, and Brautigan developed a cult following. Written in short, self-contained chapters, the book had almost nothing to do with trout fishing and was deceptively easy to read. It was structured such that the reader could open to any page and still enjoy and understand the diary-like ruminations. Some said that Brautigan was to literature what the Grateful Dead was to music—enjoyable while on dope.

Because of the youth of his fans and his status among the counterculture, some critics suggested that Brautigan was a passing fad. Like Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins (who alludes to TroutFishing in his first novel, Another Roadside Attraction), Brautigan was a writer of his time, sometimes even a writer of his "instant." He was the quintessential 1960s writer, sometimes dismissed as dated and insubstantial. To one reviewer, he was "the last gasp of the Beat Generation," but others believed him to be an authentic American literary voice.

Between the 1960s and the early 1980s Brautigan produced ten novels, eleven books of poetry, a book of short stories, and Please Plant This Book, a set of poems sold with seed packets. Many of his books played with and parodied mainstream genres, with jokey titles including The Abortion: An Historical Romance, The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western, and Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel. In his prose, his humor and childlike philosophies often masked deeper themes of solitude and despair, and his poetry was characterized by offbeat metaphors—comparisons of snow to washing machines, or sex to fried potatoes.

Brautigan was poet-in-residence at California Institute of Technology from 1966-67, but in the early 1970s, he left California for Montana. There he led a hermit-like existence, refusing to give interviews and generally avoiding the public for a decade. His later novels were financial and critical failures, and he had a history of drinking problems and depressions. In 1982, his last book, So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away, was published. Two years later, at the age of forty-nine, Brautigan apparently committed suicide—he was found in October of 1984 with a gunshot wound to the head.

His casual, innovative style was widely influential, prompting one critic to say that in the future, authors would write "Brautigans" the way they currently wrote novels. Critics waited for the Brautigan cult to fade, but it was still present at the end of the twentieth century. A folk-rock band called Trout Fishing in America formed in 1979 and was still active after twenty years, and a Brautigan-esque literary journal, Kumquat Meringue, was founded in 1990 in Illinois and dedicated to his memory.

—Jessy Randall

Further Reading:

Boyer, Jay. Richard Brautigan. Boise, Idaho, Boise State University, 1987.

Chénetier, Marc. Richard Brautigan. New York, Methuen, 1983.

Foster, Edward Halsey. Richard Brautigan. Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1983.