Richard Brautigan 1935-1984

J. K. Buda

Richard Brautigan, writer and poet, died in the autumn of 1984, the circumstances of his solitary suicide precluding any more precise dating of his demise.

The untimely death of a popular writer, whilst obviously an occasion for much sadness on the part of his readers, is often greeted with far less negative emotions by the academic establishment. For professional scholars seeking to stake out a literary claim to a plot of unexploited ground, or for Ph.D. candidates in search of a thesis, the undoubted advantages of choosing a relatively new and contemporary author have always been balanced by the occupational hazard of subsequent works or pronouncements rendering their researches obsolete or, worse still, irrelevant.

Throughout his literary life, Richard Brautigan received scant attention from such academic circles, and there is little reason to believe that his unfortunate death will in any way trigger a rush of posthumous critical studies.

Through no fault of his own, Brautigan suffered the indignity of being irrevocably categorized by two unwarranted labels.

Whereas most critics seem to concur in their choice of the adjective 'whimsical' to describe Brautigan's unique novels and poems, none of them have ever attempted either a definition or justification of the term. The reader sympathetic to Brautigan is left with the impression that this back-handed compliment is an expression of the frustration experienced by literary intellects unable to uncover deep levels of cabalistic symbolism and meaning in Brautigan's works.

The facile and wholly spurious sobriquet of 'hippie' came about as a result of a myopic and uninformed identification of writer and reader, as irrelevant as labelling Shakespeare a 'children's writer' for no better reason than that he has been read by generations of English schoolchildren.

The hippie phenomenon of the mid-sixties lasted only a matter of months, and the promised cultural and spiritual revolution metamorphosed, depending upon one's point of view, into either the political excesses of the Yippies and Black Panthers, or the materialistic sterility of consumer culture.

Seen from a socio-political perspective, the brief flowering of the alternative culture in 1966 and 1967 was but a prelude of adolescent silliness to the subsequent world-wide radicalization of youth, and found its eventual consummation in the Kent University shootings, in the Democratic Convention riots in Chicago, and in similar police/student confrontations in Europe and virtually every country of the Free World.

From the viewpoint of aesthetic history, however, the same brief interlude was marked by an extraordinary eruption of artistic activity. Whether the use (or abuse) of hallucinogenic and other drugs was a symptom or a cause of this period of intense aesthetic experimentation is open to conjecture, but identification of the characteristic features of the artistic output of the time with the strange psychic effects of mind expanding drugs is unavoidable.

The hippies of Haight-Ashbury were by no means the first to discover the effects of hallucinogenic agents. Throughout history, the sages and shamans of almost all primitive cultures have had access to a rich pharmacopoeia of perception-modifying substances.

In medieval Europe, the periodic outbreaks of hysteria, gangrene, and violent death were likewise the result of hallucinogenic fungal infections of rye grain. The substance responsible for this ergot poisoning was finally isolated and synthesized by Swiss chemists in the years before the Second World War, but no practical application was foreseen for the peculiar and apparently unpredictable effects it produced.

In the early sixties, a number of academics began to experiment with this substance, and as its use spread among young intellectuals in first America, and then Europe, it was inevitable that artists would seek to give expression to the perceptions and insights afforded by LSD trips.

The aid of almost every conceivable medium was enlisted in this explosion of creative activity, but the subliminal and transcendental nature of the LSD experience tended to favour the immediacy of primary forms such as music and visual art, and the synaesthetic possibilities of multimedia presentations.

Significant literary works of this period are conspicuous by their absence, it clearly being felt that the written word and its heritage of social and cultural connotations was too indirect and unwieldy a medium to express perceptions the very uniqueness of which lay in their transcendence of mundane experience.

It is again significant that the writers and works most often associated with the hippie generation were not, in fact, either part or product of that generation. William S. Burroughs, J. R. R. Tolkien, Kahlil Gibran, Richard Brautigan, Carlos Castaneda, Mervyn Peake, Aldous Huxley, David Lindsay, and Leonard Cohen. The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the writings of Milarepa, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao-Te-Ching and the I-Ching. A motley assortment of the famous and the forgotten, the ancient and the modern, the sacred and the profane, the only common factor being that they all, in some way or other, gave expression to feelings and sentiments that an idealistic and psychically disoriented generation could not articulate for itself.

Where exactly in this extraordinary gallery of strange bedfellows one should locate Brautigan, or what the precise appeal of his novels and poems was for the millions of young hippies that read and enjoyed his books, it is difficult to say.

If any attempt is to be made to define his early work in terms of his literary contemporaries, then Brautigan was clearly very much a part of the Beat generation of the fifties.

* * *

Born in Tacoma, Washington in 1935, Brautigan moved to San Francisco in 1954, and was soon involved in the literary groups that were springing up in the area. A contemporary of Kerouac and Ginsberg, and a close friend of such poets as Ferlinghetti, McClure, and Whalen, perhaps the closest literary parallel to be drawn is that between Brautigan and Gary Snyder. Both writers hailed from the American Northwest, both were active contributors to the fifties Beat movement, both were adopted by the hippie counterculture, and both developed a profound and lasting interest in the religion and culture of Japan.

Brautigan's first three novels, written in 1961, 1963, and 1964, all predate the psychedelic watershed year of 1967, the year in which the earliest of the three, Trout Fishing in America, was published in San Francisco. After several local reprints, the rights to the book were acquired by a nationwide publishing house, and the subsequent success it enjoyed was responsible for establishing Brautigan as one of the most popular and talked-about writers of the time.

In the same year, Rolling Stone magazine, quondam mouthpiece of the hippie counterculture, ran a brief series of short original pieces by Brautigan, and it was through these that many readers outside America first became acquainted with his work. Many of these early pieces appeared in 1971 as part of the Revenge of the Lawn anthology.

Thus it was that a relatively unknown and unread Beat poet suddenly found himself lauded as the doyen of the hippie writers, reviewed in the literary pages of national newspapers, offered substantial art foundation grants, and invited to speak at endless lectures and symposia.

One of the most striking facts about Brautigan's misidentification with the counterculture of 1967 is that the very people responsible for this misidentification, the literary critics, the book reviewers, and the university academics, really should have known better.

When Brautigan's second novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur, was published in 1964 (the second to be written, but the first to be published), the critics of the time seem to have had no trouble identifying Brautigan as one of the last survivors of the Beat movement, a rather lonely and forlorn remnant of the literary school of Jack Kerouac.

Why then, only three years later, the publication of Brautigan's first novel, Trout Fishing in America, should have resulted in an almost unanimous critical identification of his work with the hippie counterculture and its communalistic idealism is indeed a mystery, for if his early novels bear witness to anything, it is the anarchistic individualism so characteristic of the post-war Beat generation.

Perhaps the critics of the time, in their reckless and unseemly haste to categorize, failed to note that Trout Fishing in America had been written in 1961. Or perhaps, if one might be permitted a flight of fancy, those same critics, caught up in the euphoria of the period, had themselves experienced the mind-bending effects of LSD, and were now seeing Brautigan's works through the same aura-tinted spectacles as his legions of young admirers.

Thus it is that literary reputations are made and broken, and Brautigan was never able to shake off the 'hippie' label so gratuitously applied to him in 1967.

During most of the seventies, Brautigan deliberately shunned all contact with the literary establishment, turning down lecture invitations, and refusing all interviews. He continued to write novels at the rate of approximately one a year, but his output of the time consisted of a series of surrealistic pastiches of popular genres which confused and disappointed even the most sympathetic of his readers.

The year 1980 marked a turning point in Brautigan's literary career. He began to accept lecture tour and other public appearance offers, and The Tokyo-Montana Express was universally welcomed as a return to the creative peak level of the sixties. So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away, published in 1982, confirmed the fact that Brautigan had emerged from his creative vacillation of the seventies, and was once again writing with superb power and conviction.

Although close on twenty years have now passed since the incense-laden Summer of '67, for those involved, however peripherally, with the brief flowering of hippie culture, the period stands out as a remarkable episode, the full significance of which remains to be realized.

If the calculations of the pyramidologists are to be believed, a deep pit in the Subterranean Chamber of the Great Pyramid defines 1967 A.D. as the year of mankind's great spiritual collapse. Conversely, Edgar Cayce, who through his seemingly omniscient alter persona confirmed the prophetic significance of Great Pyramid dimensions, himself prophesied that 1967 or 1968 would witness the rising up of the ancient continent of Atlantis. Apart from the reported discovery of strange submarine stone artifacts off the coast of Bermuda, the widely-awaited rising of Atlantis failed to materialize, and most commentators preferred to believe that Cayce's prophecy must have referred to an intangible spiritual event. This modified interpretation saw the souls of hundreds of thousands of former Atlanteans being reborn into the world of the mid-twentieth century, to work off part of their heavy karmic debt, and then to perish on the battlefields of Vietnam and Cambodia.

To be sure, a most disturbing pattern has haunted the artistic vanguard of the counterculture generation. A pattern of brilliant and intense creative activity, of a period of equally intense psychic distress, and of tragic and premature death at the very moment this dark night of the soul is finally transcended.

Looking back on his life and death, perhaps Richard Brautigan was fated to be united in some strange alchemical marriage to the generation that loved and courted him. Stepping to the rhythms of different drums both seemed destined to walk a narrow and lonely road from sunrise into darkness at noon, and from the false promise of sunset into ultimate oblivion.

Japanese Translations of Richard Brautigan's Works

Source: Otsuma Review, No. 18, 1985