This Day In Literary History
On January 30th, 1935, the legendary American writer Richard Brautigan was born in Tacoma, Washington. His father, Bernard Brautigan Jr., was a factory worker, his mother Lulu a waitress.
They separated when Lulu was pregnant, and Richard Brautigan only met his biological father twice because his mother had told him that her second husband, Robert Porterfield, was his biological father. She had never told Bernard Brautigan Jr. she was pregnant.
Richard Brautigan spent his childhood in grinding poverty thanks to his mother's history of broken relationships. She would have two more children with two other men. When Richard was six years old, he and his two-year-old sister Barbara Ann were left alone in a motel room for two days.
The family drifted around the Pacific Northwest, ultimately settling in Eugene, Oregon. They still faced grinding poverty and hunger, sometimes not eating for a few days at a time. Nevertheless, Richard Brautigan proved to be an intellectually gifted child. He began writing poetry and short stories when he was twelve.
While in high school, Richard wrote for the school newspaper, where his first published poem, The Light, appeared. After graduating with honors, he moved in with his best friend Peter Webster, whose mother became Richard's surrogate mother. He would live with the Websters on and off for a few years.
By December of 1955, unable to find steady work, the then 20-year-old Richard Brautigan faced poverty and hunger yet again. So, he came up with an unusual solution. He threw a rock through the police station window, hoping to be jailed for the offense. There, he would at least be fed.
Instead of being sent to jail, Brautigan was fined $25 and released. He kept trying to get himself sent to jail. He was arrested ten days later and committed to the Oregon State Hospital, where he was diagnosed with both schizophrenia and depression and subjected to electroshock treatments.
Released in February of 1956, he lived briefly with his family, then took off for San Francisco, where he established himself as a writer. He handed out copies of his poems on street corners and read at poetry clubs and coffeehouses.
Brautigan's first published poetry book, The Return of the Rivers, appeared in 1957. It contained just one poem. He followed it with more classic poetry collections, including The Galilee Hitch-Hiker (1958) and Lay the Marble Tea (1959).
He married his girlfriend Virginia Alder, and she bore him his only child, a daughter named Ianthe. Their relationship would end in 1962, as he had been suffering from depression and alcoholism.
A year before the breakup, Richard, Virginia, and baby Ianthe went on a camping and hiking trip together in Idaho's Stanley Basin. He had his portable typewriter with him, and while he sat near a trout stream, he began writing some sketches that would become his celebrated second novel.
Trout Fishing in America (1967) made Richard Brautigan's name as a writer. Its chapters were basically short stories with recurring characters and non-linear narratives. The title of the novel is also the name of a main character, the name of a hotel, and a reference to fishing itself.
Like all of Brautigan's novels, Trout Fishing in America is a comedy seasoned with pathos. To get an idea of the comedy, a character called Trout Fishing in America Shorty, described as "a legless, screaming middle-aged wino," gets shipped by mail to writer Nelson Algren.
In another chapter, a gang of sixth-grade boys in elementary school become "Trout Fishing in America terrorists" when they write "Trout Fishing in America" in chalk on the backs of all the first-graders.
Trout Fishing in America became an overnight sensation, a classic of the 1960s American counterculture that sold over four million copies. Many copies were sold to people who mistook the novel for a nonfiction book on trout fishing; some chapters read like nonfiction.
Although Brautigan was said to have disliked hippies, they loved his avant garde, poetic yet folksy style of writing. Soon he was reading his works at psychedelic rock concerts and serving as Poet-in-Residence at the California Institute of Technology.
He also wrote for underground newspapers and recorded a spoken word album for the Beatles' short lived Zapple Records label, which had been dedicated to spoken word and experimental recordings. The album would later be released by Harvest Records as Listening to Richard Brautigan (1970).
Brautigan followed Trout Fishing in America with another classic novel, In Watermelon Sugar (1968), which featured these memorable opening paragraphs:
In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar. I'll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.
Wherever you are, we must do the best we can. It is so far to travel, and we have nothing here to travel, except watermelon sugar. I hope this works out.
In Watermelon Sugar is an avant garde, post-apocalyptic comedy set in iDEATH, a new Eden located amidst the ruins of the old world. iDEATH is reminiscent of the American hippie communes of the 1960s. The people of iDEATH make things out of watermelon sugar at the Watermelon Works.
One member of iDEATH, a man called inBOIL, rebels and leaves the commune to live near the Forgotten Works, a huge trash heap containing the ruins of the old world. Another member of iDEATH, a woman named Margaret, likes to collect "forgotten things."
In the 1970s, as the American counterculture began to wane, Richard Brautigan found his popularity waning as well. Still, he continued to produce quality novels. Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel 1942 (1977) told the story of C. Card, an inept private detective.
The name C. Card is a play on the words "seek hard." His investigations are complicated by an unusual condition - a form of narcolepsy where he suddenly falls asleep and dreams of ancient Babylon. The novel alternates between C. Card's adventures in the present (San Francisco, circa 1942) and in ancient Babylon.
Though Richard Brautigan would publish five quality novels and three poetry collections during the 1970s, by the end of the decade, he had been largely forgotten as a writer. Like his mother before him, his personal life would become a series of shattered relationships.
In 1982, So The Wind Won't Blow It All Away, his last novel published during his lifetime, was released - a poetic, melancholic autobiographical novel based on Brautigan's coming of age in 1948 Oregon.
Two years after the novel was published, Brautigan lost his long battle with alcoholism and depression, committing suicide at the age of 49. He had been living alone in a huge old house in Bolinas, California, that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. His body wouldn't be discovered for over a month.
Richard Brautigan's classic 1967 novel Trout Fishing in America continues to inspire new generations of readers and writers, earning the author new fans. In 1979, a folk-rock duo who performed for children named themselves Trout Fishing in America.
In 1994, a California teenager named Peter Eastman Jr. legally changed his name to Trout Fishing in America. That same year, a young couple named their newborn baby Trout Fishing in America.
Quote Of The Day
"If you get hung up on everybody else's hang-ups, then the whole world's going to be nothing more than one huge gallows." - Richard Brautigan
Today's video features Richard Brautigan's 1970 spoken word album, Listening To Richard Brautigan. Enjoy!