Today in Literary History – January 30, 1935 – Richard Brautigan is born

Richard Brautigan, the American novelist, poet and short story writer, was born on January 30, 1935 in Tacoma, Washington.

He was raised in extreme poverty. In 1955 he was arrested for throwing a rock through a police station window just to get arrested so that he could be fed in jail.

Brautigan was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression, conditions that worsened through the years due to his drug use and alcoholism. Brautigan took his own life in 1984.

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Brautigan had published three poetry collections in the late 1950s, but his fame came from the bittersweetly humorous and dreamlike novels he began publishing in the 1960s while he lived in San Fransisco and flourished amid the counter-culture scene.

A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964), his first published novel didn’t fare well at the time but his second novel (actually written earlier and more of a series of inter-related short stories in my opinion) Trout Fishing in America (1967) caught on.

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It was so popular that a number of hippy communes at the time renamed themselves after it. He also published four more books of poetry in the sixties.

He published five more novels in the 1970s, including The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971) which solidified his reputation as a cult writer. The Abortion is about a recluse who runs The Library for Unpublished Works where anyone could bring in an unpublished manuscript to be lovingly cared for. It highlights Brautigan’s almost sentimental love of words and writing.

Critic Tony Tanner described Brautigan’s style: “He retains the illusion of orthodox syntax and grammar, but the sentences are continually turning off into unexpectedness in ways which pleasantly dissolve our habitual semantic expectations. At the same time, Brautigan is constantly, cunningly, deviating into sense; there is enough linguistic coherence left for us to experience the book as communication, and enough linguistic sport for Brautigan to demonstrate his own freedom from control.”

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He even “published” a work called Plant This Book, with poems written on the backs of seed packages, a very hippy high-concept project.

Sadly, at the time of his death he was living on welfare. “When the 1960’s ended, he was the baby thrown out with the bath water,” said his friend, novelist Thomas McGuane.

Brautigan has had periodic resurgences of popularity and his novels are still in print. It’s a shame he didn’t get to write more and see a new generation of fans emerge.

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