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(January 30, 1935 – September 14, 1984 / Tacoma, Washington)

Biography of Richard Brautigan

Richard Brautigan poet

an American novelist, poet, and short story writer. His work often employs black comedy, parody, and satire. He is best known for his 1967 novel Trout Fishing in America.

Early life

Brautigan was born in Tacoma, Washington, the only child to Bernard Frederick "Ben" Brautigan, Jr. (July 29, 1908 – May 27, 1994) a factory worker and laborer, and Lulu Mary "Mary Lou" Keho (April 7, 1911 – September 24, 2005), a waitress. In May 1934, eight months prior to his birth, Bernard and Mary Lou separated. Brautigan said that he met his biological father only twice, though after Brautigan's death, Bernard was said to be unaware that Richard was his child, saying "He's got the same last name, but why would they wait 45 to 50 years to tell me I've got a son?"

In 1938, Brautigan and his mother began cohabiting with a man named Arthur Martin Titland. The couple produced a daughter named Barbara Ann, born on May 1, 1939 in Tacoma. Brautigan claimed that he had a very traumatic experience when his mother left him alone with his two-year-old sister in a motel room in Great Falls, Montana, where he did not know the whereabouts of his mother until she returned two days later.

On January 20, 1943, Mary Lou married a fry cook named Robert Geoffrey Porterfield. The couple produced a daughter named Sandra Jean, born April 1, 1945 in Tacoma. Mary Lou told Brautigan that Porterfield was his biological father, and Brautigan began using Richard Gary Porterfield as his name. Mary Lou separated from Porterfield in 1946, and married William David Folston, Sr., on June 12, 1950. The couple produced a son named William David, Jr., born on December 19, 1950 in Eugene. Folston was recalled as being a violent alcoholic, whom Richard had seen subjecting his mother to domestic abuse.

Brautigan was raised in poverty; he told his daughter stories of his mother sifting rat feces from their supply of flour to make flour-and-water pancakes. Because of Brautigan's impoverished childhood, he and his family found it difficult to obtain food, and on some occasions they did not eat for days. He lived with his family on welfare and moved about the Pacific Northwest for nine years before the family settled in Eugene, Oregon in August 1944. Many of Brautigan's childhood experiences were included in the poems and stories that he wrote from as early as the age of 12. His novel So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away is loosely based on childhood experiences including an incident where Brautigan accidentally shot the brother of a close friend in the ear, injuring him only slightly.

On September 12, 1950, Brautigan enrolled at South Eugene High School, having graduated from Woodrow Wilson Junior High School. He was a writer for his high school newspaper South Eugene High School News. He also played on his school's basketball team, standing 6 feet 4 inches tall (1.93 m) by the time of his graduation. On December 19, 1952, Brautigan's first published poem, The Light, appeared in the South Eugene High School newspaper. Brautigan graduated with honors from South Eugene High School on June 9, 1953. Following graduation, he moved in with his best friend Peter Webster, and Peter's mother Edna Webster became Brautigan's surrogate mother. According to several accounts Brautigan stayed with Webster for about a year before leaving for San Francisco for the first time in August 1954. He returned to Oregon several times, apparently for lack of money.

On December 14, 1955, Brautigan was arrested for throwing a rock through a police-station window, supposedly in order to be sent to prison and fed. He was arrested for disorderly conduct and fined $25. He was then committed to the Oregon State Hospital on December 24, 1955, after police noticed patterns of erratic behavior.

At the Oregon State Hospital Brautigan was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression, and was treated with electroconvulsive therapy 12 times. While institutionalized, he began writing The God of the Martians, a manuscript of 20 very short chapters totaling 600 words. The manuscript was sent to at least two editors but was rejected by both, and remains unpublished. (A copy of the manuscript was recently discovered with the papers of the last of these editors, Harry Hooton.) On February 19, 1956, Brautigan was released from hospital and briefly lived with his mother, stepfather, and siblings in Eugene, Oregon. He then left for San Francisco, where he would spend most of the rest of his life except for periods in Tokyo and Montana.

Career

In San Francisco Brautigan sought to establish himself as a writer. He was known for handing out his poetry on the streets and performing at poetry clubs. In early 1956 Brautigan typed a three-page manuscript and sent it to The Macmillan Company for publication. The manuscript consisted of two pages of fourteen poems and a page with the dedication “for Linda”. Of the poems only “stars” and “hey” were titled. In a letter dated May 10, 1956, Macmillan rejected the manuscript stating “…there is no place where it will fit in”. In 2005 the X-Ray Book Company would publish the manuscript as a chapbook titled Desire in a Bowl of Potatoes.

Brautigan's first published book was The Return of the Rivers (1958), a single poem, followed by two collections of poetry: The Galilee Hitch-Hiker (1958) and Lay the Marble Tea (1959). During the 1960s Brautigan became involved in the burgeoning San Francisco counterculture scene, often appearing as a performance-poet at concerts and participating in the various activities of The Diggers. Brautigan was also a writer for Change, an underground newspaper created by Ron Loewinsohn.

In the summer of 1961, while camping in southern Idaho with his wife and daughter, Brautigan completed the novels A Confederate General From Big Sur and Trout Fishing in America. A Confederate General from Big Sur was his first published novel and met with little critical or commercial success. But when Trout Fishing in America was published in 1967, Brautigan was catapulted to international fame. Literary critics labeled him the writer most representative of the emerging countercultural youth-movement of the late 1960s, even though he was said to be contemptuous of hippies. Trout Fishing in America has sold over 4 million copies worldwide.

During the 1960s Brautigan published four collections of poetry as well as another novel, In Watermelon Sugar (1968). In the spring of 1967 he was Poet-in-Residence at the California Institute of Technology. During this year, he published All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, a chapbook published by The Communication Company. It was printed in an edition of 1,500 copies and distributed for free. From 1968 to 1970 Brautigan had 23 short pieces published in Rolling Stone magazine. From late 1968 to February 1969, Brautigan recorded a spoken-word album for The Beatles' short-lived record-label, Zapple. The label was shut down by Allen Klein before the recording could be released, but it was eventually released in 1970 on Harvest Records as Listening to Richard Brautigan.

In the 1970s Brautigan experimented with different literary genres. He published five novels (the first of which, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, had been written in the mid-1960s) and a collection of short stories, Revenge of the Lawn (1971). In 1974 The Cowell Press collected seven of his broadside poems into the book Seven Watermelon Suns. The limited edition of ten copies included embossed color etchings by Ellen Meske. "When the 1960s ended, he was the baby thrown out with the bath water," said his friend and fellow writer, Thomas McGuane. "He was a gentle, troubled, deeply odd guy." Generally dismissed by literary critics and increasingly abandoned by his readers, Brautigan's popularity waned throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. His work remained popular in Europe, however, as well as in Japan, where Brautigan visited several times. To his critics, Brautigan was willfully naive. Lawrence Ferlinghetti said of him, "As an editor I was always waiting for Richard to grow up as a writer. It seems to me he was essentially a naïf, and I don't think he cultivated that childishness, I think it came naturally. It was like he was much more in tune with the trout in America than with people."

Brautigan's writings are characterized by a remarkable and humorous imagination. The permeation of inventive metaphors lent even his prose-works the feeling of poetry. Evident also are themes of Zen Buddhism like the duality of the past and the future and the impermanence of the present. Zen Buddhism and elements of the Japanese culture can be found in his novel Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel. Brautigan's last published work before his death was his novel So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away which was published in 1982, two years before his death.

Personal Life

On June 8, 1957, Brautigan married Virginia Dionne Alder in Reno, Nevada. The couple had one daughter together, Ianthe Elizabeth Brautigan, born on March 25, 1960 in San Francisco. Brautigan's alcoholism and depression became increasingly abusive and Alder ended the relationship on December 24, 1962, though the divorce was not finalized until July 28, 1970. Brautigan continued to reside in San Francisco after the separation, while Alder settled in Manoa, Hawaii and became a feminist and an anti-Vietnam War activist.

Brautigan remarried on December 1, 1977, to the Japanese-born Akiko Yoshimura whom he met in July 1976 while living in Tokyo, Japan. The couple settled in Pine Creek, Park County, Montana for two years; Brautigan and Yoshimura were divorced in 1980.

Brautigan had a relationship with a San Francisco woman named Marcia Clay from 1981 to 1982. He also pursued a brief relationship with Janice Meissner, a woman from the North Beach community of San Francisco. Other relationships were with Marcia Pacaud, who appears on the cover of The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster; Valerie Estes, who appears on the cover of Listening to Richard Brautigan; and Sherry Vetter, who appears on the cover of Revenge of the Lawn.

Brautigan was an alcoholic throughout his adult life and suffered years of despair; according to his daughter, he often mentioned suicide over a period of more than a decade before ending his life.

In 1984, at age 49, Richard Brautigan had recently moved to Bolinas, California, where he was living alone in a large, old house. He died of a self-inflicted .44 Magnum gunshot wound to the head. The exact date of his death is unknown, and his decomposed body was found by Robert Yench, a private investigator, on October 25, 1984. The body was found on the living room floor, in front of a large window that looked out over the Pacific Ocean. It is speculated that Brautigan may have ended his life over a month earlier, on September 14, 1984, after talking to former girlfriend Marcia Clay on the telephone. Brautigan was survived by his parents, both ex-wives, and his daughter Ianthe. He has one grandchild named Elizabeth, who was born about two years after his death.

He left a suicide note that simply read: "Messy, isn't it?". Brautigan once wrote, "All of us have a place in history. Mine is clouds."

Legacy

Brautigan's daughter, Ianthe Elizabeth Brautigan, describes her memories of her father in her book You Can't Catch Death (2000).

Also in a 1980 letter to Brautigan from W. P. Kinsella, Kinsella states that Brautigan is his greatest influence for writing and his favorite book is In Watermelon Sugar.

In March 1994, a teenager named Peter Eastman, Jr. from Carpinteria, California legally changed his name to Trout Fishing in America, and now teaches English at Waseda University in Japan. At around the same time, National Public Radio reported on a young couple who had named their baby Trout Fishing in America.

There is a folk rock band called Trout Fishing in America, and another called Watermelon Sugar, which quotes the opening paragraph of that book on their home page. The industrial rock band Machines of Loving Grace took their name from one of Brautigan's best-known poems. Indie rock songtress Neko Case has also admitted to basing her "Margaret vs. Pauline" from Fox Confessor Brings the Flood on the female characters of In Watemelon Sugar. Twin Rocks, Oregon, a song appearing on singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins' 1998 platinum record Soul's Core, tells the story of meeting a man who looks "just like Richard Brautigan" whilst watching the sunset on bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Another lyrical interpretation might be that the encounter was with Brautigan's ghost. In 2010 a Southampton UK duo of Mark Davies and Dave Curtis chose the name Sombrero Fallout for a new band playing world music inspired sounds and feature Richard B reading 'alas measured perfectly' on a song of the same name,their CD 'east of the valley also features photos/paintings named 'sombrero fallout' by photographer Bruce Bortin and artist Steve Frenkel.

The Library for Unpublished Works envisioned by Brautigan in his novel The Abortion was housed at The Brautigan Library in Burlington, Vermont, until 1995 when it was moved to the nearby Fletcher Free Library where it remained until 2005. Although there were plans to move it to the Presidio branch of the San Francisco Public Library, these never materialized. However, an agreement has been made between Brautigan's daughter Ianthe Brautigan and the Vancouver, Washington, Clark County Historical Museum to move The Brautigan Library to the museum in 2010.

Kumquat Meringue is a literary journal out of Pine Island, Minnesota, dedicated to the memory and work of Brautigan.

The poem “Horse Child Breakfast” from The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster is read to an English class by gliding champion George Moffat at the beginning of Robert Drew’s 1971 documentary film The Sun Ship Game.

saltpeter, a London-based theatre company, will be launching a year-long initiative seeking collaborators - the Brautigan Book Club (BBC) - in Jan 2012 with a curated performance piece, The American Forever, Etc. This seems to be a part of a resurgence of interest in Brautigan in the UK. saltpeter's Brautigan project features the UK premiere of Tonseisha, a play by LA screenwriter Erik Patterson.

His name is used by the Lancaster band 'The Lovely Eggs' in their song 'Digital Acordion'

The documentary maker Adam Curtis produced a series of films for the BBC about the effect of computers on society called All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

Richard Brautigan's Works:

Bibliography

Novels and Novellas

A Confederate General From Big Sur (1964)
Trout Fishing in America (1967) Omnibus edition
In Watermelon Sugar (1968)
The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971)
The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western (1974)
Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery (1975)
Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel (1976)
Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel 1942 (1977)
The Tokyo-Montana Express (1980)
So The Wind Won't Blow It All Away (1982)
An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey (1982, but first published in 1994)

Poetry

The Return of the Rivers (1958)
The Galilee Hitch-Hiker (1958)
Lay the Marble Tea (1959)
The Octopus Frontier (1960)
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (1963)
Please Plant This Book (1968)
The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (1969)
Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt (1970)
Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork (1971)
June 30, June 30 (1978)
The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings (1999)

Short Story Collection

Revenge of the Lawn (October 1, 1971)

Unpublished Novel

The God of the Martians (written 1955-56)

Record Album

Listening to Richard Brautigan, 1973 (was supposed to be Zapple #3 but came out on EMI Harvest instead)- consists of Richard reading several poems and stories, friends reading "Love Poem" and sounds recorded in his apartment in San Francisco.

Richard Brautigan reads the poem 'Love's Not The Way To Treat A Friend' on the 1969 album 'Paradise Bar And Grill' by San Francisco band Mad River.

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