We all have roles in history. Mine is clouds.
Richard Brautigan was born in Tacoma, Washington in 1935 during the Great Depression. Although, he grew up in extreme poverty and experienced a great deal of violence and isolation during his childhood, he also began a journey of discovery. By the time, he was twelve, his single mom, and two half sisters, Barbara and Sandy, ended up in Eugene, Oregon. His half-sister Barbara gives a window into that time. She said that unlike most of the people who lived in their small town, Dick, as he was known then, recognized the extraordinary beauty of the region and was always pointing out to her a particularly striking colored flower or an unusual shape of a tree. Her brother was the only person that she knew who talked about beauty. Not particularly gifted at any one thing, (according to Sherry Vetter, a dear friend, he once spent an entire grade sitting in the corner, because his elementary teacher thought that he was unteachable), he was pragmatic about loss. Barbara described them dropping a watermelon on the way back to their small house on the outskirts of town. The money to buy the watermelon had been earned by collecting recyclable bottles from the side of the highway. She started crying. He comforted her and pointed out that it wasn’t the end of the world; they could just sit on the curb and eat watermelon, which they did.
He loved to fish. Despite his lack of truly tangible practical skills, he had mastered the art of making small amounts of money: selling worms, collecting bottles, sweeping floors, being at the beck and call of eccentric old ladies. A paper route provided money to buy school clothes and a little bit of pocket change. Enough to go to the movies, but not enough to buy a book. He often read the comic books at the newsstand, and despite shooting up to over six feet, knew how to be unobtrusive and didn’t mind being chased off. This created a life long habit of reading books in bookstores, and even the books that he did own never showed wear and tear because of how lightly he could turn the page.
A kind stepfather, Bill Folston, created a temporary island of poor working-class stability. Dick made friends, continued to fish in the small streams around the Mackenzie River Valley. However, he was a self-taught in the art of catching fish–no guided trips, professional guidance, or expensive tackle. He fished for food and because he liked to. Dick also played basketball in junior high and became a life long basketball fan. Given a 22. rifle at 13, he began to hunt ducks and pheasant. He did not, however, shoot a friend. Although So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away is a reflection of his childhood years, it is fiction.
Some time during his teenage years, he discovered that words could express his continued explorations with a world that he continued to find enchanting. This altered his future. His friends supported his early attempts at poetry; he was encouraged to submit his poetry to local papers by a high school teacher, who let him down a few years later. After high school, he found a kindred spirit in one of his friend’s mothers–a sort of welfare bohemian; unfortunately, he never wrote about this time. He continued to work seasonal jobs at the local canneries and developed a strong work ethic concerning his writing. Finally after a couple of years, his working class parents worried because he continued to be singularly focused on writing decided that he should move out. He moved into a rooming house in downtown Eugene, yet he didn’t veer from his calling, writing what he would later refer to as “juvenilia,” and he also corresponded with two Americans living in Japan, who expressed interest in publishing a volume of his poetry. As he would throughout his life, he had group of close friends. One of which, Gary Stewart, made sure he had a good meal every so often at his parent’s house. After Gary left for a Europe mission trip, Dick ran out of money, this coupled with some sort of unrequited romantic catastrophe led to him losing alarming amounts of weight.
On Christmas Eve, he decided to throw a rock through the police station window figuring that they would at least feed him. They arrested him, and in a Pacific Northwest Kafkaest moment, put his writing on trial complete with judge and an expert witness, which included his former high school writing teacher. This was all set into motion because he told the judge that he was going to be a famous writer. His high school English teacher claimed his writing was pornographic, which is puzzling to say the least.
The judge decided that because of Dick’s claim to future writing fame and use of “big words” meant he was delusional and sent him to the state insane asylum in Salem: A wretched, Gothic institution where later One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed. The bohemian welfare mother, who had spent six months there in her youth, helped him to get out in three months: “Just tell them what they want to hear,” but he was unable to escape without many shock treatments without anesthetic. In between, he was observed by the medical staff frantically scribbling down sentences, so that he would not forget his poetry. Extremely anxious when he was released, he found comfort and healing on a tiny farm owned by a Quaker couple. Dick quickly realized that he needed to leave Oregon for San Francisco. No one knows what drew him there. He got a ride from Gary Stewart’s father, who was driving to Nevada, and after a brief stop to work at construction site and publish some poetry, he arrived in San Francisco with a cardboard box full of writing. Still Dick, he slept in cars, and made long lasting friends, met his future wife, Virginia Alder, and found a mentor in Jack Spicer. Within three years–he was married, had a baby (Ianthe) and had taken the trip that would led to the publication of Trout Fishing in America. (He also lived in Mexico with Alder for a brief period of time.) The two had an amazing time together, and, although had many adventures with their friends, Ron Loewinsohn, Shirley Harbor and Tom Lipsett, Shig Murao, and many, many others.
He rarely spoke about the past.
Influenced by the Beats, he decided to self publish gaining a small following. At about this point in time. After a devastating split with Virginia Alder, Grove Press published A Confederate General from Big Sur and for a period of time he was very close with the artist and film maker Bruce Conner and the Beat writers, Michael McClure, Joanne Kyger, and others. He attracted some literary attention. Laurence Ferlinghettie published a chapter of TFA in the first edition of City Lights Journal. Brautigan continued to submit his poetry, and TFA was rejected 27 times, but publishing luminaries sent him encouraging notes, while simultaneously puzzling over his writing.
Richard, as he was mostly called now, continued to work part-time at a laboratory mixing barium for X-rays, and lived with friends or in various improvised living situations until finally renting an apartment out on Geary near Kaiser; he continued to write. In 1967, a copy of the manuscript of TFA began to be passed around and, even before its publication, developed a buzz. Donald Allen published it, and then Richard gained the representation of soon to be powerhouse agent, Helen Brann. The early correspondence between Helen and Richard reveals a tender friendship between two strong individuals. The letters also reflect a writer, who despite not attending college, understood the publishing industry, and had very specific ideas about how his work should be published. He spent a great deal of time with the Diggers, Peter Coyote, and was friends with Janis Joplin and many others of the era. He ran the publishing room during the infamous Invisible Circus event at Glide Memorial; published a book that you could plant, and he handed out free Broadsides of poetry on the streets of San Francisco. For living such a short life, he inhabited each moment fully.
Traveling throughout the world, it is a common occurrence to run into someone, famous or not, who has had a drink with Richard Brautigan. As the 1960’s came to a close, he spent a great deal of time with the writer, Kurt Gentry, and the poet, Tony Dingman, who introduced him to Francis Ford Coppela. He began to travel to Montana in 1973 and because of the writer Tom McGuane became friends with the writers’ Jim Harrison, Guy de Valdene, the artist Russell Chatham, William Hjorstberg, and others. He was also extremely close to Becky Fonda & Miriam Hjorstberg, and he was fond of Linda Harrison. Throughout his life, although he had numerous romantic attachments with many women, he also enjoyed the friendship of women.
In 1975, He began to live part of each year in Japan, and made a whole new group of friends there. One of which, Takako Shiina, whom he referred to as a sister. He married Akiko Yoshimura in 1979, and enjoyed a period of domesticity, Brautigan style, before splitting up in 1980. He continued to write and drink. He committed suicide in Bolinas; the death certificate reads October 25, 1984. In an interview in the early 80’s when asked who he was, Brautigan states clearly, “I am a writer of the 20th Century. ”
His writing is his legacy. Richard Brautigan influenced a great many writers in the USA and abroad. He continues to be discovered by new readers all over the world. Click here for a list of publications.