American novelist, short story writer, and poet Richard Brautigan appreciated mysteries. A shrewd promoter of himself and his writing, Brautigan encouraged mysteries with a combination of marketing hype and sketchy background details, all calculated to sell his books.
As a result, mysteries orbited Brautigan like small planets. The mystery of identification, for example. Who was Richard Brautigan? What did he do? Why is he worthy an essay in a literary journal of some renown?
Then, there is the mystery of his childhood. Who were his parents? Were there any siblings? Where did they live? What were the details of his childhood? Brautigan provided hints, but withheld answers.
When Brautigan did include details in his writing that might refer to his life, were they purely fictional, or fictionalized biography? The mystery of autobiography.
These mysteries align and intertwine themselves beautifully in Brautigan’s ninth novel, So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away. Here are descriptions of a childhood that could have been Brautigan’s. Here are autobiographical details, or fictionalized autobiography, about an accidental shooting death that could have involved Brautigan. Their combined gravitational pull creates a high tide of Brautigan’s consistent themes—alienation, loneliness, loss, and death—eloquently blurring the boundaries between fiction and poetry.
A rising tide also brings much flotsam to shore, where it can be examined, discarded, or preserved. Approached in this manner, So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away may be useful to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding Richard Brautigan, his life, and his writings.
Mystery of identification
Who was Richard Brautigan? Why is he noteworthy? For what is he remembered? Questions beg answers as the mystery of identification rises above the horizon.
Like a rising planet himself, Brautigan found literary success with publication of his second novel, Trout Fishing in America, in 1967. Brautigan catapulted to instant notoriety with this spare novel which read like an extended prose poem.
He was fêted at college campuses, romanced in publishers' headquarters, and invited to readings around the country. Critics hailed him as successor to Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, and Henry David Thoreau. Readers enjoyed his unique use of humor and imagination. The media identified Brautigan as the author to best capture the social, political, and cultural changes emanating from the epicenter of the so-called 1960s counterculture movement: the North Beach and Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods of San Francisco.
Brautigan’s subsequent books, rather than follow the trajectory blazed by Trout Fishing in America, bravely experimented with unlikely combinations of establish literary genres: 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), and Dreaming of Babylon: a private eye novel 1946 (1977).
Despite this prolificacy, critics reacted with diminished enthusiasm, put off by Brautigan's apparent preoccupation with sadness and death and his refusal to write further in his earlier, more humorous vein. Critics and readers trivialized his work, criticized its lack of political focus, and called Brautigan “naïve.”This downward trend continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He often said he did not care about the critics, but losing his readers truly broke Brautigan's heart.
While his American audience turned its back, Japan embraced Brautigan and his writing. Brautigan traveled there often, staying at Tokyo's Keio Plaza Hotel. In Japan, he felt revered, the sensai. His experiences in Japan inspired a collection of seventy-seven poems entitled June 30th, June 30th (1978), and at least half of the short chapters in his novel, The Tokyo-Montana Express (1980). This popularity abroad continues, with Brautigan’s writing translated into more than twenty languages. In America, his work is mostly out of print.
Brautigan died, by his own hand, alone, in September 1984. His final novel, An Unfortunate Woman, was published posthumously in France in 1994. The US edition was published in 2000.
Brautigan’s bibliography is extensive: eleven published novels, ten poetry collections (one printed on seed packets), one story collection, a volume of collected work, several nonfiction essays, and a record album of spoken voice recordings.
In overview, Brautigan is often categorized as a "Beat," "hippie," or "60s cult" writer. Just as easily, he is often dismissed as a poster child for publishing houses trying to get hip with youth counterculture markets during the 1960s.
These critiques, however, explain neither Brautigan's continued popularity nor his continuing inspiration for the creative endeavors of others. Rather than a spokesperson for the counterculture, it is far more useful to consider Brautigan a bridge between the waning Beat Movement and the waxing Hippie counterculture of San Francisco. That bridge leads, in Brautigan’s vision, to a post-modern world where humor and emotion, hope and imagination, can mitigate loneliness, loss, and death.
Mystery of childhood
Brautigan never spoke freely, openly, about his childhood. When pressed, he hinted that his early life was difficult, that relationships with his family were strained, but never provided explanations. What are the details of Brautigan’s childhood?
Born 30 January 1935 in Tacoma, Washington, Richard Gary Brautigan grew up in the poverty of America’s Pacific Northwest during the Depression and World War II.
His boyhood was without benefit of a father. Brautigan's parents, Bernard Frederick Brautigan and Lulu Mary Kehoe, married 18 July 1927, separated in April 1934, filed for divorce in 1938, which was officially declared in 1940. Brautigan claimed meeting his biological father only twice. Bernard, upon learning of Brautigan's death, claimed he never knew he had a son.
Brautigan’s mother, Mary Lu as she was known, partnered with (there are no marriage records) Arthur Titland in 1937. They had one child, Barbara Jo Titland (Fitzhugh). The family lived in Tacoma. Perhaps in 1942, Mary Lu and Arthur separated.
In January 1943, Mary Lu married Robert Porterfield. Their one child, Sandra Jean Porterfield (Stair) (Atkins), was born in July 1945. They divorced in July 1950.
In 1945, Brautigan and his family (mother, Porterfield, and sisters Barbara Jo and Sandra Jean) moved to Eugene, Oregon. Shortly after, Porterfield left, forever. In June 1950 (according to the marriage license, although her obituary says 1948, but still before divorced from Porterfield, July 1950), Mary Lu married William Folston. Several accounts note Brautigan's poor treatment by stepfathers Porterfield and Folston.
In Eugene, Brautigan attended middle and high school. Probably through English classes, he discovered the poetry of Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams. From Dickinson he drew the notion of the poet as eccentric outsider writing telegram-like messages from a parallel universe. From Williams he learned to write in a contemporary vernacular about subjects that had immediate impact on readers. When he graduated from Eugene High School in 1953, Brautigan aspired to be a writer.
Brautigan had few friends. Mostly, he was alienated: the poor kid, the tall kid, the quiet kid, the writer. He hunted with a .22 caliber rifle, and fished, which seemed his second passion. Foremost was writing, which Brautigan used as both self-definition and an escape from what must have been a soul-crushing childhood of poverty, insecurity, and hunger. In Brautigan’s juvenile writings, one can read his efforts to develop a unique authorial voice, come to grips with a dysfunctional family, and stake out his constant themes of alienation, loneliness, loss, and death.
Throughout childhood, Brautigan was known as Richard Porterfield. Just before his high school graduation, Mary Lu told Richard of his real father and he changed his surname to “Brautigan.”Given the adversity of his childhood, and looking ahead to his own life after high school, it is not unlikely that Brautigan wanted a new identity.
As part of his dream to be a writer, Brautigan moved to San Francisco in 1956, where he lived and wrote until his death in 1984. Brautigan is often remembered for giving away his poetry on street corners, assisting the Diggers feed the hungry, observing everything from the edges, and drinking with both Beat and more traditional poets at bars like No Name, Gino & Carlo’s, Vesuvio, and Enrico’s. After more than a decade of struggle, Brautigan realized success with publication of his novel, Trout Fishing in America, in 1967.
Mystery of autobiography
A common presence in Brautigan’s writing is the narrator. Detached, unemotional, an objective observer of the scene, the narrator describes events and objects, often lacking pertinent details, that may be linked, by fact or conjecture, to Brautigan’s life. The result is a sense of personal, autobiographical involvement between Brautigan’s life and his writing.
For example, Trout Fishing in America concerns a camping trip in Idaho’s Big Stanley Basin. The narrator clearly is Brautigan, who spent the summer of 1961 there with his first wife and daughter.
A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964) was based on Brautigan's friendship, and escapades, real or imagined, with Price Dunn, an eccentric character he met in San Francisco.
Many of the architectural details of the Presido Branch of the San Francisco Public Library System are recreated in a fictional library at the center of Brautigan's novel The Abortion.
An Unfortunate Woman concerns Nikki Arai, a friend of Brautigan's who was dying of cancer, just as she was during the summer of 1982 when Brautigan wrote the manuscript for this novel.
Many events, characters, descriptions, even dialog found in Brautigan’s works can be linked directly to his life. In most cases, Brautigan shares such autobiographical details through his narrator who remains just enough aloof to make the reader question the validity of a direct connection with Brautigan.
This overlay of personal, autobiographical, even found narrative components provides a convenient context for Brautigan to examine, again and again, his consistent themes of alienation, loneliness, loss, and death.
Reconciliation in the wind
If one were to select a work by Brautigan to best represent, and reconcile, these mysteries, the winner might be So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away (1982). This was Brautigan’s ninth published novel, and the last published before his death in 1984.
At its surface, this novel seems to concern the death of a young boy in a shooting accident near Eugene, Oregon on Saturday, 17 February 1948. Although Brautigan never confirmed or denied the connection, the story was thought to be autobiographical.
“I didn’t know that afternoon that the ground was waiting to become another grave in just a few short days.”So begins the narrator of So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away. This is typical of Brautigan: a narrator, speaking directly to the reader, describing without emotion, seemingly from within an altered state, both his internal thoughts and external actions as if they were museum objects from another dimension to be casually turned and examined by a detached, white-gloved technician.
“Too bad I couldn’t grab the bullet out of the air . . .”the narrator continues. Not quite two sentences completed and the reader knows that tragedy awaits in the pages ahead.
And mysteries. What bullet? What story spins with that bullet along its trajectory? The reader is hooked, like a fish. Brautigan, the fisherman, needs only guide her toward the net.
Which Brautigan does with deceptively simple prose in this brief (only 131 pages) novel. Cradled in the prose are insights delivered on the wings of whimsy and wit, all carrying the narrative well above the sadness of the story’s setting.
That setting is 1 August 1979. The narrator recalls his boyhood, in Oregon, in the summer of 1947 and spring of 1948. The narrator introduces himself as “Whitey.”He is an albino (Brautigan was blond). Moving with his (often fatherless) family from town to town in the Pacific Northwest, Whitey lives in cheap motor hotels (courtesy of the Welfare Department), or, a funeral home (where he enjoys standing at the window watching funerals).
As the outsider, Whitey is attracted to eccentric characters. There are several in this novel. There is the heavy-drinking guard at the sawmill from whom Whitey harvests empty beer bottles, a source of money for bullets or hamburgers. There is the bearded hermit who lives in a small house built entirely from salvaged lumber. And, there is the heavy-set couple, dressed alike in blue denim bibbed overalls, who, each evening, assemble their living room furniture at the edge of a pond where they fish through the night. Sometimes Whitey sits with them on their sofa, intrigued, wanting to know more, but perhaps too socially inept to ask.
Strangely, Whitey is befriended by David, the school hero. They ride bikes, fish, and hunt together. While hunting pheasants in an abandoned apple orchard, Whitey accidentally shoots and kills his improbable friend. “I wish the bullet was back in its box . . . I wish I had been hungry for a hamburger instead of bullets,”laments (adult) Whitey.
Whitey (Brautigan) offers his narrative from the perspective of a 48-year-old man, sitting, with his ear "pressed up against the past as if to the wall of a house that no longer exists”remembering himself as a 12-year-old boy. Everything is colored by this perspective. The chronology and characters of his narrative are fragmented by his stream of consciousness delivery and the ever presence of the novel’s theme and central component: death.
A subset of this focus on death is the demise of childhood and imagination. Whitey recalls watching early morning funerals from the window of his family apartment, located in the funeral home. He imagines stories for the bodies brought out in caskets. Although he does not acknowledge this, Whitey is bearing witness to these invisible people. And, while they are still alive, Whitey witnesses the eccentric characters around the fishing pond, as the center of his living world.
Sitting in the grasses by pond’s edge, Whitey watches the couple in their denim bibbed overalls arrange their living room, complete with kerosene lamps. “Shining out of the dark . . . it looked like a fairy tale functioning happily in the post-World War II gothic of America before television crippled the imagination of America and turned people indoors and away from living out their own fantasies with dignity.”
Soon enough their way of life will be gone, disappearing even as they live it. “Dust . . . American . . . Dust,”marked by tombstone television antennas on American homes. Gone. But not forgotten. They live on in Whitey’s imagination and description, even after he crosses the divide between being a child and an adult.
Whitey is acquitted of any negligence in the shooting. He had no intention of killing his friend. It was an accident. But David is dead, buried in the ground that was, only a few days prior, “waiting to become another grave.” Schoolmates stop talking to Whitey. He is involved in several fights. But none of this is his fault. “The only thing that was my fault was that I didn’t buy that hamburger. If I had wanted a hamburger that day, everything would have been completely different.”Choices.
For Whitey, these choices are real enough objects. He keeps them in his imagination, and brings them out when desired for examination. But through the years he grows smaller and smaller in the grass at the pond’s edge. The couple fishing from their living room wonder about Whitey.
“Where did that kid go?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t see him anywhere.”
“I guess he’s gone.”
“Maybe he went home.”
Dust . . . American . . . Dust.
We know that Brautigan’s childhood was framed by poverty, hunger, isolation, alienation. He lived in odd places, often courtesy of the Welfare Department. His imagination was often his only playmate. He fished. He hunted. These life details are fictionalized biography.
But did he accidentally shoot and kill a boyhood friend in an abandoned apple orchard outside a small western Oregon town on Saturday, 17 February 1948? Was this fiction, or fact? Brautigan never confirmed or denied either. As a result, the story was long thought autobiographical.
In fact, this story was created from two separate incidents. It was a remix of found art, and personal history. Fictionalized autobiography. The first incident involved Donald Husband, 14-year-old son of a prominent Eugene attorney, and Brautigan's ninth-grade classmate. Husband was killed in a shooting accident involving a .22 rifle while hunting pheasants in an old apple orchard on Bailey Hill in Eugene, Oregon. The date was Tuesday, 29 March 1949.
The second incident involved Brautigan, his best friend Peter Webster, and Peter's brother, Danny. The three were duck hunting in the Fern Ridge wetlands, near Eugene, Oregon. Brautigan was separated from the other two. Brautigan fired at a duck and a pellet from his shot struck Danny in the ear, injuring him only slightly.
These two incidents become one in So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away. If only he had bought a hamburger instead of bullets, David would still be alive. Whitey’s childhood would not be cut short. Guilt over poor choices would not resonate through Whitey’s life, past and present.
This is Brautigan’s fundamental theme, delivered with subtlety and perception. Life is not a series of random acts, but rather a series of willful choices. The past is the result of choices made in the (then) present. Like a bullet spiraling from the rifle barrel, the present moves ever onward. There is no opportunity to spiral the bullet back into the chamber.
There is only, as Brautigan repeats several times throughout the novel, “Dust . . . American . . . Dust,” memories and images powerful enough to stir the imagination—the guard's postcards and beer bottles, the hermit’s carefully crafted house, the couple’s furniture by the pond.
Whitey (Brautigan) uses these bits of nostalgia, whimsy, and sadness to construct a vignette of an earlier, more rustic, life, framed by innocence and dignity, not yet obscured by television’s assault on individuality and imagination.
For Brautigan, So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away bookends a curious accounting of life spanning nearly two decades. In 1967, Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America launched his writing career with its vision of individualistic characters seeking America outside conformity. That, after all, was a theme of the 1960s counterculture from which the novel emerged.
At the other end of Brautigan’s career, just two years before his death in 1984, So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away suggests the space for such a vision has shrunk to fit inside one’s head. Distilled to memories, this vision is constantly receding, like a bullet spiraling away on its trajectory.
Our best hope is that these memories can be reconciled, adapted, accepted, turned into meaningful narratives about ourselves and our lives, so the wind won’t blow them all away.
John F. Barber created and curates The Brautigan Bibliography and Archive (www.brautigan.net) the world’s foremost resource concerning the life and works of Richard Gary Brautigan (1935-1984). This online resource is part academic research project and part homage to Brautigan, with whom Barber was friends during the last years of Brautigan’s life. Barber’s Richard Brautigan: Essays on the Writings and Life (McFarland 2007) collects thirty-two essays from others who knew Brautigan professionally and personally. Barber teaches in the Creative Media & Digital Culture program at Washington State University Vancouver. His current project is Radio Nouspace (www.radionouspace.net), a web-based radio station; an online, interactive installation / performance work; and a practice-based research site archiving and curating radio-audio drama, radio (transmission) art, and sound poetry to promote and experiment with new forms of sound-based narrative and storytelling.
The included audio file is “American Dust,”title track from a Brautigan-influenced album of songs written and produced by Rich and Lou Duffy-Howard (https://www.facebook.com/LoudhailerUK) from the United Kingdom (2002). Used by permission.