Walking through Richard Brautigan’s Antique Shop: Brautigan’s Relevance in the Contemporary College Classroom

 

PALS Note: PALS welcomes a guest post by Elaina Frulla. Frulla makes a case for teaching Richard Brautigan in the college classroom. While many of his peers are widely taught, Brautigan makes fewer appearances on our syllabi. Read below for some convincing reasons about why Brautigan is a good classroom fit (if his mustache isn’t convincing enough).

I often find myself discussing the San Franciscan writer, Richard Brautigan (1935-84), with people who have either never heard of him or never read any of his works. Naturally, I’m asked, “What’s his writing like?” My response, “Reading Richard Brautigan is like walking through an antique shop where you’re allowed to touch everything.” His works are characterized by a “patina” that feels uncannily old and far away, even other-worldly, yet somehow familiar. In a way, reading Brautigan follows this logic, “I don’t know what this thing is, but it reminds me of something. I can’t put my finger on it, but I know this thing belongs in my house!” Incidentally, I found my first Richard Brautigan novel, In Watermelon Sugar (1968), in an antique shop during my freshman year of college. I paid two dollars for a first edition—only five cents more than what it originally cost in 1968.  With some antiques, the price tag certainly doesn’t dictate the value of the object.

In Watermelon Sugar Cover copy

We all know not to judge a book by its cover, but what caught my eye about In Watermelon Sugar was that the novel began on the cover (I later discovered that this was a strategic plan on Brautigan’s part). Instead of a title, what appeared under a black and white photo of a pensive, mustached man (Brautigan himself), and a young, long-haired woman, was the first line of the novel printed in a large font: “In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.” I proceeded to read a strange narrative about a place where everything is made of watermelon sugar, and people are content that this is so. The narrator reveals that only twenty-four books have been written over the last 171 years and that his book is the first one written in thirty-five years.  Here are  some other odd things you’ll find in the novel:

  • A narrator with a unique name: “I am one of those who do not have a regular name. My name depends on you.  Just call me whatever is in your mind.”
  • A utopian community called iDEATH: “A good place.”
  • Talking tigers that eat your parents and help you with your arithmetic homework.
  • The Watermelon Works where watermelon sugar is processed into materials people can build their lives with.
  • A changing sun that determines the color of watermelons: “Very interesting.”
  • The Forgotten Works, which is a place filled with forgotten things: “BE CAREFUL, YOU MIGHT GET LOST.”
  • A confrontational man named inBOIL and his gang who live at the Forgotten Works and make whiskey from forgotten things.

I have puzzled over this 138-page novel, as well as Brautigan’s other strange texts, for over a decade. However, it was always on my own time. In my college courses, I had never encountered anything that resembled Brautigan’s works in form or content. Reading Brautigan felt more like a hobby than an academic pursuit. However, a few years ago, upon re-reading In Watermelon Sugar, I realized how much potential Brautigan’s works could have in the American literature courses I now teach. I was confused as to why such a powerful writer wasn’t already a component in the American literature classroom. Here is what I discovered. According to a recent article by Christopher Gair:

Despite achieving critical success in the 1960s when Trout Fishing in America (1967) reached the bestseller list and was, according to Bob Dylan, ‘on everyone’s coffee table,’ many of his works have subsequently bounced in and out of print, often being reissued only by relatively obscure independent publishers catering to niche reading markets. The reason would seem to be that Brautigan is viewed very much as a man of his time, writing novels, short stories, and poetry…representing a particular and curious moment in American history….While contemporaries such as Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut continue to be studied extensively in universities and to be acknowledged as pioneering proponents of postmodern fiction and as members of a trans-historical  North American literary canon, Brautigan has become trapped in his epoch. (5)

My goal here is to briefly outline why I think Brautigan can effectively engage with the interests of the current generation—a generation just as “particular” and “curious” as Brautigan’s own.

The Popularity of Dystopian Fiction:

Based on the current success and popularity of dystopian narratives in literature, film, and television, my students immediately recognized the dystopian conventions at work in In Watermelon Sugar. The students were readily interrogative:

  • “Well iDEATH seems like a utopia, but is it really? Why would a utopia be called iDEATH?”
  • “Why hasn’t anyone written a book in over 35 years?”
  • “If the narrator is so content, why can’t he sleep at night?”
  • “Why does the narrator seem so nonchalant about tigers eating his parents?! He just keeps doing his homework as if nothing happened!”
  • “Is inBOIL really a villain? He is the only one who thinks there is something wrong with iDEATH.”
  • “Why can’t anybody in iDEATH seem to remember anything about the past except inBOIL?”

My students’ abilities to latch onto the problem of memory in the novel was particularly impressive. Characters repeatedly answer questions with “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.” inBOIL  is the only character who is openly dissatisfied with life in the utopian community of  iDEATH, and this seems to be because he is the only one who can remember what life in iDEATH was like in  the past. While drinking whiskey is often a way to forget, inBOIL drinks whiskey made from “forgotten things” in order to remember! One character, Margaret, is repeatedly reprimanded by the narrator for taking interest in the Forgotten Works. When she dies her room filled with forgotten things is bricked up forever. When inBOIL and his gang commit public suicide to remind people about the “real” iDEATH, Pauline’s advice is “clean up the mess” and “forget them.” My students also spotted an interesting contradiction. Despite the inability to remember, the dead are memorialized in statues and buried in transparent, glowing coffins in the river. Why would a community so eager to forget everything want a constant visual reminder of those who pass?

Also, and I don’t know if this is hilarious or creepy, my students couldn’t help but look at a name like “iDEATH” and draw connections with “iPhones.” My students noticed that life at iDEATH seems boring and monotonous. Characters conform to their environments and show no interest in individualized or original pursuits. Do iPhones have the same effect? Scary coincidence, right?

The Popularity of Flash Fiction and Brautigan’s Brevity:

Flash fiction is one big trend in creative writing right now. According to Julian Gough, the current generation “receives information not in long, coherent, self-contained units,” but in “short bursts, with widely different tones (channel-hopping, surfing the Internet, while doing the iPod shuffle). That changes the way we read fiction.” Gough’s description essentially defines Brautigan’s writing across the genres. Brautigan’s novels are short—the average chapter ranging from one paragraph to several pages in length. Brautigan’s short stories average one to one and a half pages in length. Brautigan’s poems are seldom more than a few lines.

Many of my students do seem to think in “bursts,” and they respond positively to Brautigan’s brevity. Since my students are not overwhelmed by reading a lot of pages in a short amount of time, they are able to focus more on details. Students naturally understand that details matter in literature; however, over the course of a short class period, only a certain number of details can be covered. When working with longer texts, I sometimes worry that glossing over some details in favor of others because of time restraints undermines the “all details matter” concept in a student’s mind. When working with a one page story or brief poem, details can be examined more exhaustively during class.

The brevity of Brautigan’s short stories and poetry also allows for a lot of flexibility in terms of how the literature can fit into a course. I often use Brautigan’s poems and short stories as ten/fifteen-minute close reading “warm-ups” or to fill in gaps in the semester where there is a little extra time. For example, here is a poem I often use from The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (1968) that has generated successful discussions:

“The Winos on Potrero Hill”

Alas, they get
their bottles
from a small
neighborhood store.
The old Russian
sells them port
and passes no moral
judgement.  They go
and sit under
the green bushes
that grow along
the wooden stairs.
They could almost
be exotic flowers,
they drink so
quietly.

All of my students can identify with the poem because they have all encountered homelessness in one way, shape, or form. The class discussion usually follows this basic chain of reasoning:

ME: “If you were the store owner, would you want these drunks hanging around?”

STUDENTS: “No.”

ME: “Why not?”

STUDENTS: “They would hurt business—they’re probably dirty or loud or asking people for money.”

ME: “Well then why does the old Russian let them stay? Why doesn’t he pass moral judgement? How are these “winos” described in a ways you would expect?”

STUDENTS: “The winos are quiet and compared to exotic flowers, which are beautiful. So maybe the Russian sees more than meets the eye.”

ME: “Can you be more specific? What does he see that is more than meets the eye?”

STUDENTS: “Since the flowers are exotic, they’re beautify, but out of place. Since the old man is Russian, he must feel out of place too. Maybe he identifies with the winos in a way other people in the community might not.”

In-Print Editions and Select Bibliography:

Finding classroom ready editions of Brautigan’s works can be frustrating since approximately half of his catalogue is currently out of print and since most of the in-print editions are sold in bulky omnibus editions. My hope is that as Brautigan becomes more essential in the classroom, new editions will appear.

The Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence Omnibuses:

Each of the three omnibuses includes three of Brautigan’s works. The greatest benefit of the omnibuses is that they present the texts “in the manner of their original editions,” maintaining both Brautigan’s carefully selected typefaces and cover images. 

The first includes: Trout Fishing in America, The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (poetry), and In Watermelon Sugar.

The second includes: Revenge of the Lawn (short stories), The Abortion, and So the Wind Won’t Blow it Away.

The third includes: A Confederate General from Big Sur, Dreaming of Babylon, and The Hawkline Monster.  

Select Bibliography:

Below is a short list of resources that I found particularly helpful in integrating Brautigan into my classes. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but simply a springboard. I’m interested to know if others have taught Brautigan before and have additional recommendations and teaching strategies. For those encountering Brautigan for the first time, I encourage you  to check out some of his works and consider experimenting with him in the classroom. Hopefully, we can share the results of some of those experiments.

Biographical:

Barber, John F., ed. Richard Brautigan: Essays on the Writings and Life. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2007. Print.

Hjortsberg, William. Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan. Berkeley:  Counterpoint, 2012. Print.

On Utopias and Dystopias:

Foster, Jeffrey M. “Richard Brautigan’s Utopia of Detachment.” Connecticut Review 14.1 (1992): 85-91. Print.

Horvath, Brooke. “Richard Brautigan’s Search for Control over Death.” American Literature 57.3 (1985): 434-55. Print.

Teodorescu, Adriana. “And They Died Happily Ever After: The Dystopian Constructions of Language and Death in Richard Brautigan’s Novel In Watermelon Sugar.” Caietele Echinox 25 (2013): 174-85. Print.

On Situating Brautigan in the American Literary Canon:

Bell, Ian. “The Reference of Trout Fishing in America.” English Studies 94.4 (2013) 386-403. Print.

Gair, Christopher. “‘Perhaps the Words Remember Me’: Richard Brautigan’s Very Short Stories.” Western American Literature 47.1 (2012): 5-21. Print.

Mills, Joseph. “‘Debauched by a Book’: Benjamin Franklin, Richard Brautigan, and ‘The Pleasure of the Text.’” California History 79.1 (2000): 10-7. Print.

 Stull, William L. “Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America: Notes of a Native Son.” American Literature 56.1 (1984): 68-80. Print.

Contributor Bio:

Elaina Frulla teaches in the English Department at Siena College in upstate New York. She enjoys teaching courses on early American literature, the short story, science fiction, film, and composition.  She is also currently working on her dissertation on literary dialect and representations of foreign language speech in early American literature at the University at Albany. Elaina is a Pisces.

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One thought on “Walking through Richard Brautigan’s Antique Shop: Brautigan’s Relevance in the Contemporary College Classroom

  1. In south France on vacation England playing tonight so I try to be brief, I taught elementary school and while learning to bind books, the class made one, write some words and we mailed it to mr. Brautigan as we heard he had a collection of hand bound books. I recall hearing he acknowledged receiving it. Those 4-5 years were great, I hear from some of those kids once in awhile though I never asked them if they re call it. Reading your work👍 I’ll employ some ‘mental floss(ing)’ when I get back , thanks. Kam sa ham ni da…Winter Olympics 2018 in Korea!

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