On this day in 1984 Richard Brautigan was found dead in his California home, a suicide some weeks earlier. Brautigan’s fame was based on the 1967 bestseller Trout Fishing in America, but he had enough other hits that a 1970 feature story in Life magazine was titled “Gentle Poet of the Young: A Cult Grows Around Richard Brautigan.” There were eleven novels, nine books of poetry, and two story collections in total (plus Please Plant This Book, a giveaway collection of eight seed packets with poems on the back), but by the time of Brautigan’s death the cult, the counterculture, and his own mental health were gone.
What remains is a dark puzzle, even to only child Ianthe Brautigan, who tries to gather the very few pieces in her 2000 memoir, You Can’t Catch Death. Brautigan met his own father only twice, each time for a few minutes, each time getting money for the movies. His mother was a waitress who moved around among places and men. The kids would have to collect returnables in a shopping cart (one poem is titled “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth’s Beer Bottles”) or stay with a series of stepfathers. One, a fry cook, would tie Richard to the bedpost in his hotel room, though with enough rope so he could look out the window (“All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace”). Another would take him hunting and rub deer’s blood all over him or come visit the foster home so drunk that the play-wrestling nearly broke Richard’s arm (“Somewhere in the World a Man Is Screaming in Pain”). Just before his twenty-first birthday, Brautigan was arrested for unclear reasons, sent to a mental hospital in Oregon (the same one used to shoot One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and given a dozen electro-shock treatments.
Ianthe Brautigan describes her father as a loving parent and a dedicated writer, but she remembers bullet holes in the walls, waking in the night to the sound of furniture being smashed, or waking in the morning to the smell of burned plastic: “I went and burned all the telephones in the house in the fireplace,” Brautigan recorded in his journal for that night. “They burn with a sharp flame.” The next day’s entry reads, “Ianthe and I went and got some bulbs for planting. I want some daffodils in the spring.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.