The Life and Death of Richard Brautigan

Rolling Stone (April 1985)

His friends remembered when Richard became famous. It was the year the hippies came to San Francisco. Richard had published one novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur, but it had sold miserably 743 copies and his publisher, Grove Press, had dropped its option on Trout Fishing in America. Donald Allen was the West Coast representative of Grove and the editor of the Evergreen Review, which had introduced the Beat Generation. Allen had a small nonprofit press called the Four Seasons Foundation, and he decided to publish the book himself. Allen sold 29,000 copies of the book before Delacorte bought it. Eventually, 2 million copies were sold.

It was the kind of book that captured the spirit and sound of a generation. Soon there was a commune and an underground newspaper and even a school named after Trout Fishing in America. His short stories and poems appeared regularly in Rolling Stone, often beneath a photograph of him in his broad-brimmed hat. His face became a hippie icon. “For three or four years, he was like George Harrison walking down Haight Street,” remembered Don Carpenter, a novelist and scriptwriter and a longtime friend of Richard’s. His image infuriated what Richard called the East Coast literary mafia.

The old Beats looked at Richard with envy and surprise. The Beats were out of fashion, and Bunthorne was all the rage and he was rich, too, thunderously rich by their standards. Ferlinghetti had been the first to publish parts of Trout Fishing in his City Lights Journal, but like most Beats, he had never taken Richard’s writing seriously. “As an editor, I always kept waiting for Richard to grow up as a writer,” he says now. “I never could stand cute writing. He could never be an important writer like Hemingway — with that childish voice of his. Essentially he had a naïf style, a style based on a childlike perception of the world. The hippie cult was itself a childlike movement. I guess Richard was all the novelist the hippies needed. It was a nonliterate age.”

But it was an extraordinary time in every other respect. Cultural forms were exploding in the face of furious experimentation with drugs, art, sex, music, religion, social roles. Richard’s attitude toward all this, however, was ambivalent. He was widely credited with being the voice of the Summer of Love, but in fact he was contemptuous of most hippies, whom he saw as freeloaders and dizzy peaceniks. He had a horror of narcotics that seemed fanciful to his friends everybody used dope in those days except Richard…

Complete story here