John F. Barber, Curator and Archivist
Novels > Trout Fishing in America
First published in 1967, although written 1960-1961, Trout Fishing in America was Brautigan's second published novel. Trout Fishing in America was the novel that launched Brautigan's rise to literary fame, and is still considered by many critics as his defining literary work.
Writing History and Inspiration
Brautigan wrote the majority of Trout Fishing in America during Summer 1961, while camping with his wife, Virginia Alder and daughter, Ianthe. in Idaho's Stanley Basin. According to Virginia, she and Brautigan bought a "ten year old Plymouth station wagon" using a $350.00 tax refund. [W]e loaded [it] down with books, a Coleman stove and a Coleman lantern, a tent, sleeping bags, diapers, and we took off for the Snake River country of Idaho. We'd camp beside the streams, and Richard would get out his old portable typewriter and a card table. That's when he began to write Trout Fishing in America. He had to learn to write prose; everything he wrote turned into a poem. (Kevin Ring 12) The trip began in June 1961, when Brautigan and Virgina vacated their Greenwich Street apartment, gave their black cat, Jake, to roommate Kenn Davis. and loaded the station wagon with camping gear, two orange crates of books, and a portable Royal typewriter loaned by Brautigan's barber, Ray Lopez. They drove east from San Francisco, over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, through Reno, Nevada, where they were married, and into the Nevada desert where they spent their first night camping. The next day the couple turned north at Wells, Nevada, headed for Idaho on U.S. Highway 93. Past Twin Falls, they camped at Silver Creek, Idaho, where Brautigan fished.
During the next week, Brautigan fished several of the surrounding creeks and recorded their romantic sounding names in a notebook entry he titled "Name of places where I caught trout, in order of appearance, 1961—Idaho, a travel song, a ghost song." The list included Silver Creek, Copper Creek, Little Wood Creek, Big Smokey Creek, Paradise Creek, Salt Creek, Little Smokey Creek, Carrie Creek, Middle Fork of the Boise River, Queens River, South Fork of the Poyette River, Big Pine Creek, East Fork of Big Pine Creek, Fall Creek, Redfish Lake Creek, Salmon River, Little Redfish Lake, Yellow Belly Lake Creek, Stanley Lake, and Stanley Lake Creek.
Brautigan fished with a seven-foot, two-section RA Special #240 bamboo fly rod and an Olympus reel. In the winter of 1974, Brautigan traded the rod and reel to writer and editor J. D. Smith. Both the rod and reel were sold in an eBay auction. This photograph illustrated the auction.
From Silver Creek, Brautigan and family moved north to a campground at Big Smokey Creek in the Sawtooth National Forest. Here, Brautigan added Big Smokey, Paradise, Salt, Little Smokey, and Carrie creeks to his growing list of places fished. At Salt Creek, Brautigan was disturbed by the signs warning of explosive cyanide capsules placed to kill coyotes. He wrote a mock government warning, which Virginia translated into Spanish. Both were included in the "Salt Creek Coyotes" chapter.
From Big Smokey Creek, Brautigan and family moved to a campground beneath East Warrior Peak where Brautigan fished and recorded the Middle Fork of the Boise River, and Queens River. From here, Brautigan and Virginia drove to McCall, Idaho (location for the 1940s film Northwest Passage starring Spencer Tracey), where they stayed with Virginia's cousin, Donna and her husband. Brautigan described the visit in "The Teddy Roosevelt Chingader" chapter. He also described buying tennis shoes and idle conversation with strangers in McCall.
From McCall, the Brautigan's traveled to Stanley Basin, Idaho, where they camped at the Little Redfish Lake Campground (unit 4), three miles south of Stanley. Along the way, Brautigan fished the South Fork of the Poyette River. Brautigan and his family stayed at the Redfish Lake campground for a month and Brautigan fished the Salmon River, Yellow Belly Lake, Valley Creek, Stanley Lake, Stanley Lake Creek, and Big and Little Redfish Lakes. Virgina took photographs of Brautigan fishing and posing next to an abandoned, rusted motor vehicle. Brautigan and Virginia visited Stanley, Idaho, several times, attending a Saturday night "Stanley Stomp" dance at one of the bars.
Brautigan met a surgeon staying at a nearby campsite with his family. Brautigan and the surgeon fished together, during which time the surgeon complained of his life and medical practice. Brautigan used the experience as the basis for "The Surgeon" chapter.
During the afternoons, when the fish were not taking his dry flies or bait, Brautigan read or wrote. Many of his daily camping and fishing experiences made their way into the chapter drafts for his evolving novel.
At the end of July, Brautigan and Virginia moved north to Lake Josephus where they again set up an extended camp. Brautigan fished Float Creek, Helldiver Lake, and Lake Josephus. The experiences inspired two chapters, "Lake Josephus Days" and "The Towel," about dealing with a sick baby.
Lingering into August, the Brautigans enjoyed their final campsite along Carrie Creek. With snow possible, and cash low, Brautigan and Virginia decided to return to San Francisco where Brautigan worked on his evolving novel.
Preliminary work on the novel actually began the previous year when Brautigan, determined to write prose instead of poetry, experimented with short stories hoping they would lead to a novel. He abandoned the manuscript for The Tower of Babel. a mystery novel, after struggling to write 167 pages. On 16 September 1960, Brautigan began writing an experimental story he called "Trout Fishing in America" in which he imagined trout made from steel and introduced a character called Trout Fishing in America. The results, later incorporated in the first chapter of his most famous novel, were the beginning of a new (for Brautigan) literary form, the prose poem.
As Brautigan sought chapter content for his evolving manuscript he turned first to previously written material. A short story written in fall 1959, about two unemployed artists from New Orleans Brautigan met in Washington Square Park and how they imagined spending a pleasant, and warm, winter in a mental institution became the "A Walden Pond for Winos" chapter. Oddly, this is one of the few chapters in the novel that does not mention trout fishing.
Brautigan developed this penchant for using found materials as the basis for additional chapters, and continued to use the technique throughout his writing career. For example, inspiration came from Brautigan's reading and research at the Mechanics' Institute Library. Located at 57 Post Street, the location of the original building, built in 1855 and destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the library maintained a collection of nearly 160,000 books in 1961. Brautigan included a list of twenty-two classic books about fishing in found in the Mechanics' Library in the "Trout Death by Port Wine" chapter. Four recipes he found in cookbooks at the library were included in the "Another Method of Making Walnut Catsup" chapter. A cut up description of Richard Lawrence Marquette, taken from a poster seeking his arrest by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, prompted the "Trout Fishing in America with the FBI" chapter. The signature at the end of the chapter is in Brautigan's handwriting. "The Mayonnaise Chapter" is almost verbatim the text of a letter Brautigan found in a used book store.
Brautigan also incorporated people he knew into his evolving novel. Trout Fishing in America Shorty and the chapters "The Shipping of Trout Fishing in America Shorty to Nelson Algren" and "Footnote Chapter to 'The Shipping of Trout Fishing in America Shorty to Nelson Algren'" were all inspired by a legless man called Shorty who propelled himself around North Beach on roller skate wheels mounted to a board. Brautigan connected this individual to Nelson Algren's fictional character, Railroad Shorty, and proposed shipping him to Algren in Chicago, Illinois, where he might become a museum exhibit.
Pierre Delattre credits Shorty with inspiring Brautigan past the frustration of not being able to capture the magic of "his trout fishing book" on paper. Delattre recalls a fishing trip with Brautigan and how he lamented his writer's block. Then one afternoon back in North Beach we went into a hardware store so that he could buy some chickenwire for his bird cage. Suddenly he seized the pen from my pocket, the notebook from my shoulder bag, ran out and over to a park bench, and started to scribble a story about a man who finds a used trout stream in the back of a hardware store. The next day, we stopped to chat with a legless-armless man on a rollerboard who sold pencils. Brautigan called him "Trout Fishing in America Shorty," and wrote a story about him. From then on, trout fishing ceased to be a memory of the past, but the theme of immediate experience and Brautigan's book made him a rich and famous writer. (Delattre 53-54) Brautigan drew from his childhood memories to create chapters. Memories of Johnnie Hiebert, a childhood friend in Eugene, Oregon, who suffered from a rupture and drank pitchers of Kool-Aid contributed to the chapter and character called "The Kool-Aid Wino."
The acquistion of camping gear—a tent, sleeping bags, pots, and a Coleman gas stove and lantern— provided the basis for the chapter "A Note on the Camping Craze That Is Currently Sweeping America."
Brautigan drafted "The Cover of Trout Fishing in America " in February 1961 in which he described the Benjamin Franklin statue in nearby Washington Square Park (see "The Front Cover," below).
"The Cleveland Wrecking Yard" chapter came from real-life experience according to San Francisco artist Kenn Davis. Somewhere in 1958—although my memory is faulty about this date—I rented a rundown cottage on a hill and decided I wanted a bigger window overlooking the city of San Francisco. A mile or so away was the Cleveland Wrecking Company yard [2800 3rd Street; Quint Street], where all kinds of house salvage was stored. I called Dick and told him I was going there and [asked] did he want to come along—so we did; he found the place fascinating, and lo and behold he wrote about it in Trout Fishing in America . Poets can find inspiration anywhere. As it was, I bought a large window and we drove it to my shack, where I installed it to my satisfaction. (Davis, Kenn. Letter to John F. Barber. 9 June 2004.) William Hjortsberg says Brautigan learned of The Cleveland Wrecking Yard, a demolition business on Quint Street, in San Francisco, that sold dismantled homes in bits and pieces, from Price Dunn. Intrigued by what Dunn said of the place, Brautigan visited it himself, sparked with the idea of selling used trout streams by the foot (Hjortsberg 182).
Learning of Ernest Hemingway's suicide (2 July 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho, forty miles from where he was camping and fishing), Brautigan wrote "The Last Time I Saw Trout Fishing in America " chapter in which he included memories of his step-father Robert "Tex" Porterfield and the winter they spent together in Great Falls, Montana. Porterfield was the first person to tell Brautigan about trout fishing. Hemingway was Brautigan's artistic father, a writer he was often said to emulate, and whose death he certainly did.
The chapter "In the California Bush" evolved from weekend trips to Mill Valley to visit friend Lou Embee and his girlfriend who lived in a remote cabin overlooking San Francisco Bay. Brautigan called Embee "Pard" in the chapter.
By mid-March 1962, Brautigan had completed the manuscript for his first novel.
Following completion of the manuscript, Brautigan sent copies to Donald Allen. Luther Nichols, and Malcom Crowley, seeking publication. Both Nichols and Crowley responded via letter in the fall of 1962, apologizing for not being able to publish Brautigan's novel.
In mid-December, however, Allen wrote Brautigan to say he was very interested in his manuscript and wanted to use sections from the manuscript in a forthcoming book anthology of new prose to be published by Black Cat Books, that he was editing with Robert Creeley. Donald Merriam Allen (1912-2004), poet, editor of The Evergreen Review. West Coast representative of Grove Press, and owner of the San Francisco nonprofit press Four Seasons Foundation also suggested that sections of Brautigan's manuscript should be considered for publication in Evergreen Review.
Evergreen Review. published in New York, NY, 1957-1973, was edited by Barnet Lee "Barney" Rosset, Jr. (1922-2012) and Donald Merriman Allen (1912-2004) (numbers 1-6 only) with the backing of Grove Press.
In a letter to Rosset, dated 16 December 1962, Allen described Trout Fishing in America as possessing "a wonderful tone" and "a definite moral point of view." He concluded by saying, "I do think it deserves serious consideration as an Evergreen."
On 21 March 1963, Richard Seaver wrote Brautigan saying Grove Press was interested to publish nine chapters of Trout Fishing in America in two upcoming issue of Evergreen Review as well as the novel in its entirety. Seaver said he could arrange for a contract to be sent to Brautigan if he was interested. Four chapters, "The Hunchback Trout," "Room 208, Hotel Trout Fishing in America," "The Surgeon," and "The Cleveland Wrecking Yard," were published in the October-November 1963 issue of Evergreen Review (see below). Five chapters, "Witness for Trout Fishing in America Peace," "A Note on the Camping Craze That is Currently Sweeping America," "The Pudding Master of Stanley Basin," "In the California Bush," and "Trout Death by Port Wine" were published in the August-September 1964 issue (see below). Grove Press declined to publish the novel, but asked for an option on Brautigan's next work of fiction.
In April, the first issue of City Lights Journal was published. It included three chapters from Trout Fishing in America. "Worsewick," "the Salt Creek Coyotes," and "A Half-Sunday Homage to a Whole Leonardo da Vinci" (see below).
Despite praise and recommendations from leading literary figures, no publisher would accept Brautigan's manuscript for Trout Fishing in America. James Laughlin at New Directions passed it to G.
P. Putnam's Sons, who forwarded it to Dell/Delta who sent the manuscript back to G. P. Putnam's Sons, who said they would be happy to consider it for publication, but rejected the manuscript in August 1963. Donald Allen then sent the manuscript to Coward-McCann who rejected the manuscript.
In December 1963, Seaver contacted Brautigan to say Grove Press, and specifically Barnet Lee "Barney" Rosset, Jr.. had decided to publish A Confederate General from Big Sur. He offered Brautigan a $1,000 dollar advance against royalty payments. Additionally, Seaver offered a $1,000 option for Trout Fishing in America with a $1,000 advance payable within one month of publication of A Confederate General from Big Sur. Seaver also offered an option on Brautigan's third novel (unnamed, but Brautigan was working on a manuscript he called Contemporary Life in California ) with terms to be determined on delivery of the manuscript.
Ivan von Auw, a New York literary agent also wrote Brautigan saying his agency, Harold Ober Associates, wanted to represent him to his new publisher, Grove Press.
But, Brautigan was concerned. Grove Press was most interested in A Confederate General from Big Sur. thinking it the more "traditional" novel and desired to publish it first, with Trout Fishing in American to follow. Brautigan considered Trout Fishing in America his first novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur his second. Together they represented an aesthetic order that should be published in the order in which they were written. His third novel, he felt, would continue the aesthetic. Brautigan was also concerned that von Auw would be his literary agent when it was Donald Allen who had done all the work to get his books published.
In January 1964, Brautigan, having no formal agreement with a literary agent, and concerned to secure the best possible contract with Grove Press, proposed using one modeled after that used by the Society of Author's Representatives. Anticipating selling the screenplay rights from one of his novels, Brautigan asked Grove to pay advertising costs from their half of the royalties. Richard Seaver, for Grove, accepted the contract, but rejected the proposed change to screenplay royalties. He told Brautigan that Grove wanted to submit A Confederate General from Big Sur for the Prix Formentor, a prestigious international award for unpublished fiction. Contracts had to be finalized before application for the award could be submitted, and applications were due at the end of January. Seaver also offered Brautigan, who desperately needed the money, $500.00 on signing. He told Brautigan that Grove planned to published A Confederate General from Big Sur in the fall of 1964, and Trout Fishing in America a year later. This subtle pressure convinced Brautigan to sign a publishing contract with Grove Press and thus, although it was the second novel Brautigan wrote, A Confederate General from Big Sur became the first published.
Disappointing sales of A Confederate General from Big Sur prompted Grove Press to reject the next two Brautigan novels in turn: In Watermelon Sugar . written in 1964, and The Abortion . written during the first five months of 1966 and to allow their contract for Trout Fishing in America to expire in July 1966.
Seeking a publisher for his books, Brautigan wrote to Robert Park Mills, a New York literary agent, as suggested by Don Carpenter. on 5 October 1966 asking him to act as his literary agent and to sell "three unpublished novels": Trout Fishing in America. In Watermelon Sugar. and The Abortion. "Grove Press is no longer my publisher and I am looking for a new publisher. I need an agent to sell the three novels and to try and sell the Confederate General rights that I have lying around over at Grove."
Brautigan and Mills exchanged several letters. Mills agreed to represent Brautigan and his novels, but in a 25 November 1966 letter Brautigan informed Mills of a change of plans. I have decided to allow two young West Coast publishers Coyote Books and the Four Seasons Foundation to bring out Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar in pilot editions early next year. I think the novels are unpublishable in New York at this time. I would like to find a New York publisher for my novels, but I think The Abortion is the only novel of mine that stands a chance right now in New York. I look forward to hearing from you about it. After rejection by several publishers—Viking Press later noted "Mr. Brautigan submitted a book to us in 1962 called TROUT FISHING IN AMERICA. I gather from the reports that it was not about trout fishing."—Trout Fishing in America was published by Allen and Four Seasons Foundation. Brautigan wrote Mills on 7 October 1967 to say Trout Fishing in America had been published. Brautigan wrote Mills again on 19 December 1967 to say the first printing consisted of 2,000 copies.
The publisher of Trout Fishing in America was Four Seasons Foundation, a nonprofit press run by Donald Allen. Letters, signed by Allen, sent with review copies of Trout Fishing in America stated the publication date as October 31, 1967 and noted the novel would be distributed by City Lights Books. Allen and Four Seasons Foundation eventually published Brautigan's third novel In Watermelon Sugar in 1968 and Brautigan's first major poetry collection, The Pill versus The Springhill Mine Disaster in 1968.
Four Seasons Foundation published five editions of Brautigan's first novel, selling nearly thirty-five thousand copies. In its various editions, Trout Fishing in America has sold more than two million copies.
A short piece on National Public Radio commemorated the 20th anniversary of the original publication of Trout Fishing in America. Author Thomas McGuane read a short essay about Brautigan.
Listen to McGuane read his essay about Brautigan
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In another radio interview, Michael McClure talked about Trout Fishing in America and Brautigan's problematic literary fame, what McClure called "dyslexia of the soul."
Listen to McClure talk about Brautigan
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The front-cover photograph, taken by Erik Weber in San Francisco's Washington Square Park, March 1967, features Brautigan and Michaela Blake-Grand posed in front of the statue of Benjamin Franklin. Brautigan provides details about this photograph in the first chapter.
Blake-Grand was the former girlfriend of friend and former roommate (October-December 1963) Andy Cole. Brautigan called her his muse. In addition to the front cover of Trout Fishing in America. Blake-Grand also appeared with Brautigan and daughter Ianthe in the front cover photograph for Brautigan's first collection, Trout Fishing in America, The Pill versus The Springhill Mine Disaster, In Watermelon Sugar . Brautigan dedicated his poem "I've Never Had It Done So Gently Before" to "M" (Michaela) and during his poet-in-residency at the California Institute of Technology (January 1967) wrote her other, unpublished, poems.
Washington Square Park, on Stockton, between Union and Filbert, was originally the site of a Mexican ranch owned by Juana Briones. Later, the site served as a cemetery. It is the largest open space in North Beach.
Another photograph was considered for the front cover. This one, taken in April 1965 by Weber, was a head and shoulders portrait of Brautigan alone in front of the same Franklin statue. The statue and trees seem to loom over Brautigan.
Weber explains "The Trout Fishing Cover Origin" this way:
Trout Fishing [in America] was set to be published and Don[ald] Allen was going to use the original photo. I felt we could do better. RB [Brautigan] with muse [Michaela Blake-Grand] in tow dropped by one day. She sat down on stool next to RB.
I said, "Richard let's take the stool, you, and the muse and set you up the same way you are now in front of Ben [the Benjamin Franklin statue]."
Don Allen didn't care for it but I convinced RB that the new one was a better cover so he convinced Don Allen.
Erik Weber. Email to John F. Barber, 26 July 2003.
As depicted in the front cover photograph, dressed in a surplus Navy jacket, black jeans, a vest adorned with many pins and buttons, and soft, high-crowned, uncreased tan cowboy hat, Brautigan was a familiar sight around Haight-Ashbury and North Beach.
Kirby Doyle, author of Happiness Bastard. the first free novel published by the Communication Company, included an account of Brautigan and his attire in his poem "The Birth of Digger Batman" to commemorate the birth of Digger Jahrmarkt, son of Billy "Batman" and Joan Jahrmarket. The poem was first published as a broadside by the Communication Company and reprinted in The Digger Papers (Ed. Paul Krassner. New York August 1968: 10-11) and later in Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps (Emmett Grogan, Boston, Little, Brown, 1972. 414-416), the autobiography of Emmett Grogan. one of the founders of the Diggers. Rap rap on the door and I go to open it to Richard Brautigan who comes in under a soft tan hat, checks out the action, spots Cassandra in the kitchen, decides everything is cool, walks once again through the rooms, tall, slightly stooping like a gentle spider standing up (We are all spiders, or ants, or something, I remember wondering, watching Richard putting his hands in his pockets and taking them out) decides to split. "Be back in a while—need anything?" "No, nothing." Out the door he goes (414) The clothing might have resulted from personal style and fear of change. Richard always dressed the same. It was his style and he wanted to change it as little as possible. (I was like that myself at the time. We were all trying to get the exact style of ourselves.) Richard's style was shabby—loose threads at the cuff, black pants faded to gray, an old mismatched vest, a navy pea-jacket, and later something like love beads around the neck. As he began to be successful he was even more fearful of change. (Michael McClure 39) The statue of Benjamin Franklin, the earliest existing monument in San Francisco, donated by dentist and prohibitionist Dr. H. D. Cogswell, was originally erected at the corner of Kearny and Market Streets in 1879 and moved to Washington Square Park in 1904. Cogswell installed water taps at the base of the statue in hopes that people would drink water from them rather than seeking out bootleg liquor.
First Readings and Acceptance
As he finished a draft. Brautigan showed each chapter to Jack Spicer who offered editorial advice and encouragement.
William Hjortsberg says Brautigan's first public readings of Trout Fishing in America were at Ebbe Borregaard's Museum, two floors of a Victorian house at 1713 Buchanan Street converted into a gallery by Borregaard, 8:30 PM, Friday 17 March 1961. Brautigan read selections from the manuscript focusing on his boyhood in Eugene, Oregon, and forgotten poem entitled "Alas, In Carrion Umpire" (Hjortsberg 173).
Spicer also arranged for Brautigan to read from his manuscript over two consecutive nights at a former Welsh church at the corner of Market, 16th, and Noe Streets (Ellingham and Killian 223). Hjortsberg notes the address as being on 14th Street, between Guerrero and Valencia and that the reading was actually requested and arranged by Pierre Delattre. who, after leaving the Bread and Wine coffee shop in North Beach had taken up the challenge to turn this former church into the 14th Street Art Center (Hjortsberg 184).
Brautigan read the entire manuscript for Trout Fishing in America over two consecutive evenings, probably in early 1963, at the 14th Street Art Center. The reading was free and generally well received by the poets and members of the North Beach arts community who attended. Matthew Shelton adds some additional details, saying
I believe Richard felt insecure about his novel and asked Robert Elross (NY actor/director) what he thought. Robert Elross (founder of the 14th St. Arts Theater) suggested he read it aloud to the acting troupe at the 14 Street Arts Theatre in San Francisco. The novel was extremely well recieved by the actors and Robert [Elross] and Jean Shelton, and this was considered the first public reading of the work.
Matthew Shelton. Email to John F. Barber, 7 April 2006.
Following its publication, early acceptance of the novel was positive. Critics hailed Brautigan as a fresh new voice in American literature. For example, Newton Smith said, Trout Fishing in America altered the shape of fiction in America and was one of the first popular representatives of the postmodern novel. The narrative is episodic, almost a free association of whimsy, metaphors, puns, and vivid but unconventional images. Trout Fishing in America is, among other things, a character, the novel itself as it is being written, the narrator, the narrator's inspirational muse, a pen nib, and a symbol of the pastoral ideal being lost to commercialism, environmental degradation, and social decay. (Smith 122)
Dedication reads: For Jack Spicer and Ron Loewinsohn Both Jack Spicer and Ron Loewinshon were poets active in the San Francisco literary scene. Spicer, a gay San Francisco poet, was Brautigan's mentor and confidant, especially following Brautigan's wife's affair and elopement with Anthony (Tony) Frederic Aste. Spicer was attracted to Aste so the rejection was probably hard for him as well as Brautigan. Spicer and Brautigan talked about the manuscript for Trout Fishing in America and together they revised it, "as though it were a long serial poem" (Ellingham and Killian 223).
Ron Loewinsohn speculated on the reasons for the double dedication. "Me, I think, just friendship; and Jack, editing, help, whatever he did. Jack was absolutely fascinated with Trout Fishing, and spent a lot of time with Richard talking about it." Spicer may have recommended cuts; this was rumored in the community at the time. "Anytime you [could] get Richard Brautigan to accept criticism [was] an unbelievable accomplishment. He [was] so defensive, and so guarded; and Jack was able to get him to make changes. Whatever he did he deserved some sort of Henry Kissinger award" (Ellingham and Killian 223).