Understanding the misery I put students through is easy when I read Richard Brautigan. And actually I’m surprised. I like the Beats. Somehow, though, the meaning of Brautigan is sealed up tight in some kind of a metal drum. He’s like having a keg without a tap—an apt simile, as it turns out. I have to confess right off that I had to read a good bit of criticism before I could comment on him, and I was surprised that I did, since the Beats usually make sense to me. Having done so, though, gave me some insight about why students end up plagiarizing literary essays.
We (English teachers) expect them to have the same kind of immediate insight that we do into the literature we just automatically love and when they don’t, we don’t understand. So many professors forbid students from reading criticism, calling that “cheating,” and forcing them to pound their heads against these metal drums (bong, bong, bong) in what must feel like a futile effort. Perhaps at one time, when information wasn’t so easy to come by, after a certain number of hours of head-banging, the headache paid off. But now that information takes no more than the soundless effort of our wireless connection, doesn’t it make sense to consult the critics? It did for me.
Surprised that I could not crack the code and step inside Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, I continued ahead and read The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar (all in the same volume). Brautigan’s poetry in Pill was much more accessible and I liked it better than his fiction, though I found even that to be the stuff of student writing—that sort of narrative ramble that is generally lacking in images which I would, in a workshop, direct the writer to revise by “showing,” rather than “telling.” For example, in “Albion Breakfast,” the speaker tells of his “long pretty girl” who wants him “to write a poem about Albion, / so she could put it in a black folder.” And then he tells us:
I said yes. She’s at the store now
getting something for breakfast.
I’ll surprise her with this poem
when she gets back.
I get the feeling from that one that the poet simply included something that transpired between him and a (probably former) lover: more than I care to know about a private event. However, on the other hand, another simple, incidental prose poem is lovely because it captures an image so carefully:
In a Café
I watched a man in a café fold a slice of bread
as if he were folding a birth certificate or looking
at the photograph of a dead lover.
But Trout Fishing in America is another animal altogether. Like Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, it is a novel told in short, titled vignettes, some as long as little chapters, and others as short as one-page prose poems. Unlike Connell’s work, though, Brautigan’s doesn’t really hang together. I understand—and usually like—absurdist works. But this one didn’t engage me somehow. There’s a protagonist, the narrator, “I,” and as it turns out “Trout Fishing in America” which is both an occupation and a character (though it’s hard to know that until we’ve read in a few pages). Understanding a real plot, any sort of narrative at all, is a challenge. Instead, Brautigan attempts a whimsical jaunt that, to my mind, doesn’t engage readers. I do think the novel is interesting for the sense of place that it evokes. In a chapter, “THE SALT CREEK COYOTES,” we read the following:
The smell of the sheep grazing in the valley has done it to them. Their voices water and come down the canyon, past the summer homes. Their voices are a creek, running down the mountain, over the bones of sheep, living and dead. (53)
And even a little later he describes a sign that warns against the coyotes—and the cyanide capsules “put along the creek to kill” them, even stopping to describe the sign in Spanish: “CUIDADO CON LAS CAPSULAS DE CIANURO: MATAN” (53). So the place is visible in the description and we understand the danger—as well as the danger to the animals. It seems like a place, as they say, not fit for man or beast. He’s captured, whimsically, the decay of nature.
But in terms of any real broad comedy, on my own I was lost. The prose didn’t strike me funny. That’s why I had to turn to what a few of the critics said—to help me tap into the metal drum. I didn’t see why it would hurt a student to do the same, I thought, as I did it. (Incidentally, if you’re reading this, it’s perfectly fine with me if my students read criticism when they take my literature courses). A quick web search was a great help, in fact. I happened upon Birgit Ferran’s fantastic Brautigan Archives site (at http://www.eoiweb.com/brautigan). Ferran lists an address in Spain in her contact information, not any university affiliation. However, she urges the interested reader to join a Brautigan listserv, and describes the purpose of the site as “a place for Brautigan fans and scholars to share ideas and information on [his] life and work.” I take it from her statement of purpose, as well as from the quality of the more than 175 articles about Brautigan and other authors on the site that Ferran is a scholar. This kind of website evaluation is what we should ask of our students, rather than forbidding them to use online sources.
I found on Ferran’s website Philip C. Kolin’s most helpful essay, “Food for Thought in Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America” from a Spring1981 volume of Studies in Contemporary Satire, where Kolin argues that the point of Brautigan’s novel is to satirize American values using images of food. When I read the introduction to his essay and the first few supporting paragraphs, I felt stupid. “Of course!” I thought. “He’s absolutely right. How could I have missed this!” Students often say the same thing when we discuss thematic elements of stories and symbolism in poetry and film. I tell them that ideas like the ones we discuss in class will be more obvious to them independently when they learn to look for them. Well, in this case these ideas sure as hell weren’t obvious to me. Maybe if you’re a literary scholar, you’re thinking….well it’s just this reading about food imagery that didn’t jump out at me. But NO reading jumped out at me. Brautigan’s prose just seemed flat and meaningless—and that’s how literature seems to students many times, when they can’t crack the code that encases it.
But back to Trout Fishing in America: In arguing that Brautigan’s food imagery represents certain American values, Kolin first has to define satire, which he does by citing Alvin Kernan’s definition from Plot of Satire. Satire, says Kernan, determines:
such matters as what kind of food to eat, how to manage your wife and household, how to dress, how to choose your friends and treat your guests, what kind of plays to frequent and what kind of books to read, how to conduct political life. (qtd. in Kolin)
Furthermore, we read examples in the novel of “objects transformed metaphorically into food” (Kolin). A good example takes place in the chapter called “Trout Fishing in America Terrorists,” where the narrator describes having been called as a child to the principal’s office for misbehavior, “and looking up at the light fixture on the ceiling, how much it looked like a boiled potato" (38). According to Kolin, what Brautigan means here is that “the light of education is neither clear nor creative but as bland and unexciting as the potato, which seems like an appropriate symbol for a shriveled society that propagates conformity” (Kolin).
Another way food symbolism comes into play in Brautigan’s novel is in the opposite, where “food is compared to inedible objects” (Kolin). In other words, “[i]n the absurd world of contemporary America, trout become anything but edible” (Kolin). I love the example that Kolin gives—and truly if I had been paying attention, I should have noticed this one. Brautigan’s narrator says:
We read books like The Thief’s Journal, Set This House on Fire, The Naked Lunch, Krafft-Ebing. We read Krafft-Ebing aloud all the time as if he were Kraft dinner. (93)Actually, that is sort of funny, and it should catch the attention of the reader, as should the narrator’s desire to end the book with the word mayonnaise. That did catch my attention. What was it about that word, I wondered? It piqued my culture ear, so to speak, because I immediately thought of mayonnaise as “white people’s food.” But I figured that unless Brautigan had been Black, he wouldn’t have written about that in the 1960s, and I would guess that Brautigan, who looks (at least in his picture) about as white as me, would not be hip to that significance of mayonnaise unless he had lived to the present. So ending on mayonnaise SHOULD have been my signal to read this book more deeply for food images, and if I were teaching this book, I would have to tell my students that noticing such a clue would be important for a good scholar.
Anyway, in Kolin’s view, mayonnaise is as important as trout in the novel in terms of symbolism because “mayonnaise [...] contrasts with the dying trout and other blighted food” (Kolin). In the chapter, “Trout Fishing on the Street of Eternity” we read of the narrator’s working for an old lady. In return, she makes him lunch: “little egg sandwiches with crusts cut off as by a surgeon and [...] slices of banana dunked in mayonnaise" (80). Kolin argues that “the mayonnaise - soft and white - represents familial security and the loving care for the young narrator who buys it for her. Mayonnaise, therefore, is a symbol of personal though nationally unattainable hope at the end of an otherwise bleak study of America. It evokes fond memories of a generally disappointing childhood across the flotsam of time” (Kolin). Thus, Brautigan’s imagery of food is a key to his satire of American cultural values.
Having read Kolin’s essay carefully and spent a lot of time journaling about it, I can see now how an inexperienced writer on a deadline winds up plagiarizing parts of his or her paper. Nonetheless, I don’t see that the solution is to forbid students from using the internet to do research. That just seems unrealistic. Wouldn’t it make better sense to find a way to make the resources educational rather than pretending that students—and faculty alike—use the riches that are out there?