Brad Hayden's essay on 'Trout Fishing in America'
Flash player not available.

Click on the covers for more information on the different editions, including their availability.
If you cannot view the image, download the most recent version of Flash Player(external link)

Echoes of Walden in Trout Fishing in America

by Brad Hayden?

In Trout Fishing in America Richard Brautigan describes a visit to the "Cleveland Wrecking Yard?." The narrator of the novel enters this establishment, located across the street from an abandoned "Time Gasoline" filling station and a deserted "fifty-cent self-service" car wash, and says:

"I'm curious about the trout stream you have for sale. Can you tell me something about it?"

"We're selling it by the foot length. You can buy as little as you want or you can buy all we've got left. A man came in here this morning and bought 563 feet. He's going to give it to his niece for a birthday present."

The fact of this sale, while not literally plausible, is real in a symbolic context: America sizing up its trout streams in a materialistic fashion; feverishly prostituting nature for cold, hard cash. In Brautigan's novel the trout stream is a central metaphor for the shrinking American wilderness and the social values which are associated with it. The narrator of Brautigan's novel seeks a pastoral life in nature but does not succeed; his search ends in frustration and disillusionment. Enroute he comments upon social and personal values in America with an equal sense of despair.

Brautigan's method, looking at society through nature, is not new. A number of literary artists and philosophers in various ages have done the same — the most notable of whom is probably Henry David Thoreau. Indeed, similarities between Thoreau's Walden(external link) and Brautigan's novel are very striking both in the form their arguments take, as well as in the arguments themselves.

Both works are written as first person narratives. Each reflects upon experiences in nature which conveniently span one year's time, and consequently, both have (in Charles B. Anderson's words on Walden) "sought an asymmetrical pattern that would satisfy the esthetic sense of form and still remain true to the nature of experience, art without the appearance of artifice." (MCW, p.18).

On a surface level, Brautigan's work appears to be a series of disjunctured ramblings (interestingly enough, the same criticism was made of Thoreau by his early critics) with no apparent form. Yet like Walden various levels of structure do appear to serious readers. The most obvious is that structure of a year's quest. It begins with the narrator's search for an amiable trout stream and terminates with the last chapters commenting upon the disappearance of nature in America. The work ends with the narrator and his family having decided to live in a friend's cabin in California.

A similar structure is also found in Brautigan's treatment of the narrator's maturation into manhood and the loss of innocence through knowledge. The narrator's personal growth parallels the picture of nature he presents. The wilderness, which represents a kind of innocence, is fouled by society, while the narrator's boyhood idealism turns into disillusionment. By using flashbacks of past life in the one-year narrative, the two levels of experience complement one another. Thoreau, of course, does much the same in his "digressions" in Walden. He uses his discussions of his more metaphysical concerns to color his commentary on nature. Brautigan's method in handling nature is also similar to Hemingway's?. Like Jake Barnes fishing the mountains of Spain in The Sun Also Rises, Brautigan's narrator seeks through nature a means of communing with the surrounding world. Neither of the characters is highly successful.

Again, Charles B. Anderson in his discussion of Thoreau's narrative writes: "To read [Walden] as a poem is to assume that its meaning resides not in its logic but in its language, its structure of images, its symbolism — and is inseparable from them" (MCW, p.17). The same holds true for Brautigan. Trout Fishing in America conveys its thematic message through a series of short episodes concerned with the materialistic wasting away of the American wilderness and the decay of personal morality. Like Thoreau among the ponds surrounding Concord, Brautigan's narrator sojourns through the wilderness of Idaho hoping to find idyllic meaning in a primitive natural order, to be "part and particle" of the organic harmony between fish and stream, animal and forest. This then is related through episodes describing direct natural experience of nature: And within this naturalist order is intertwined, in a Walden-like manner seemingly at random, episodes which deal with society and the narrator's personal level of awareness of the world surrounding him. For example, in one of the beginning chapters, "Another Method for Making Walnut Catsup?," the concept of trout fishing in America is personified as a rich gourmet. In this chapter this character "trout fishing in America" and his girlfriend, Maria Callas?, prepare exotic, yet homemade, dishes together in the moonlight, "on a marble table with beautiful candles" (TFA, p.16). At first a reader might be taken back. What does this chapter have to do with the book's structural order, why is it there? One reason is found in the chapter's ritualistic use of language — the language of recipes and of cause and effect. The primary connotations of such language concerns order: follow the prescribed steps and the desired result will always be attained. And, by introducing Maria Callas, a glamorous and famous woman, the scene takes on the added connotations of the American Dream: follow the prescribed steps and success will naturally follow. The concept of formula is stressed and a kind of ordering is presented; Maria Callas then smiles and the moonlight comes out. Thoreau does the same in Walden through his early presentation of the ordered life. He certainly does not have a character comparable to Maria Callas but from the recipe for financial living which is presented in Walden's opening chapter "Economy" to the final rebirth of spring in the work's latter stages, Thoreau too definitely stresses order and harmony. As James McIntosh points out in his study of Walden in Thoreau as Romantic Naturalist:

Thoreau has taken pains to present this memory not only as a well-structured combination of the ideal and the natural, but also as a particular experience...

The tendency for one who aspires to romantic illumination ... is to neglect the natural and objective for the ideal and celestial ... [But] Thoreau resists any impulse to move from "the nostalgia for the object" to the nostalgia for the beyond; he insists on feeling both, in equilibrium.

Brautigan's chapter on recipes structurally parallels another early chapter, "The Kool-Aid Wino," except in this chapter the ritualistic ceremony becomes a small boy's making of Kool-aid. Again the process may be interpreted as an attempt by the character to define a coherent lifestyle through the repetition of acts "When we got back to my friend's house," the narrator recollects, "the ceremony began. To him the making of Kool-aid was a romance and a ceremony. It had to be performed in an exact manner and with dignity" (TFA, p.14). The boy compensates for the poverty of his surroundings (both in a materialistic as well as a spiritual sense) through an arbitrary, yet to him appealing, act. He then adds meaning to this act through the magic of repetition. In Walden Thoreau in a similar manner appoints himself the "inspector of snowstorms," (W, p.18). Just as meaningfully this boy in Trout Fishing in America appoints himself the maker of Kool-aid.

The prescriptive language of a recipe is a central aspect of Thoreau's most famous work. From the practical details of baking bread without yeast, to anticipating "not [just] the sunrise and the dawn merely, but, if possible nature herself" (W, p.17), the author is concerned with order, repetition and ceremony. Thoreau makes the self in nature the cause and transcendence the effect. He is the metaphysical Baker of Transcendent bread. He uses his "self" for the meal and leaves out the yeast of society. Brautigan's youthful wino leaves out the sugar from his concoction; he too prefers his straight.

The basic structure of Walden leads to transcendence, from the climactic reflection of the heavens in the waters of Walden pond to nature's, and Henry David's, renewal and rebirth with the coming of spring. The structure of Brautigan's novel, however, leads to frustration. Instead of achieving his desired unity with nature, Brautigan's narrator finds disjunction. The major significant difference between Trout Fishing in America and Walden is that in Brautigan's story there is no personal transcendence. Yet, this brings out the logical question, if the methods are similar, why is the end result not the same?

The answer lies in the physical reality of Walden's nature in contrast to its theory of nature. That is, such critics as Anderson have noted the importance of the proximity of Concord to Walden pond. Thoreau in theory was able to merge himself in the wilderness despite the society which enveloped it. But the fact does remain that in his southwesterly walks Thoreau did face an essentially unexploited continent in America. A virgin wilderness may not have existed around Concord, but it did hypothetically exist for Thoreau in America's western regions.

For Brautigan's narrator no such conceptual nature exists. Indeed, the most significant aspect of the work is that for the narrator such nature does not in reality have substance. Even though the primary level of description concerns the narrator's direct experience with nature, time after time he journeys into the wilderness and is frustrated.

Two preliminary chapters, "Knock on Wood, Parts One and Two" establish this idea with the reader. Part One? introduces the narrator's idealized nature when the personified trout fishing in America says: "I remember with particular amusement, people with three-cornered hats fishing in the dawn" (TFA, p.5). The connotation here is of a Ben Franklin America, a time in America's past which looked optimistically to the future in which nature and Yankee common sense were the order of the day. Brautigan alludes to this past throughout the novel: much of the action occurs in San Francisco's Washington Square Park? under the gaze of a statue of Franklin, and when the narrator himself meets the personified trout fishing in America, the chapter concerns the travels of Lewis and Clark fishing in Montana in the early nineteenth century.

In Part Two? the narrator describes his first boyish adventure into the natural world:

^At a distance I saw a waterfall come pouring down off the hill. It was long and white and I could almost feel its cold spray. There must be a creek there, I thought, and it probably has trout in it. Trout. (TFA, p.6)

But upon approaching the envisioned trout stream the narrator as a boy has his first experience with frustration:

But as I got closer to the creek I could see that something was wrong. The creek did not act right. There was something about the motion that was wrong. Finally I got close enough to see what the trouble was.

The waterfall was just a flight of white wooden stairs leading up to a house in the trees. (TFA, p.6)^
The other episodes directly involving nature in the work parallel this same basic motif: as the narrator matures, he repeatedly attempts to commune with nature but is repeatedly thwarted. A somewhat overlapping example of the mature narrator's frustration occurs in the chapter "Trout Death by Port Wine." Here the narrator and a friend are fishing. The narrator succeeds in catching a small rainbow trout, but the experience is perverted when his companion destroys the fish by giving it a drink of port wine. The narrator is disturbed by the unnaturalness of the act. After cataloguing examples of the natural ways in which trout die (ranging from being eaten by birds to suffocating in a polluted stream) the narrator concludes: "All these things are in the natural order of death, but for a trout to die from a drink of port wine, that is another thing" (TFA, p.44). The thematic point of the chapter then is similar to what Thoreau says in Walden: "We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected... He [the hunter or fisherman] goes thither [into nature] at first as a hunter and fisher, until at last, if he has the seeds of a better life in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fish-pole behind" (W, p.212). Brautigan's narrator is not disturbed by the killing of the fish per se; death is an inherent part of the organic process of nature. What is upsetting is the wanton manner in which the fish is killed. For a fish to die by drinking wine is not part of the organic process even though it might provide flavor. The reverence which the narrator holds for nature is interrupted by his companion's act and is turned into a burlesque.

Society itself occupies a greater role in Brautigan's narrative than in Thoreau's and is used as an essential manifestation of Brautigan's novel failing to achieve satisfaction in nature. The mentality and values of the society Brautigan describes accounts for the narrator's failure to find the pastoral life. Of course, the interpretations of experience which Thoreau and Brautigan employ are different. To Thoreau experience is seen on a cosmic and metaphysical level: man achieving a synthesis between himself and the natural world which in turn unifies him with what Ralph Waldo Emerson identified as the "over-soul." Brautigan is less concerned with man's position with the cosmos than he is with man's position in society itself. Trout Fishing in America is basically social criticism of our contemporary American society. And while Thoreau certainly criticizes society in Walden, his emphasis is upon the individual ascension of man into universality.

In his discussion of society without reference to wilderness, Brautigan creates two scenes that emphasize the social criticism. The first again deals with the narrator as a boy. In the chapter "Sea, Sea Rider?" the narrator recounts a sexual experience he had with a woman previously unknown to him while her escort watched unconcerned. Later the old man who acts as go-between for the boy and the woman comments upon the event. Two important concepts are thus dramatized: the narrator's introduction at a youthful age to an experience which is ideally supposed to be an intimate interaction between two human beings but which in reality turns out to be cold and mechanical; and secondly, the old man's romantic interpretation of the happening as an almost transcendent experience. This scene presents once more the discrepancies the narrator encounters between the world he desires and the world as it in fact exists. In what should at least be some kind of emotional experience, an emotional exchange between the woman and boy is non-existent. And, when the bookstore owner fantasizes about the romantic nature of what had happened, the resultant irony takes on tragic dimensions. Brautigan's narrator again chases after idealized experience but never really finds it.

The other notable scene, or rather three scenes, involving society and the narrator's interpretation of it concerns the character Trout Fishing in America Shorty. This character represents the degeneration of the earlier personified trout fishing in America, who by this time in the novel has symbolically passed away. Trout Fishing in America Shorty is characterized as a "legless, screaming middle-aged wino" who staggers around San Francisco in a "chrome-plated steel wheelchair" (TFA, p.69). Shorty, a panhandler, reaches success by commercializing upon his deformities in "new wave" cinema. He consequently represents the spirit of trout fishing in America capitalized upon and perverted for financial gain — the optimistic spirit of Franklinesque America having become corrupt. The narrator is all too familiar with Shorty and the life he represents.

Brautigan's final commentary on life in contemporary America is pessimistic to say the least; it's certainly not like Thoreau's commentary in the final stages of Walden, which ends optimistically. Thoreau is successful in achieving his dream, whereas Brautigan's narrator is not. Yet all is not hopeless in Brautigan's world. Mention is made periodically throughout the book of "Trout Fishing in America Terrorists;" persons who oppose the society and, like Thoreau, live according to the dictates of conscience rather than those of social law. Brautigan's narrator too is not crushed by the world he views. Like Thoreau, he moves on looking forward to live new lives in the future.

Thoreau Journal Quarterly? 8.3
July 1976: 21-26

Copyright note: My purpose in putting this material on the web is to provide Brautigan scholars and fans with ideas for further research into Richard Brautigan's work. It is used here in accordance with fair use guidelines. No attempt is made regarding commercial duplication and/or dissemination. If you are the author of this article or hold the copyright and would like me to remove your article from the Brautigan Archives, please contact me at birgit at cybernetic-meadows.net.