A Confederate General from Big Sur by Richard Brautigan

Monday, September 26, 2011 § 1

Richard Brautigan as Poet/Novelist: Romance in A Confederate General from Big Sur

A Review by 
David Detrich

A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964) by Richard Brautigan is a poetic novel written with the subtle humor of the hippie generation poet from San Francisco, and includes a reading of the Bible by candlelight with a meditation on the rivets in Ecclesiastes. Several romantic relationships form micronarratives when the narrator Jesse gets together with the charming Lee Mellon. The poetic witticisms make this a classic in the Big Sur genre that features nature inspired writing, metaphysical experience, and romance on the California coast. A Confederate General from Big Sur is written in informal prose by a poet from the northwest whose outlook on reality makes this a cool classic.

The novel begins with the Civil War theme of the Confederation versus the Union, and a description of the California coast by the narrator, Jesse, whose urban sense of humor comes from living in San Francisco where he is a connoisseur of muscatel wine.

The Santa Lucia Mountains that thousand-year-old flophouse for mountain lions and lilacs, a hotbed of Secession? The Pacific ocean along there, that million-year-old skid row for abalone and kelp, sending representatives back to the Confederate Congress in Richmond, Virginia?
                                                           A Confederate General
                                                           from Big Sur
                                                           Richard Brautigan

The Civil War theme is relevant today now that we are experiencing disturbances in the present decade from a future conflict. Richard Brautigan hints at this future upheaval in the letters which form the Letters and Arrival chapter of the novel, a time when the country is "reduced to nothing but anarchy and tatters," and with "a rather torn landscape."

Jesse gets together with Lee Mellon, who plays the romantic hero at breakfast, and he tells the waitress:

     "I'll give you a dollar for a kiss," Lee Mellon said while she was giving him the change for ten dollars.    
     "Sure," she said, without smiling or being embarassed, or acting out of the way or anything. It was just as if the Dollar Lee Mellon Kissing Business were an integral part of her job.
     Lee Mellon gave her a great big kiss. Neither one of them cracked, opened or celebrated a smile. 
                                                          A Confederate General 
                                                          from Big Sur
                                                          Richard Brautigan

In the Letters and Arrival chapter Lee Mellon writes to Jesse who is thinking of visiting Big Sur.

Great! Why don't you come down here. I have'nt got any clothes on, and I just saw a whale! There's plenty of room for everybody. Bring something to drink. Whiskey!
As always, Lee Mellon
                                                           A Confederate General 
                                                           from Big Sur
                                                           Richard Brautigan

Jesse introduces the character Cynthia to Lee Mellon in a letter, which may be a subtle allusion to my own novel-in-progress The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, where the waterfall with red hair impresses the characters with a similar plot line, showing a compatible development of style with the poetic prose of the innovative novel.

     The girl and I are patching things up. These last few days have been delightful. Perhaps I'll bring her down with me when I go to Big Sur. 
     Her name is Cynthia. I think you'd really like her.
     By the way your last letter shows strong evidence of a budding literary style. 
                            Yours Jesse, 
                                                           A Confederate General 
                                                           from Big Sur
                                                           Richard Brautigan

There are numerous literary allusions in A Confederate General from Big Sur, and Jesse seems to have the sensitivity of a poet. We see him reading the Russians, making allusions to William Carlos Williams, The Journal of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen, and describing a young woman who "talked about painters of genius like Vincent Van Gogh." 

A man needs the proper atmosphere to read the Russians. There are four houses down here and only one Lee Mellon. This morning I saw a coyote walking through the sagebrush right at the very edge of the oceannext stop China.
                                                           A Confederate General 
                                                           from Big Sur
                                                           Richard Brautigan

A Confederate General from Big Sur was reviewed in Playboy, with insight into the "lovable eccentric characters," who meet "callgirls with hearts of gold," in a novel that is considered Surrealist by the reviewer.

They are thus self-evidently, sensitive, superior beings. There are purportedly odd adventures, lovable eccentric characters... callgirls with hearts of gold and other parts to match, all seen from the heights of middle adolescence.
                                                           Books March 1965

In Big Sur the narrator Jesse is reading the Bible in a cabin by candlelight. His interpretation is eccentric and original,

     I was of course reading Ecclesiastes at night in a very old Bible that had heavy pages. At first I read it over and over again every night, and then I read it once every night, and then I began reading just a few verses every night, and now I was just looking at the punctuation marks. 
     Actually I was counting them, a chapter every night. I was putting the number of punctuation marks down in a notebook, in neat columns. I called the notebook "The Punctuation Marks in Ecclesiastes." I thought it was a nice title. I was doing it as a kind of study in engineering.
                                                            A Confederate General 
                                                            from Big Sur 
                                                            Richard Brautigan

A Confederate General from Big Sur by Richard Brautigan is an American historical novel which was published two years after Big Sur (1962) by Jack Kerouac, and is a meditation on the significance of the Civil War from a future perspective. The novel has several mini-narratives which include romantic relationships, as Jesse and Lee Mellon enjoy their visit to a cabin with glass windows and a view of the Pacific. A Confederate General from Big Sur is written with the humor and informal prose of a 1960s poet from San Francisco.

David Detrich lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he has just completed The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, an ultramodern Surrealist novel written in minimal squares. This year he is working on Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental Surrealist novel written with innovative typographical design. His first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) is available from Amazon. He is the editor of Innovative Fiction Magazine and Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations.

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§ 1 Response to “ A Confederate General from Big Sur by Richard Brautigan ”

  • Excellent review of a great, underappreciated, important American writer. The Japanese have it right about him: Haruki Murakami cites him as an influence. Must read criticism of Brautigan, one of the first to take him seriously. Malley, Terence. Richard Brautigan. New York: Warner Paperback Library, 1972.
    206 pages; ISBN 0-446-68942-4; First printing Oct. 1972
    Volume 2 of the Writers for the Seventies series, critical examinations of influential authors popular during the 1960s, including Kurt Vonnegut, Hermann Hesse, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Brautigan.
    The first thorough critical survey of Brautigan's work through 1971.
    Includes plot summaries and critical evaluations.

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