If you Google “Allen Ginsberg and Richard Brautigan,” you won’t find many relevant search results. There is nothing, in fact, to suggest that these writers were anything but contemporaries, vaguely aware of one another and perhaps collected in a few of the same volumes.
Indeed, it is true that they were not close friends, nor were they part of any shared literary movement. There are no letters (that I can find) between the two men and, despite the efforts of some fans to argue the point, there is no way that one could reasonably categorise Brautigan as a Beat poet.
However, as poets and countercultural icons, living in or passing through San Francisco around the same time, their paths did cross quite often and there is more to their relationship than a cursory Google search would suggest. In fact, it was oddly complex – a somewhat friendly yet occasionally antagonistic acquaintanceship.
Based upon my research into their lives, much of which came from Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan by William Hjortsberg, the following is the best summary I could assemble of the crossing paths of two great American writers.
Richard Brautigan was born nearly a decade after Allen Ginsberg and on the opposite side of America. One could compare their backgrounds and temperaments and artistic propensities, but for the purposes of this summary, the first connection between the two men occurred in August, 1956, when Brautigan moved to San Francisco for the first time. This was less than a year after the Six Gallery Reading at which Ginsberg had read “Howl,” becoming somewhat of a local literary celebrity.
Whether or not Brautigan knew of Ginsberg at this point is unclear, but as a poet and a voracious reader, it is likely. Upon arriving in San Francisco, he headed straight to City Lights and perused the shelves there, eager to check out the local poetry scene. Ferlinghetti spotted him then, calling him “that weird poet” and quipping, “There’s a guy who really hates his mother.”
If he hadn’t already known of Ginsberg, Brautigan certainly learned about him at The Place, where he hung out with other young hipsters and gossiped about the Beat writers. They discussed the poetry of Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, and the scandal of Robert Creeley stealing Kenneth Rexroth’s wife. Despite being painfully shy, Brautigan became a part of the North Beach scene, befriending many poets, some of whom knew Ginsberg, such as Michael McClure and Joanne Kyger.
Their first meeting happened at a party thrown by Robert Stock in the autumn of ’56. It was at least partly a poetry reading and the tall, taciturn poet took the stage to read a few of his works. Ginsberg watched alongside Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso. None of them were impressed by the newcomer. “They didn’t take him seriously,” one person remembered. Worse, Ginsberg nicknamed Brautigan “Frood” and, behind his back, referred to him as a “neurotic creep.”
Despite his cruel and childish insults, Ginsberg does not appear to have entirely disliked Brautigan. A little after the party, perhaps in September of that year, Ginsberg and Philip Whalen were walking along a street, deep in conversation, when they bumped into Brautigan. This time, Brautigan was the more dismissive of the two. Whalen recalled that he “was busy going someplace and went on by” but that Ginsberg managed to stop him briefly and introduce him to his friend. There was no rudeness evident then – just Allen’s usual interest in connecting poets.
Ginsberg left San Francisco in October but remained a local celebrity, his fame growing during and after the “Howl” trial. Naturally, this was something Brautigan discussed at length with his friends. Brautigan was also quite taken by the second issue of Evergreen Review. Focused on the “San Francisco Scene,” it featured Ginsberg alongside other Beat names, such as Ferlinghetti, McClure, Whalen, Snyder, and Jack Kerouac. Whether or not he enjoyed Beat writing, he certainly felt glad to have chosen to live in a city with such a vibrant poetic community.
Brautigan’s own writing came along in leaps and bounds whilst living in San Francisco and, on May 9th, 1959, he was published alongside Ginsberg in the first issue of Bob Kaufman’s journal, Beatitude. His contribution was “The Whorehouse at the Top of Mount Rainier” and Ginsberg’s was “Hymn from Kaddish.” They would appear together later that month in Beatitude #4, with Ginsberg contributing “Letter from Paris” and Brautigan “The American Submarine.” In September, they would also be found in Beatitude #9 with Brautigan including his “Swandragons” and Ginsberg “The Golden Light.” Both were included in 1960’s Beatitude Anthology. Ginsberg was listed on the “Bored of Directors.”
1960 also saw the publication of landmark collection, The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, edited by Donald Allen. The Beats were well represented here, and Ginsberg had no fewer than eight of his works included. “There was much consternation among the Frisco poets over who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out,’” writes William Hjortsberg in Jubilee Hitchhiker, but one of the few poets who did not seem to care with Richard Brautigan. For the time being at least, he was happy to be an independent spirit, part of no poetic group.
While Ginsberg was rapidly becoming the most famous poet alive, Brautigan was still doing small readings, hand printing poems, and engaging in other bohemian activities. His poetry was adapted by a dance troupe and so he wrote another work that he felt would function as a ballet. He explained to a friend that the piece, entitled “Poetry, Etc.” was “about a man who has a great liking for poetry [and so] he decides to take the plumbing out of his house and replace it with poetry.” Hjortsberg notes that, “In a sly dig, Allen Ginsberg replaced the toilet.” I was unable to dig up a copy of this, but it appears to have been rewritten as “Homage to the San Francisco YMCA” (a poetic short story included in Revenge of the Lawn (1971)) as thematically it is the same and even some lines are barely changed: “Poetry cannot perform the functions of plumbing,” for example, becomes “poetry could not replace plumbing.” Here, Allen Ginsberg is not included; instead, Brautigan writes: “Finally he took out his toilet and put in the minor poets.” Has Ginsberg been spared this insult, or was he in Brautigan’s mind one of those “minor poets”?
Despite initially appearing to dislike Brautigan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was very impressed by Trout Fishing in America and included three chapters of it in the first edition of City Lights Journal (1963). Here, Brautigan again appeared alongside Ginsberg, who contributed “In India.” A photo of Ginsberg graced the cover and one of Brautigan appeared inside. Also featured were Beat writers Kerouac, McClure, Snyder, and William S. Burroughs. The process of getting his manuscript to Ferlinghetti and other publishers exhausted Brautigan, who quipped, “I’m beat.”
Presumably, he did not mean “beat” as in the literary movement, for he considered himself entirely distinct from them. He may have been part of the San Francisco scene and the wider counterculture, but he did not identify as a Beat and it is hard to see how anyone could. Indeed, on a Guggenheim application letter, he addressed this:
I was a little disappointed over a critical reaction that tended to associate [Confederate General from Big Sur] with the work of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, etc. I did not write my novel in an effort to imitate those writers. Their values and goals are of course valid and have illuminated areas of the Twentieth Century experience, but they are not my values and goals.
Elsewhere, Brautigan, who happily changed facts about his past whenever it suited him, even distanced himself from the Beats by pretending to have arrived in San Francisco at a different time. Despite having come to the city shortly after the Six Gallery Reading, he claimed to have arrived “after the Beat thing had died down.”
As the title of Ginsberg’s contribution to City Lights Journal #1 indicated, he had been in India for some time. However, by late 1965 he was back in San Francisco and invited to Richard Brautigan’s Halloween party. Hjortsberg reports that he showed up in white Indian pyjamas – not exactly a Halloween costume! (One guest quipped, “Allen Ginsberg came as Allen Ginsberg.”) Brautigan, meanwhile, was in his underpants, with McClure, Kyger, and Donald Allen also in attendance, and The Fugs providing music.
A year later, Ginsberg and Brautigan were photographed together outside City Lights Bookstore by Larry Keenan and others. One photo was used for the cover of City Lights Journal #3, but Brautigan did not contribute to this edition. The photo, however, would make it harder for him to deny the claim that he was not a member of the Beat Generation.
In 1967, Brautigan again invited Allen Ginsberg to a party. This time it was a benefit reading for a bar called Deno & Carlo. In fact, the benefit was supposedly for community-action group, The Diggers, but the host was Deno & Carlo and they badly needed the business. Brautigan, upon hearing of their financial difficulties, asked, “You ever hear of Allen Ginsberg […] I’m gonna get him here tomorrow night, and there’ll be people lined up around the block.”
The owner had not, in fact, heard of Allen Ginsberg, but welcomed the money an apparently famous name would bring. Brautigan drew up posters by hand and invited not just Ginsberg by Snyder, Lew Welch, and Lenore Kandel. On January 12th, they read to a crowd of one hundred people. Ginsberg passed a hat around to gather donations for The Diggers, but founder Emmett Grogan refused and passed the hat to the bartender, telling him to use it to buy everyone in the place a drink.
The following evening, an oddly named “Meet My Television Set” party included Brautigan, Ginsberg, Snyder, Orlovsky, and some members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. Brautigan walked around entirely in the nude, allowing Snyder to use his penis as a swizzle stick. It is unclear whether or not Ginsberg kept his clothes on, but he was certainly no stranger to removing them at parties.
The next day was the Human Be-in, where Ginsberg, Snyder, Kandel, Ferlinghetti, and McClure all performed at the iconic event. Brautigan, despite having achieved some measure of countercultural fame by this point, was not invited and simply wandered around. It was a familiar feeling. Brautigan’s close friend, Keith Abbott, wrote in his memoir, Downstream from Trout Fishing in America:
…when Richard found his audience in the Haight and his work began to be bought by more and more people, he was still not considered important by the North Beach establishment of writers. The first big poetry readings and “Be-ins” were held in late 1966, and the stars were North Beach poets. Michael McClure strummed his autoharp, Ginsberg chanted mantras, and Gary Snyder dispensed spiritual and ecological advice. Brautigan was not included even as an opening act.
Still, he was appreciated by some. Both Ginsberg and Brautigan were invited by David Meltzer to read at the Underground Art Celebration: 1945-1968 but Meltzer did not recall Brautigan actually showing up. Both poets were also included (anonymously) in The Digger Papers in 1968, alongside Snyder, Burroughs, Welch, Corso, and Neil Cassidy (sic), and both were recorded by Barry Miles for The Beatles’ Zapple Records label.
When Miles arrived in San Francisco to record Listening to Richard Brautigan, he headed for the poet’s home, known at The Museum. In his book, In the Sixties, Miles introduces Brautigan and then explains that “Allen Ginsberg had always dismissed his work as shallow and contrived, and used to call him ‘Bunthorne’ behind his back – a reference to Reginald Bunthorne, the aesthete in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience.” Keith Abbott, who was present for that first meeting, elaborated on this nickname:
Bunthorne is a synonym for a precious and winsome poet who indulges in ‘idle chatter of a transcendental kind.’ This was apt, given that Brautigan’s early poems were perfect Bunthorne productions, concocted of brief whimsical thoughts of a metaphorical and ephemeral nature. His public Bunthorne persona as a poet often exposed Brautigan to ridicule – of which Ginsberg’s was perhaps the kindest among his North Beach mentors.
Brautigan’s biographer, William Hjortsberg, perhaps a little defensive of his subject, noted that Miles had referred to Brautigan’s work as possessing a “whimsical, almost precious, innocence” – a grave insult. He claims that Miles did not understand Brautigan’s poetry because he was “unduly influenced by Ginsberg [and so] missed the point completely.” However, in Zapple Diaries, Miles seems to refute this, suggesting that his interest in Brautigan was pure and unadulterated by Ginsberg’s criticisms. He writes that he had had a great deal of communication with Brautigan prior to his trip and he does appear to have had more appreciation for Brautigan’s work than Hjortsberg suggests.
In spite of his apparently negative and bitchy attitude towards Brautigan, it appears that Ginsberg still had some positive feelings for him because, prior to his 1972 trip to Australia, he stopped by Brautigan’s apartment. Here, he gave a small reading to an audience of fifteen young men until he was interrupted by the news that Shig Murao had been arrested. When Ginsberg was informed of this, he abandoned the reading and used his travel money to bail Murao out. At the police station, he signed autographs for various policemen as Brautigan wandered off into the night.
From here on out, it appears that the two men had little to do with one another. In the 1970s, Ginsberg mentioned Brautigan in at least a few lectures, but only as a devotee of Jack Spicer. Spicer, Ginsberg failed to note, despised the Beats and considered Ginsberg’s poetry “crap.” He also mentioned him as a friend of David Meltzer, and perhaps this explains Ginsberg’s attitude towards the younger writer – that he was little more than a fringe player in the writing community; a poseur rather than a true artist. Perhaps they were just too different in temperament, style, and vision to really appreciate one another. Brautigan, for his part, strongly disapproved of Ginsberg’s involvement at Naropa for reasons political, personal, and artistic. For one thing, he thought the name “Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics” was laughably pretentious.
It is a shame that Ginsberg did not appreciate Brautigan’s work, but his opinion is hardly unique. At the peak of his fame in 1969, Brautigan outsold all of his Beat peers, according to Ferlinghetti. However, whilst the Beats underwent a resurrection, eventually becoming viewed as one of the most significant literary movements of the 20th century, Brautigan fell out of favour. He had been pigeonholed perhaps unfairly as a “hippie writer” and, when that movement ended, he was first attacked and then forgotten. Unlike the Beats, the hippies were seen as mere superficial psychedelia lacking in intellectual clout. Ferlinghetti, who had apparently admired Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America and profited from his book sales, later sneered at him and his readers: “I guess Richard was all the novelist the hippies needed. It was a non-literate age.”
Or maybe it was because even Brautigan wasn’t an outright hippie – he was his own man, his own artist. “Ironically,” Abbott writes, “his first four novels were written before the hippie phenomenon, and the relationship between the two was an act of chronology.” He lacked that Beat peer group and he lacked the ability to market himself and his work. Shy, sensitive, and prone to bouts of depression, he was perhaps more like Kerouac than Ginsberg – and equally as doomed. Both of them were misunderstood and ill-equipped to deal with fame, forced into the position of being a reluctant spokesperson for a generation. Whilst Kerouac drank himself to death annoyed by critics and fans alike, Brautigan was simply forgotten as the world moved on. After years of depression, he shot himself in 1984. It was more than a month before anyone even found his corpse.
Five years after Brautigan’s suicide, Todd Lockwood founded the Brautigan Library, a facility intended to hold unpublished books. It was a quirky and fitting memorial to the man whose novel, The Abortion, featured this same comical notion. Lockwood wrote to Ginsberg, asking if he would like to be an “Advisory Trustee.” He stressed that this would take almost no time and that it would involve just the occasional letter to provide his “creative input.” Ginsberg declined. On Lockwood’s letter, he noted “too much already,” likely signalling that he was too occupied with other activities to help. But it also shows how unimportant Brautigan was in his eyes, for Ginsberg would go to extraordinary lengths for anyone he considered worthy. By 1989, Brautigan was likely just a guy he’d known – and bullied – a few decades before. He was not someone who warranted his time, even in death.
Abbott, Keith, Downstream from Trout Fishing in America: A Memoir of Richard Brautigan (Capra Press: Santa Barbara, 1989)
Barber, John F., Richard Brautigan: Essays on the Writings and Life (MacFarland & Company: Jefferson, 2007)
Hjortsberg, William, Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan (Counterpoint: Berkeley, 2012)
Miles, Barry, In the Sixties (Rocket 88: London, 2017)
Miles, Barry, Zapple Diaries: The Rise and Fall of the Last Beatles Label (Elephant Books: New York, 2016)
Tanner, John, Landscapes of Language: The Achievement and Context of Richard Brautigan’s Fiction (HEB: Penrith, 2013)
 Jubilee Hitchhiker, Kindle Edition, No Page Number
 As an interesting sidenote, Neil Schiller, in “The Historical Present: Notions of History, Time and Cultural Lineage in the Writing of Richard Brautigan” oddly categorises this short story as an example of Brautigan’s Beat (particularly Ginsbergian) style. He does not appear to have noted the original inclusion of Ginsberg, however.
 Jubilee Hitchhiker, Kindle Edition, No Page Number
 Language of Landscapes, p.21
 Richard Brautigan, p. 142
 Jubilee Hitchhiker, Kindle Edition, No Page Number
 In the Sixties, p.327
 Qtd in Richard Brautigan, p.194
 Qtd in Jubilee Hitchhiker, Kindle Edition, No Page Number
 Zapple Diaries, p.135
 Landscapes of Language, p.19
 Landscapes of Language, p.10
 Landscapes of Language, p.20
 Downstream from Trout Fishing, p.148
 Unpublished letter
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