Brautigan > In Watermelon Sugar

This node of the American Dust website (formerly Brautigan Bibliography and Archive) provides comprehensive information about Richard Brautigan's novel In Watermelon Sugar. Published in 1968, this was Brautigan's third published novel. Publication and background information is provided, along with reviews, many with full text. Use the menu tabs below to learn more.

Publication

Publication information regarding Richard Brautigan's novel In Watermelon Sugar.

First USA Edition

1968
San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation
5.5" x 8.25"; 138 pages; ISBN: 1-131-52372-5
Released simultaneously in a limited edition hardcover and a trade paperback edition with printed wrappers

Limited Edition
50 numbered copies signed by Brautigan
Hard Cover, issued without dust jacket
Blue-gray paper-covered boards; Black cloth spine; Title gilt stamped on spine

Paperback
Facsimile reproduction of the limited edition hardcover
Novel's opening sentence used in lieu of title and author's name
The phrase "Writing 21" on the opening page indicates placement in publisher's writing series edited by Donald Merriam Allen (1912-2004).

Covers

The limited edition hardcover was issued with a dust jacket.
The paperback edition featured a front cover photograph by Edmund Shea of Brautigan and Hilda Hoffman

Hoffman had recently moved to San Francisco from New York. Brautigan wrote the poem "The Virgo Grace of Your Ways Versus This Poem" for Hoffman. The poem was collected in Rommel Drives On Deep into Egypt. The photograph was taken on the stairs leading down from the kitchen of Brautigan's Geary Street apartment by Edmund Shea (William Hjortsberg 378).

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Background

First published in 1968, In Watermelon Sugar was Richard Brautigan's third published novel and, according to Newton Smith, "a parable for survival in the 20th c[entury]. [It] is the story of a successful commune called iDEATH whose inhabitants survive in passive unity while a group of rebels live violently and end up dying in a mass suicide" (Smith 123).

A familiar unnamed first person narrator speaks in a colloquial voice not always conscious of being heard. Another common theme was the sense of solitude and incapacity. Stephen Gaskin speaks of the "strange mythology" of this novel and says, "I knew Brautigan slightly and felt the acid weird in his book" (Gaskin 54).

Dedication

This novel was started May 13, 1964 in a house in Bolinas, California, and was finished July 19, 1964 in the front room at 123 Beaver Street, San Francisco, California. This novel is for Don Allen, Joanne Kyger and Michael McClure.

Donald Merriam Allen (1912-2004) was an editor whose work with Grove Press and Four Seasons Foundation made the most important contribution to enlarging the contemporary American poetry canon. He was the driving force behind the publication of Brautigan's first novels.

Joanne Kyger was a leading figure in the San Francisco poetry circles during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, especially those formed around senior poet Robert Duncan. She recalled that in 1964, while working on the manuscript for this novel, Brautigan called her daily.

"The phenomena of the Beat Generation writers springing into instant fame after publication is on his mind," she said, "and we are sure the same thing will happen to him once he wins the prize. And that life will never be the same for him and we will never have these ordinary conversations again. But he doesn't win the prize and with some embarassment life goes on as usual. He goes on to write In Watermelon Sugar, which he dedicates to me and his other daily phone touchdowns, Don Allen and Michael McClure. His "fame" comes a few years later with the rise of the hippy reader" (Kyger 196-197).

Michael McClure was a poet and playwright who achieved fame in the 1960s when productions of his play "The Beard" were routinely raided by the police on obscenity charges. Of Brautigan, he said, "his dedication to me and Don Allen and Jo Anne [sic] Kyger in In Watermelon Sugar is lovely. Especially so since it is his most perfect book" (McClure 38),

Writing History

According to Brautigan's dedication, the novel was written four years prior to its first publication in 1968, between 13 May and 19 July 1964.

An unpublished notebook of Brautigan's suggests, however, that he began making notes about a fantasy/future world where the sun shone a different color every day and everyone worshiped at a temple called "Ideath" as early as August 1960. In this notebook, Brautigan wrote a possible title: "In Watermelon Sugar," as well as ideas for chapter titles, and a rough sketch for a chapter entitled "A Brief History of the Trout Fly Named the Beautiful Lady of Death."

Early in May 1964, Brautigan wrote ideas for the new novel in a pocket-sized memo notebook. on Wednesday, 13 May, he switched to notebook paper, writing in his earnest longhand the opening paragraph of the novel. From there he incorporated the magical elements of the novel: the tigers, the nameless narrator, the trout, iDEATH, and inBOIL, all originally noted in his memo book.

By the end of June, Brautigan had completed seventeen short chapters for the novel, several a page or less in length. The last chapter he wrote in Bolinas was "Arithmetic," the tale of the talking tigers who ate the narrator's parents.

In July, Brautigan returned to San Francisco, taking up residence at 123 Beaver Street, where he shared a house with poets Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. Brautigan had the front room of the house and enjoyed its marble fireplace and large, Victorian windows. Here he finished the first draft of the novel on Sunday, 19 July, typing the dedication page (see below).

Brautigan took the manuscript to Jack Spicer, hoping he would provide the same guidance and editorial insight he had provided from Brautigan's earlier manuscript, Trout Fishing in America, but Spicer turned him away with explanation. Stung, Brautgan turned to Robin Blaser, a Boston poet who migrated to San Francisco. Brautigan read Blaser his manuscript aloud, and they talked about its imagery, but Blaser did not supply any editorial input.

In September, Brautigan began submitting In Watermelon Sugar to magazines and publishers, hoping for some interest and publication opportunities. Although this new novel was under contractual obligation to Grove Press, Brautigan did not submit a copy there because they had not accepted Trout Fishing in America and he wanted to keep his options open.

Inspiration

Several possible inspirations for the novel are noted. Michael McClure said IDEATH may have been a utopian parable for the artistic/literary community of Bolinas, California where Brautigan wrote this novel. McClure also notes a possible inspiration for the "Forgotten Works" may have been a Sears Department store across from Brautigan's apartment at 2546 Geary Street (Michael McClure 41). Brautigan moved to this typical turn-of-the-century San Francisco apartment in 1965, where he lived until 1975. Moving to this apartment after he had finished writing the novel makes this explanation less than plausible. The view of San Francisco from across the bay in Marin County is suggested as another possible inspiration for the Forgotten Works, as is Brautigan's separation from his first wife, Virginia Alder, on 24 December 1962.

However, by Brautigan's own account in an unpublished notebook, the inspiration came from a visit to Merrill's Drugstore on Saturday, 16 April 1960, where a brandy bottle label reading "IDeath supreamd [sic] California Brandy" caught his attention. ("Supreamd" may be a misspelling of "supreme.") Brautigan noted this found art and used it, later, when he began writing notes for a fantasy/future story that eventually became the novel.

Selected Reprints

Seven Watermelon Suns: Selected Poems of Richard Brautigan. University of California at Santa Cruz, 1974.
Limited Edition of 10 copies
Printed by The Crowell Press
Seven works by Brautigan, each printed as a separate 6" x 8.5" broadside with embossed color etchings by Ellen Meske. Contents included
Title page
A passage from In Watermelon Sugar (pp. 38-39)
"The Fever Monument"
"Cyclops"
"The Nature Poem"
"The Symbol"
"The Harbor"
"The Galilee Hitch-Hiker"

Recordings

In 1970, Brautigan released a record album titled "Listening to Richard Brautigan" that featured him reading poetry, short stories, and selections from some of his novels. One reading was "The Watermelon Sun," from In Watermelon Sugar. LISTEN to Brautigan read "The Watermelon Sun."

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Reviews

Reviews for Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar are detailed below. See also reviews of Brautigan's collected works, and General Reviews for commentary about Brautigan's work and his place in American literature.

Allen, Trevor. "Richard Brautigan." Books & Bookmen Apr. 1973: 141.

Reviews the Picdor edition. The full text of this review reads, "Still more fantasy about people who've rejected hate, violence of old gang, lead gentle lives in watermelon sugar. An allegory not to everyone's taste but individual; a cult among US young."

Anonymous. "Polluted Eden." The Times Literary Supplement [London Times], 14 Aug. 1970, p. 893.

Reviews and compares Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar. Concludes In Watermelon Sugar has the charm of the fairy story it almost is. But it has neither the emotional complexity, nor the imaginative ingenuity, nor the implicit historical and cultural awareness, nor the acute and tough critical-mindedness of Trout Fishing in America. READ this review.

Belinski, P. X. "Belinski on Brautigan." Georgia Straight [Vancouver, BC, Canada], vol. 5, no. 211, 19-22 Oct. 1971, p. 19.

READ this review.

Blakely, Carolyn. "Narrative Technique in Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar." CLA Journal, vol. 35, no. 2, Dec. 1991, pp. 150-158.

READ this review.

Britt, Ryan. "Genre in the Mainstream: Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar. Tor.Com, 14 June 2011.

This column in the blog maintained by science fiction and fantasy publisher Tor Books examines "books and authors from mainstream literary fiction that contain aspects of science fiction, fantasy, horror and other genre elements" with "hopes to be part of the ongoing discussion about serious literature and how it interacts with artistically sound genre fiction." Says, "Brautigan is an author who likes playing word games by demonstrating to us that language itself can be fictionalized." While In Watermelon Sugar contains "language appropriation and an exploration to discover the meanings of words and our desires behind them, there is a quite literal, even if ethereal, fantasy world depicted here."

Goes on to say, "Like many of Brautigan's works, he asserts his absurd premises with almost aggressive casualness. Sounds like a paradox, but it's completely true. If one were to flip through the pages of In Watermelon Sugar each "chapter" appears to be one page, and you might think you'd picked up a collection of poetry, rather than a short novel. But Brautigan has a singular ability to tell a complete and compelling story through a series of small passages, which all on their own are extremely beautiful. If Bradbury had the surrealistic sensibilities of a poet, the towns in Dandelion Wine and In Watermelon Sugar could very well be neighbors. The casual part is that the individual passages of the book look simple and almost child-like. The aggressive part is that these passages contain a weighty story about death, betrayal and love. . . . [While] there may not seem to be anything fantastical about In Watermelon Sugar . . . the simple truth is the act of reading the book does transport the sensibilities of the reader elsewhere. Brautigan doesn't spend a whole lot of time trying to convince you the world of In Watermelon Sugar is real. But the characters and emotions certainly are. Whenever I read this book, I always imagine I've been given an account of a specific incident from an alternate universe. If one could send messages in bottles from alternate universe, I imagine we would often stumble upon ones like this. Where watermelons might not mean watermelon, and tigers might be a different creature all together. All fiction should give us a glimpse into the way an author views his or her own version of the world. It's a special treat when the world being described is so perfectly odd as this one." READ this review.

Coleman, John. "Finny Peculiar." The Observer [London], 26 July 1970, p. 25.

Reviews the Jonathan Cape editions of both Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar. Says, concerning In Watermelon Sugar, "There may be an idea lurking and Mr. Brautigan has a genuine gift for imposing the unexpected, a loner's vision. But this myth, slackly sustained, dismisseth me." READ this review.

Farrell, J. G. "Hair Brained." Spectator [London], 8 Aug. 1970, p. 133.

Reviews The Book of Giuliano Sansevero by Andrea Giovene, The Age of Death by William Leonard Marshall, An Estate of Memory by Ilona Karmel, and Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar by Brautigan.

Says, of Brautigan, "To older generations one of the more baffling aspects of the hippie protest movement is its cult to simplicity. The hard-line hippie has no time for all the laborious qualifications that older folk might want to append to words like "peace" and "love." This in turn leaves the old folk wondering whether the hippie might not have more hair than brains. Richard Brautigan has a good deal of hair (to judge from his photograph), no shortage of brains and an artful simplicity of manner that occasionally recalls Robert Frost, though blended with surreal fantasy.

"The less successful of these two works is In Watermelon Sugar, a fairy story about a town called iDEATH built of watermelon sugar but normal in most other respects and recounting a triangular love affair which ends with a suicide. The simplicity with which it is written conveys a certain grace, but the author's sense of humor is absent and in most respects it is inferior to Boris Vian's masterpiece L'Ecume des Jours which it in some ways resembles. The best of Trout Fishing in America, however, is very good indeed. Consider, for example, this description of schoolboys called in to the headmaster's office to answer for their misdeeds:

"'We reluctantly stamped into the principal's office, fidgeting and pawing our feet and one of us suddenly got an insane blink going and putting our hands into our pockets and looking away and then back again and looking up at the light fixture on the ling, how much it looked like a boiled potato, and down again and at the picture of the principal's mother on the wall. She had been a star in the silent pictures and was tied to a railroad track.'

"This occurs in an anecdote whose charm and polish would not have been out of place in the New Yorker. The most obvious feature of Trout Fishing in America, however, is a soft-spoken anarchy that becomes more powerful as the book proceeds, using trout fishing as a false theme that has less and less relation to anything one might expect from the title. This idea contains a fund of energy but brings with it the danger of whimsy, which Mr. Brautigan has not always managed to avoid. His writing, when he has his imagination under control, however, is frequently splendid and his imagery so supple as to make more conventional writers look hopelessly musclebound."

Foster, Jeffrey M. "Richard Brautigan's Utopia of Detachment." Connecticut Review, vol. 14, no. 1, Spring 1992, pp. 85-91

READ this review.

Furbank, P. N. "Pacific Nursery." The Listener [London], 6 August 1970, pp. 186-187.

Reviews the Jonathan Cape editions of Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar. Says of the books, "it is best to think of them as children's books" and of Brautigan, "His is a most entrancing kind of pop writing, the prettiest of wallpapers for that great nursery by the Pacific." READ this review.

Gillespie, Bruce R. "Rats Reviews." SF Commentary: The Independent Magazine about Science Fiction, May 1974, pp. 52-54.

Reviews the Picador editions of Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar. Published in Melbourne, Australia. Bruce Gillespie, publisher. SF Commentary began publishing in 1969 and continued on an irregular basis. Publication suspended 1981-1989 and 1993-1997. Focuses on science fiction commentary, criticism, history, and book reviews. READ this review.

Hernlund, Patricia. "Author's Intent: In Watermelon Sugar." Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, vol. 16, no. 1, 1974, pp. 5-17.

Presents a sequential "time scheme" to help readers understand the novel's fragmentary structure. Discusses the novel's theme and the evolution of Brautigan's style. READ this review.

Reprinted
Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 5. Edited by Carolyn Riley. Gale Research Company, 1976, pp. 67-72.

Hollinger, Veronica. "Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism." Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction. Edited by Larry McCaffery. Duke University Press, 1991, pp. 202-218.

The full text of the reference to Brautigan reads, "A random survey of postmodernist writing that has been influenced by SF [Science Fiction]—works for which Bruce Sterling ([Crystal Express] 1989) suggests the term "slipstream"—might include, for example, Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar (1968), Monique Wittig's Les Guérillères (1969), Angela Carter's Heroes and Villains (1969), J. G. Ballard's Crash (1973), Russel Hoban's Riddley Walker (1980), Ted Mooney's Easy Travel to Other Planets (1981), Anthony Burgess's The End of the World News (1982), and Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless (1988)."

Hulsman, Noel. "20 Things To Do Before You Die." BC Business, vol. 31, no. 8, Aug. 2003, pp. 17-19, 21-23, 25, 27, 29, 30-33, 35-37.

Interviews twenty Canadians regarding pursuits that can enhance and/or transform peoples' lives. Pursuit number eight, by author W. P. Kinsella, calls for reading five books. The third book on Kinsella's list is Brautigan's novel In Watermelon Sugar. Kinsella says, "It's a completely mysterious book about what may be an alternative world, or maybe it's just some guy on an acid trip, I don't know, but it's very gentle and it's very funny and the language is superb. He is one of the two writers who really influenced me" (25).

Kušnír, Jaroslav. "Diversity of Postmodern Fantasy: Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar and Donald Barthelme's The Dead Father." Paper submitted for PostModerne Produktionen conference, University of Erlangen, Germany, November 23-25 2001.

Kušnír is a faculty member at the University of Prešov, Slovakia. READ the portion of this review related to Brautigan.

Feedback from Jaroslav Kušnír
I highly value your bibliographical work on Brautigan because I still think he is quite a neglected author in the USA.
— Jaroslav Kušnír. Email to John F. Barber, 14 May 2008.

Leavitt, Harvey. "The Regained Paradise of Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar." Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, vol. 16, no. 1, 1974, pp. 18-24.

Says Brautigan is recreating Eden with the novel's narrator as "Adam II." Notes that both the Old Testament and this novel are divided into three sections. READ this review.

Reprinted
Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 5. Edited by Carolyn Riley. Gale Research Company, 1976, pp. 67-72.

Malley, Terence. Richard Brautigan. Warner, 1972.

First printing October 1972. The first critical survey of Brautigan's work through 1971. Chapter 5, "A Delicate Balance," deals with In Watermelon Sugar. Says, "In In Watermelon Sugar, Brautigan shows us that coping with one's life requires strength and a complex act of will. The triumph of the novel, it seems to me, is the way Brautigan diagrams what the narrator calls (in reference to Pauline [a character in the novel]), "strength gained through the process of gentleness (21)" (142). One of several reference books focusing on Brautigan.

Martin III, Edward. "In Watermelon Sugar." Edward Martin III: Book Reviews

Says, "In this place where the sun shines a different color every day, and everything is made from watermelons, the only thing we know for sure is that each person is alive and has a soul and for some, this soul is restless and roaming. It could be about the death of innocence, but in this case, the innocence is so strong that it prevails over death in the end. Now that ought to scare your parents." Part of a website titled "Welcome to the Petting Zoo!" which represents the interests and activities of a group of people living communally in the Pacific Northwest. Martin lists himself as a "freelance writer/creator."

Nilsen, Don L. F. and Allen Pace Nilsen. "An Exploration and Defense of the Humor in Young Adult Literature." Journal of Reading, 26 Oct. 1982, p. 64.

Says humor draws teenage readers to writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, John Irving, Joseph Heller, and Richard Brautigan. Argues that despite the importance of humor, little attention has been paid to what teenagers think is humorous. Reports on a study undertaken by the authors which finds choices by teenage readers "not quite as appalling as we had first thought." The full text of the reference to Brautigan reads, "Richard Brautigan also surprises readers with innocent sounding grossness. For example, he explains the title of his novel [sic] The Pill versus The Springhill Mine Disaster: 'When you take your pill it's like a mine disaster. I think of all the people lost inside you.'"

Recommends, in a note at the end of the article, A Confederate General from Big Sur, In Watermelon Sugar, and The Pill versus The Springhill Mine Disaster as "recommended humorous books."

Rohrberger, Mary. "In Watermelon Sugar." Masterplots II. American Fiction Series. 4 vols. Edited by Frank N. Magill. Salem Press, 1986. Vol. 2, pp. 787-791.

READ this review.

Rohrberger, Mary and Peggy C. Gardner. "Multicolored Loin Cloths, Glass, Trinkets of Words: Surrealism in In Watermelon Sugar." Ball State University Forum, vol. 23, no. 1, Winter 1982, pp. 61-67.

READ this review.

Schäbler, Bernd. "Versuche einer Projektiven Rezeption: 5. Richard Brautigan: In Watermelon Sugar." Amerikanische Metfiction im Kontext der Europäischen Moderne [American Metafiction in the Context of the European Modern]. Giessen: Hoffmann Verlag, 1983. 674-713.

Review from a German perspective.

Schroeder, Michael L. "Rhetorical Depth or Psychological Aberration: The Strange Case of Richard Brautigan." Mount Olive Review, no. 3, Spring 1989, pp. 45-49.

Says that some critics think In Watermelon Sugar and the narrator expresses an affirmative approach to life, while some think it expresses a negative approach. The problem is "how does one explain the presence of a narrator who is disarmingly lyrical and placid while at the same time harboring such ugly traits? Perhaps an answer is provided by a consideration of Brautigan himself, as he is described by those who knew him best." Schroeder then quotes from articles by Peter Manso and Michael McClure and Lawrence Wright and concludes that the narrator of In Watermelon Sugar "shares with Brautigan not only the divided personality and the attempt to project a wholly favorable view of himself, but also several other character flaws: egotism, rudeness, unreliability, and a tendency to demand too much of women, using them largely for his own ego gratification. The narrator in In Watermelon Sugar does not reveal the degree of physical violence that Brautigan did, but his calm acceptance of violent acts suggests him to be little better."

With a nod to rhetorical depth ("Brautigan might be demonstrating more literary sophistication than many readers would give him credit for.") Schroeder asks, "Did Brautigan consciously give his character elements of his own darker side, or did they appear without his being aware of the self-revelation? Whatever the case, the correspondences between the author's faults and his narrator's are too direct to be purely coincidental." READ this review.

Singletary, Taylor. "Of The Coming World: The Forgotten Works In Watermelon Sugar and its Tunnel Music." Everything2, 6 Dec. 2002.

Everything2 is a community publishing environment where members can read and write about any topic of interest. Singletary's essay at the Everything2 website.

Tanner, Tony. "The Dream and the Pen." The Times [London], 25 July 1970: 5G.

Reviews both Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar. READ this review.

Taylor, Justin. "On Brautigan." Lost magazine, no. 17, Sept. 2007.

Subtitled "The ins and outs of Richard Brautigan, and his novel In Watermelon Sugar." Provides a general overview of Brautigan, his works, and In Watermelon Sugar. Says, "In Watermelon Sugar is my favorite Brautigan. I believe it's the best book he wrote." Lost magazine is an online literary magazine, publishing established and emerging writers in each monthly edition. READ this review.

Thomson, George H. "Objective Reporting as a Technique in the Experimental Novel: A Note on Brautigan and Robbe-Grillet." Notes On Contemporary Literature, vol. 8, no. 4, 1978, p. 2.

Says the convention of objective reporting, a narrative style associated with "a certain kind of realism in which ostensibly reality speaks for itself" while the implied author's attention is elsewhere, has "undergone a strange transformation in the experimental novel of recent years. Compares Robbe-Grillet's Le Voyeur and Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar. Concludes "the result is deliberately to subvert the kind of realism originally aspired to by the fictional practitioners of reportorial objectivity." (2) READ this review.

Villar, Raso M. "The Myth as Consumption: Richard Brautigan." Camp de l'Arpa: Magazine of Literature, no. 19, 1975, pp. 23, 25.

READ this review.

Warsh, Lewis. "Out of Sight." Poetry, Mar. 1970, pp. 440-446.

Reviews Stones by Tom Clark, Instructions for Undressing the Human Race by Fernando Alegria, and The Pill versus The Springhill Mine Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar by Brautigan. Says, of In Watermelon Sugar, "[T]he pace . . . is incredibly slow, almost listless: most of the activity seems the cause of something happening outside the persons involved. . . . Like Brautigan's other novels, this one is written in very short sections, so that a single consecutive activity . . . often takes several sections; and this is where the possibilities of transition or pacing take control of the book, for it's just as much how you read—how fast or slow—as what has actually been written that is important, how you let the weight of that simplicity stay in your head." READ this review.

Reprinted
Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 3. Edited by Carolyn Riley. Gale Research Company, 1975, pp. 86-90.

Welch, Lew. "Brautigan's Moth Balanced on an Apple." San Francisco Chronicle, 15 Dec. 1968, This World, pp. 53, 59.

"Those who'd read Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America will be pleased to know that his new book, In Watermelon Sugar, is even better than that, and is even more beautiful" (53). READ this review.

Reprinted
Welch, Lew. How I Work As A Poet & Other Essays. Grey Fox Press, 1983, pp. 22-24.

Williams, Dan. "A World Within: Solipsism and Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar." ***?***.

READ this review.

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