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.



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).


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.


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.


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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