Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Novelist Richard Brautigan's Brains At Bancroft Library: A Grand Guignol Adventure!

by Stephen J. Gertz

The Bancroft Library.

The papers of 'Sixties Counterculture novelist and poet Richard Brautigan, who, in 1984, committed suicide at his desk with a gunshot to the head, rest in the The Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley.

Poet J.J. Phillips, while working in the manuscript division at the Bancroft, rough-sorted Brautigan's papers when the library acquired them. She had no idea that latex gloves and surgical mask would be appropriate to the task.

"I know you know that Brautigan blew his brains out, literally blew his mind," she wrote to poet, novelist and essayist Andrei Codrescu at Exquisite Corpse.  "What you might not be aware of is that he blew his brains out all over pages of his last manuscript... I handled them, archived them, ran my hands over his desiccated brain matter on numerous occasions, though at first I had no idea what I was touching because the Library said nothing and even denied what became all too apparent after I eliminated the other possibilities of what this strange stuff could be (I’m not unfamiliar with such things, and my eyes didn’t deceive me).

"The coroner’s report confirmed my suspicions. I see what’s on these pages as something of a completely different order than coffee stains, cigarette burns, the tomato seeds that Josephine Miles idly spat onto her mss., even drops of spittle, blood, semen, and the like.  With Brautigan, these are the actual physical remnants of brain tissue, blood splatters, and cerebral fluid of the very brain that gave birth to the ideas he had and the words he wrote, now creating its own narrative on top of those words; and of course that act insured he’d never think or write another word."

Thus inspired - or, more properly, driven - she wrote a poem about it. 

Brautigan's Brains
Brains blasted there
upon the page
gray matter gobbed
blood of the poet congealed
this grotesque palimpsest
last words concealed
beneath the blood
shattered neurons
glial cells unglued
glopped, splattered

A text of rage coagulated
there upon the page.

Axons impel thought to take
that fatal fiery leap
across synapse into act
fiction into fact.

Atoms smash against the skull
the neural net tattered warp and woof
the brain that strings the words extruded
globbed, fragmented, spattered
last words occluded by the final proof

The text of rage coagulated
there upon the page.

It will come as no surprise to those who knew him that the late Peter Howard of Serendipity Books in Berkeley, CA was in the middle of all this.

"Peter sold the papers to TBL, and even he was a bit dodgy when I asked him about it." she wrote to Booktryst. "When Peter sold the typescript, he said he was going to make TBL buy one whether they wanted to or not." (Pure Peter).

He may have been dodgy then but it didn't prevent Peter Howard from later validating the story by literally putting his imprimatur on it.

"Some years ago," Phillips told me, "Peter sold a limited edition signed typescript of this poem [ten copies], printed over a photo of Brautigan’s face, with the title Apoptosis: or Brautigan’s Brains" [2002]. He later published her poem Nigga in the Woodpile (2008).

And what does the Bancroft Library think about the situation?

"I get the sense," she continued,  "that even now they don’t want people to know what’s on those mss. pages (to my knowledge, the catalog description doesn’t mention this, or didn’t when I last saw it a long time ago) because their attitude was so squirrely and obfuscatory when I began asking questions, which is why I was driven to call the coroner, then send for the coroner’s report (ghastly, a tragic death).

"TBL was (is?) bent on denying the fact of what is undeniably there.  I honestly don’t understand why they wouldn’t either encase those specific pages in mylar or remove them for safekeeping and substitute photocopies.  This for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that I don’t think your average literary researcher accessing the ms. would be thrilled to learn that he or she had been unknowingly fingering somebody’s brain matter...What about possible pathogens?  What if he had Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease?"

Anyone wishing to go trout fishing in the Brautigan papers at the Bancroft Library may first wish to don waders and elbow-length surgical gloves. Or a Hazmat suit.

Mille grazie to J.J. Phillips.

Brautigan's Brains reprinted with the kind permission of the author.

A tip o' the hat to Andrei Codrescu.

Of related interest:

Novelist Richard Brautigan's Unrecorded One Day Marriage Certificate Surfaces.


  1. Grisly, morbid and fascinating post. Poor Brautigan: his very papers tainted with failure. Contrast to Theodore Roosevelt who was shot in Milwaukee in 1912 just prior giving a speech. The bullet passed through a sheaf of folded papers in the breast pocket of his coat -- his speech. A by-stander wrestled the would-be assassin to the floor and TR went on to deliver part of the speech before being hospitalized. That manuscript is stained with his blood, but adds to his legend as a courageous tough-guy. See

  2. Yes indeed -- JJs moving account came just in time for my book, BIBLIODEATH, MY ARCHIVES. (WITH LIFE IN PARENTHESES), which will be published in November by Antibookclub. JJs account and poem were also published at, our house organ. Fine reporting. Onward, Andrei Codrescu


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