His parents were separated five months before he was born and his mother Mary Lou would remarry three times. Brautigan said that he met his biological father only twice, though after Brautigan's death Bernard Brautigan was said to be unaware that Richard was his child, saying "He's got the same last name, but why would they wait 45 to 50 years to tell me I've got a son.. Brautigan would suffer physical abuse at the hands of his stepfathers, whom he also witnessed abusing his mother. Brautigan was also abused by his alcoholic mother. Many of Brautigan's childhood experiences were included in the poems and stories that he wrote from as early as the age of 13 through his high school years. His novel So The Wind Won't Blow It All Away is loosely based on childhood experiences including an incident where Brautigan accidentally shot the brother of a close friend in the ear, injuring him only slightly.
Brautigan grew up in poverty. He lived with his family on welfare and moved to various homes in the Pacific Northwest before settling in Eugene, Oregon in 1944. From 1946 to 1949, Brautigan lived with his stepfather Robert Porterfield for three years after Brautigan's mother and Porterfield separated. After his mother left welfare and got a job as a waitress she gained custody of her children once again and Brautigan reunited with his mother and half-sisters when he was fourteen.
Brautigan attended Lincoln Elementary School and South Eugene High School and his name was listed as "Richard Gary Porterfield" from the fourth grade to the eleventh grade. Brautigan was a writer for his high school newspaper South Eugene High School News. He also played on his school's basketball team and stood at 6 feet 5 inches (1.95 m) by the age of eighteen. On December 19, 1952, Brautigan's first poem The Light was published in the Eugene High School Newspaper. Brautigan graduated from South Eugene High School on June 9, 1953. Following graduation, he moved in with his best friend Peter Webster, whose mother became Brautigan's surrogate mother.
According to several accounts, Brautigan stayed with Webster for about a year before leaving for San Francisco for the first time in August 1954, returning to Oregon several times, apparently for lack of money.
On December 14, 1955 Brautigan was arrested for throwing a rock through a police-station window, supposedly in order to be sent to prison and fed. Instead he was sent to the Oregon State Hospital on December 24, 1955 where he had taken a psychiatric evaluation and was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and was treated with electroconvulsive therapy twelve times. On February 19, 1956, Brautigan was released from the Oregon State Hospital after spending three months there and briefly lived with his mother, stepfather, and his siblings in Eugene, Oregon before he left for San Francisco, where he would spend most of the rest of his life (save for periods of time spent in Tokyo and Montana.) In San Francisco, Brautigan met writers like Michael McClure, Jack Spicer, and Allen Ginsberg. In San Francisco, Brautigan sought to establish himself as a writer and was known for handing out his poetry on the streets and performing at poetry clubs.
In the summer of 1961, Brautigan went camping with his wife and his daughter in the Idaho Stanley Basin. While camping he completed the novels A Confederate General From Big Sur and Trout Fishing in America. A Confederate General from Big Sur was his first published novel and met with little critical or commercial success. But when his novel Trout Fishing in America was published in 1967, Brautigan was catapulted to international fame and labeled by literary critics as the writer most representative of the emerging countercultural youth-movement of the late 1960s, even though he was said to be contemptuous of hippies (as noted in Lawrence Wright's article in the April 11, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone.)
Brautigan published four collections of poetry as well as another novel, In Watermelon Sugar (1968) during the decade of the sixties. Also, in the spring of 1967, Brautigan was Poet-in-Residence at the California Institute of Technology. During this year, he published All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, a chapbook published by The Communication Company. It was printed in an edition of 1,500 copies and distributed for free. One Brautigan novel The God of The Martians remains unpublished. The 600 page, 20 chapter manuscript was sent to at least two editors but was rejected by both. A copy of the manuscript was discovered with the papers of the last of these editors, Harry Hooton.
During the 1970s Brautigan experimented with different literary genres, publishing several novels throughout the decade and a collection of short stories called Revenge of the Lawn in 1971. "When the 1960s ended, he was the baby thrown out with the bath water," said his friend and fellow writer, Thomas McGuane. "He was a gentle, troubled, deeply odd guy." Generally dismissed by literary critics and increasingly abandoned by his readers, Brautigan's popularity waned throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s. His work remained popular in Europe, however, as well as in Japan, and Brautigan visited there several times. To his critics, Brautigan was willfully naive. Lawrence Ferlinghetti said of him, "As an editor I was always waiting for Richard to grow up as a writer. It seems to me he was essentially a naïf, and I don't think he cultivated that childishness, I think it came naturally. It was like he was much more in tune with the trout in America than with people."
From late 1968 to February 1969, Brautigan recorded a spoken-word album for The Beatles' short-lived record-label, Zapple. The label was shut down by Allen Klein before the recording could be released, but it was eventually released in 1970 on Harvest Records as Listening to Richard Brautigan. Brautigan's writings are characterized by a remarkable and humorous imagination. The permeation of inventive metaphors lent even his prose-works the feeling of poetry. Evident also are themes of Zen Buddhism like the duality of the past and the future and the impermanence of the present. Zen Buddhism and elements of the Japanese culture can be found in his novel Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel. Brautigan's last published work before his death was his novel So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away which was published in 1982, two years before his death.
Brautigan remarried on December 1, 1977 to Akiko Yoshimura whom he met in Tokyo, Japan. They lived in Montana while they were married. Brautigan and Yoshimura were divorced in 1980, after three years of marriage.
Brautigan had a relationship with a San Francisco woman named Marcia Clay and their relationship lasted a year from 1981–1982. Other relationships were with Marcia Pacaud, who appears on the cover of The Pill Versus the Springhill Mining Disaster, a collection of Brautigan's poems; Valerie Estes, who appears on the cover of Listening to Richard Brautigan, a spoken-word recording of some of Brautigan's work; and Sherry Vetter, who appears on the cover of Revenge of the Lawn, a collection of Brautigan's short stories.
Brautigan suffered from schizophrenia, depression and was an alcoholic; according to his daughter, he often mentioned suicide over a period of more than a decade before ending his life. Brautigan was survived by his parents, both ex-wives, and his daughter Ianthe; a grandchild, Elizabeth, was born about a year after his death.
Brautigan once wrote, "All of us have a place in history. Mine is clouds.
Also in a 1980 letter to Brautigan from W. P. Kinsella, Kinsella states that Brautigan is his greatest influence for writing and his favorite book is In Watermelon Sugar.
In March 1994, a teenager named Peter Eastman Jr. from Carpinteria, California legally changed his name to "Trout Fishing in America", and now teaches English in Japan. At around the same time, National Public Radio reported on a young couple who had named their baby "Trout Fishing in America".
There is a folk rock band called Trout Fishing in America., and another called Watermelon Sugar, which quotes the opening paragraph of that book on their home page. The industrial rock band Machines of Loving Grace took their name from one of Brautigan's best-known poems.
Twin Rocks, Oregon, a song appearing on singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins' 1998 platinum record Soul's Core, seems to tell the story of a fictitious meeting with Brautigan on bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Another lyrical interpretation might be that the encounter was with Brautigan's ghost.
In the UK The Library of Unwritten Books is a project in which ideas for novels are collected and stored. The venture is inspired by Brautigan's novel 'The Abortion.'
The library for unpublished works envisioned by Brautigan in his novel The Abortion now exists as The Brautigan Library in Burlington, Vermont.