The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings is a collection of pieces by Richard Brautigan written prior to his move to San Francisco and literary fame. They are the work of a young man still trying to find his own voice and style, though they already show the traits which would become hallmarks of his later work. As such, these poems and stories offer a fascinating glimpse at a prodigious talent in its embryonic stages.
Richard Brautigan combined a disarming innocence and surreal lyricism with a sexual frankness and focus on the everyday business of living to create works that become nothing so much as fairy tale bedtime stories for grownups. All of these characteristics are present, in one form or another, in the manuscript he left to Edna Webster, the mother of both his best friend and first real girlfriend. That he should simply walk away from the work of this period without looking back is perhaps a telling statement on just how badly he wished to escape his life in Eugene, Oregon. It is also possibly a realization that his most original, important work was still ahead of him. In any case, the book as it has been published is certainly of uneven quality, though no less interesting for all that.
The majority of pieces in this collection are poems, generally very short. The best have an epigrammatic or haiku-like quality. The poetics at work here seem fairly straightforward. The short lines appear to be the result of writing that tracks vertically down the page as quickly as the poet can think of the next word or two he needs. At its best, his is a poetry of arresting images and extended conceits. Most of them are concerned with love, or, often as not, its absence. In "That Thing Which Walks the Earth", the girl of the poem has blue eyes which become black vases, each one of which holds "a bouquet/of/dead/swans." The transforming power of the imagination is often matched by the transformation of the beautiful or joyful into something strange and threatening. There is also a healthy dose of irony, wit, and grim humor. Combined with Brautigan's often minimalist approach, the results can be devastating, as in "family portrait 1", a poem that simply gives the reader "A father tombstone,/a mother tombstone,/a baby tombstone."
Most of the prose pieces are comprised of fragments, strung together to make stories that are sometimes merely confusing, other times provocatively suggestive. Brautigan always conceals more than he reveals. It is often difficult to decide if an individual piece is poetry or prose, since Brautigan seems to use forms as playthings, tinkering, taking apart, bouncing off a wall. "A Love Letter from State Insane Asylum" combines isolated prose segments into numbered and lettered sections, followed by the letter of the title. Psychic fragmentation is surely in evidence here, though it is sometimes difficult to decide how much is conscious artistic effort and how much is a young writer not completely in command of his materials.
In the final analysis, The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings is filled with the flaws that Brautigan could be prey to: honest emotion that descends into sentimentality, descriptions of everyday life that become merely mundane, surreal imagery that risks simple absurdity. However, these are the perils of youth, and the perils of the reader who would delve into the work of youth. For all the awkward steps, there are strides of real power and beauty as Richard Brautigan begins his journey as an artist.